Saturday, August 20, 2022 Aug 20, 2022
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By Glenna Whitley |

A great professor can make the difference between true comprehension and mere regurgitalion, between learning to think and learning to do well on exams, “You come in here with a skull full of mush,” says Professor Kinpsfield to his first-year Harvard Law School students in the film The Paper Chase. It’s the job of professors to clear out the mush, the fuzzy thinking, and to replace it with a small but solid core of understanding that can grow after the student leaves the incubator of me university. Here are four of SMU’s finest.

Dr. Alessandra Comini


MERYL STREEP HAS NOTHING ON DR. ALESSANDRA Comini. From her lectern in McCord Auditorium, Comini mimics, mimes, shouts, sings, weeps, breaks into accents, even fells to the ground in feigned humiliation if she (heaven forbid!) makes a mistake. It’s an hour-and-twenty-minute performance that leaves her body drenched with perspiration and her students’ minds stuffed with more than they ever thought they wanted to know about German expressionism or analytical cubism. Or, for that matter, Madison Avenue cigarette ads.

Called the “wittiest art historian extant” by one art magazine, the fifty-one-year-old professor is the kind of teacher who induces fanatical student loyalty and sometimes barely disguised faculty envy and distaste.

“I don’t like her,” admits one SMU teacher. “She’s an egomaniac. But she’s a brilliant teacher. She makes art connect with society and culture.”

Comini isn’t shy about her many accomplishments, which include authorship of six books; one, Egon Schiele’s Portraits, was nominated for a National Book Award. (A book about Beethoven will be published this fall.) She even offers inquirers a slide show about her life, complete with photographs of her as a child riding a horse, and later, as a young woman, ferrying Hungarians from the border to Vienna after the Hungarian revolution. (She was supposed to be in Europe studying art.)

Comini’s father was an Italian photographer and her mother an American scholar. After Finishing high school, Alessandra followed her mother’s footsteps to Barnard College. She later received her doctorate in art history from Columbia University, where she taught nine years. She stepped into her mother’s footsteps again by coming to SMU, where Megan Laird Comini had founded the Italian department.

Comini believes in the cultural content of all artistic form, whether the art is a painting hanging in . the Louvre or an advertisement on the side of a bus. “Art seems to parallel, or even anticipate, cultural, events. It is uncanny the way art is prescient.” She points to Kasimir Malevich*s abstract paintings in the early 1900s as an eerie anticipation of the destruction of the royal Romanov dynasty in Russia. “Yes, but maybe it’s just an abstract painting,” a student might be inclined to say. She laughs: “I expect questions like that. I plant my seeds and let the evidence grow until it’s irrefutable.”

All of Comini’s lectures are presented in the dark, using pairs of slides with images juxtaposed for the greatest impact. It takes her about eight hours, not including practice time, to prepare each lecture. She makes all her own slides; her Park Cities home, which she shares with SMU professor Eleanor Tufts, is a veritable library of books and artwork.

While Comini is an entertaining lecturer, she’s also known as a ruthless grader. Misspelled answers are wrong answers. If a student is asked to repeat the great chorus to Verdi’s early opera “Nabucco,” he or she is expected to sing it. with feeling. Students with strong regional accents-whether from West Texas or New York-are likely to elicit a silly imitation from Comini. Clean it up, she tells students. Nobody will take what you say seriously “if yew sayuh it lak this.”

But she also sprinkles in the treats, pulling up a student to waltz across the room, applauding good questions and astute answers, tossing in funny asides from her travels.

Her teaching style has changed since she came to SMU twelve years ago. “I’ve become nicer. When I left New York, I stopped snapping at students. My mother told me, ’Calm down. You cannot use sarcasm here.1 And she was right. The students here don’t worry quite as much about their careers. I get kids who not only understand the necessity of studying humanities, they crave it.”

For a teacher of art history, SMU has an added bonus; many of the students have the wherewithal to take trips to Europe, where they can see many of the great works of art Comini tells them about in class. The summer brings a flood of postcards from students thrilled at being able to walk through museums and not only recognize artwork, but make intelligent comments about them to their traveling companions. Her only complaint about SMU students: “They don’t have that keen competitive edge. We don’t have enough Jewish students.”

