This University Was Like a College to Me
“Umm. Dad. It’s not a problem,” I said. [Pause.] “I mean, we drank it.” I pondered adding this: people I’ve never met came to a party that I threw in your apartment and drank your expensive Scotch when we ran out of cheap beer and mixers. But I refrained.
And that was it. With a bunch of strangers enjoying the glittering view, and only one minor noise complaint, Murray Dry’s semester as a visiting professor in the Government department and tenant of the top floor of the Mather House high-rise was over. We had both survived.
That he called the state police to find out whether I could, at age 20, legally drive a previously-opened container of alcohol across state lines, is a pretty good example of his passion for the law. That’s what he taught here, actually: a lecture course in American constitutional law and a seminar on the First Amendment.
That this is the story I recall best from the whole semester is a good example of the fact that I didn’t get it then. For me, the main part of my dad’s coming to college with me was telling people that he lived in Mather (still kind of funny, actually). The teaching part seemed secondary. I also didn’t really believe he could do it. Though he has taught at Middlebury College, a small liberal arts college in Middlebury, Vermont, for 36 years and has a huge following of devoted former students, I didn’t think it would work here. I doubted that cynical, overbooked Harvard students could be forgiving enough of his lapses in organization or see past his often ambiguous relationship to the end of his allotted lecture time slot to savor his unbridled enthusiasm for his subject.
Nearly 60 people, however, took his lecture course. He learned everyone’s name. He called on them in class whether they were prepared or not and insisted on grading all the student papers himself, in addition to a teaching fellow grading them. He gave two separate review sessions himself before the final and often ate dinner in the dining halls with students. What he did not do was learn to give a typical Harvard lecture. It is difficult to outline his lectures, as they often wander away into rich tangential territory; his teaching moments are not easily pegged to Roman numeral-ed exposition.
But despite stubbornly doing things his way and not the Harvard way, including making his seminar an hour longer than the standard time, he developed a core group of fans here.
I talked with some fellow seniors who took his class last spring to find out how it compared to the rest of the fare over our four years here. They loved it, they worked hard, he was tragically disorganized, but he obviously cared more than any professor they’d ever had. The Murray Dry experience was a unique one, and positive too, at least for the most part. I read some of his CUE guide evaluations to get a more representative sample. The best comment conveys a sort of touching tableau, albeit one that was quite frustrating for the student. The person wrote: “Professor Dry is probably an outstanding professor at a small college like Middlebury. However, his style was not exactly adaptive to Harvard. Lectures tried to incorporate students and became random, disorganized, and rambling. In fact, he is lecturing as we fill out the CUE guides right now…Random. Seems like ranting.”
I like this image. He would have been flushed and talking quickly, having not yet imparted all he had hoped. Even though he was supposed to have left the room while everyone dutifully bubbled in their evaluations, the students were getting one last burst of constitutional law. It is the same enthusiasm that keeps his syllabi twice as long as what he can practically cover. “There’s just so much rich material,” he says, even though he has taught the same material for 36 years.
I didn’t have a teacher like my dad at Harvard. I purposely avoided his own class, of course, but I also managed to avoid getting to know a professor as well as my dad knows his students. This, to me, originally meant that I had failed in a major way to have a key college experience. It’s kind of a long list of failings, actually, in terms of not living up to the Middlebury model of collegiate perfection that has been ingrained in my mind since childhood. I did not:
Develop interest in an unpronounceable Scandinavian rock band and play its music with obsessive frequency on the college radio station.
Sled down a student-made luge course on a dining hall tray.
Make a luge course.
Frolic in the carefree wonder of my youth.
Throw or catch a Frisbee.
Eat lasagna at the home of one of my professors.
The rest of it I could give or take, but I was hoping for the lasagna. My parents have students over for a lasagna dinner at our house every year, and it always seemed like that was an important part of undergraduate education: Italian food and close mentorship. Because I basically got neither at Harvard, I thought this was a major fault of the whole endeavor. My vision of what college was supposed to be was totally shaped by my impressions of my dad and his students. Anything different from that was imperfect. That was before my dad came to college with me, though.
I couldn’t have taken his course here. Or I would have done very badly in it if I had tried. Because if I had wanted the full assault of Murray Dry-style student-faculty interaction, I would have had to prioritize reading constitutional law above everything else. Otherwise, what would I have said to him in office hours or over lunch or when he called on me by name unannounced in a 60-person lecture class? I liked being able to pick something else, being anonymous enough in lecture to spend time somewhere other than the library the night before.
What my dad’s semester here taught me was that unlike Middlebury, say, where the undergraduate experience is arguably more uniform, the college experience at Harvard didn’t mean having a series of fairly common formative experiences and wearing a lot of polar fleece. It meant choosing carefully. So I missed out on lasagna. It’s okay. I have my mother’s recipe. Besides, I don’t think my parents serve Scotch at those parties anyway.
Rachel E. Dry ’04, a history and literature concentrator in Quincy House, was The Crimson’s magazine editor in 2003.