Dr. Hall’s Idea of a University
In the fall of 1987, I joined my fellow Juniors early on a bright Saturday morning for that Rite of Passage known as the Junior English Exam. JEE proved you could, regardless of degree or major, communicate in English and were worthy of a degree from Shorter College— in fact, you had to pass to graduate.
You were given topic, a Blue Book, and 90 minutes to fill that Blue Book with your prose. Before any test, I am nervous, even if I’ve studied and know the material. A test like the JRE increases my nervousness exponentially; I fixate on the possibility probability that I will fail and earn a permanent seat in the Hall of Shame.
I don’t recall the topic; I do recall mulling it over for a few minutes then filling the Blue Book with something…words that resembled prose. I was one of the last ones out of that particular exam room.
Several weeks later, I pulled the envelope from my mail box (Box 83—the things memory recalls) and much to my surprise, I, uh, failed. Said the Man, in coldest blood, that’s not writing, that’s typing.
I went to see Dr. Wilson Hall, who graded my attempt, to see what I would have to do to undo this. he spared no words and came right to the point. It was terrible; I had come nowhere near the point. We spent the better part of an hour going over my effort. I was forced to take a look at what was going on in my writing. In the back and forth that followed, I could see that I had too many adjectives, too many adverbs, taking too long with those adjectives and adverbs to come to the point—and did I have one?
Recently, a friend from that time came across an essay that Dr. Hall wrote in that time frame. Titled, The Two Shorters, Dr. Hall told of the first Shorter, physical campus, which students, faculty, and visitors know. The hill top of buildings, trees
He spoke of the second Shorter,
The other Shorter is a subtle place, dimensionless and invisible, and often fraught with conflict and struggle, where whole worlds can be twisted apart and put together again with expanded depth and possibility. This Shorter exists only in the minds of students and faculty. It is a domain filled with disturbing ideas, intellectual adventure, and invisible experiences, a domain where only they can go.
He was writing about Shorter, but really, he was writing about any university.
I fear too many people have the idea that higher education is about professors with The Answers and students with The Questions. All that has to happen is teachers and students show up at the same place at the same time, and knowledge rolls downhill to a—hopefully—receptive audience. Knowledge is transferred!
Well, something is transferred.
The only way a university can work is for all who participate to bring something to the table. Professors do not have all the answers and cannot expect to do nothing more than spend 55 minutes serving up their knowledge. Students cannot show up, ask rote questions, get pat answers and expect to gain anything from the process.
The university is not about having your biases and prejudices confirmed. Everyone—students and teachers—must give of themselves. Everyone must struggle with the disturbing ideas, and, with what they contribute, and what they gain from others, make sense of it.
Some of what you do in this process, can be discerned in the moment, some things, you may not see for years. Other elements, you may never quite figure out; they are just a part of the struggle and conflict that is education at its best.
If I had shown up at Dr. Hall’s office, and he’d given me a mark up showing the errors, I might have made sense of it and eventually passed the test. I am certain I would have gained nothing from the experience that would have taught me anything in the long run. I would have learned how to think by rote for that one problem. Could I solve another problem myself later? Probably not.
I eventually passed the Junior English Exam. I didn’t pass it because I corrected the mistakes I’d made and resubmitted. I passed it because I looked at the source of my mistakes, to see why I’d made them at all.
My JRE moment was a defining one for me. A moment that I hope others on the Hill can still experience. Rereading Dr. Hall’s idea of a university put what this fight is about in perspective for me.
Alan Williams – Class of 1989