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Vassar Encyclopedia

An online work in progress under the direction of Vassar’s College Historian

W. K. Rose and “The Art of Reading and Writing”

When I was preparing to come to Vassar as an instructor in English in 1965, my dissertation director mentioned a friend in the Vassar department. W. K. Rose, the editor of the letters of Wyndham Lewis, and at work on a study of, as Lewis called them, “the men of 1914”—modernist writers in London in the early 20thcentury—was somebody from whom I might learn much. In particular, Rose might help as I ventured into the field of textual scholarship with my dissertation topic—an edition of previously uncollected prose by W. B. Yeats. Rose was furthermore, my director said, a versatile critic and a witty and worldly man.

We want our students to grow in their power to interpret and use language as a part of their understanding.
Bill Rose

Bill Rose was all of that, and he proved to be a generous colleague. He also was a uniquely compelling, innovative teacher. From my first days at the college, I heard over and over about Bill’s ability in the classroom, particularly his approach to writing—not only for students who might become English majors but also for almost every student who came under his influence. I’ve forgotten who, but somebody told me, admiringly, that Bill could equally help the future biologist, the nascent classicist or economist or a student who might one day become a poet to “find her own voice,” that is, to develop a genuine written response to her own experience, intellectual or personal. A few years later, in a “memorial minute” for the faculty, two departmental colleagues, Susan Turner and Caroline Mercer, and his friend the philosopher Garret VanderVeer addressed the specific qualities of Bill’s teaching. “His was the imagination,” they said, “that Wordsworth called ‘a feeling intellect….’ He did much to define and deepen [the department’s] philosophy and to invent new teaching forms in which this philosophy could be expressed…. He believed in the study of literature in depth, achieved through maintaining a close connection between the forms of literature and their human and social and historical contexts, and through enabling students to see what it is to make a form out of raw experience themselves…. All his students felt in him a concern and respect for them, which…helped them to develop self-knowledge and self-respect…. He taught them…to say quite directly what they saw in their lives, to enlarge their views, to develop imagination and to use language for authentic comment.”

We want our students to grow in their power to interpret and use language as a part of their understanding.

The philosophy they spoke of dated back to a revolutionary period in the history of the Vassar faculty—the sixteen months between the departure in February 1914 of Vassar’s fourth president, James Monroe Taylor, and the inauguration of his successor, Henry Noble MacCracken, in the spring of 1915. Hailed at his retirement as the college’s “second founder,” in his last years Taylor was nonetheless at odds with more progressive ideas among the alumnae, the student body and his own faculty on such key subjects as student and faculty governance, woman suffrage and the relation of collegiate education to social issues. Somewhat surprisingly, the trustees gave responsibility for all academic matters during this presidential interval to the faculty, under the leadership of Professor of Economics Herbert E. Mills. Mills, Professor of History Lucy Maynard Salmon and other faculty leaders seized their interim duties eagerly as Mills indicated in an article the following April in The Vassar Miscellany,entitled “A Unique Year at Vassar: Faculty Activities and College Ideals.” “In all of the twenty-five years of my connection with the College,” he wrote, “being just half of its existence, I do not remember another year of such vigorous intellectual life of the Faculty, of such earnest consideration of vital problems and of such educational progress.”

The educational progress in the English department was largely the work of two remarkable women who, moving aside inherited methods and models, created a department hailed by a colleague as “quite without parallel…in the field of American college English teaching.” A Vassar graduate in the Class of 1877, in 1894 Laura Johnson Wylie had been among the first group of women to receive the PhD. from Yale, and Gertrude Buck, the first American to receive, in 1898, the PhD. in composition-rhetoric, held three degrees from the University of Michigan.

Four innovations marked the model conceived and implemented by Wylie and Buck: consideration of the departmental faculty as a democratic entity within the college; a focus on the essential relationship of literature to experience and, through that relationship, to society; recognition of the central importance of individual students’ experiences; and an overriding “conception of the field of English as a single territory of art and scholarship,” as Katherine Warren ’89 recalled in 1924, the year of Wylie’s retirement. The “branches” of this conception, Warren said, “were not separate, but were different aspects or approaches to experience, emphasizing one or another element without detaching it from the rest.“ In short, recognition of the single, unified “Art of Reading and Writing,” the course that Bill Rose taught throughout his Vassar career, that he tried to help me learn to teach and that still exists—certainly in name—in today’s Vassar curriculum.

