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You might think that a founder of Brown’s infamous semiotics program—later the Department of Modern Culture and Media (MCM)—would be an ivory tower cliché, a deconstructionist didact looking down at the rest of us mere mortals giddy over binge reading and binge watching for the sheer pleasure of the experience. Yet no one was more amused by the semiotics stereotype than the brilliant teacher, writer, scholar, and Professor Emeritus of MCM, English, and Comparative Literature Robert Scholes, who died on December 9 at the age of 87. To Scholes, whose unrelieved curiosity and intellectual restlessness made him impossible to classify narrowly, the foundation of scholarship was delight.

RobertScholes.jpg
John Forasté/Brown Archives
Robert Scholes.
“Once upon a time there was a boy who loved language,” he wrote in 1998 in The Rise and Fall of English, a book about teaching English that became a beacon to high school teachers around the country. “He loved it all: nursery rhymes, stories, comic books, plays, movies, advertising, instructions on packages, even school books. What becomes of such a boy? If he is lazy—and lucky—he becomes an English teacher. I was such a boy, and this is what became of me.”

At a time when critics distinguished between high culture and low culture, highbrow writing and lowbrow writing, Scholes promoted the idea—it was the foundation for semiotics—that all writing, all “texts” (and later all forms of media), are worthy of our attention. The idea that comic books and instructions on packages (“even school books”!) can reveal a great deal about our culture and even ourselves is so commonplace today that it can be difficult to understand how radical it was in the 1960s and 1970s.

Yet as a writer Scholes had a way of getting clearly and directly to the heart of the matter without having to rely on academic jargon or to riff on in his own linguistic brilliance. His books were liberating and fresh. His 1966 The Nature of Narrative, co-written with Robert L. Kellogg, was a masterful freeing of narrative from the tyranny of the novel; it argued that narrative developed as much from such “lesser” forms as folk tales, epics, myths, and allegories as it did from the written novel. (My own paperback copy, discovered in a bookstore while I was in graduate school, was so dog-eared and scarred from repeated underlining that it eventually fell apart.)

In 1977 he coauthored an influential history of science fiction, and in his spare moments, it seemed, Scholes was also a provocative critic and a historian of modernism. His 1994 Hemingway’s Genders, co-written with his former graduate student Nancy Comley ’71, ’77 PhD, rescued Hemingway from the reductionism of some feminist critics by arguing that the late Hemingway books, and in particular those published posthumously, were sanitized versions of his manuscripts intended to keep the author’s macho image intact. “The complexity of human sexuality—and especially the bisexuality of all humans—were issues that … were in the air that Hemingway and other artists of his time were breathing,” Scholes and Comley wrote near the end of the book. “What we have been trying to show is that Hemingway was much more interested in these matters than has usually been supposed—and much more sensitive and complex in his consideration of them.”

In the classroom, from which he retired in 1999, Scholes was a technological pioneer and a teacher with a knack for inspiring and encouraging the best from his students. He and his wife, JoAnn, were well known for hosting students at holiday dinners and other occasions. Curious about computers all the way back to the 1960s, he worked during the 1970s with computer science professor Andy van Dam to use them to refresh learning. In what may have been the first use of computers as a collaborative classroom tool, students worked together on papers, writing jointly and critiquing one another’s work on early computer screens.

Semiotics concentrator Ira Glass ’82, the founder and host of public radio's This American Life, told the BAM in 2000, "There are certain things I learned [at Brown], like from Robert Scholes, that I think of every day. [Like] the structure of narrative. Semiotics talks about why is this book, this movie, this play, this radio show, this television show—why does it give us pleasure? How, specifically, does it give us pleasure? What is the machinery that it uses?"

A 1950 graduate of Yale, Scholes served in the U.S. Navy Reserve during the Korean War before earning his PhD from Cornell in 1959. His first academic job was in the University of Virginia English department, where William Faulkner once spoke to his undergraduate honors seminar; the students were discussing Absalom! Absalom! that day. (Scholes wrote about the visit for the BAM in 2006.) He then taught at the University of Iowa before arriving at Brown in 1970. He served terms as president of the Semiotic Society of America and the Modern Language Association, and in 1998 was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. 

Ever the optimist, Scholes had this to say to cultural pessimists in the September/October 1998 BAM: “People are unhappy about the state of culture in general. Many blame President Clinton or the decline of religion or the influence of the media. I believe in high culture myself, but you don’t preserve it by circling the wagons. Astonishing new films based on Shakespeare and Jane Austen, for example, are keeping Shakespeare and Jane Austen alive. You preserve culture by mixing it up this way.”





Comments (10)
12/15/16
 
I hardly know what to say about such a loss. Bob was the essence of humane scholar, mentor and friend to so many over such a stretch of years ... a brilliant yet always down-to-earth scholar! I hope and expect that there will be a memorial observance at Brown, and look forward to attending it. There is much to mourn, but much to celebrate as well, of such a well-lived life!
 
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12/16/16
 
Bob was a wonderful mentor and scholar. I live and teach by his words to be a generous reader first - critique can follow. His final graduate seminar at Brown was the occasion of Dr. Delmont and I meeting in graduate school -- a happy event that has lead to nearly a decade of marriage and two beautiful children. Thank you, Bob.
 
