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Steve Hansen: What makes a teacher outstanding?

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Posted: Tuesday, October 8, 2013 12:00 am

My favorite was Will Kollock. He was an assistant professor and director of journalism at University of the Pacific. I took a poetry class from him during the late 1960s.

Most guys at age 20-plus are not into poetry. But I had an English minor and was required to take an elective like this. I braced for the worst, but surprisingly got the best.

What made the Stanford graduate professor different from most of his Pacific colleagues was his age. Only a few years my senior, he was “hip” to what was happening with our generation. The anti-war movement was strong among college kids. Breaking away from established cultural traditions was also in vogue.

However, Kollock was not a hardcore activist. Actually, he was just the opposite. The professor was not out to “brainwash” students with lockstep thinking on various issues but rather provide a variety of material from a wide spectrum of views — ranging from traditional poets to modern writers. The latter included Richard Brautigan, Rod McKuen and even Bob Dylan.

Kollock, a poet himself, has published numerous works over the last several years. Back then, he would read some of his poems to the class and ask for opinions. This gave us some competitive confidence. We thought, “If a professor could publish and be open enough to listen to student comments about his creations, then maybe he would be accepting of our amateurish attempts.”

I recall the paradox of his poems. What the professor thought was one of his best, we gave a “so-so” rating. What he considered one of his worst, we loved. It was called “The $5.49,” named after a lounge chair in his backyard. There was just something simplistic, inviting and very creative about the piece that he did not see.

Another quality of outstanding teachers is their highly developed sense of creativity and ability to bring it out in students. Professor Kollock was one of these rare individuals. By the end of the semester, most of my classmates, if not all, felt they had some degree of competence in the subject. It was not only understanding poetry but having the ability to write it as well.

My first column was encouraged by the same Phi Beta Kappa professor. Despite objections from the student editor, Kollock got me a regular spot in the Pacific student newspaper. I’ll admit that the editor may have had a point, as my writing lacked substance and style. But then, we all needed to start somewhere.

Kollock took his pupils beyond the classroom walls. I remember his Friday night “get-togethers” at his McKenzie Street home for a select group of students and professionals. Here, a variety of people with different backgrounds assembled, making conversations interesting and informative.

His wife, Zola Shaulis, was a world-renowned concert pianist. The living room in their small two bedroom home was filled with a large Steinway grand. It was always a joy to hear her play.

But life is full of irony, and the Will Kollock story is no exception. The popular professor was not granted tenure.

So, the professor and his wife sold their belongings and moved to Spain. At that time, Shaulis toured Europe and delighted audiences with talent that, for the most part, went unnoticed in Stockton. Upon their return to the states, Kollock took a job as associate professor and chair of communications at Ramapo College — a school ranked as one of the best in the Northeast by the Princeton Review. At this institution, he earned the Florence Thomases Outstanding Teaching Award.

Today, he lives with his wife on the Florida coast. Kollock continues his creative spirit through writing and painting.

The day when my favorite teacher and friend lost his job, due to reputed institutional goals, was a dark one. But on the other hand, I have no doubt that for years it was a wonderful blessing for many promising students at a respected New Jersey public liberal arts college.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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