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John Rassias: Let Down By Dartmouth

John Rassias’ teaching was about more than language. In a post about six years ago I tried to describe what it is that he did, but Robin Williams better captures John’s style of soul-building magic in a scene from Dead Poets Society:

(Note that Williams snaps his fingers several times Rassias style.)

However pedagogical brilliance is not my subject today, though I knew John’s Method well, having worked as a Rassias Teaching Assistant in French and Italian, and having studied Italian, German, Spanish and Japanese using the Rassias Method.

The real question we should all be asking at the time of John’s passing is why the Rassias Method is not used all over the world today, and why is the College not the world’s leading international center for the study of the teaching of foreign languages? For those failings we can blame a series of spineless, vision-free Dartmouth administrations, and to judge from events at the College today, nothing seems to have changed.

When John Rassias came to Dartmouth in the 1960’s, his innovative spirit attracted several acolytes to Hanover, chief among them Professors Henry Buckley and Bob Shupp. These young faculty members believed in Rassias and his Method, and they supported John’s efforts to develop new ways of teaching foreign languages.

John Rassias3.jpgBut there were forces aligned against John, chiefly the old guard in the Romance Languages and Literature Department, people who thought that French-inspired literary criticism was the serious work of the academy, and that teaching language was no more than a pedestrian endeavor. When Buckley and Shupp came up for tenure at the end of the 70’s, the department shot them down.

John, to his discredit, did not rally to their defense, though as the College’s star professor he well could have. It’s often said that actors don’t have spines, and John just never had the confidence to fight for the people around him.

Had President John Kemeny and the academic deans possessed any imagination, they could have split John’s team off from Romance Languages and established a new Department of Language Pedagogy. Not only could such an entity have experimented with willing Dartmouth undergrads in developing new methods of language instruction, but more importantly, it could have done the necessary technical research to prove the value of the Rassias Method.

You see, despite the College’s recent bluster, the Rassias Method is only used in a limited number of other institutions today. It hardly has the world-bending reach that it should have, nor the scientific support that it has always needed to expand its influence.

John passed up such an opportunity for a second time when Boston University President John Silber came calling around 1980. As John recounted his meeting with Silber to me, BU’s President sat with John in his Boston office and gestured to a side door, saying, “John, that is BU’s treasure room. You can have anything in it that you want, if you come here and create a center for the study of language teaching.”

John turned down the offer, which would have included positions for several other Dartmouth faculty members, after being deluged with heartfelt requests from the administration and various Trustees to remain at the College. Having done so, nobody in Hanover shared John Silber’s inspiration to create a research center based on John Rassias’ genius.

Of course, word got out quickly in the academy regarding the fate of Buckley and Shupp, both of whom received tenure in short order at other schools, and the flow of young scholars, who would have been John’s disciples, dried up.

To say that John’s career was over at the point would be an overstatement, but the trajectory of his ideas and the Rassias Method took a hit then from which it never recovered. John’s teaching continued to be inspired, and many of us had our lives changed by it, but the world outside of Hanover was the loser.

Addendum: Music Professor Jon Appleton writes in:

I met Buckley in Bourges (one of the Rassias sites in France). A devoted teacher. But it was the dried up academics like David Sices who were jealous of Rassias’ notoriety. They thought the proper study of French (and other languages) was the LIT-TUR-A-TURE. But Dartmouth students are the richer in their lives because they could communicate (speak, talk) to people who knew little or no English.

To my knowledge most of the Dartmouth leadership after Kemeny did not speak a second language. Does Hanlon? I took Spanish and Russian first semester language courses at Dartmouth and I could speak.

Addendum: Where would Dartblog be without endlessly informed readers? Here’s something of which I was not aware:

Did you know (of course, you did!) that Sam Pickering, model for the Dead Poets Society, was a novice Assistant Prof at Dartmouth from 1970-78, before he emigrated to UConn and became famous? A great guy, especially to us library types, he also brought to campus the new movie Pumping Iron (1977) starring a friend of his, young Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Addendum: Some disappointing news from a Rassias admirter:

I’m in Hanover for John’s memorial service and last night learned that Hanlon isn’t coming. The Provost can’t make it. Jim Wright can’t come. Really sad. Otherwise it looks to be a wonderful turnout — I hope Rollins Chapel will be full. John deserves at least that. I’ll let you know!

I studied French with Shupp and Henry Buckley starred in “The Cenci” by Artaud which I directed in French — for a independent study project I did with Rassias. I liked both men enormously.


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