April 4th, 2005

Al Kelly: Professor Extraordinaire

A version of this blog post was submitted as a nomination for the Hamilton College Christian A. Johnson Professorship.

Last summer, as I struggled to concretize a proposal for a Watson or Bristol postgraduate fellowship, I knew there was one person whose guidance I needed. I had talked with others, but no one had this person’s ability to explain any subject I’d ever asked about with such clarity, conciseness, context and cogence. Add this to patience that never flags and a wit that never runs dry, and this is why I think of Al Kelly as a personal encyclopedia.

I showed up unannounced at his office one weekday, doubtless while he was hard at work on his own research. What made our meeting special is Professor Kelly’s consistent brilliance to immediately distill the essence of an issue. Since my passion for a fellowship far outran any specific ideas for it, we spent about an hour and a half clarifying the reason for and goals of my project. Not where I would travel, or what I would do, or how I would do it, but simply why. Surely, anybody else would have either given up or moved on after say 20 minutes, but here was Professor Kelly calmly, happily connecting disparate dots, drawing out the big picture, and raising points as important as they were seemingly hidden. He knew that without a sound foundation, I was dooming myself to failure.

Yet rather than condescend whatsoever—how, with his intelligence, he does this is extraordinary—Professor Kelly never interrupted but let me hold forth as I attempted to verbalize my thoughts. Only when I finished, as is his unique habit, did he reply, speaking slowly and humbly, choosing his words thoughtfully, and asking me pointed questions. When I left, he transformed my mental chaos into lucidity.

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When I returned to the Hill in the fall, having spent the summer interning at Time magazine, I decided to attend the first faculty meeting as a reporter for the Spectator. As one of maybe three separate students among maybe 150 professors, I entered the Events Barn with uncertainty. Then I spotted Al Kelly, holding court at the back of the room in his usual big chair. I breathed in relief, pulled up a seat and settled in. As the meeting proceeded, he explained some of the finer procedural points, and provided some funny human-interest anecdotes for my article. By next month’s meeting, it was as if I were a colleague.

In October the Spectator asked me to interview President Stewart about the coming presidential election. So I formulated a bunch of questions and then sought out Professor Kelly. I stopped by his office unannounced, and we spent 40 minutes ensuring that each question was relevant, distinct, compact and interesting. Forty minutes on what turned out to be 10 questions? Yes—and without checking his watch once. For unlike interviews I did for my column, this was my first interview to be printed as such, and since I’m an aspiring journalist, Professor Kelly knew it was crucial that I get it right.

Another indelible incident came a few months ago during the Susan Rosenberg affair. As I was weighing the competing arguments for Rosenberg’s appointment, I encountered Professor Kelly leaving the K-J building one night. I asked for his opinion, and in one crisp sentence he made explicit the fundamental principle at stake. I had had countless conversations about the controversy, but, again, Al Kelly was the only one who could simplify everything into a neat, small package.

He would engender another eureka moment for me during the Ward Churchill affair, but perhaps the most important one came during his European Intellectual History course, which I took as a junior. I had raised an objection to something he said, and in five words—“Watch your straw men, Jon”—he significantly altered my approach to scholarship. What this meant, he continued, was that although we all occasionally resort to weak or imaginary arguments, like straw, setup only to be summarily confuted, enlightened discourse proscribes such red herrings.

If this sounds simple, it is. Yet therein lies the beauty of this analysis, which, as is Professor Kelly’s wont, was at once readily comprehensible and crucially insightful. Indeed, his message embodied the goal of a liberal arts education: to further one’s knowledge not by expounding one’s own opinions but by understanding those of others. For this reason, I titled the column I would begin weeks later in the Spec, “No Straw Men.” Similarly, a few months later, I cited Professor Kelly’s exquisite monograph, Writing a Good History Paper, in an op-ed I wrote on journalism. He may be a historian by training, but his wisdom encompasses all disciplines.

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Of course, all the above points to Al Kelly the mentor; doesn’t this guy—the Edgar B. Graves Professor of History after all—teach? Excellently. Al Kelly is of the old school of pedagogy, which means that he sees students not as incubators for his personal politics, but as diverse minds to be filled with classic knowledge. Accordingly, Professor Kelly is an eminently reasonable grader, who I would trust above all others to assess my work fairly. For rather than privilege one’s conclusion, he focuses on the way by which one reaches them. Consequently, his courses are rigorous (to set the tempo, he assigns homework not after but for the first class); challenging (a thorough grasp of the course material is never enough; students must make connections among and outside them); and thorough (you can’t cut any corners for an Al Kelly paper).

Indeed, class with Professor Kelly makes me believe that I’m getting my $35,000 worth of yearly tuition. I come away feeling enlivened and empowered, such that one day, following his Nazi Germany course, he and I continued a discussion from the library all the way to K-J—despite that I was going back to my dorm in North. Even when I didn’t do my homework, I always looked forward to each 75-minute session, because in simply listening to Professor Kelly lecture, I learned as much about that day’s topics as about life. Where else would I hear about the so-called four lies of modernity? (The check’s in the mail. I caught it from the toilet seat. I read Playboy for the articles. And it’s not about the money.)

Finally, rather than ask students just to defend or argue against a view, Professor Kelly requires that we engage it creatively. One typical question, from a final exam, went like this: pretend you’re Mary Wollstonecraft, and write a book review of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Equally impressive is his feedback on our answers, which is why in January I asked him for feedback on my senior thesis in government. He uses few words, but they’re the pithiest I’ve ever received. Were he alive, William Strunk Jr., the initial author of The Elements of Style, would surely take great satisfaction in knowing that others take seriously his maxims to “omit needless words” and to “make every word tell.” The world could use more Al Kellys.

Unpublished Notes

I met Al Kelly in the fall of 2002, when I was a sophomore. We were serving ourselves from a buffet in the Philip Spencer House, following or before a lecture, and I wanted to strike up a conversation. So I asked him what he thought of David Horowitz’s performance in a recent panel with Maurice Isserman. I forget his answer, but when I replied that Horowitz complains he rarely gets invited to speak about the 60s, a subject on which he considers himself an authority, Al’s reply was, as usual, witty and indelible: “That’s because he’s a jerk.”

As a then-fan of Horowitz’s, I didn’t know what to say, and let the issue drop. Yet I couldn’t shake my discomfort, and when I later did a Google search, it was evident Al was right. With just five little words he had changed my mind on something about which I was convinced those with disagreed with me had to be biased.

My next encounter with Al came in my sophomore seminar, Classics of Modern Social Thought, which he teaches with Dan Chambliss. To be honest, I disliked the course, and even argued with the professors about a couple of grades. Neither budged, yet for some reason, as students were choosing our courses for the next semester, I signed up for Al’s European Intellectual History course.

Of course, when I returned to the Hill for my junior year, I had second thoughts about taking another course with Professor Kelly. Hadn’t I suffered through my sophomore seminar? Shouldn’t my grade have been higher? And who cared about European intellectual history anyway? Nonetheless, I decided to attend the first class, which turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve made while here. Indeed, so much did I enjoy and benefit from learning under Al Kelly that next semester I took his Nazi Germany course, which proved to be my favorite.

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Try as I do to stump him—averaging probably three questions a class—it seems his knowledge knows no bounds. Moreover, his ability to impart that expertise—whenever I ask, however confusedly I render my questions—never ceases to flow forth clearly, concisely, contextually and cogently.

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He made a point to shake the hands of each student after the last class in his Nazi Germany course.

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