Back-to-school starts for my family on Monday when my son returns to campus and my husband, Andy, resumes teaching a class at the University of Michigan. The following week, my daughters will embark on their senior year of high school. There’s been abundant talk about how kids, parents, and teachers will cope with the added stressors of COVID-proof instruction. Rather than adding to that mushroom cloud of concerns, I decided to focus this week’s post on the debt we owe to teachers by sharing a personal story. Although I studied engineering in college, the educator who most influenced my life was a humanities professor, Robert P. Weeks.
I was reminded of Professor Weeks earlier this week when Andy texted me a photo of a bench in a nearby park. Affixed to the seat-back was a plaque commemorating his work as an Ann Arbor City councilman between 1964 and 1968. I found the plaque perplexing. On one hand, I was pleased to see a memorial to a beloved figure from my past. On the other, I was bothered by its failure to note his incredible gift as an instructor. I decided that my own overdue expression of gratitude was in order. What follows is a little of what this man meant to me.
An Acquired Aversion to English
I don’t know why, but English (as a school subject) and I got off to a very rough start. Perhaps in kindergarten, when my teacher felt that I wasn’t learning to read quickly enough, I got the impression that reading and writing were not going to be my strengths. My teachers certainly stroked my ego throughout elementary school, making me feel as though I was a gifted student. However, this also is puzzling to me because I was never a good reader. I read slowly and had difficulty absorbing the meaning of the words in front of me. My scores on standardized tests were mediocre. I’d read a passage, then struggle with the multiple choice questions that followed.
In junior high, my self-image rose slightly during a brief stint writing for the school newspaper. The teacher that led the effort was enthusiastic, encouraging, and complementary to all of her charges. But, other school experiences continued to reinforce my notion that English was to be avoided whenever possible. In my 4-year high school, we were required to take 3 years of English—six 1-semester classes. I did the bare-bones minimum, choosing as many blow-off electives as possible. I even received credit for an independent study film class, the requirements of which were to watch one movie per month and write a paragraph about each.
Math and science were my strengths and when it came time to choose a career path, engineering seemed like the obvious one. I applied to only one school, the University of Michigan, and was accepted.
What? We have to take English?
Entering college, I was excited to start studying “important” subject matter. I was eager to cram my brain with pre-requisites in advanced math, chemistry, and physics. Thereafter would follow engineering courses showing me how to put my knowledge into action. Michigan’s reputation assured a well-paying job at the end. An annoying and seemingly pointless graduation requirement, however, entailed taking four humanities classes offered through the engineering department. After some bothered reconsideration, I decided that maybe only three of the four were pointless. One of the classes was technical writing. Perhaps this gives you insight into my mindset.
That first semester of my freshman year, I took the inescapable Humanities 101. As good fortune would have it, Professor Robert Percy Weeks taught the section that best aligned with my schedule. In his class, we read Homer’s Iliad, passages from the old and new testament, Sophocles, Plato, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. At least, this is what I’m able to exhume from my memory of a 40-year old syllabus. These works were in no way simple for me. I spent hours wrestling with the meaning of the assigned texts. I don’t recall any of the homework or tests. But I do recall the effort involved in preparing for class discussions. I cared little about my grade. My main goal was to contribute an idea, observation, or interpretation that would capture Professor Weeks’ attention.
The man’s enthusiasm for literature was only mildly contagious. What endeared him to me and my peers was his appreciation of his students. Yet, there were no stand-outs in my class. I’m convinced that the reason why engineers weren’t asked to fulfill such credits by electing similar offerings in the Liberal Arts Department is because they would have been pounded. We had no new insights, no startling revelations, or compelling arguments to insert into the classroom discourse. What mattered was that Professor Weeks’ affection for us made us feel like we might. I finished that first semester with a B in Humanities, grateful that Weeks had made our consumption of archaic literature as palatable as is possible.
