Poetry, Bow Ties, Station Wagons, and the Scholarly Life

Julio Alves recalls the professor who taught him how to be a student.

September 16, 2008

Professor Pettit was an enigma. I took only one course with him in the fall of 1980, my sophomore year at Boston University, but I’m still deciphering him.

I first heard of him the year before, my freshman year. My friend Kathy’s friend David was taking ENG 220 with him, and sometime mid-fall I caught up with David reading Emma in the cafeteria. He wasn’t sure he was going to write the Austen paper, he said, because he was already working on another paper for Professor Pettit, and, anyway, Professor Pettit’s unique grading policy, as David explained it, was that once you got an A on a paper you didn’t have to write any more. David, being both smart and well educated, had already gotten an A.

I wasn’t a David. I was an economically-challenged immigrant kid from New Jersey trying out an English major because an acquaintance back in Portugal had told me that if I wanted to return to Lisbon and teach at a university I should concentrate on American literature. I didn’t have David’s breadth of knowledge, nor did I have his intellectual curiosity, scholarly passion, and academic preparation. I found writing stressful, and didn’t much like it, so I found Professor Pettit’s grading policy intriguing.

In the fall of 1980 BU launched a sophomore seminar series. It was probably an effort to create challenge and excitement in the sophomore year, a seemingly unsolvable problem in higher education: First-years have “the first-year experience,” juniors have study abroad, seniors have theses. The sophomores, apparently, have nothing. These seminars met once a week for two hours. I took Professor Pettit’s "New England Poets," hoping he hadn’t changed his grading policy. I planned to get an A on the first paper and not write any more papers the rest of the semester. Professor Pettit had a different grading policy for this course, however: The entire grade was based on one long paper at the end (which I’ve since learned is bad pedagogical practice). I stayed in the course mostly because of my fascination with the teacher.

"Dry" was the word that came to mind when I saw him, desiccated as if he needed fatty foods, watering, and lots of sun. I remember him as tall, with a slight stoop at the shoulders, as if in apology for his height. He had strong features: eyes, ears, nose, jaw. He wore round brown-framed glasses, and you could tell he didn’t wash his very straight hair every day. His clothes, always slightly askew, were loose, sober, worn, but not thinned or frayed. They were plain, but I can recognize them now as classics of Brooks Brothers or Burberry ilk, with accents of Harris Tweed. And he wore bow ties. I’d never seen real bow ties. What could his wife be like, I wondered. Did he have children? His house must be full of books. And what sort of exotica did he eat? Shrimp cocktails, maybe, and soup with crackers. Things we never ate in my Portuguese home.

The real Professor Pettit, a doctor’s son, was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1929. He married at the age of 26, in between receiving an A.B. from Harvard and a B.A. from Oxford, from which he also received an M.A. in 1959. Four years later he earned a Ph.D. from Yale. Professor Pettit had taught at MIT and Brown before going to BU. I wouldn’t have been surprised then to learn that he was an office-holding member of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, the Cambridge Historical Society, and the Pilgrim Society (whatever these institutions were), although it would have surprised me a little that that he had taught at Hebrew University in Israel before going to BU ( He didn’t seem Jewish, and wouldn’t only Jewish people do that?). I would have been amazed to learn that his background wasn’t solely academic, that he had served in the U.S. Air Force in the late 40s and the U.S. Air Force Reserve from the late 40s to the early 60s, achieving the rank of second lieutenant.

A little over 25 years ago, 50-year-old Professor Pettit organized his weekly "New England Poets" seminar chronologically. I don’t remember much about the early period ( sooo boring!), but later on we got Emily Dickinson, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. I’d heard of the first three. Every week a student would do an oral presentation on the work of one poet. I chose Edwin Arlington Robinson, whom I saw as a compromise between Emily Dickinson ( too hard) and Robert Frost ( too high school). Because the entire grade was only based on the final paper on Robinson, I skipped a poet or two (or three) along the way. The seminar cured me of the idea of becoming an Americanist, and shortly thereafter I started concentrating on linguistics.

