Teacher's lessons and textbooks linger after her deathThe college professor who taught the courses I loved most dearly at South Dakota State died late last month. When I learned of her death through an e-mail from her relatives to The Daily Republic, I had a sudden urge to sit once more in her classroom and listen to her talk of her feelings for Coleridge and Gerald Manley Hopkins. Mary Margaret Brown might have kept me in college all those years ago.
By: Terry Woster, The Daily Republic
The college professor who taught the courses I loved most dearly at South Dakota State died late last month.
When I learned of her death through an e-mail from her relatives to The Daily Republic, I had a sudden urge to sit once more in her classroom and listen to her talk of her feelings for Coleridge and Gerald Manley Hopkins.
Mary Margaret Brown might have kept me in college all those years ago. She taught at South Dakota State University for nearly three decades. My years there coincided with a few of her teaching years. I’ve said this before, but with her passing it bears repeating. Every English course she taught that I could squeeze into my journalism schedule, I took.
I registered for the first one quite by accident. A transfer student in the fall of 1963, I had spent my first year at Creighton University. I went through the crazy process of registering for fall classes at State and, intending to minor in English, wrote in a course called “The Literature of England,” a sophomore-level offering. I paid no attention to the course brief that said who taught the class. Except for my journalism adviser, I didn’t know a single professor on campus in Brookings, so it didn’t really matter which of them would be the English Lit teacher.
I arrived late my first day in Miss Brown’s class. The classroom was in the Lincoln Library, on the first floor way around the corner on the west side. Miss Brown was well into her lecture when I finally arrived, and she paused while I took one of the only open seats — a spot directly in the front row. Kind of embarrassing, and I heard a few snickers. They didn’t come from Miss Brown. She waited until I was seated, asked my name, nodded when I told her, and continued her lecture.
(A side note here: I called her Miss Brown all the way through my college life. The year I took graduate courses, I signed up for her class on poetry of the Victorian period and was startled to hear one of the other grad students refer to her as “Doctor Brown” during class discussion the first day. I’d been calling her Miss Brown for more than three years. It didn’t seem right to change then, especially not in the middle of free-wheeling class exchanges about Tennyson and Yeats.)
I suppose there were students on campus, perhaps even some who took one or another of her classes, who were unimpressed with her teaching. I had some professors that left me unsatisfied in my career. Miss Brown wasn’t one of them for me. She brought language to life, whether she was leading a class discussion of some of the specific elements of a sonnet by John Keats or simply guiding a general exchange about the use of words and the impact of the way those words are structured within a sentence.
I learned in that first semester of “Literature of England” to take chances in Miss Brown’s classes. There were no wrong answers. By that, I don’t mean she tolerated sloppy thought or an “all answers are equally correct” approach to the study of literature. What Miss Brown did allow, even encourage, was independent thinking. She listened intently to each student, and she demanded only that the student show he or she had taken the time to read the material, consider its meaning and prepare a reasoned argument for a position taken about a poem or an essay.
Academically, I had a couple of bad years at State. I had little interest in many of my classes, and I did quite poorly. Without Miss Brown and her English offerings, I’m not sure I’d have bothered to register a couple of semesters. Hers were classes I didn’t skip and classes I didn’t attend unprepared. In return for my attendance and preparation, she unlocked all sorts of secrets of our language. I doubt she ever knew how important she was at that time in my life.
Hers were the only textbooks I didn’t sell when I left campus with a college degree. I have them still.
Terry Woster's columns are published on Saturdays and Wednesdays in The Daily Republic.