The University Record, July 23, 1996


Why an Emeritus Appointment Is a Delight

By Thomas M. Sawyer
Professor Emeritus, Technical Communications
Program, College of Engineering

A colleague asked me if I would explain why I enjoyed becoming an English or speech teacher again after my retirement. The fact is I became a student again --- not a teacher --- and becoming a student again is just plain fun.

I originally became a teacher by accident. In 1939 I was a senior at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. I was a biology major, and a pretty good one. I also took two courses in creative writing with John Crowe Ransom. I knew nothing at all about him except that he seemed to enjoy considerable status as the editor of The Kenyon Review and some of the newspapers and news magazines seemed to have heard of him.

There were only about six of us in the second creative writing class --- me and five non-biologists, such as: Robie Macauley, later fiction editor of Playboy magazine; Peter Taylor, whose short stories were later to appear in The New Yorker; and the late Robert Lowell, who made a name for himself as a poet. In Ransom's seminar I too wrote poetry --- for the simple, practical reason that it took less time and paper to produce two or three lyrics than it did to devise a 20- or 30-page short story.

I graduated from this idyllic ivory tower in June 1939 and headed into the world of business. I ended up in Toledo, Ohio, working 12 hours a day for 50 cents an hour as a machinist turning out copper commutators for electric motors in a factory which looked like a scene from one of Charles Dickens' novels. I'm afraid that that experience has contaminated my attitude toward Toledo ever since.

After a full year of this seamy sort of life, I received a letter from the alumni secretary of Kenyon College telling me that a preparatory school in Honolulu, Hawaii, was looking for a biology teacher. Would I care to apply?

Would I care to apply! With visions of palm trees, white sands and dusky hula girls, I dashed off a letter of application immediately. Clearly I needed some letters of recommendation. My biology professor was an obvious choice. The president of Kenyon College was another. You must remember that the college was small enough that the president knew every student. But two letters, like a two-legged stool, felt unbalanced. I needed a third. So I asked our academic star, John Crowe Ransom, for a letter as well.

Months passed in Dickensian gloom, then one day I received a cablegram. It said, "Offer you a job teaching English. Nine hundred dollars a year."

I was flabbergasted! I was a biologist. Well, yes, I was temporarily a machinist, but I thought of myself as a biologist. What were they doing offering me a job teaching English? I didn't know anything about that. But anything was better than making commutators in Toledo. I promptly cabled back: "I accept. But why English?"

It turned out that Headmaster Stone of Iolani School in Honolulu had already hired a biology teacher by the time my application arrived. But in the meantime, a hot-blooded young English teacher had made a pass at the headmaster's blonde and nubile daughter and had been abruptly and untimely dismissed. With the start of the school year rapidly approaching, the headmaster had riffled through the applications on his desk looking for a replacement, had stumbled across Prof. Ransom's generous letter of recommendation in my behalf, and decided to take a chance on me.

I certainly had a paucity of training for such a position. I taught every last thing I knew in the first 15 minutes of the first class, I had nothing left to say --- not for the rest of the hour, not for the rest of the day, not for the rest of the week, not for the rest of year.

But Headmaster Stone had been a missionary in China, and he knew something about training untrained teachers like myself. He required me to turn in to him each week a detailed outline of what I planned to do the coming week in each of my five classes of 25 boys. And each week I was expected to assign, receive, read, mark-up in detail and grade a composition from each and every student. Thus he expected me to grade 125 compositions every week. And he asked me to submit sample batches of compositions to him at frequent intervals so that he could check up on how well I was reading and marking up all those papers.

As you will appreciate, I saw a great deal less of those palm trees, white sands and dusky hula girls than I had anticipated. This was the only instruction I have ever received in how to teach writing. Headmaster Stone taught me an invaluable lesson. I had, and have, never worked so hard in my life. But I still believe that it is essential to plan out, on paper for all to see, what you hope to accomplish in every class meeting. And I still believe that it is essential that the students write a composition every single week. But teaching wasn't enjoyable, it was hard work.

