Chapter 04 - Professor Dickinson

Bryce heard Damon in the bathroom some time after he retired that Tuesday. He would have to remember to tell him about the party at the Sigma Alpha Tau house on Friday. But by the time he had to leave to grab something for breakfast the next morning, Damon still had not risen. Bryce had even cautiously pushed open his door after knocking and receiving no response, only to find his neighbor sprawled out on his bed, dead to the world. Consequently, Bryce made his way back to the student cafeteria for a quick something, and then headed over to Filson Hall, where the History Department was housed. He found Professor Dickinson's office on the second floor in a corner. Noting the name plate announcing 'John Alcott Dickinson, Professor of History,' he knocked. It was one minute prior to his appointed time of nine o'clock.

"Enter," a distinctive voice called from within. Bryce recognized it as a British accent from watching some movies, but he had never known anyone actually speak that way. It was not the British of the rock stars, but the British of Rex Harrison or David Niven, perhaps a shade deeper and ... what was the word he had seen which described it so well? ... plummier. Bryce had corresponded with the Professor, but had never spoken with him, so he was not prepared for this development, especially as he knew John Dickinson was born in Cleveland, Ohio.

He entered the office to find a rather stout, even rotund, man somewhere in his fifties, with greying red hair, a round face, and rimless spectacles. He was dressed in a three piece suit, despite the summer weather outside, with a distinctive tie which Bryce could only assume had some important significance. A little intimidated, Bryce approached the desk. As he did, the Professor rose and shook his hand, so that helped put him at ease. Bryce also noted that the Professor was definitely on the short side, standing about five foot six. He took a seat on a wooden chair in front of the desk after being invited to do so.

"I'm Bryce Winslow. I've been assigned you as my academic advisor."

"Ah yes. James Bryce Winslow, if I'm not mistaken. And it is not the mere chance of departmental roulette which causes you to be in my office this morning, now is it?" Dickinson queried.

Embarrassed (that seemed to be his normal mode of operation since arriving on campus), Bryce replied, "No, sir. I requested that you be my advisor."

"And why was that?"

"Well, sir, you may recall that I e-mailed you a couple of times about some problems I had with the reign of King James II, and you were kind enough to respond. I think I have read most of what you have written, and I am very interested in pursuing the same kind of history," Bryce answered honestly.


"Why?" His voice rose.

"Yes, why? Why are you interested in this period of British history? It is hardly the most currently popular field of endeavor. And your questions were on matters of governmental policy and personalities at the Court, were they not?"

"Um, yes, sir."

"Dear me! Don't you realize that no one - absolutely no one - does that kind of history any more? If you want to be current or even avant garde (he pronounced it in French), you must focus on the three great deities of gender, race, and class."

"Well, yes, I do sort of know that. I mean, I've read some of the other things - recent things - on various aspects of the period. I had access to the American Historical Review and History Today and a couple of other journals, some of them on-line. But I'm afraid most of that doesn't interest me. That's why I chose to come to U of C and to ask for you as my advisor. I like the kind of history you write. Does, um, ah, does this mean, ah, that you won't be my advisor, or I can't do that kind of history?" Bryce asked, fearful that his whole academic future was collapsing before him.

"No, no! Bless me! No, not at all. Please do not misunderstand me. I am delighted, absolutely delighted, to have you as an advisee. But I want to be certain that you understand the implications of your choices. I do not pretend to have a crystal ball, so I have no idea with what particular fad the profession may be infatuated in, say, eight year's time, when you have completed your doctorate and are on the market, but if you were in that position today, your chances of being hired anywhere - um, shall we say prestigious? - would be minuscule. I blush to admit it, but the hallowed halls of academe are not exempt from the fluctuations and fancies of the times."

"Thank you for your concern, Professor, but I think I'll take my chances. I had much rather be happy doing something I like at a less prestigious place than unhappy at a major research institution," Bryce replied honestly.

