Professor of Delight

By Robert Arellano / May / June 1999
November 14th, 2007

If you travel the academic country, as I have for conference presentations and job interviews, and if you tell humanities educators you hail from Brown, you will hear them exclaim, in a felicitous reflex of recognition: "Scholes!"

For those of you who do not know him, Robert Scholes, who is retiring in June, is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities, a professor of English, modern culture and media, and comparative literature. To those who have encountered Scholes and his work, the titles reveal little about him, and are, in fact, a little misleading. Scholes is no ivory-tower isolationist. For years, a great portion of his energies have gone to promoting federal and state initiatives for modernizing the teaching of high school English. It sometimes seems as if everyone who teaches the subject has read his book of essays, Textual Power. His latest battle cry for reform, The Rise and Fall of English, which was published just last year and excerpted in the pages of this magazine ("Does English Matter?" September/October 1998), has generated sympathetic letters from high school teachers around the country and, even, the world.

And then there is the Scholes personality. Those who know him through his incisive, clear writing expect, perhaps, to be intimidated. Instead, they find themselves charmed by the brilliant professor with a twinkle in his eye, an abundance of infectious merriment, and an overwhelming passion for such diverse interests as computers, James Joyce, and opera. Like so many lone wayfarers who have found themselves in Providence during one of those breaks when one is supposed to fly to the refuge of one's relatives, I have enjoyed holiday dinners with Scholes and his irrepressibly hospitable wife, Jo Ann (who calls him by the decidedly unacademic nickname "Scholesie"). I have met scholars far and wide who consider themselves Scholes's children, a lineage that extends across generations. A friend who teaches at the University of New Orleans identified himself to me recently as a Scholes descendant, his own thesis adviser having been one of those ideological "sons." "So that would make me a grandson, wouldn't it?" he asked.

As Scholes prepares for the uncertain world of retirement from the full-time faculty, many stories no doubt will be told about his enormous influence. The Scholes influence tends to be a deeply personal one, and I offer my own encounter as a humble example. A decade ago, while I was in my last year as a Brown undergraduate, I realized that, although I would complete my degree with honors, I was certain that I did not know what it truly meant to be a scholar. After a dozen criticism classes, I felt that the exuberance of fine analytical writing - the kind that inspired me to read more closely - had escaped me.

Then I took "Joyce and Picasso," a multimedia survey of modernism from Paul Cezanne through Gertrude Stein and beyond, taught by Professor Scholes, who was then famous for requiring one-page papers. The logic of limiting the student to one page is on the surface simple enough. Make him or her say in 500 words what otherwise might drag on for a thousand or more. Try it: the task is daunting. Students find themselves eschewing all margins; ridding the page of double-, single-, and, finally, half-spaces and paragraph indentations; or taxing the poor lector with ever-more microscopic typefaces. It is certainly not an assignment for a faint-hearted professor. But ultimately, unexpectedly, instructor and pupil both enjoyed the inevitable results: exacting grammar, exhilarating sentences, and - imagine this! - an exercise in composition leaving taxed students wishing they could write more.

Sometime around mid-semester, I was alarmed to find myself with a string of successful one-pagers that had received marks of 8.5 and 9. (Among students in the seminar, there was some debate about whether Scholes had ever bestowed the fabled 10-out-of-10.) I had to find out why. In those days, Scholes's home, Modern Culture and Media, had progressed from its status as "the semiotics program" into a center - though it was not yet respectable enough to be the full-fledged department it became in 1993.

So off I went to his office, which was then at the foot of George Street, to timidly tell the professor that I really didn't know what I was doing right. I wanted to let him know I was worried I might break my streak without ever figuring it out. I sat across from Scholes and said, "I just start writing and revising an explication, and finally I leave on the page whatever seems the most stylish." I confessed that I was not even sure, in most of these assignments, I had developed a real thesis.

With gleaming gaze, Scholes looked at me silently for a moment. I trembled, afraid I had just exposed myself as a charlatan. Then Scholes smiled and said, "You've got it, Robert. It's all about style." The skies did not open. The trumpet did not blow. But since that day I have kept on writing for pleasure, remembering the look in Scholes's eye.

Scholes is a challenger. As an instructor of undergraduates, as an adviser of graduate students, and as an educational visionary, he is ever pushing those around him toward excellence. He cheerfully enriches the profession by accepting requests for peer reviews, by co-authoring volumes with collaborators at Brown and beyond, by posting his essays and lecture notes on the Internet, and by contributing to on-line dialogues focused on his specialties. His beneficence is neither begrudging nor patronizing. He does it because he loves it. I suspect the etymology of his surname derives directly from the word "scholar." They are certainly synonymous.

Robert Arellano's essay "Views of a Ride-By Impressionist" appeared in the November/December 1998 BAM.

What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
May / June 1999