There are moments when a professor throws you a curve ball and it turns out to be an epiphany.
One of the most challenging final exams I ever took at Wabash was given by Don Herring in an English seminar class. It was also one of the oddest, which will come as no surprise to anyone who’s been taught by Don.
Don handed out a short story, "The Jesting of Arlington Stringham," by an Edwardian author called Saki, then told us to read it and fill our bluebooks on how it exemplified literary irony. Our panicked looks made it clear that irony, despite all the Saturday Night Live we’d watched, was not our strong suit as English scholars. And Don knew that, which was why the drags on his cigarette that morning looked so long and satisfied.
As it turned out, "The Jesting" was probably the most eccentric story any of us had ever read. In fact, after the first couple of paragraphs we cast each other glances as if to say, "Herring’s finally chomped on his necktie one too many times."
But there are moments when a professor throws you a curve ball and it turns out to be an epiphany.
Saki’s story, about the absurd social consequences of a joke made in the House of Commons, was certainly strange. Yet it was also a masterfully deft (and very funny) skewering of human hang-ups, the kind that stabs without leaving a scar—the best proof I’d seen that the pen isn’t just mightier than the sword, but vastly sharper.
The more I pored over it, the more I realized that Saki’s seemingly screwy but subtly subversive technique was really an essential ingredient of any good writing, be it great fiction or the more pedestrian journalism I would later pursue. That was what Don wanted us to pour into those bluebooks, and that is what I consider his greatest skill as a teacher: hopping off the broader avenues of literary criticism and into the quirkier back alleys where prose gets to the often uncomfortable—but just as often laughable—bottom of things.
For me and countless other Wabash English majors, Don’s style as a teacher is simply a reflection of his engaging way as a person. He’s the kind of avuncular figure Hoosier kids are glad to know in college. One moment he exudes the Victorian erudition and manners they all see as a classic model of liberal learning—the collector of leather-bound first editions who plays the cello and studies Turner paintings. The next moment he’s the Faulknerian relative they all feel at home with—the whimsical Carolinian who bites his rolled-up necktie and stops a lecture to shout, "Y’all know what Matthew Arnold should have been doin’ on his honeymoon, but instead he wrote this damn poem. It’s enough to make me go outta my mind!"
Someone once asked me what meeting Don was like. The best I could do was paraphrase Winston Churchill: "Meeting Don," I said, "is like opening a bottle of Dom Perignon champagne on the set of the Andy Griffith Show.
But if there is one thing for which I’ll always be grateful to Don, it’s the love of Dickens that he passed on to me during long, genial conversations in his office. Above Don’s desk, in fact, hung a large portrait of Dickens in his study with characters from his novels floating about his head; and Don always rejected the popular scholarly thinking that those characters were the two-dimensional creatures of sentimental holiday fare or 19th-century social crusading. Handing me a copy of Dickens’ first novel, The Pickwick Papers, he explained the extent to which Dickens’ early career as a journalist informed his fiction. "People like Pickwick are no more two-dimensional than the local politicians we read about every day," Don stressed. "If anything, Dickens added dimension to real people we too often make the mistake of dismissing as two-dimensional."It’s that image of Dickens the journalist that has been a daily inspiration to me—a reminder that the street children I sometimes write about in Latin American capitals like Caracas are hardly that far removed from the world of Oliver Twist. Each December, Don and I reread A Christmas Carol and e-mail whatever humble new insights we glean.
That’s one of the other remarkable things about Don: he takes such an avid interest in what his students are reading after they leave Wabash—and he absorbs what they’re reading back into the classes he’s teaching. Historical fiction is one of his passions, and he casts a net far and wide for tips from alumni. When he wanted something from Mexico, where I was based in the 1990s, he sensed that there had to be a less commercial work than The Old Gringo to teach, and he was right: I sent him a copy of Mariano Azuela’s The Underdogs, a rich and firsthand rendering of the Mexican Revolution, and Don’s students may be some of the few in the U.S. to have studied it.
Don, of course, always reciprocated, showering my foreign correspondent’s mail pouch with offerings like Conrad’s Nostromo and O’Brian’s Master & Commander—or far more valuable gifts like an 1839 first edition of The Confessions of Harry Lorrequer by one of Dickens’ chief contemporary rivals, Charles Lever (complete with the original Phiz illustrations).
So it doesn’t sound quite right to hear that Don is retiring—because teaching is as much his avocation as it is his vocation. Don and his wife, Johanna, the former Wabash archivist who has always been as generous and genuine with me and other students as Don has been, are unusually committed liberal arts advocates. And that has a lot to do with why my class, 1984, made Don one of its honorary Wabash alumni.
Don is one of the few non-Catholics I know, for example, who can quote Cardinal Newman’s important liberal arts treatise, The Idea of a University. Newman’s Victorian contemporary, John Ruskin, one of Don’s favorite authors, said there are two types of books, "the books of the hour, and the books of all time." Don has a rare gift for teaching us how to discern between the two, one that makes him a professor of all time in my book and the books of so many other Wabash alums.
I just hope he won’t be too surprised when he gets neckties from them as retirement presents.
Contact Professor Herring at firstname.lastname@example.org
Tim Padgett is the Miami and Latin America bureau chief for TIME Magazine and the 2005 recipient of the Maria Moors Cabot Prize from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism for outstanding reporting on Latin America.
Photograph by John Zimmerman