"Capital! Then we shall get on swimmingly! Now that we have cleared up that little matter, let us consider your immediate situation. Please inform me of what you have done thus far."

"All my tuition and fees were paid before I ever left home, of course. I intended to get here on Monday evening, but I was delayed leaving home, and it was too late to do anything when I arrived, so I've had only one day on campus thus far. I'm settled in my room in Clay Hall, room 312. I have my student ID, and I've been to the bookstore, but I did not buy any textbooks yet, as I thought it best to wait until after this meeting. I guess that's about all. Oh, I went to the gym yesterday afternoon, and met Curtis Manning. He's trying to recruit me for Sigma Alpha Tau fraternity, of which I understand you're the faculty advisor," Bryce recited.

Dr. Dickinson peered at him intently for a moment. "You do understand that I have absolutely no say about who is admitted or rejected at the fraternity?"

"I never really thought about it. From what Curtis told me, I assume there is some kind of vote."

"Quite right. A vote in which only the current brothers participate," the Professor stressed.

It finally hit Bryce that Dr. Dickinson was telling him that being his advisee would make no difference as far as admission to the fraternity was concerned. Bryce blushed again. "Dr. Dickinson, I wasn't suggesting that my being your advisee would improve my chances of acceptance, and I certainly was not asking for any special treatment. It was just that Curtis thought it quite a coincidence that I came here to study with you, and you're the advisor to the fraternity."

Professor Dickinson produced the sound which is usually written 'harrumph.' "Well, well. Perhaps I was reading too much into your statement. Such tactics have been tried before, you know."

"May we forget all about that?" Bryce suggested.

"Very well." Professor Dickinson paused, then picked up some papers from his desk. "I have here copies of your admission papers and transcript. I see that you are exempt, in one fashion or another, from many of the general education requirements."

"Yes, sir. I examed out of English Composition, and I have AP credit for the Western Civ and American Survey history courses, as well as for Algebra and the English Lit survey," Bryce replied.

"You must have spent most of last year taking college level courses, then."

"Yes, sir, I believe that's correct."

"What, then, do you proposed to do this year?"

"Well, sir, I did work out a tentative schedule," Bryce said, handing the Professor a sheet of paper.

"Hmmmm. I see you have French 311, Survey of Literature, here. You did not mention advanced placement in French. The course does presume a reading knowledge of the language."

"Yes, sir. I noted that in the catalogue. But I had four years of French in high school, and the catalogue says I may take a placement exam. I did pretty well, so I thought I'd go over to the Department of Foreign Languages and take that exam as soon as we finish here. I have written to them about this."

"Very good. A decent knowledge of French is quite important for our period." It made Bryce feel much more confident to hear the Professor say our period. "Well, very well, we will sign you up for 311, but if things do not go well, we may have to reconsider. That class is never full, so you need not worry about that." The Professor entered the course on a form in his computer. "Now, you have here Political Science 101. Why is that?"

"I understood it was one of the options for the Social Science requirement," Bryce replied.

"Ah, yes. Social Science." Dr. Dickinson seemed to shudder as he said the phrase. "Lots of statistics." He paused, then peered over his glasses at Bryce. "You're not going to try to reduce three centuries of British history to mathematical tables, are you?"

He could not help it. Bryce burst out laughing. Quickly gathering his wits, he assured Dr. Dickinson, "No, sir. I would be the world's worst candidate for that job. While I was taking AP Algebra, many of my more mathematically gifted peers were taking calculus. I'm not well endowed in that particular field."

"Good! Capital! Very good! Let me see, you have here section 06 at 11:00 on MWF. Is that important?"

"I indicated that section because the student with whom I share a bathroom in the dorm is a freshman Political Science major. We kind of clicked yesterday, so I thought I would sign up for the same section he's in," Bryce admitted.

"Hmmmm. He's a Political Science major, and taking 101. No AP courses?"

