Editor's note: The following is a reflection of a Williams College junior on a professor he believes "represents the best of what a liberal arts education has to offer its students and society."
WILLIAMSTOWN — Our class was discussing "Cranial Guitar," a compendium of selected poems by American beat poet Bob Kaufman. I'd re-read some of the book the night before, thinking that if I gave it another shot I might come to appreciate it more. Instead, I ended up liking it even less. So I came to class that day prepared to argue that whatever Kaufman may be, he surely was not a consummate poet and thus bore no comparison to the likes of Robert Hayden and Countee Cullen, two other poets we'd read previously in our class, "Twentieth Century Black Poets."
When Professor Smith asked if any of us would like to comment on the assigned reading, I swiftly raised my hand. Once called upon to speak, I made a vigorous argument for why Kaufman's poetry was arbitrary, unintelligible, and pedestrian, at best. I criticized what others, who appreciated his poems, described as "spontaneity" and "musicality." I also suggested that the editor's note, which revealed that most of his poems were composed orally and edited posthumously, disqualified the book as a true work of art, because it demonstrated that his poems required less craft, deliberation, and attention to detail and poetic convention.
This certainly was not the first time I had made a forceful argument in class; however, it was the first time that I had received this kind of response from a professor.
Contrary to my expectations, Professor Smith did not advance an argument of his own. He neither defended his decision to teach the work in our class, nor rejected the validity of any of my claims. Instead, he began his response by recapitulating my argument, summarizing each of my points with greater clarity, concision, and elaboration than I had originally. After sharpening and strengthening the argument I'd advanced, he explained, in detail, several distinct ways of understanding Kaufman's work and standing as a poet, supporting each view with the perspective of an artist or poet that we'd studied or discussed earlier in the course.
By the time he finished his response, class was almost over. What stands out the most to me, upon reflection, is that, in that moment, he did precisely what any great teacher should do, better than any teacher I'd had before. He didn't state his opinion, or present it as fact. He didn't try to persuade me. He didn't try to disprove my claims. And he didn't become defensive, or take my criticism personally, as a rejection of the text or author he valued enough to put on the syllabus. Instead, he listened intently as I spoke. He made my argument stronger. He deepened my perspective on the author our class was reading and the craft of poetry. Without sacrificing any nuance or complexity, he presented a range of sophisticated understandings of the material, compelling me to reconsider my own.
In the classroom, Professor Smith is patient, brilliant, polished, and eloquent, considering carefully the questions and comments of each of his students. Outside of the classroom, he's a sage, known by many for his encyclopedic knowledge of culture and history. Since 1981, he has hosted a weekly radio program called "Let the Music Speak" (WCFM 91.9). He's a noted poet, a renowned Twain scholar, an author of the first comprehensive encyclopedia of African-American culture and history — a person who's greatly enriched the time and experience of many on campus.
In my time at Williams, David L. Smith, the John W. Chandler Professor of English at Williams College, has not only been a great professor, but also my closest mentor.
During my sophomore year, I sparked controversy by inviting provocative speakers to campus as president of Uncomfortable Learning, a student group that strives to broaden the range of dialogue on campus. When critics tried to get under my skin by attacking my character and calling me a sellout to my race, Professor Smith's wisdom helped me to view the response from my critics in a different light. He sagaciously explained, to me, that different issues mean different things to different people.
"Sometimes people are not aware of their own motivations for doing things," he said. "So speculating about what people really mean, or what they really think isn't the best use of your time. You want to focus on what you're doing and what's ahead of you. You should be thinking about the change you want to effect, the arguments you want to make, and how you can best achieve those things. Try not to worry about things you don't have control over. You take being an intellectual very seriously, I know you do.
"Focus on your own sense of personal clarity, on building the kind of engagements and experiences that you feel you need to grow as an intellectual."
Through hours of conversation, Professor Smith has taught me more than I can convey with words. At a time when I was reconsidering what it meant to be true to myself, Professor Smith's advice was of immense value. He encouraged me to see the world both for what it is, and what I would like for it to be; to appreciate people for who they are, and for their potential to be even better.
Zachary R. Wood is a Herbert H. Lehman scholar from Washington, D.C., majoring in political science, and serving as president of Uncomfortable Learning at Williams College. Wood has written for The Washington Post, The Nation, Times Higher Education, and SLAM Magazine.
David L. Smith was born in Mount Meigs, Alabama, and attended Sidney Lanier High School in nearby Montgomery. He received his bachelor of arts degree from New College in Sarasota, Fla., and his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Since 1980, Smith has taught at Williams College, where he is the John W. Chandler Professor of English, and has previously served as Dean of Faculty and as Chair of African-American Studies.
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