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12/20/16
 
I will greatly miss Bob. I first met him when we were on opposing sides, or so we thought, in the critical wars of the 70s and 80s, but from talking through them we became friends and, I felt, intellectual allies. For many of us, Bob and his work were absolutely crucial in helping us understand the baffling and seemingly alienating new theories and methods that exploded in those years, and his 1985 book *Textual Power* was and is not only a most clarifying discussion of those theories and methods, but for 
me by far the most useful available guide to how to use them in teaching, which was always Bob's bottom line. Bob was always friendly, warm, and funny and I loved the times I (and later my wife Cathy and I) spent with Bob and JoAnn. 
 
Gerald Graff
 
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12/23/16
 
When someone asks me what was special about my time at Brown, I immediately reply: "That would have to be the GISP I organized around Joyce's "Ulysses"--meeting once a week at Bob Scholes home on Power Street with an eager coterie of six curious and committed undergraduates. There, after a splendid dinner prepared by Bob's lovely wife Joan, we worked our way through the greatest novel of the 20th century (I'm exercising some license here as the first and only Anglo-Irish Literature major to graduate from Brown). Chapter by chapter, often line by line, Bob was our passionate and trenchant guide to my namesake's journey throughout Dublin on June 16, 1904. I've never had a more engaging and joyous learning experience in my life.  
 
Few know this about Bob. In 1970, I returned from a semester at Trinity College Dublin with an English edition of Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar." Of course, I asked Bob to read it. And as a result, he helped to confront the longstanding Plath family censorship of the work and ultimately arranged to have it published in the United States for the very first time.  
 
I was also fortunate that Bob and Joan lived next door to me during my senior year. I cadged many a free meal there and, in the process, learned a great deal more about literature and life during our often high-spirited and free-wheeling discussions.  
 
Bob was supremely gracious, encouraging and kind. He was an inspiring teacher who could not wait to share his wide-ranging enthusiasms, be they new films, travel touts or professional sports. It was my great, enduring fortune that Bob became a friend of mine.  
 
Bob knew that literature matters. And you could tell by the ever-present twinkle in his eye that he wanted you to know the same.
 
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12/23/16
 
I am sorry that our times at Brown did not overlap.
 
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12/23/16
 
When Bob put up his Facebook page in 2009, he told me he did it only because his former students wanted to connect with him this way. He soon gave that the lie by posting pieces of new things he was working on, photos of him all over Asia during his Navy years, and on March 5, 2012 a fabulous essay entitled, "Corruptors of Youth," which begins: "I am one of those college professors feared by Senator Santorum as corrupters of safely indoctrinated young people in colleges." The essay itself is witty and brilliant, and the back and forth comments between Bob and his students are hilarious.  
 
As one of the many proudly corrupted by Bob, I commend that posting to all of you in tribute to him. My personal tribute came accidentally in the item below, which I posted about a month ago, knowing Bob would get a kick out of it. Never heard back from him. With so many memories flooding back on hearing of his death, I'm not sure anything I could say captures it better than that final Facebook posting anyway: 
 
==========November 18, 2016==================== 
Four years of semiotics study at Brown with my mentor, Robert Scholes, working my way through Peirce, de Saussure, Chomsky, Eco, the Continentals, the Slavs, and more... 
Then, two nights ago, my son, in his second year of college in Japan, and apparently in an anthropology class this term, calls me from Tokyo to ask for help understanding the difference between icon, index, and symbol. I'll admit, I had to dig deep to remember my Peirce, but it made even trudging through a mediocre honors thesis worth it. Thanks, Bob!
 
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12/23/16
 
Bob Scholes was my most important teacher. He combined a kind of fearsome intellectual discipline with an open-minded enthusiasm, by which I mean that he insisted on getting the details of a text right (and I never use the word 'rigor' without thinking of him stressing that word all through a Derrida seminar I took my senior year), yet also was jovially open to the crazy notions of undergrads. He taught me a relish for theory and he humored and extended my Joyce work in an extraordinarily generous way. I still think about the Scholes paper: one page, any font, any margins. It was a brilliant, organic way to teach us how to edit. And I have taught his Textual Power to my own graduate students for years. Bob, thank you for being a model of generous, warm, patient excellence. I went to Cornell for grad school because he did, and he told me that the great thing about Cornell was that whenever the students walked in a certain direction, the school recognized that fact and laid down a pathway. I don't know that that is true of Cornell, but it's true of Bob Scholes. Thank you for treading ahead and making a pathway for your students. The world is poorer now that you're not in it.
 
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12/23/16
 
As an English major, I never took a course with Bob, but I knew him, and he influenced me more than he knew...more than almost all of the wonderful professors I had at Brown. One of his lessons that has served me oh so well is: Bankers Hours (you must know bank then bank teller's windows were only open from 9-3 p.m.). He was working on a Joyce project and shared he went to the library at 9 a.m. and worked till 3 p.m. every weekday. And that is how to get things done. Oh so Dickensian...effectively the same work ethic. I have followed that wisdom reasonably effectively for--can it really be nearly 45 years? There is a notion that someone dies only when the last living person stops remembering him or her. When I am flagging, I think of his off-handed advice on how to get things done. Thank you, Bob.
 
Edward Guiliano '72, Pres
12/29/16
 
He helped make me a writer. His courses were among my most intellectually challenging and purely joyful, all at once.
 
Lisa Solod '78
12/30/16
 
One of the best teachers - and influencers - I have ever had. Bob led the English Seminar during my final semester at Brown and led me to a greater understanding of myself and my field by asking questions and listening than I ever could have achieved by listening to someone lecture. His books guided my thinking long after. A great scholar, a fine teacher, and a wonderful man. Thank you, and RIP, Bob.
 
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