In the fall of 1965 Bill was an associate professor and the director of the fundamental freshman English course, English 105-106, “The Art of Reading and Writing,” two sections of which—along with a section of 205-206, the intermediate writing course—made up my first year’s teaching assignment. In 1965-66, Bill was offering a special studies course, “Ezra Pound and the Beginnings of Modern Poetry,” drawing upon his ongoing research into “the men of 1914,” and he was teaching for the eighth time, the contemporary novel seminar of the senior course in “Studies in Language, Writing or Literature.” Bill was also teaching a section of English 105, “The Art of Reading and Writing,” as he had every year since he’d come to the college.

Bill came to Vassar in 1953, after receiving his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford and his PhD. from Cornell. Among his undergraduate teachers were the commanding critic and poet Yvor Winters, the distinguished Renaissance scholar Hoyt Hudson and the legendarily sharp-tongued Margery Bailey, renowned also as a teacher of composition. His teachers at Cornell included the literary theorist M. H. Abrams, the literary historian and critic David Daiches, the literary biographer Arthur Mizener and another influential teacher of writing, William M. Sale.

The class notebooks, reading lists and undergraduate and graduate writing in Bill Rose’s papers in Vassar’s Special Collections Library reveal the growth and direction of his ideas about literature, about personal experience and about pedagogy. In essays on, among others, Walter Scott, Aldous Huxley, Charles Dickens, Thackeray, George Meredith, Emily Bronte, Ben Jonson and Shakespeare, one finds, along with obvious powers of observation and precision of expression, an almost restless variety in the forms and approaches his papers take—along with a high degree of self-confidence. In an essay written in January 1943 comparing Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence with Ellen Glasgow’s They Stooped to Folly, the 19-year-old writer commends Edith Wharton to Yvor Winters: “No discussion of Mrs. Wharton’s work,” he writes, “can pass without at least a word of praise for the excellent use of the English language. Few American writers have written with more clarity and conciseness.” The young critic then offers “two minor criticisms of The Age of Innocence. First of all I disliked the author’s unnecessary use of contrivance to precipitate an action when the social conditions she has taken such pains to paint would have forced the action regardless. Secondly, I thought the last twenty pages inconsequential and unartistic. We know how things will be after Ellen departs for the last time, and we know the society of the city was destined to undergo a transformation. Thus, this epilogue seems totally unwarranted.” Conceding that its faults don’t outweigh the merits of Wharton’s novel, Bill still wants to help make it better.

In a paper on Meredith’s Diana of the Crossways, written for William Sale, Bill compares the plotting with that in the dramas of Racine, with a qualification: “But in a way, Racine’s problem was simpler, for the drama, as he conceived it, was distinctly an art form, imposing clearly defined conditions on his material and working in a more remote level of reality than that which is suitable for prose fiction.” Such forays into the shape and construction of a work and into his own responses drew mixed reactions from his instructors. In the margins of a lengthy appreciation of Bleak House that praised Dickens’s ability to take “as his compass a large segment of human behavior,” to concern “himself with basic moral and social problems” and to “depict human beings in their most vital and their most insignificant moments”—all despite the author’s “flagrant Victorian misconceptions”— an exasperated Professor Sale, asks “but what is the subject of the novel?” And Professor Winters awarded a C to an essay, “The Wooded Hills,” which spoke of Bill’s “feelings” about the short novels of Melville and which awarded them the image of “wooded hills,” pleasurable in themselves when not observed in the same landscape as that “Everest” of books, the one about the whale.

Also in the Vassar files, between “In Bondage,” another essay for Winters on Ellen Glasgow’s novel—bearing the grade A- —and one on Sidney’s “Astrophel and Stella” for Hoyt Hudson—another A- and bearing the comment: “Shows very intelligent reading and good critical sense”—we find a vivid pastiche, a reportorial account entitled “B-Day and After,” in which Bill playfully tackles the relationship between books, critics, authors and their public by imagining the social effects when a Congressional failure to approve a new annex for the overflowing Library of Congress results in a year-long national ban on the publication or importation of all books. Other of Bill’s fictive pieces in the papers he preserved include some stories written for Margery Bailey’s classes at Stanford and at least two attempts to blend literary criticism with novel forms. An undated essay for Hoyt Hudson entitled, “Conversation Piece (A Contrast of Aristotle’s and Horace’s Views on the Content and Technique of Poetry),” is a deft and subtle dialogue, conducted in a “beer hall.” The reader meets “Eruditus”—“wearing a black scholar’s cap and gown. There is, however, nothing sombre about his appearance. His thin lips, finely hewn nose and searching gray-blue eyes give him an air of intelligence and distinction. Despite his high forehead and the few hoary hairs that show below the cap, we detect the keenness of a young mind in his appearance.” His Horatian dialogist, a proclaimed poet, is “Mr. Lyremaster”—“in a dark business suit. He is considerably shorter and more corpulent. He seems more self-satisfied and less alert than Eruditus—but appearances are often deceiving. His eyes sparkle, but they do not search.”Hudson’s notation on the essay’s first page, “A, Excellent” is countered with Bill’s note on the back of the last page: “I am sorry this is so late, but I got into several almost unavoidable difficulties in writing it.”