"No, sir. He, ah, he indicated he was from the projects in Chicago, and was happy to be here at all," Bryce said.

"I see. Diversity," the Professor dryly noted.

"Yes and no," Bryce came back. "Damon is black, but he made quite a point of it that he was on an academic scholarship, not an athletic one, and he examed out of Freshman Composition. He seems very determined to succeed."

"Damon, you say? Hummmm. Let me see." Professor Dickinson pulled out another sheaf of papers, and flipped through them. He ran his finger down a page. "Watson, Damon Antwon - Antoine spelled A N T W O N. History 101, 9:00 MWF. Is that your friend?"

"Most likely. He did say he had History 101, although he did not mention the instructor," Bryce said, not mentioning that he had ignored that listing on Damon's schedule as he knew he would not be taking the course.

"Perhaps your friend should also be taking French," the Professor chuckled. "Well, well, let us see about that Political Science course." He turned to his computer, and fed in some data. "Hmmm. Well, it looks as though you won't be sharing that class with Antwon. It's closed. We could look at another section, or at a different social science."

"If that class is not available, I have no strong feelings, sir. What do you advise?"

Professor Dickinson smiled. "Yes, I am supposed to advise, aren't I." He thought for a moment. "I recall some time ago there was another historical fad, when we tried to psychoanalyze figures from the past. Let me see. Oh, yes, Erik Erikson's Young Man Luther. You didn't know the entire Protestant Reformation came about because Luther had a difficult relationship with his father, did you?"

"No, sir, that escaped me," Bryce smiled.

"No tendency to psychoanalyze Henry VIII or Cromwell then?"

"It might be fascinating if we could invent a time machine and actually bring them here and put them on a couch, but I doubt that there's much sense in trying it in retrospect," Bryce replied.

"Good! Capital! We'll put you in Psychology. Less temptation to try to distort history by applying an alien methodology. Let me see. Yes, there's a section open at the time you had that Political Science course. Ha! Got it!" the Professor said, as he punched some keys. "There is also a science requirement. Yes, I see. Biology 101. And you have sections for both the lecture and the laboratory already filled in." He looked up. "Antwon?"

Bryce grinned. "Afraid so."

"Well, it's good for neighbors to get along. Let's see. ... Drat!"

"Is that section closed, too?" Bryce asked.

"No. I simply hit the wrong key. I don't suppose you're interested in Advanced Genetics, are you?"

"Hardly," Bryce laughed.

"Ah, here we are. Yes, no problem. We will have you and Antwon coupled after all," the jubilant Professor declared.

Bryce colored at that choice of words, hoping his advisor did not notice, or did not know what caused it if he did.

Dr. Dickinson gave no sign of seeing anything untoward. "You also need a Physical Education course. What games are you good at?" he asked, using the British term.

"I played soccer and was on the swim team in high school."

"But that's not what you have here."

"No, sir. I don't want to be on a varsity team. I put down karate because it's something I always was interested in but ...." He hesitated.


"Well, my mother was afraid I'd get hurt, so never let me sign up for lessons," Bryce admitted, again embarrassed.

"Ah ha! Strike a blow for independence! Karate it is!" He pressed some additional keys.

"And Freshman Orientation. You found your way to the campus, You found your way to my office. I presume you can find your way to the classroom. Your high school transcript indicates that you have scant need of 'study skills' taught by some graduate student in Education. Yet, it is a requirement. I don't mind saying I voted against this requirement on the Curriculum Committee, but I was outvoted. We'll stick it in here, where you have it."

"Now, for the important classes. You have very flatteringly listed my class in the Stuart Period. Given your own interests, that makes sense. And, what's this? English 434, Milton?"

"It seemed to fit," Bryce said with a grin. By this time he was feeling comfortable with this strange little man, and did not withhold his opinion.

