Dartmouth professors are unparalleled in their commitment to educating their students. Even so, with their packed schedules it is a rare professor who is able to dedicate equal time to teaching alumni many years after they leave the classroom.
Steve Swayne, the Jacob H. Strauss 1922 Professor of Music; and Don Pease, the Ted and Helen Geisel Third Century Professor in the Humanities, Chair of the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program, and professor of English and comparative literature, have done just that during their tenure at the College.
During the 214th meeting of the Alumni Council on May 19, the Academic Affairs Committee presented Pease and Swayne with the inaugural Professor John Rassias Faculty Award for their exceptional educational outreach to alumni.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the room during the presentation of the award, created in honor of John Rassias, the William R. Kenan Professor. Rassias was recognized at Dartmouth and around the world for his innovative language-teaching methods, his vibrancy, and the dedication he showed to his students throughout their lives. Rassias passed away in December 2015.
For Rassias’ daughter Helene Catherine Rassias-Miles, executive director of the Rassias Center, the award presentation was “almost too emotional.” The award, she says, is “fitting and moving,”and demonstrated “the respect, the love, the joy, and the Dartmouth spirit that was so integral a part of [John Rassias’s] life.” She noted that Dartmouth alumni the world over “brought so much to his teaching and mission of helping to create more communication throughout the world.”
Mary Dengler ’96, chair of the Academic Affairs Committee, introduced the award and the winners, noting the significance of the award itself, inscribed on a globe. “As alumni go wander about the girdled earth, some truly exceptional faculty will go follow them. They reach alumni wherever they might be around the globe.”
Perhaps no two faculty members have followed alumni around the girdled earth quite as avidly as Pease and Swayne. The two professors have taken every opportunity presented by Dartmouth Alumni Relations to connect with the College’s graduates. From traveling to alumni club meetings around the country, to presenting at Dartmouth on Location events, to leading Alumni Travel expeditions, these faculty members provide Dartmouth alumni and their families with continuous opportunity for lifelong learning. Pease and Swayne have also each embraced new ways to connect across the globe through Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, and followed those courses with on-site lectures and travel opportunities for participating alumni. Pease’s teaching focuses on American literature, while Swayne has shared his expertise on classical music, particularly opera.
Accepting the award, Pease noted its personal significance. “The award itself, for me, becomes simultaneously a memorial for a figure whose name honors us all, even as it is a signifier of our undying gratitude to John Rassias, who made this globe and the Dartmouth fellowship better for his teaching.”
Pease also took the opportunity to recognize the May 16 passage of another beloved Dartmouth faculty member, Israel Evans Professor of Oratory and Belles Lettres Emeritus William Cook, noting that he had traveled across the country with Cook to speak to alumni, and that Cook had himself exemplified the spirit of the Rassias Award.
“What we learn from both John Rassias and Bill Cook is that it’s important to teach students what you know,” said Pease. “It’s perhaps even more important to communicate the enthusiasm you bring to learning so that your students might understand how that passion makes lifelong learning one of the deepest gifts.”
At the conclusion to his remarks, Pease said his career had been blessed with several prestigious awards, including a Guggenheim, NEH, Lifelong Achievement, and the Geisel Chair, as well as an honorary doctorate, but the two that matter most – the class of ’81 Distinguished Teaching Award and the John Rassias Award – came from the constituency closest to his heart: Dartmouth students.
Swayne, in a conversation prior to the award presentation, credited his popularity to a combination of his “knowledge of Western art music and [his] general demeanor,” perhaps underestimating his talent for presentation. He fondly remembers the first lecture he delivered to alumni on a Baltic cruise in 2012, on the topic of the Finnish composer Sibelius. Thanks to providential timing, the music he played built to a crescendo just as the ship sailed into Helsinki, bringing all 200 travelers to a standing ovation. “I’d never had that happen before, and it has never happened since!”
Music, as Swayne sees it, is a perfect topic for alumni learners. “Given that I myself was a relative latecomer to Western art music–I began classical piano lessons at age 15–I don’t hold any biases against those who see themselves as curious novices when it comes to this repertoire.” In fact, he explains that he tells current students that “studying music now is like saving money for retirement: the investment they make now in their musical education will only grow over time. But it’s even better than an IRA, because every time you draw from that investment, you’re actually increasing its worth. Alumni audiences understand this, and I greatly appreciate their example and encouragement as I try to bring that message back to the students on the Hanover plain.”
Thanks to the ongoing efforts of these two professors, countless Dartmouth alumni are able to reengage with the zest for learning they developed at the College. Swayne notes “The number of alumni who tell me that the things I’ve said have helped them to appreciate music more—be that for local clubs in New York or Dallas or the Pioneer Valley, be it the pre-concert lectures at Tanglewood (our fourth event is coming up this August), or be it the history lectures I given on alumni trips in Europe—is impossible to tally.”
Closing the ceremony, Alumni Council President Russell Wolff ’89, Tu’94 asked the audience who among those present had personally learned from Pease or Swayne. Nearly everyone raised their hands.