At Cornell, Bill investigated another dialogic approach to poetry in a “collective analysis” of Thomas Hardy’s poem, “The Five Students,” prepared for Meyer Abrams. Bearing in mind, he noted, I. A. Richards’s dichotomy between “sense” and “feeling” in mind, his main interest in the joint effort was in its method. “In preparing this essay in collective analysis,” Bill wrote, “I submitted the poem…with a set of questions to—appropriately enough—five students. Thus, the work of analysis in the discussion that follows is, for the most part, not mine. My contribution has been only that of the synthesist, and the analysis is mine only insofar as my evaluation of the various reactions to the poem has affected the synthesis…. The intent of the paper is rather to record the result of an experiment in group analysis undertaken for the purpose of discovering the usefulness of such a method and of satisfying the writer’s curiosity concerning the problems involved in such a project.”

Bill Rose found the innovative English curriculum devised by Wylie, Buck and their colleagues alive and well when he came to Vassar. The diverse forms and approaches explored in his undergraduate and graduate years could hardly have found a more fruitful climate in which to take root than in what had become traditional pedagogy in the Vassar English department. In addressing a question around 1957 as to whether the goal of education was “knowledge” or “social adjustment,” he quoted Caroline Mercer ‘29, the department’s chair (and a freshman at Vassar in 1925, the year after Laura Wylie retired): “’The program in English is designed to teach students to understand literature and composition as an art existing in a social context. We want our students to grow in their power to interpret and use language as a part of their understanding.’ Or,” Bill continued, “as one of my freshmen wrote in her English 105 examination last week: ‘Art is not a distant and abstract part of our lives that only concerns us when we wish to be entertained, but it is a vital expression of our daily experiences.’ English 105,” he added, “is…a good example of the way education as an art, in this case the art of reading and writing, works to create the kind of knowledge that will provide for social adjustment.”

Bill’s commitment to this concept was evident across the range of courses he taught in the department between 1953 and his death in 1968. An undated set of manuscript notes headed “Teaching of English at Vassar”—presumably notes for an address—begins with a summary description: “Teaching of English at Vassar is not notable for experiments of the kind that make the New York Times. We haven’t introduced structural linguistics or teaching machinery or even courses in Myth and Ego from Chaucer to Updike. Rather, we’ve been able to keep our curriculum and our teaching flexible by following certain principles that we believe are essential to an education in the liberal arts and more specifically to our discipline. No one tries to spell out these principles, but they can be pretty clearly recognized in the kinds of assumptions that underlie them. We assume that one learns by doing, that the student is both an individual and a member of society, that it is more important to develop qualities of accuracy, sensibility, imagination, insight than to store up any body of knowledge. More particularly, we assume that reading, writing and thinking are intimately connected facets of one art, whose medium is language.” Bill goes on here to describe the diverse elements of his current 105 class, agreed on by the student participants. The uses of literature were studied through recorded comments of common people, contemporary short fiction, ballads, short papers on Woman’s Day and “a longer project in mass media.” “As you see,” he wrote, “there is a thematic link but that’s not so important as the different kinds of experience they’re getting—the sense of relationship between writer and his material and reader and his material.”

Whether in the construction of his annual section of English 105-106, the meticulous design of his senior seminar in the contemporary novel as Bill described it in the Vassar Alumnae Magazine in 1955 or his revival a decade later of the Vassar Journal of Undergraduate Studies, after over two decades of near-neglect, Bill’s commitment to an engagement with students’ experience through the art of reading and writing guided his work at Vassar. Students’ responses to his teaching demonstrate a keen recognition of its unique qualities. A member of the Class of 1959 who had been Bill’s student in the narrative writing course in her sophomore year, recalled shortly after his death, “I remember vividly Mr. Rose’s tact—after all, he was guiding us in a sensitive subject in which we sought to express ourselves—often melodramatically but always sincerely. He was forever generous in imparting his knowledge, which was great. He was disciplined but never rigid. Most of all I remember his humor. I remember all these things. I always will.” As will others of us who learned from him.

Colton Johnson