On Friday, a classroom of students and their professor left Paradise.
Sappy, but let me explain. We were reading Milton’s Paradise Lost in Renaissance Literature with professor Herman Asarnow. Many of us were melancholy because it was the last English class in our four year stint at UP. But as evidenced by the chocolate cake and cookies passed around, as well as the raucous applause at the end of the lesson, we were all emotional that it was Asarnow’s last English class in his 35 year marathon as a professor.
We held it together. Chocolate cake, Milton, and textual analysis.
But then Asarnow decided we should closely analyze this passage:
“Then wilt thou not be loath / To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess / A paradise within thee, happier far” (Milton 12.585-587).
“Don’t you see, life is all Hamlet, everywhere you step!” he exclaimed, referring to the creation of a state of being inside the mind, taking the opportunity once again to drop a Hamlet reference, making us all a bit loath to leave this classroom paradise.
Damn it, damn it, damn it.
We held it together. Then I went home and cried.
It may seem trite to compare an English classroom to paradise, and even inaccurate when you’re sweating through an exam or a class discussion you haven’t prepared for. But when I think about the mood in my English classes at UP, Milton’s paradise is the best comparison I can find (though Rowling’s Hogwarts takes a close second). This welcoming environment is in large part owed to the passion Asarnow has for English.
“Humans, no matter what their view of life, understand life through narrative and through language. And so the studying of how people use language, all the ways we structure it, is a very important way of understanding what it is to be human,” Asarnow said. “No measurements, no social science, there’s nothing that can replace that. Narrative is central to what we are.”
Asarnow will be retiring with his wife, psychology professor Susan Baillet. While he still enjoys being with students, he said now is a good time to retire as he’s enjoying the labor part of the work less. He still plans on writing, but is also eager to learn how to play the baroque recorder with other people, improve on speaking Spanish and French, and figure out a way to get Bozzie, his West Highland Terrier, to England without a crate (The latest idea is for Bozzie to ride along on a friend’s private jet and meet Asarnow and Baillet on the other side).
Professor Molly Hiro, chair of the English department, compares Asarnow to “the architect of this department,” explaining that Asarnow, who served as department chair three different times, has brought a culture of welcoming to faculty and students.
As part of the hiring committee, Asarnow helped build the English full-time faculty from three to nine. He’s developed the department’s Reading and Lecture series as well as created the Northwest Undergraduate Conference on Literature. But it’s not just the department size or the language he cares about. It’s the people.
“It’s changed,” Asarnow said of being a professor. “It used to be that it was about the subject, I just couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I still feel that way in some ways. But it became, as a surprise, also about being a part of students’ lives, being a constructive part of somebody else’s life, and realizing I had an ability to do that. It’s a great honor.”
I think it’s telling that when asked about a memory of Asarnow, both Hiro and professor John Orr recalled the moment they first met him: during the hiring process.
“He and I just immediately clicked,” Orr said of his interview with Asarnow in 1992 that took place in a New York City hotel room at the MLA conference. During the interview, he said he and Asarnow got excited about starting a course centered around big messy books. At one point, Asarnow had Orr look out the hotel window to see the apartment building where his mother lived in New Jersey. “It felt really comfortable, just in that situation, which is not a very comfortable situation,” Orr said.
Orr has worked with Asarnow 21 years, the longest of the English faculty. After Asarnow leaves, Orr points out he’ll be the oldest member of the department, something he said he’ll never forgive Asarnow for. He adds he’ll miss the bickering relationship he and Asarnow have developed.
“I don’t have a brother so I don’t know what it’s like to be in a relationship like that, but I kind of imagine it’s like my relationship with Herman. There are times where I’m kind of awed by something he’s done, there are times I want to kill him,” Orr said. “But I also know, and I think this is something people need to remember about Herman: he is a very giving person, a good-natured person.”
UP was on Hiro’s list of top schools she wanted to work at, yet this didn’t stop Asarnow from passionately trying to sell her on UP, Portland, and the students.
“He doesn’t hold back,” Hiro said. “It just shows how even though I would have probably begged for this job, he was concerned and worried and trying to do everything he could think of to make me want to come here.”
Now serving as chair of the English department, Hiro said that Asarnow has been one of her biggest supporters and mentors.
“He is just so totally and deeply devoted to his individual students, to this department, to his colleagues,” Hiro said. “I do think that this has been his devotion.”
Not only does Asarnow welcome prospective faculty, but also prospective students. When he was department chair, he would write personal notes on every declared English major’s acceptance letter, welcoming them to UP.
I too felt welcomed by this relentless passion Asarnow has for his students.
The summer before freshman year, I wanted to be an English major. But because I equated success with landing a job the day after graduation, I signed up for nursing. Everyone said it was more practical. Besides, my uncles would jocosely remind me, do you really want a venti cappuccino to go with that English major?
Still, I ordered my English 112 textbooks with more care (no damaged spines or watermarks for my Norton) than my other textbooks.
The first semester of college was miserable. I missed home, I was abysmal at making friends, I fainted in nursing class, I didn’t know what I wanted to be. But the Tuesdays and Thursdays spent in Asarnow’s classroom was the one place I felt like I belonged. For 85 minutes, Asarnow made stories come alive, and in doing so, made us come alive. He’d jump off tables, run laps around our tiered Franz classroom, yell, pound on desks, and impersonate the beast with two backs from Othello (to our horror and delight).
Even when our contributions to class discussion sounded like answers to SAT questions, he didn’t bemoan his fate as an instructor of self-assured high school graduates. “The theme of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is loneliness,” one of us might say, beaming like the clever college freshmen we believed ourselves to be. Instead of banging his head against the chalkboard, he’d tip 45 degrees in his chair and wave his arms, shouting encouragingly, “Ok! Then what?”
Asarnow never told me to change majors. But he was the first person who told me I was allowed to do it. He was the first person who gave me permission to believe that the thing I loved more than anything, literature, was valuable. He let an angst-y teenager talk his ear off in office hours about the existential question of getting a job versus fulfilling a passion. He’d lean back in his chair, one hand spinning his glasses as he’d rock back and forth, nodding, really listening. The moment I finally went to his office in November to tell him I was making the switch to the English major was like the moment in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when Harry arrives in the limbo reality of Kings Cross Station and is welcomed like a hero by a beaming Dumbledore. I felt like I was coming home.
I think welcoming people home is a theme of Asarnow’s teaching career, if I may be so bold as to conjecture on something I was only briefly a part of. In class discussions, Asarnow wanted us to feel welcome. If none of us immediately responded to a question he’d pose for discussion, he’d look up from his book, scan the room, take off his glasses and ask if we understood what the author was trying to say. “Do you get what’s going on here?” he’d ask, looking around the room. If not, he’d take to the air, arms spread like wings, hopping between empty chairs to act out a flying Satan looking down upon Paradise. Anything to make us feel welcome to the classroom, the discussion, or the page.
And isn’t that the point of literature, to be welcomed home by a story, by a sentence, by a word? Isn’t that the point of writing, to find an “Aha!” moment, a familiar place in the sea of the unfamiliar? Isn’t that the point of learning, to take information that used to be a distant whisper, and give it a place in your head, give it a home?
Asarnow helped me find a home, in the stories in my Norton anthology, in UP, and in this beautiful major that is English.
We didn’t leave our last English class hand in hand as Milton suggested. We simply opened the door and walked out, each going our solitary way.
But for some reason, I think I’m still there.