When I was at Wofford College in the early 1980s, as is the case today, January was designated as a month of specialized study simply called, “interim.”
It was a month where students could study a particular subject that purely interested them.
It was also a time when professors could highlight their interests in the classroom, sometimes even off the wall stuff.
Some students also chose that as a travel month, getting cultural experiences overseas.
I went with a professor, Dr. Dennis Dooley, and fellow students on a literary history tour of England and Ireland in January 1982 as part of interim.
It wasn’t just a tour of museums or points of interest.
It was a month of engaging with people from other countries and learning their culture.
For a 19-year-old from Wilkes County, it was quite an experience.
For interim 1983, I signed up for a month of studying motion pictures. It sounded interesting and just involved watching films, engaging in classroom discussion about them and writing some papers. Not too much academic heavy lifting, I thought.
I’ve never been more wrong about something in my life.
The course was taught by Dr. Vince Miller, a professor in the English department who had a well-known reputation as someone you either loved or despised. I was an English major and, through careful course planning, had been able to never take one of his classes.
Still, I figured a film class couldn’t be such a struggle, no matter who was teaching.
It turned out to be a crash course of studying films by the most important—and sometimes bizarre—directors of all time, including Italy’s Federico Fellini, Russia’s Sergei Eisenstein and American directors Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick.
Our papers involved the analysis of each film, with particular regard to social and historical influences.
The first paper I wrote in this month-long course was a bomb.
Miller sardonically dismissed it as superficial and slipshod. The criticism stung, as is the case with many truthful observations.
I put my back and brain into the effort and soon started making progress.
At times it was painful, but I saw my writing mature in ways I had never imagined.
I only made a “B” in that course, but I was probably prouder of that than any grade I had ever received.
A semester later, I thought I would venture again to take one of Miller’s courses, one which involved comparing literature from markedly different cultures. The course of study was brutally demanding, but really interesting.
Miller was sarcastic, even caustic, but he clearly appreciated anyone who was willing to challenge the way he saw something.
He demanded critical thinking and respected an unfolding creative process in his classroom.
However, that was a semester that I was also taking courses studying the works of William Shakespeare and John Milton.
Miller’s class was one too many, and I knew it.
So, after class one day, I approached Miller and told him that I was overburdened with this other work and would have to drop his class. I’ll never forget that exchange.
“Mr. Hubbard, I’m sorry to hear that,” he said. “Your writing is really showing great improvement.”
“Thank you, Dr. Miller,” I said. “It wasn’t a compliment,” Miller replied, adding, “It was just a statement of fact.”
Miller died in the spring of 2017 at the age of 95. He was a tough one, that guy, but he improved my writing in ways that no one else ever has.
One doesn’t have to be friends with—or even like—their greatest teachers.
The only requirement is to learn, to be open to being taught.