Hamilton College Alumni Review: Sitting in the Front Row Could Be Dangerous

Hamilton College – Alumni Review – Spring 2008 – Sitting in the Front Row Could Be Dangerous

Hamilton College just ran a long article with reminiscences from alumni about their most inspirational professors. One was by Tom Reid, my freshman year roommate, about Edwin Barrett, professor of English, who was my advisor and inspiration as well. Tom begins by saying

I entered Hamilton in 1967 as a political and emotional conservative. Afraid of people and ideas I didn’t understand, I managed my anxiety by convincing myself that I pretty much had all the answers. Fortunately, courses with professors such as Russell Blackwood, Sidney Wertimer and Robert Simon began to loosen the grip of my insular ideology. However, it took Edwin Barrett to really get through to me.

Tom’s claim to have been a political conservative was pretty clear the first day I met him. We were comparing record collections–his focused largely on the Who and mine on Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs. The thing I knew, I was the proud recipient of a list of 93 Reasons Why Pete Seeger is A Communist. (My favorite was #34: “He sent birthday greetings to People Songs, Inc., a communist front organization.”)

Tom and I travelled in different circles most of the time that we were at Hamilton. I was pretty surprised to read the story of his encounter with Ed Barrett:

It was my second literature class with him. He had mainly given me C’s and D’s for papers blithely dismissing author after author as too negative or relativistic. Yet for some reason I had started to admire him, despite his obvious liberalism! Then he assigned a paper on "How Jane Austen Defines and Limits the World of Emma." In writing it, I somehow grasped the idea that a work of art should be judged not by external standards but by the values within the work itself. I don’t think I realized what a breakthrough this was for me, but Barrett did. He gave me an A-, but what mattered more was the summary comment he wrote on the title page: "Tom, this is your best vein: sympathetic, precise and undogmatic. If you could do this kind of work consistently, I think you would find yourself as a student, and to some degree as a person."

There were many other influences on me in those years, but nothing helped me see myself as clearly as that one comment. It became a kind of beacon guiding me to a more liberal and compassionate philosophy of life. Without it, I might not have become a teacher myself and might never have become the man who won the heart of my wonderful wife. I still think of Barrett’s words often, especially as I spend my evenings writing comments on the papers of my students, hoping I can be anywhere near as inspiring to them as he was to me.

Tom Reid ’71<br /

I still remember many of the comments from my courses with Professor Barrett. My papers were all typed on erasable bond paper on a Smith Corona electric typewriter and were returned with Ed’s final judgement on the cover page. His handwriting–like everything he did–was exuberant and expressive–more like calligraphy than the normal handwriting on a returned papers. One of my favorites:

Gene, This is the best undergraduate essay I’ve read on this poem. Well done! B+

This is a good reminder for this final week or two when so many of our friends and colleagues are plowing through the seemingly endless piles of papers.