On Monday, Bob Wolf died. He was my first Department Chair. When I arrived at Eastern Connecticut State University in August 1999, he welcomed me warmly. I learned a lot from Bob in the brief two years that I knew him. They were formative years, and he was an important part of them.

Eastern is the sort of place where you have a solid 4/4 teaching load, five mandated office hours per week, and forty undergraduate advisees. In my first week, the department secretary handed me a box of student files, and I held my first office hour. I had done advising in various semi-informal capacities before, but this was my first time with assigned advisees, and working with a program I had studied on paper, but that I had not experienced for myself.

Just before my first office hour, I went to see Bob. I asked him whether there was anything I needed to know before I got started. He silently opened his desk drawer, solemnly fished out a box of tissues, and handed it to me. After studying my puzzlement for a moment, he said: “Always have one of these on your desk. You’ll learn the rest quickly”. I thanked him for the advice, which I follow to this day, which I have found very helpful, and which I have passed on numerous times since. I headed back to my office to perform my first formal academic duty.

Bob was of the civil-rights-and-anti-Viet-Nam-war movement generation. Some other senior Faculty Members in the University were mostly concerned with loudly reminding us that we hadn’t been part of the struggle, and so what right did we have to speak on anything, really? Not Bob. He preferred to quietly and effectively remind us, through his actions and his words, of the struggle’s main teachings.

When the SDS war stories and tales of FBI-CREEP surveillance were flying thick, and when Chicago 68 one-upmanship took over the Faculty meetings, Bob was quiet. At most, he would smirk. At the very least, he would smile. When an actual decision needed to be made, he pointed to the principles by which we should conduct ourselves and our institution. It wasn’t quite as loud as the other method, but it was more effective.

Toward the end of my second semester, I learned another invaluable lesson from Bob. In his unique mentorship style, he didn’t actually tell me what he wanted me to learn, but I certainly learned it.

I had been teaching the main Canadian Studies course. As the Canadian in the department, I was apparently the obvious choice for the task. I had asked students to keep up with the news, especially as it related to Canada, and we had been discussing various items at the beginning of class every week.

When NATO warplanes started bombing Yugoslavia, I began the class with a reference to Belgrade and some of the current events. The name Belgrade produced a sea of blank stares. I asked a few probing questions. Still nothing. I then explained to the class that we were supposed to be following current events.

The next day, I was summoned to Bob’s office. Apparently, my sermon on the importance of being aware of the world had not gone over well with the students. He asked me how my Canadian Studies class had gone the day before. As I recounted, and as he gently quizzed me, I started to realize that my approach had probably not been pedagogically optimal. I started to realize that I had in fact been annoyed that the students didn’t know what or where Belgrade was. I had shown that I was annoyed. To my horror, it dawned on me that I had berated them for not having been part of the struggle. I realized I had reproached them, and perhaps even belittled them, rather than inviting them to follow me on a further intellectual adventure.

Bob could have reprimanded me. He could have reproached and even belittled me. Many other Chairs would have. He could have put me in my place. Instead, he asked me what my expectations were of the students in the course. He asked me what I had learned of their backgrounds and of the diversity of the class in my couple of months in their company. He was interested. He let me come to my own conclusions about how I could do better next time. He smirked, and sent me back to class.

I had a long, productive chat with the students about Canada, NATO, and Yugoslavia. I was thankful that they had given me a mulligan. Bob may have had something to do with that too, but I will never know.

As far as I know, Bob didn’t publish much, but he was a scholar. He once mesmerized us in a departmental seminar with his research on the local history of mental health care, especially around the time of the American Civil War. I remember thinking, in all my youthful exuberance and arrogance, that I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t publishing that fascinating stuff. I remember thinking that I wouldn’t ossify that way. I didn’t understand how to be a scholar for your students, your colleagues, and your community, without at the same time chasing publications and promotions. What would be the point, I wondered. He understood. I understand too. I am now exactly the age he was when I first showed up in his office.

Some of the senior Faculty Members saw young, active researchers as threatening, and they made it obvious to us. Not Bob. In October of my first year at Eastern, even though I was a mere Visiting Assistant Professor, he went to bat for me at the Dean’s Office when I over-boldly applied for professional development funds, so I could present at TAG in Cardiff. Overseas travel was a more than significant professional development expense by Eastern standards. Bob said he thought it was important that I go and present my research.

That conference turns out to have been a pivotal point in my career in a number of ways. This morning, just as I was learning of Bob’s passing on Facebook, Mark Collard and I were skyping about revisions for a paper. I first met Mark at that conference in Cardiff, at a massively entertaining lecture by Elaine Morgan, of aquatic ape fame. If that doesn’t convince you that the universe is a dark, elaborate prank, I don’t know what will. Bob would have smirked.

One thought on “Bob Wolf 1938-2019

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