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The Faculty Issue

Until we started researching the Gazette Centennial, I was not aware that emeritus professor of English Gerald Weales—who contributed the essay on Penn’s faculty on page 20, “Hello, Dr. Chips”—had published so much or so variously in the magazine. Book reviews, feature articles on everything from Candice Bergen CW’67 Hon’92 to the Galapagos Islands, plus book excerpts. All in all, among Penn’s faculty he has probably written the most for the magazine, at least in the last 50 years or so.

Gerald was one of my favorite teachers at Penn, along with Nora Magid, with whom he had a long relationship. As he notes in passing in the essay, Nora was a famous teacher of writing at Penn from the mid-1970s until her death in 1991. Her impact was so memorable that some of her grateful students held a gathering just about a year ago at the Penn Club in New York, to mark the 10th anniversary of her death, at which we shared “Nora stories.”

I had classes with both of them and, without taking anything away from Nora—who was indeed an inspiring and enormously helpful teacher—I may have learned even more from Gerald, at least in terms of the skills I’ve used professionally. If anyone at Penn managed to, he taught me how to think critically, to analyze a piece of writing and make a judgment on it. I still remember his comment on my final paper—an A, after a C and B in previous ones—in his course on modern drama: Well, you finally got it all in place. (I also took his class on film comedies of the 1930s, the basis for his wonderful, sadly out-of-print book on the subject, Canned Goods as Caviar.)

I loved Gerald’s classroom style, though it was not to everyone’s taste. Allusive is how I would describe his lectures; others might say rambling. His essay is a bit like that, too, but along the way it has interesting things to say on a number of topics, from the mechanics of the faculty profile as genre to the changing image of the professor as portrayed in the magazine.

The faculty expanded tremendously over the last century, a process already under way when the 1929-1930 Gazette ran a series of articles on the various departments. In a quote about the English department, but which could refer to the faculty as a whole (and which we borrowed for the cover by Sam Maitin FA’51), C.G. Child writes with pride of “the life and growth of this living, this complex thing,” but also recalls the turn of the century when there were “just six of us.”

Weales gives this sense of “cozy clubbiness” its nostalgic due, but then notes its dark side—the fact that this club was a restricted one, open to few or no Jews, women, and minorities. He also offers some thoughtful comments on the traditional distinction made between teaching and research.

No story about Penn’s faculty would be complete without the tale of Scott Nearing C’06 Gr’09, the popular but socialist-leaning professor in the Wharton School whose 1915 firing by the trustees led to a national furor and helped create the modern tenure system. Weales alludes to the scandal briefly, but it receives fuller treatment in “An Affair to Remember,” by senior editor Samuel Hughes.

Also included in our Centennial coverage: a tribute to a fictional faculty member—cartoonist “Bo” Brown’s Professor Quagmire—who appeared regularly in the Gazette from 1946 to 1971, and our second timeline, 1919-1940.

Our other feature articles also relate to the theme, with stories about three current Penn faculty members who come from very different disciplines, but are united by a passion for their fields and a commitment to sharing that passion with their students: Nobel prize-winning chemist Alan G. MacDiarmid; Renaissance scholar Peter Stallybrass; and mural artist and community advocate Jane Golden, who teaches fine arts and also runs Philadelphia’s acclaimed Mural Arts Program.

—John Prendergast C’80

 

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