April 17, 1997
Vol. 16, No. 15

current issue
archive / search

    Profile: Edward Rosenheim

    Edward Rosenheim (A.B.'39, A.M.'46, Ph.D.'53), the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor Emeritus in English, has dedicated more than half a century to serving the University. He has served -- sometimes all at once -- as a scholar, teacher, editor, broadcaster and board member.

    From 1947 to 1952, he was Instructor and then Associate Professor in the Humanities. He edited The Journal of General Education from 1953 to 1956, and was Director of Broadcasting for the University from 1954 to 1957. In 1962, he became Professor in English. In 1968, he was named editor of Modern Philology, a position he shared with other faculty members for the next 20 years. He also served as chair of the faculty board for the Center for Continuing Education from 1979 to 1987.

    An internationally recognized authority on the life and works of Jonathan Swift, he is the author of two books and numerous articles and reviews. He was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1967 and was recognized for his teaching with a Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in 1953.

    Although Rosenheim became Professor Emeritus nine years ago, he has not been resting on his laurels. He is a familiar figure on campus as he takes his regular walks through the quads, stopping to talk with the many generations of faculty and students who have enjoyed his knowledge, wisdom and wit. The Chronicle caught up with him on a recent sunny spring day. You say you are "retired" but you seem as active as ever. Well, I call my self the "oldest living inhabitant" of the University. Each year of the nine years I have been retired I have taught a course in the Fundamentals Program. I've taught Burke, Swift, Hume -- and even some novels, such as Huckleberry Finn. But each year I think it will be my last, since the odds of retiring with all your marbles get less and less with each year.

    Do you find it strange that you began teaching in the "old" College, with a more general curriculum, and now you are in Fundamentals, which has one of the more limited reading lists? I didn't teach in the earliest Hutchins College, if that is what you mean by the "old" College. When I began in 1947, there was a standard list of 14 required courses. There was no Swift or Dr. Johnson taught, for example. Maybe it was too modern, or not basic enough.

    Some of that had to do with the fact that I was part of what was then a separate College faculty. We were actually more limited in what we could teach than our peers in the various departments.

    Then there came a "revolution" in 1962. A group of us on the English faculty -- we called ourselves the "middle-aged Turks" -- successfully lobbied to get all our colleagues accepted into the English Department with full appointments. In the department, if you wanted to teach 18th-century literature, you would do it. In much the same way, of course, I get to choose what I want to teach in Fundamentals. The books I teach are likely to be considered classic texts. But I think the main thing is still the same -- we are teaching and reading very good books.

    How do feel about the return today of some of the issues you might have faced early in your career, especially the role of graduate students as teachers in the College? It's hard to generalize about this issue. Some of the greatest teachers at Chicago were good right out of grad school. Some were horrible. They often became great, but it was something they had to learn to do.

    There is something paradoxical about having undergraduate classes taught by graduate students before or right after they have earned their Ph.D. That may be a time in a scholar's life when she or he will have more information in a narrow field than at any other time. But in most colleges and universities, new Ph.D.s start out their careers teaching Introduction to Composition courses.

    In some respects, I feel that young scholars are better teachers of advanced graduate students than older faculty members. And older faculty members really are often much more suited to teaching new undergraduates. They should have developed some balance and a sense of humor during their careers. They have experience, and, one would hope, tolerance and patience. As you get older, you develop more respect for young people. At least, I did.

    Do you think students in the College today really are different from past generations? I recently gave welcoming remarks to a group of high school juniors interested in the College who were spending a day on campus. I spoke about the College, about the special things that it has to offer and about the need to protect those things. Of course, my sentiments are colored by my own experiences -- I had a great time in the College -- and I wish the same for these kids, who are probably not much different from the young me.

    I went to New Trier high school in Winnetka. I had some great teachers there to whom I owe my becoming a teacher. But New Trier offered a very comfortable version of teenage life that was best represented in the comic strip "Archie." Most of the college-bound students headed east to places like Dartmouth. Other students who were also socially driven, but less gifted, went to appropriate institutions.

    I was one of a number of students who had "bad habits" -- we read books and newspapers and magazines. A handful of us came to the U of C, including a friend who had taught himself to read hieroglyphics. When we moved into Burton-Judson Courts, we met older students -- from nascent scientists to varsity lettermen -- who were taking seriously and constantly discussing what went on in the classroom. So, we didn't feel inhibited at all. We were at home. I wish the same for every student who attends Chicago now and in the future.

    What has been your most meaningful experience here at Chicago? One of the most important things to me about Chicago is that my wife Peggy [Margaret Rosenheim, the Helen Ross Professor Emeritus in Social Service Administration] was able to teach here. For years we wanted to team-teach a course, and we finally did. For the past decade, we have taught "Dependency and Disrepute," about the various forms of hostility toward dependent people, using legal opinions as well as lyric poetry. To have shared this unique experience with my wife for more than a half-century -- and to have shared the joy of teaching here -- has been the happiest part of my tenure at Chicago. It has been a rare privilege.

    -- Jeff Makos