Student Life | The independent newspaper of Washington University in St. Louis since 1878

Wash. U. professor joins prestigious national council for the humanities

Courtesy of Alexandra Kirchherr

Gerald Early and Chancellor Mark Wrighton attend last April’s ceremony honoring Early with a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame. In November, Early was sworn into the National Council on the Humanities.

At least President Obama has heard of Washington University.

Gerald Early, the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters at Washington University, was officially sworn into the National Council on the Humanities (NCH) on Nov. 14.

Early, along with the four other new additions to the council, were nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed by Congress. The council, which is made up of 26 members, meets three times a year in Washington, D.C., to review grant applications and consult with the chairmen of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), of which the NCH is a part.

It is not the first time in recent years Early has received recognition for his renowned social criticism on topics ranging from American literature to baseball; this past April, he was awarded a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.

Early explained that the process of joining the NEH was set into motion more than a year ago, when he received a phone call from a White House lawyer, who informed him of Obama’s interest in nominating him. The lawyer explained that in order to join the council, Early would have to go through a confirmation process.

“So I said, ‘What does that entail?’ and she said, ‘Well you have to have an FBI background check, and [we’ll] send you a bunch of forms. We have to investigate you…and the Senate has to approve your nomination,’” Early said. “I said, ‘OK, fine, I’ll give it a whirl.’”

The confirmation process, however, was much more intrusive than Early had anticipated. Included in the process were FBI agents interviewing him, his neighbors and his colleagues at the University, and Early was also asked to provide his tax returns from the last five years.

Despite the strenuous confirmation process, Early thought it was worth the opportunity to sit on the council.

“I’m very excited that it gives me the chance to advocate for the humanities with the federal government,” he said. “It’s not that easy to convince politicians or the public to give public money to the humanities. You need people to constantly advocate for this.”

Early believes the chance to sit on the council is especially significant for the University.

“I think it’s really important for Wash. U. for one of our faculty to be involved in advocating for the humanities on a national forum. I think it’s an important job in that regard,” Early said.

Vice Chancellor for Students Sharon Stahl agreed that Early’s new position will benefit Washington University.

“He’s an extraordinary scholar, and this honor brings recognition not just to the University in general but also to our students,” she said. “I can imagine this would be particularly exciting for the undergraduates he works with personally as well as students in his classes.

“I don’t think they could have chose a better person. Professor Early is such an accomplished scholar and leader in the humanities department—not just here, but nationally,” Stahl added.

In terms of convincing a sometimes unwilling public to support the humanities, as part of his duties on the council, Early hopes to help cities across America organize festival days dedicated to the humanities, such as the Chicago Humanities Festival.

“I would like to see a lot of cities to do stuff like that…to make the public more aware of humanities and [show] how humanities is an important part of people’s lives in many ways,” Early said.

Senior and humanities student Olivia Cosentino believes it is encouraging to see the nation taking more interest in the humanities and feels it is well deserved.

“I’m glad to see Wash. U. recognized as an excellent institution for the study of humanities instead of being touted as a university that prides itself on its scientific research,” she said.

The question on everyone’s minds: did Early meet Obama or at least get to talk to him on the phone?

“I have never met him—I was shocked that he even knew I was alive,” Early said. “I don’t know why he chose me along with the other four people. None of us have met him.”

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  • Take Anything Else says:

    Based on my experience, this man shouldn’t be elevated to positions of prominence. I majored in English, and his class “The Golden Age of Children’s Literature” was one of the worst classes I’ve ever taken, due entirely to his teaching methods.

    He had regular reading quizzes that included ridiculously detailed questions that, as a close reader, I had difficulty remembering (“on page 57, what color is Bartholomew’s scarf” kind of thing). He was completely disengaged from the class; he never bothered to learn anyone’s name, and for the entirety of the semester, if we had any questions, we were to communicate with his secretary. Discussion was absent from his class, as was anything resembling critical analysis, and student participation and independent thought were actively stymied.

    The final exam (which, for a 300 level English class, is itself eyebrow-raising) was appalling. Grading rationale contradicted questions; for example, one asked students to “briefly, in 3-5 sentences, explain x in y novel.” After I received unsatisfactory marks – despite answering the question correctly and its entirety – I spoke with Professor Early, and he patiently explained that, because other students had written more, and vomited more information, it would be unfair to give me the same amount of points, even though, as he admitted, I had fully answered the question. The rest of the grading system was similarly infuriating.

    Maybe Professor Early has accomplished great things outside of the classroom. But his reputation belies his atrocious teaching ability, and students looking for potential classes shouldn’t let themselves be fooled by the myriad accolades heaped upon him. As an alum, one of my greatest regrets from WashU is that I wasted 3 credits in his classroom.

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