Comini had such an impact on Dr. Ralph Broad-water, now a surgical oncology fellow at M.D. Anderson Cancer Institute in Houston, that he established a scholarship in her name at SMU eight years after taking her class.

“When I went to SMU, I was a chemistry major,” says Broadwater, who took three of Comini’s classes. “I got interested in art history. Of all the professors at SMU, she was one of the two or three who generated real excitement. I think that’s a rare talent. She puts on a performance-a very organized show that teaches you not only about art, but politics, music, economics, and the society of whatever period you are studying. You learn a lot while having fun. I always go back to her class when I’m in town. Til even take the pop tests.”

Dr. Willard Spiegelman


STUDYING THE ODYSSEY WITH WILLARD Spiegelman makes one wonder why Hitchcock never made a hit film from Homer’s ancient tale. It’s all there: wit, suspense, sexual and political tension, manipulation, even a clinical portrait of obsession. “This is fascinating,” says one male SMU student, shaking his head in seeming disbelief as he leaves a Spiegelman class on the epic. That the material is positively gripping has as much to do with Spiegelman as Homer.

Throughout the class period, the forty-one-year-old professor seems barely able to contain his fascination with Homer’s ideas, sometimes bringing in left-field quotes from sources such as Louis Armstrong. He compares Homer’s underworld to Gertrude Stein’s comments about Oakland, California. He discusses the motifs of testing and sadism, and in the next breath asks the students to compare the idea of Judeo-Christian interpretations of God’s omniscience with the Greeks’ ideas about human responsibility, free will, and choice.

His vocabulary is incisive, his delivery rapid-fire. He often grips the podium, leaning over it to address students sitting around an oval table. The students often toss in voluntary comments and answer Spiegelman’s questions with an attitude of breathless discovery.

Though his command of the subject is imposing, Spiegelman is not intimidating out of the classroom, though many of his students approach him with caution. That’s been true since the first day he walked on campus: Spiegelman finds this amusing because “I looked about fourteen when I got here.” Still boyish, he keeps himself in shape with swimming and bicycle riding. He favors bow ties, khakis, and sports coats in the classroom, taking off the coat to roll his sleeves up over his elbows when the going gets thick. But, unlike many professors who favor the rumpled academic look, he starches his shirts and always at least brings the coat. “To me, the classroom is a formal place,” he says. His eyeglasses are the round, tortoise-shell type favored by the stereotyped egghead, but above, there’s a shock of stylishly cropped blond hair.

Spiegelman’s fields are Romantic and contemporary poetry. He says he got roped into teaching the Odyssey because he knows Latin and Greek (as well as four other languages). He studied Greek during summer school a decade ago. “I felt I wasn’t educated until I knew Greek,” he says.

Spiegelman grew up in Philadelphia, coming to SMU in 1971 from Harvard, where he received master’s and doctorate degrees. His reason for moving to Dallas was simple: “This was a job at a time when very few jobs were available.” The reason he became a teacher is not much more profound. “I followed the path of least resistance. I was a bookish child. I liked school and I was good at it. So I stayed there.”

Today, by all accounts, he is one of SMU’s best professors, one of those able to reach down and grab students by their intellectual lapels, to get them to sign up-voluntarily-for his classes on poetry and the classics. Neither are popular subjects in the Eighties, when everyone seems to be studying business. He has won numerous awards for teaching and is a perennial choice when students vote on their favorite teachers.

So it’s surprising when Spiegelman says he has to squelch a desire to run from the building before each class. “It makes me nervous-thinking about it beforehand and recovering from it afterward-but not in the doing of it. I guess it’s the fear of inadequacy, of being thought boring. An actor will say the same thing.”

And as there are natural actors, Spiegelman says he is a natural teacher. He never studied teaching technique or consciously tried to create a tutorial method. He just grabs a book of poetry and wades in.

“You are what you are, but a little more so, when you come into the classroom,” he says. “The hardest thing is retaining the enthusiasm. Though I may be teaching a poem for the seventy-fifth time, they’re reading it for the first time.” Another problem is creeping intellectualism. “When I go in and teach the odes of Keats, I know too much about the subject. Ode On a Grecian Urn used to take one class. Now it takes five.”

