Just over a week ago, one of my favorite professors died. Unfortunately, such news is becoming rather common, given how old I am and how old most of them were when I was a student. There have been two who died this year and three over the past couple of years. I want to take some time this week to talk about Dr. Sharp and what I learned from him.
Dr. Sharp was one of those quirky professors we often stereotype on television and in books. He had several tics that we joked about among us students, but we did so only because we cared for him so much. He would make random marks on the board when trying to illustrate a point, yet once chastised me for trying to write them down. When I was taking a Hawthorne/Melville seminar with him one summer, he began talking about some idea, then walked out into the hall, down that hall into his office, then back all while continuing to talk, seemingly unconcerned or unaware that we couldn’t hear half of what he said while he was outside the classroom.
Such mannerisms could lead people to think he was not approachable, as he could come off as rather abrupt or short in his responses. In fact, my first encounter with him was over the phone. After I had been accepted into the program, I called to see about summer assistantships. When I asked him about the possibility of getting one, he simply responded, “We don’t have those.” He gave no explanation and didn’t ask me any questions. I was so flustered, I stumbled through my other question about scheduling summer classes, then got off the phone as soon as I could (I didn’t much care to talk on the phone to people I didn’t know, either).
I later learned that the department could find summer assistantships, as Dr. Sharp found a few for some of us the next year. In fact, he did so because he know that several of us needed the money, so he rummaged around in the budget and made up several assistantships to keep us working. There wasn’t much work to do around the department, but that wasn’t the point, of course. He was more concerned about our well-being than he was about the work we were doing.
This is the main thing I learned from him outside the classroom. He would do anything he could to help students, which is what made him not only a great professor, but a great graduate director (a position he held one of my two years). Whenever we had questions, we could go to his office, and he would either know the answer or know who to call. I have too many memories of his picking up the phone and saying, “Mary [or whatever name], this is Ches Sharp.”
In the classroom, he wanted to engage with students, so he created a climate where we felt comfortable talking with him and with one another. He asked interesting questions, ones he wasn’t sure he had the answer to, but ones he wanted us to explore together. He was genuinely interested in literature and in us and in that combination, so he wanted to see what would happen when he asked questions of both that literature and his students.
One of my favorite parts of his class was a section on an exam, which I know sounds odd. He was interested in linguistics as well as literature, so he gave us an identification section. He would pick a quote or two from the authors we had read, but it would be from a different work than the one would had read. Thus, if we had read The Scarlet Letter, he would pick a passage from The House of the Seven Gables. Our job was to identify the author based, not on the content, but on the syntax and diction and any other linguistic clues we could find. It sounds much more difficult than it is. It was a different way of talking about literature than I was used to, and I always looked forward to that section, if one can look forward to any part of the exam.
It was outside of class, though, where I really enjoyed interacting with Dr. Sharp. I would go by his office in the late afternoon when most people had already gone home. As a professor myself, I now know he was probably still there trying to get some work finished before he went home. He never made me feel as though he had more important things to do. Instead, we would talk about applying to doctoral programs or trying to get published or teaching or interacting with students, whatever happened to come up. He simply enjoyed (or pretended to enjoy) talking about the discipline with interested students. I wish, as we often do at such times in life, that I could have one more of those conversations.