Professor Weeks, Round Two
Fast-forward to second-semester junior year when I needed to finish up my humanities requirements. Scanning the catalog for possible options, I noticed a class titled Great Books. The course description included an abundant listing of authors to be explored. This gave me pause. However, because Professor Weeks would be leading the battle, I decided to enlist.
That semester, we read four novels: Catch 22, by Joseph Heller; The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner; Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce; and, Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. We also read shorter works by John Updike, Doris Lessing, James Thurber, Isaac Bashevis Singer, John Collier, Ernest Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, Truman Capote, Kurt Vonnegut, Ursula K. Le Guin, Raymond Chandler, Horatio Alger, Stephen Crane, Joseph Conrad, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekov, Franz Kafka, John Steinbeck, Eudora Welty, D.H. Lawerence, and Joyce Carol Oates.
Decades later, I remember many of these authors and their stories. However, I was able to come up with the complete lineup by perusing a textbook that we used in the course. My copy still contains underlined passages, notes in the margins, and highlighted vocabulary words that I needed to lookup. A small and revealing sample from the latter category includes the words frenetic, magnanimous, derision, dissimulate, deluge, bovine, palpable, macabre, subcutaneous, arduous, and cabal.
Contemplating the above reading list is somewhat overwhelming for me. Not only because we covered an impressive expanse of literary ground, but also because I know the extent to which those few fleeting months of bookish immersion influenced the next 4 decades of my life. Unwittingly, Professor Weeks ignited my still-burning love of reading and books of all genres. I’ve since sought out other books by these authors and many of their contemporaries. In the last couple of years, I’ve read two books by Flannery O’Connor and several short stories by Chekov. My desire to take on Blonde last spring, by Joyce Carol Oates, was in part fueled by memories of the short stories I read in Professor Weeks’ class.
I’ve used the word unwittingly above because that’s how Professor Weeks’ efforts felt to me. In my view, Weeks exhibited the most important qualities of an effective educator. He enjoyed his subject matter, loved teaching, and was excited by his students. However, underscoring all of this was the sense that there wasn’t much about his own existence that he found particularly noteworthy.
His engaging and often humorous lectures provided background about the authors’ lives and interpretations of their works. In contrast, however, after delivering a particularly comprehensive analysis and gathering our impressions, he might end by politely expressing the idea that the notable critics, and even he himself, were quite possibly full of shit. If ever I had a professor that didn’t take himself too seriously, Professor Weeks was it.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
In addition to reading and learning about the authors that semester, we studied the craft of writing, covering topics such as point of view, character development, symbolism, and the basics of outlining, writing, and revising a draft. Near the end of the semester, we received the horrifying assignment of writing our own short story. Starting in week 1, I knew that this impossibility was coming, but I had hoped that, through Weeks’ tutelage, I’d be able to crank out a respectable piece. Sadly, my inspirational mentor was not a magician.
Despite my earnest and concerted efforts, my story stunk and I knew it. I could either receive a zero or reveal my ineptitude by handing it in. I swallowed my pride and wincingly left the poisonous final draft among a stack of submissions on Weeks’ desk. I’m not exaggerating here. I came across a hand-written copy of the insipid plot in our attic a few years ago. I could barely get through it. I’ve kept it for posterity instead of burning it only to punish myself for having written it.
The one thing that lessened the sting of humiliation is that Professor Weeks didn’t seem bothered by our feeble attempts at fiction. I imagine he was used to the lackluster output of most engineers. He distributed copies of two of the better attempts and went over their strengths with us. It was instructive in ways that studying the works of the pros had not been. In an odd way, Professor Weeks freed me from my own, self-imposed limitations by showing me that it didn’t matter if I was a slow reader, or unremarkable reviewer, or below-average writer. None of this seemed to matter much to him and yet he thoroughly enjoyed what he was doing.