Spiegelman says he was surprised, when he joined the university, to find many of his students “culturally deprived,” despite their families’ above-average incomes. “A lot of the students have struck me as provincial and naive, but not in a bad sense. They don’t go to plays or the symphony. Many have never known a Catholic, Jew or a black or Mexican, except as a servant.”

Spiegelman urges his students to go to the ballet, the theater, museums. And he’s not above trying to woo some students from the professional schools such as business and engineering, doing career nights with former English majors who have become successful in various fields.

If he hadn’t become a professor, what path would Spiegelman have taken? “Oh, I would have been a television talk show host.”

Dr. Jim Hopkins


IN A CONSERVATIVE TOWN, AT A CONSERVATIVE university, in a conservative time, Jim Hopkins is something of an anachronism. He has picked coffee beans with peasants in Nicaragua. He’s marched in “U.S. out of Central America” demonstrations. He developed an interdisciplinary SMU course on nuclear issues and wrote and narrated a film called The University and the Fate of the Earth. A feminist before it became fashionable for men to express such sentiments, he teaches a course on women in modem Europe.

“He’s one of the finest teachers we have,” says Dr. Hal Williams, dean of SMU’s Dedman College. “He knows the material. Jim tackles very interesting and important questions in his own research.”

What makes him so good, say his students, is not only an extensive knowledge of his field-specifically modern English and European history-but a deep sense of caring. Caring for students, for the people of the community, for the world. Hopkins, who came of age in the Sixties, is one who has not forgotten the lessons and the idealism of that turbulent age.

“The Big Chill is a movie that offends me terribly,” Hopkins says. “I sometimes wish my students could more closely assess the positive results of that era. We are not in a foreign war. Women and minorities have made great strides. They were great issues, not just a question of fad or fashion.”

His commitment to important issues is one thing that sets him apart from other professors, says SMU senior Shannon Smithey, citing Hopkins’s three trips to Nicaragua.

“He’s the only professor I know who has done that,” Smithey says. “You find a lot of committed people in a university, but it’s still pretty unusual to see something like that. He doesn’t discuss it in class, but during office hours, he’ll talk about it. That adds something to SMU that wouldn’t otherwise be there.” A political science major, Smithey decided to double-major in history after taking Hopkins’s class.

Now forty-four, Hopkins grew up in Palestine, a Texas town that he says had its share of racism and sexism.

His family had a strong military tradition, and after graduating from the University of Oklahoma in 1963, Hopkins was expected to fulfill his obligations to the military. Though he wasn’t a conscientious objector, he told the military he wouldn’t carry a weapon. He served as an administrator in military hospitals at Fort Hood and a small medieval village in France called Chinon.

History had been his major in college, but it was an intellectual interest, not a deep-seated passion. In Chinon-the most perfectly preserved medieval village in France-he became enraptured with European history. After leaving the military, he studied at the University of Texas at Austin, spending a year at Cambridge University in England before getting his doctorate at UT. In 1972, he returned to Europe to serve as chairman of the history department of the London Study Center of Schiller College.

“I was living in England,” Hopkins says. “I had to make a decision-to become an expatriate or come back to the U. S. And if I came back to the U. S., I had to decide whether to come back to Texas. Suddenly. I realized the piece that was missing from my life was that recommitment of my life to this part of the world. I felt that coming back to Texas would be a chance to turn my own background to use as a teacher.”

He joined the SMU faculty in 1974. Since then, he has received numerous teaching awards. In 1978, he founded SMU-in-Oxford, which is SMU’s largest international program. His film on nuclear issues won the top prize in the current events category of the 1983 New York International Film and TV Festival. He spent last year working in the SMU-in-Madrid program, where he continued work on his second book.

“One of my great joys here is that I can talk to a kid from Grand Saline or Paris [Texas] and introduce him to books and ideas that will widen his life,” Hopkins says.

While Hopkins doesn’t expect all students to see eye to eye with him on political issues such as Central America, he often is surprised at how little appreciation for the feminist movement he finds among SMU female students. Divorced and remarried, he says his support for women’s rights started in 1963, when his first wife told him she dropped a French class because they were getting married and she didn’t need it. Hopkins was appalled. They agreed from that point on that she would not curtail her studies. She eventually received her master’s degree in library science; he began studying women’s history. His first book was about Joanna Southcott, an English woman in the 18th century. He was an early supporter of women’s rights activists like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan.