Pearl Harbor Day closed all the schools in Hawaii so I became in rapid succession: a Red Cross first aid instructor; teacher of speech and drama back at Kenyon College; and an ambulance driver with the American Field Service attached to the British 14th Army in Burma, the 8th Army in Italy, and the 21st Army Group in Belgium and Holland. In 1945 I was back in Ann Arbor, once more a machinist as I had been in Toledo, hoping, despite the lack of G.I. Bill benefits, to work my way through graduate school while working on the night shift as a punch-press operator for Hoover Ball Bearing Co. in Ann Arbor. And once again I became a teacher entirely by chance.

As I was preparing to register as a graduate student in Sspeech, I was suddenly tapped on the shoulder by the chairman of the English Department of the College of Engineering who asked if I would like to teach freshman speech and freshman composition to engineering students. Although I had been a punch-press operator for only a week and a half, I had already decided that I preferred pushing a pencil to pushing a greasy strip of steel plate. Again I said, "Yes."

So in 1945 I began teaching freshman composition and speech in the English Department of the College of Engineering as a graduate student teaching fellow. My major problem was trying to figure out what sort of topics freshman could, and would like to, write and speak about.

In 1968 my department persuaded the College of Engineering faculty to move composition and speech to the senior year and instead give the freshmen courses in Great Books. Our argument was that freshman had nothing interesting to write or speak about. Moreover, freshmen knew little about the history and literature which were common to all the educated world. But seniors and graduate students were engaged in all sorts of research projects which they were eager to write and talk about. In these courses our roles were reversed. The students became the teachers; we were the students. As laymen, our role now was to help the students explain their research in terms that other laymen could understand. These courses were not work; they were fun.

Following the shift to literature for freshmen and composition for seniors, the Regents agreed to re-name us as the Humanities Department. Budget constraints in 1980 led the University to reduce the number of faculty specializing in composition and convert the department into the Technical Communications Program. In April 1986 I taught my last class, went on retirement furlough, and journeyed abroad as a tutor in five-day technical communication courses in Sweden, Denmark and England. In 1988 my colleague, Prof. Leslie Ann Olsen, director of the Technical Communications Program, invited me to accept a part-time emeritus appointment to tutor Ph.D. candidates in engineering in oral presentations, or speeches, because they are often invited to give papers at conferences and are preparing to defend their dissertations. In 1996 I am still at it and enjoying it immensely.

It may help to explain if I give you an example of what these students are trying to teach me. But please understand that this is my own version of the student's research and may not be accurate.

One of my engineering Ph.D.s wanted help about a talk he was to give at Xerox in Rochester, N.Y. He had developed a micro-chip ink-jet printer head. Xerox was interested in this because they presently use printer heads developed by Hewlett-Packard and must pay a license for each one. The H-P heads have tiny glass tubes to hold the ink and use a complicated electrical heating system to make the ink squirt out of the tubes. The tubes are arranged in an array to produce the letter patterns.

The student had chemically etched little channels in a block of silicon. Then, using vapor deposition, he covered over these channels to create tubes. Then on top of these tubes, again using vapor deposition, he painted little strips of poly-silicon. These served as heating elements when connected to an electric current through a spot of gold on one end. Each of these tubes was connected to an ink reservoir and filled with ink. When the heater element was turned on, the temperature went from room temperature to 350 degrees in 2 micro-seconds and the ink exploded out of the end of the tube and on to the paper. By simply stacking a series of these little blocks of silicon on top of each other, he had produced an ink-jet printer head.

But this printer head arose as a by-product of his basic research. Using the same technique, but extending the little tubes into fine probes, he used the heater elements as thermocouples to measure the heat emitted from flow of warm blood into those areas of the brain aroused by injected chemicals.

The students I confer with are rather like having a subscription to Scientific American that is alive. Does this help explain why I find this emeritus appointment so much fun?