An Insufficient Tribute
Perhaps Weeks’ total absence of self-aggrandizing is why the commemorative park bench plaque says so little about the man. After a brief google search, I failed to find much more about his life or academic career—not even an online obituary. I did manage to learn that he was born in 1915 and died in 1986. He was a journalist before coming to the Michigan Engineering Department where he worked until retirement. He wrote a handful of scholarly articles ranging from an analysis of Hemingway to a biography of the cult leader James Jesse Strang. But for those who happen upon his memorializing bench, none of this will be apparent.
Similarly, I have to wonder if Professor Weeks’ relatively short tenure as a city councilman might represent the singular achievement for which he wished to be remembered. A brief paragraph buried somewhere in Michigan’s Bentley Library, indicates that during his time in office, he took a special interest in “fair housing and employment practices, human rights, city planning, and the need for improved public transportation.” Those are certainly important issues and they were especially crucial in the mid-sixties. Yet, I’m not willing to leave it at that. Hence, I’m adding this equally obscure and insignificant tribute to the blogosphere.
That’s the thing about teaching. It often feels like a thankless undertaking. Most teachers that I know are dedicated to their work and spend many hours outside of the classroom thinking about their lessons and their students, the majority of whom they will never hear from again after summer rolls around. My sense is that right now, more than at any other time I can remember, teachers are feeling severely under-valued. That’s a shame, even for those, like Robert P. Weeks, who appear to be armored with a protective layer of nonchalance.
A Missed Opportunity
I long regretted failing to convey my heartfelt thanks to my beloved humanities prof and clueing him into the extent of his influence. Until this week, I hadn’t realized that he died decades before the full power of his punch had landed. I remember the last time we parted ways. I ran into him ascending the stairs of what was then the East Engineering Building, in the spring of 1983. By this time, I was in graduate school and he asked me what I’d been up to. I told him that I was working on my master’s degree, apologetically explaining that I was taking an extra semester to finish since I’d recently gotten married.
“Did you marry the young man that I always used to see you with after class,” he asked, referring to my high school sweetheart. “No,” I replied. “I’m married to Andy Seidl. He took your Great Books class last fall based on my glowing recommendation.” “Hmmmph,” he shrugged. He seemed by turns surprised, then slightly disappointed, then thoroughly pleased. Something about his chuckle as he continued on down the steps let me know, it was all good.
I’ve long known that one of Professor Weeks’ children, Sarah Weeks, is an acclaimed author of children’s books. After publishing this post, I contacted her and asked if she might clear up some of the mystery surrounding the bench. Below is her reply.
Hi Carol- thanks so much for taking the time to share your thoughts about my dad. He was a dedicated and gifted teacher, not only to his students but to his children. He loved books and passed his passion for great literature on to his kids.
I am the youngest of three. Although my father didn’t live long enough to see me become the successful writer of many books for young readers, he was the one who taught me the art of storytelling. Like all great teachers, he showed by example, opening doors but never pushing.
The plaque your husband, Andy found on the bench in Gallup Park is newly refurbished. It means a great deal to my family. Dad was on the city council for two terms during which time he was instrumental in the creation of that park. He was a passionate man of many talents. Missed and remembered by all whose lives he touched in one capacity or another. I’m glad he made a difference in your life too. Thanks again for sharing your memories of being one of the lucky students in his class.
I am incredibly touched to have received this piece of news. Over the last 25 years, Gallup Park has been a place of much merriment for me and my family. It’s the home of multiple playgrounds, a canoe and paddleboat livery, picnic areas, and hiking paths. Our family has enjoyed many treasured outings on its diverse 69 acres, which seamlessly spill into surrounding parks via a lengthy bike trail.
However, this gently rolling recreation area along the Huron River has also been a place for each of us to escape to when we needed a break from routine. Andy and I often go on a date there, after dinner when we’d like some quiet, off-the-grid time together. For my kids, Gallup Park has been a safe setting where they could test their increasing independence growing up. I could fill many pages recounting the fun and memorable stories from Gallup Park that form part of our family history book. Instead, I’ll end by humbly and gratefully recognizing that Professor Weeks has enriched my life even more than I had imagined.