John Dickinson looked at him once more. "Indeed!" He turned back to his computer, and struck a few more keys. Then he hit the 'Print' button. A printer on a table beside the desk came to life. A moment later, Dr. Dickinson handed Bryce his schedule of classes. "This is contingent on you doing well on that French competency examination. Please stop by afterwards and let me know for certain."

Recognizing a dismissal, Bryce rose. He extended his hand. "Thank you, Dr. Dickinson. It has been a pleasure. I look forward to working with you this semester."

"The feeling is mutual, Mr. Winslow," Dickinson said, as he shook the proffered hand.

Leaving Filson Hall, Bryce felt good. After the first few intimidating minutes, he had really come to like the peculiar Professor, with his odd mannerisms. He was certain he would enjoy his classes. There was no way Dr. John Dickinson could be dull.

Bryce went directly to the Department of Foreign Languages, located in Dumesnil Hall. He approached the departmental office, where he asked the secretary about taking the placement exam for French 311, mentioning that he had written ahead about that, and was told to see Dr. Pascal Anjot. He was directed to Dr. Anjot's office down the hall. There, he found a tall, slender, grey-haired man, who welcome him when he found his reason for being there. They sat for some time discussing school, Bryce's family, his trip to Clifton, and his visit with Professor Dickinson, all in French. After about an hour, Dr. Anjot indicated that he had another engagement.

"But, what about my exam?" Bryce asked.

"Ah, well, yes. I suppose we should have something in writing. Here," he said, "translate this section." He handed Bryce a copy of Pascal's Pensées, pointing to a brief passage numbered 49.

Bryce read the passage, then wrote it down: La dernière démarche de la raison est de reconnaistre qu'il y a une infinité de choses que la surpassent; elle n'est que foible, si elle ne va jusqu'à connaistre cela. "Some of the spelling is kind of dated," Bryce said, but I would translate it like this." He wrote: The final step reason takes is to recognize that there are an infinity of things which lie beyond it; it is a great weakness if it does not go far enough to know that.

Dr. Anjot looked at the translation. "Not verbatim, but conveying the meaning. That is good translation. Where do you see the words 'it is a great weakness'?"

"That's how I rendered elle n'est que foible, sir. I'm not real sure, but I think it means something not very reliable, and I could not think of an English equivalent at the moment, like" and a lightbulb went on in Bryce's head, "like a fable."

"Excellent! I look forward to seeing you in my class."

"That's all? Just that short passage?" Bryce asked in surprise.

"We spent an hour speaking in French. What more do you want?" the professor asked.

"But, I didn't know that was part of the exam," Bryce exclaimed.

"Précisément," M. Anjot replied with a smile.

"Well, thank you, and I look forward to class as well. May I ask, did you select this passage because you are connected in some way to Blaise Pascal?"


"Your name, sir."

"Ah, I see. Non, non, non! That we may attribute not to the physicist, but to ma mère. I am named for Easter, when I was born."

"Ah, je comprends. Merci," Bryce replied.

Leaving Dumesnil, Bryce returned to Filson, but found that Professor Dickinson had left for lunch. He left him a brief note, stating that he had passed his French competency exam, and would be in French 311. He then decided to emulate his advisor, and grab some lunch himself.

Moving to the Albert Benjamin Chandler University Center, Bryce gathered something to eat from the cafeteria, then carried his tray out to a terrace which opened from the dining area. It was a fine day, and he felt it a shame to waste it entirely inside. He met one of the SAT brothers he had been introduced to the evening before, and they exchanged idle conversation while they ate.

Then it was back to the bookstore, now that he had his schedule of classes. There were, he found, two, and even three, books required for some of the courses for which he was now registered. Ironically, the course in which he was least interested, Biology, had the most expensive textbook. Such is life. Loaded down with his arms full of books, Bryce made his way back to his room in Clay Hall. He had just finished placing them neatly on his shelves, when the door to the bathroom burst open.

"Where the hell have you been?" Damon demanded. "I need to vent! What kind of neighbor are you to disappear right when I need you?"