“I guess teaching (women’s studies) is an act of expiation,” Hopkins says. “I’m doing penance for growing up in East Texas. At the very least, I’d like to see a modest sense of appreciation for what those women did.”

Dr. William May


LOVE AND DEATH. IF UNIVERSITY STUDENTS THINK about the meaning of these two subjects it is most often because they’ve been to a Woody Allen film festival, not because they attend a class dedicated to exploring ultimate questions.

Dr. William May is out to change that. His senior-level capstone course at SMU is called “Human Meaning and Value in Personal Life.” Academic jargon aside, what that means is the study of the ethics of love, work, suffering, and death-universal subjects that often get ignored in the pursuit of intellectual knowledge, except perhaps in the remote corner of the philosophy department-a corner most university students assiduously avoid.

“We must link knowledge with virtue,” May says. “They [university students] are the new ruling class. It’s terrible to bestow that power without the ability to reflect on the uses of that power. Especially in America, we tend to think of a college education as a student’s accomplishment, instead of their trust. The problem of the modern university is not to turn out mere careerists, but people who will stand for something.”

May is not a member of any SMU department; he holds a university-wide chair in ethics that allows him to cross departmental barriers. In addition to the personal ethics course, he co-teaches a professional ethics class in the business school. Internationally known, he writes and lectures extensively on business and medical ethics.

Daily headlines show that the country’s future businessmen sorely need to take ethics seriously, he says. “Business has a privileged place in society, and an enormous veto power over it,” May says. “Is their sole moral principle simply to maximize profits? That’s what Milton Friedman says. I believe that along with that special status goes a special responsibility.”

Former SMU provost Hans Hillerbrand and SMU president Donald Shields conspired to woo May from the Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. chair in Christian ethics at Georgetown University in 1985. This semester marks his second year at SMU. May says he was attracted to the newly endowed position because of what he perceived as SMU’s commitment to ensuring that all students study ethics at some point before they graduate. While some universities integrate ethics in various areas of study, May says he doesn’t know of any other schools in the country that have created a university-wide chair solely to promote the study of values.

The study of ethics helps students get beyond the “how” questions to the “why” questions, May says. He started asking “why” questions at sixteen, shortly before he left his Houston home to study at Princeton. Primed for a career in law and politics, May had starred as a debater; he and his partner won the state debating championship when they were seniors. But a week before he was to leave for Princeton, his beloved debating coach died.

“The suddenness of it made me think how arbitrary life was,” May says. “It raised the religious question. It posed for me the question of what you could take seriously in life. So I began to read Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, and Reinhold Niebuhr.”

After graduating with a degree in history, May, an ordained Presbyterian minister, became the pastor of a small church in Oklahoma. “This town was exactly like the town in The Last Picture Show” he says. The experience confirmed that he wanted to pursue religious studies, so when the summer was over, he enrolled at Yale Divinity School. (He met his wife, Beverly, while working in summer stock during his Yale years. She is an “Obie”winning actress.)

Though he rarely preaches today, a little of the pulpit comes through in class. Tall, with silver-blond hair, he uses his hands and body to get his points across; when discussing the myth of Sisyphus, he groans and “rolls” a rock up an incline, only to have it roll back. The deep voice is expressive, at times somewhat like a locomotive, gaining such momentum and enthusiasm that interrupting might seem an act of courage.

’’One of my difficulties as a teacher is that I’m a lecturer,’1 May says. “I’ve been speaking in public since I was thirteen years old. I have to consciously shift gears. And many SMU students are socially poised, but not verbally self-confident. Fora lot of them, it is a big move from expressing their opinions in private to arguing them in public.”

In addition to classroom teaching, May also develops conferences on ethics; a one-day seminar on the media and ethics was held at SMU in October. He also meets with small groups of faculty from different departments within the school to discuss values and ethics in their fields.

Dr. William Babcock. associate professor at Perkins School of Theology, says many faculty members were perplexed and a little suspicious when May was hired. “It was like. “Why do we need some moralist hanging around, telling us to be moral all the time?’” Babcock says. “But whenever he has actually met with people on the faculty, the response has always been enthusiastic and favorable. He has disarmed that suspicion.”