Men for All Seasons: Williams College's Bell and Shepard

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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., Feb. 14, 2001 — “Some of the essays are philosophical, some heart-wrenching, some humorous, some ruminative, some just plain quirky” says Sarah Ban Breathnach of the essays by men “on what it means to be a man today” in her latest book, “A Man’s Journey to Simple Abundance.”

The collection includes essays that are all of these things by two members of the Williams College faculty, Professor of English Robert H. Bell and J. Leland Miller Professor of American History, Literature, and Eloquence James R. Shepard.

Bell’s essay, “A Professor for All Seasons,” reflects on his experience teaching at Williams and the role that a teacher plays in his or her students’ lives. Starting with his early days of teaching as a young professor and progressing to the present, Bell reflects on the effort of teaching and in doing so illustrates the qualities that make a teacher memorable.

“I want to convey the fun of reading, thinking, dramatizing, revising, correcting, speculating. I enjoy it every bit as much now as I did in 1972, when I would finish one class and immediately begin daydreaming about the next,” writes Bell. Each class, be it next week, next semester, or next year, is “like another visit to Narnia, except that grown-ups can return, perhaps less intoxicated, histrionic, and humorous but more productive, happier, and wiser.”

Bell adds, “Like an athlete, a teacher must adapt, refine his craft, compensate for attributes that diminish or disappear…” Bell concludes the essay with a reference to Ted Williams, “the greatest old hitter in baseball history,” and Bell’s childhood hero. His ultimate goal: “I’d love to be known as one of Williams College’s great old teachers. It’s something to shoot for.”

This love of teaching and constant refinement has earned Bell a reputation of excellence among teachers and students alike. At Williams since 1972, Bell has won multiple awards for excellence, including the national Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teachers in 1998. From 1994-99, he held the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professorship, an interdiscplinary professorship awarded to professors “whose enthusiasm for learning, commitment to teaching, and interest in students will make a notable contribution to the undergraduate community.” During this time, he also founded the Williams College Project for Effective Teaching, providing support and teacher instruction for faculty new to the college.

Bell is an active scholar and critic, author of “Jocoserious Joyce: The Fate of Folly in Ulysses,” “Critical Essays on Kingley Amis,” and many articles on 18th century British literature. He has served as editor-in-chief of the Berkshire Review. He received his B.A. from Dartmouth in 1967 and his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1972.

Shepard’s essay, “They Killed Our Fathers and Grandfathers and Now the Sonsabitches Are Coming for Us,” discusses his lifelong allegiance to the Minnesota Vikings and how that fanaticism has colored his life. On the one hand, it has been a handbook for understanding the loss that is inextricably a part of life. On the other, this borderline obsession has been a delightfully immature, albeit painful, way to allow simple pain to stand in for confronting life’s larger dissatisfactions.

“The Vikings over the last thirty years have been an encyclopedic workshop on losing — the cosmos taking me by the hand and murmuring, Here are all the ways of getting beat. And here are all the ways of getting through it,” Shepard writes. He recounts the story of his first year of devotion to the Vikings as a thirteen-year-old boy: “Time was slipping away, along with the Vikings season, and I was going to have to witness it all. I had to do something…. I threw myself down the stairs.”

Shepard recognizes the importance of this obsession in that, “Learning about losing…is not a bad way to begin learning about loss.” However, he also realizes that there is “something more dysfunctional, and pitiable, however necessary, going on” in his devotion. Whether it is self-punishment, or indulgent immaturity he is not sure, but what he is sure of is that the greatest tragedy of all is not that these obsessions are, as his title puts it, “coming for us,” but that “we keep inviting them in.”

Though still a Vikings devotee, Shepard is also a critically acclaimed novelist, the author of “Nosferatu,” “Kiss of the Wolf,” ” Lights out in the Reptile House,” “Paper Doll,” and “Flights.” He has won a number of awards for his fiction, as well as the Nelson Bushnell Prize awarded by Williams College for a faculty member whose “practice in writing and in teaching conforms notably to standards of good usage.”

Shepard has been at Williams since 1983, after lecturing at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor for three years. He teaches courses in fiction writing, contemporary American short fiction, and film. He received his B.A. from Trinity College and his M.F.A. from Brown University.

The collection of essays is a new release in the best-selling Simple Abundance series by Sarah Ban Breathnach, which focuses on basic principles of gratitude, simplicity, order, harmony, beauty, and joy in the search for the “authentic self.” While previous Simple Abundance books have been primarily aimed towards women readers, this newest addition seeks to expand these principles into the context of men’s lives through a series of original essays which the Publisher’s Weekly magazine says “succeed remarkably well in depicting men’s feelings and complexity.”

Michael Segell, Williams Class of ’73, edited the book. Segell has worked as columnist and contributing editor for Esquire. Twice nominated for National Magazine Awards, he has contributed to Rolling Stone, Time, Sports Illustrated, and The New York Times. Segell is currently a columnist for MSNBC and the New York Daily News.

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