A mild resurgent interest in Robinson has reminded me of the seminar and Professor Pettit, and when I think of the course and the teacher, I sometimes think of his stories about Anne Sexton, who taught at BU before her suicide, stories about her drinking, her recklessness, her personal magnetism, her nervous breakdowns, her way with the administration (she got what she wanted), the raspy, sexy quality of her voice. She packed auditoriums to the point that people had to be turned away, he said. You couldn’t hear her read and not think she was great poet, he marveled (or so I remember). But, he would add, when you read the poems on paper, well ….

Through his stories of Anne Sexton, literature first achieved a human dimension for me, and for that I am grateful. Literary works are living, breathing testimonies with personal histories, I began to understand, not just homework assignments. Ironically, after I gave up on studying literature, I started really enjoying it, especially contemporary writing, to which I’d never paid any attention.

But when I think of Professor Pettit, I mostly think about our field trip to Concord on a rainy Saturday in October, 1980. I rode in his station wagon, and as we drove through Cambridge out toward Route 2, he took all kinds of detours down one-way streets to point out famous landmarks of New England poetry. He showed us Longfellow’s house (big and yellow), which Dickens had visited, I think he said, and Mount Auburn Cemetery. In Concord we visited the Old Manse first, the house built in 1770 by Reverend William Emerson and the place where David Henry Thoreau would later plant a vegetable garden as a wedding present for Nathaniel Hawthorne and his new bride, who lived there for three years. We spent a long time in the famous study, where Reverend Emerson’s more famous grandson Ralph Waldo wrote “Nature” and which Hawthorne later used as his own study. We also visited Alcott House, the Ralph Waldo Emerson House, and Walden Pond, of course.

All day long Professor Pettit talked and talked and talked. He talked a lot to Abby, a young woman from Smith doing a semester at BU. I just listened. We went to Walden Pond last, and in spite of what I considered his advanced age Professor Pettit led the way to the site of Thoreau’s cabin. He knew exactly where it was. Somebody brought loaves of bread that we broke apart with our hands and ate with cheese. I’d like to say we drank apple cider, but I can’t be sure. It started to rain lightly as we ate, but we sat there anyway talking, eating, and drinking. Then we drove back home.

That day Professor Pettit became a person to me, and I now think that that was the day I started trying to become a real college student, more like David. Not someone on the periphery, doing what needed to be done to do well, but someone who was part of the tradition, someone who really cared. I talked with Professor Pettit on the way back, real conversation, and it was good, fun, and exciting. I haven’t forgotten.

I don’t know Professor Pettit’s intention in taking us to Concord. Did he really just want us to see the sights and learn something academic, or did he intend the experience to be transformative, at least for some students, as it was for me? I suspect the former, because he was old-school, but I may have him wrong. In any case, it doesn’t matter. Maybe he just had good instincts as a teacher. I don’t imagine he suspected the impact he would have on my life by taking me on a field trip to Concord.

Over the years, as a teacher, I’ve taken great joy in filling up my own station wagon with students and taking them places: from Smith to a lecture across the river at Amherst, to a Thai restaurant in town, to a meeting with other women’s college students at Mount Holyoke. I’ve tried to find time to eat and drink (coffee) with the students at some point along the way. I’ve enjoyed these outings, and some moments have been memorable, but the point has always been talk, talk, talk. My students are braver than I was, and they will actually express the surprise that I suppressed about Professor Pettit. One says, “Professor Alves, you own this CD? Wow, I wouldn’t have thought it!” and what I hear is, “Ah! He’s a person, maybe not as different from me as I think!”

I don’t take students out anymore because it’s too much of a legal liability. If I want to take them out, I have to get a college van, etc. etc. etc., so I don’t. I’m sad about this because many of my students are first-generation college students, as I was, many of them students of color who often feel outside the college culture, as I did. I like to think that our outings have helped some students feel more engaged in their college experience, more entitled to claim an intellectual space, and more a part of the academic tradition. Although it’s a big thing, engagement, I don’t think it takes much for it to happen. But it won’t happen just by having more orientations and pre-orientations. It’s a magical encounter between people, preferably in a station wagon.


Julio Alves is director of the Jacobson Center for Writing, Teaching and Learning at Smith College


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