by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
Commentary of the Day - August 19, 2001: Worrying About Professor Joseph Ellis, and Myself - Guest Commentary by Sanford Pinsker:
[Ed. note: For those Irascible Professor readers who might not be familiar with the Ellis saga, Joseph Ellis is a professor of history at Mt. Holyoke (an upscale women's college in Massachusetts). Mr. Ellis recounted on a regular basis his "Vietnam experiences" when he was teaching a course on the Vietnam War era. Unfortunately, Mr. Ellis had no Vietnam war experiences. This was brought to light by a Boston Globe reporter. The final dénouement was reported in the press recently. Ellis has been stripped of his endowed Chair at Mt. Holyoke, and has been suspended for a year without pay to reflect on his misdeeds. Professor Pinsker's commentary was written before the final action by the Mt. Holyoke administration was made public.]
Lots of ink was spilled this summer after a Boston Globe reporter broke the news that Professor Joseph Ellis, the Pulitzer-Prize winning historian, had fudged the facts when teaching a course about the Vietnam War era at Mt. Holyoke College. Despite the "war stories" that Ellis generously sprinkled throughout his lectures, the truth of the matter, it turns out, was that he had never served in Vietnam, and that the insider anecdotes he peddled were so much hogwash.
His fellow historians, when holding forth about the demons rattling around poor Ellis's psyche, often took what they supposed was the high theoretical ground. In an age that no longer believes there is Truth, they argued that there also could be no Lies. Moreover, everybody lies, and to prove the point they ransacked history until the result was a long list of very impressive fibbers, including Presidents Eisenhower, Reagan, and of course, Clinton. Besides, they insisted in one tortuous rumination after another, Ellis's situation is complicated and requires words of the jaw-breaking sort to fully grasp its complexity. Compared to these folks, the medieval pedants who argued about how many angels could [theologically] dance on a pin were downright plain speakers.
But at the end of the day, I suspect that many parents ponying up hard cash for a college education must have wondered what the hell is going on--not only at Mt. Holyoke--where the powers that be decided that Professor Ellis would no longer be permitted to teach his popular Vietnam War period course--but also at other high-priced colleges across the country.
I had my own no-nonsense, hang-'em-Harry thoughts about the Ellis debacle--that
is, until I realized that the same snoopy reporter who outed Ellis might
one day also expose me. Granted, I hadn't passed myself as a war
hero or even claimed that Bob Dylan and I shared a joint at Woodstock,
but there was that afternoon more years ago than I care to tell when I
had, let us say, had it. That's the afternoon I worry about when
I'm worrying about what Professor Ellis did, and what stand-up, truth-telling
academics should do about it.
You see, the student outside my office door had not done very well on a term paper written for my American literature class. In fact, the grade he received was a D, almost unheard of in a world where anything, and I mean anything, submitted on time and neatly typed ought to get a much higher mark. At least so far as many students, and this one in particular, feel. Because I don't happen to share this view, I get grief--and grief is what was waiting to see me outside my office door.
What to do? Now, I happen to be a professor usually known for my patience. I will go over a badly executed paper line-by-line, pointing out the problems and suggesting ways in which a clogged sentence structure might be simplified or a controlling idea better organized. This usually does the trick, but there are some afternoons when what I've described turns out to be a recipe for disaster. After a couple decades of hosting office conferences I've learned to tell which students are there to get their grade upped and what they will do when it isn't: "I guess what you're saying," they bleat, after a half-hour's worth of my time and explanations "is that you don't agree with my paper and that since you're the teacher, that's pretty much the end of that." Presumably, another teacher, down the hall or at a college two states away, would grade the paper differently, which is to say "higher." I'm just being a prick, something they usually don't announce in my office but save for their buddies in the dorm and for the teaching evaluation they'll fill out at the end of the semester.
Taken together, afternoons of the sort I've just described put me off my chump. I usually take my frustrations out on colleagues who figure they'll have to listen to my sad tale if I'm picking up the tab for late afternoon coffee--and that's nothing when compared to what I'll lay on my wife over dinner. Everybody assures me that I was right, but everybody not so secretly wishes that I would talk about something else. The truth is I can't help myself; a truculent student, pissed off about a grade, gets under my craw and I'd do almost anything to duck such a confrontation.
Which brings me to the afternoon in question, when I came up with something that puts me squarely in Ellis's league. I knew I was headed for trouble when I looked at the student and then at his paper, "What Does the White Whale in Moby-Dick by Herman Melville Mean." It was, let us say, an effort that pretty much rolled off the top of a not very insightful head. Put another way, it was god awful in precisely the way that D papers, alas, are. I could have gone through my usual drill about why the paper's argument was off target here or just plain fanciful there, but, instead, I went--how can I put this delicately?-- just a little nuts. Holding the paper in my hands, I reared back in my chair, puffed at my pipe (one was allowed to smoke in one's office during those days) and proclaimed the following: "That's a very interesting question you've posed here. In fact, I put the very same query to Melville himself."
"You knew Herman Melville?" the startled student blurted out. .
"Not well," I replied, in a calculated, cool-as-a-cucumber way. What followed was a whopper, full of exactly the sort of specific detail that we would be studying in next week's classes on the tall tales of the Old Southwest. It seems, I told my D-student, that I was driving up to Maine and stopped at Glouchester for a fill-up and a well-needed cup of coffee. That's when I thought to myself, "Glouchester. Isn't Glouchester where the whaling ships set off on their long, dangerous journeys? Anyway, to make this shaggy dog story somewhat shorter, I cut to the chase--namely, how I decided to look up Herman Melville's name in the local telephone directory. There was an H. Melville listed and that's the number I dialed.
By this time the student was on the edge of his chair. "What happened?" he asked, full of mounting excitement. "Well," I went on, "a man answered and I asked him if he was, in fact, Herman Melville, the man who had written Moby-Dick."
As it turned out, I had gotten the right guy, and when I told him that I teach the book in my classes at Franklin and Marshall College, he sounded pleased. That's when I asked him if he would like to join me for a beer at the Holiday Inn on Route 94. He would, and arrived about fifteen minutes later.
We talked about all sorts of things, how his writing was going, stuff like that, and then I asked him the Big Question: What the whiteness of the whale meant? By this time my student could barely control himself: "What did he say?"
"You know," I replied, again cucumber cool, "I've forgotten. . . . But I know it wasn't this," pointing to the paper on my desk.
"Yeah, I know,
" he replied. "I was just guessing." But you really don't have to guess,
I told him, and went on to point out three passages he might have used
to fashion a more appropriate, more convincing paper. Miracle of miracles,
the student paid attention, thanked me for the help, shook my hand,
and made his way toward the door. Before he left, however,
he looked over his shoulder and made one last request, "Prof, if you ever
remember what Melville said, would you let me know?" I assured him
that I'd do exactly
At the time I thought I had stumbled onto a bit of whiz-bang pedagogy they never teach you in education courses. Now., I'm not so sure. What if some reporter finds out about this and turns me in to the Dean? I could, of course, deny everything (after all, even a Dean knows the difference between a leg-pull and what Ellis did in the classroom), or I could tell him that writers always lie. I'm not sure which tack I will take. So, I worry--about Professor Ellis, about myself, and most of all, about students so innocent that they will swallow damn near anything.
Sanford Pinsker is the Shadek Professor of Humanities at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, PA.
The Irascible Professor wants to assure Sanford that his indiscretion is likely to be forgiven. English professors are expected to have flights of fancy. History professors, on the other hand, are expected to get their facts right more or less.
© 2001 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.