During the 80’s, I pursued a doctoral degree at the University of Oklahoma. I never caught it. My Ph.D., for various reasons, mostly my fault, got away from me before the decade ended.
Recently, I reconnected with one of my favorite former professors from that era of my life whom I will call Prof D. Most my profs at OU were good teachers, a few went through the motions, a handful were outstanding. This made OU about on par with other academic institutions with which I have been associated. Prof. D was the best; in fact, more than a teacher, a true mentor. Prof D taught British Literature mainly the 17th Century writers like the poets Milton and Donne and the dramatists Beaumont and Fletcher.
Some graduate teachers act as though they are some kind of "gateway guardians" for their particular discipline. In their classes, poor novitiates must show they are worthy before they are allowed to enter the halls of academia or at least one particular closet of learning.
Prof D made us feel welcome in her world. She had very high standards, and yet made us yearn to meet them. She did so foremost by making us feel as if our knowledge and our backgrounds were truly useful to us. In my case, she showed me how I could use my religious and theological background to enrich my understanding of literature. My undergraduate work had been in religious education. Prof D used my ability to articulate Christian theology—the intricacies of Calvinism, free will, "justification by faith", Wesleyanism and the like—to provide insights into Milton, the Metaphysical Poets and Restoration poetry. I became her "go to" guy for questions in the class regarding faith.
She did this for all of us. One by one she found our strengths and made us play up to them. She showed us how we could use the same methods we had used to build our strengths to also improve our weaknesses. For me, she showed me how reading the Bible to better understand my faith provided an equally valid method, with some adaptation, to do close readings of literature. Because of her guidance, I learned how to read like a scholar.
Prof D left OU while I was still a graduate student there. Oklahoma found itself deeply mired in recession during the mid 80’s. Oklahoma colleges faced massive cut backs in funding, and many professors had to take positions elsewhere. She left the University of Oklahoma for a better opportunity in the upper Midwest. Recently, I checked to see if Prof D was still teaching at this college, and to my delight, I found that she was.
For the most part, we have maybe 5 or 6 teachers who have made big impacts on our lives. I call them "mentors" meaning that they go beyond teaching knowledge to affecting lives. If I am able to be a mentor to some of my students, it is only because I was lucky enough to have mentors like Prof D in my life. Thanks, Prof, you made me a better man than I could have been without you.