More Inspiring Minds
By Mary Alice Casey
Standing side by side with black protesters on the College Green, Edgar Whan was a student of the '60s. Ten years later, taking heat from women's lib advocates, Edgar Whan was a student of the '70s. In three and a half decades on the Ohio University faculty, Edgar Whan was as much of a student as the people he was paid to teach.
"I learned from them so much," he says, sitting in the living room of his quiet home in a hilly, wooded neighborhood of Athens. "The word 'teach' is something that you do to somebody. Learning is what you do with them. So we learned together."
Whan joined the English Department in 1955. Through the years, he chaired the department, directed the Honors College and headed the Cutler Program. Immensely popular with students, he remains the only Ohio University faculty member with the title University Professor in Perpetuity (after being selected three times for the student-driven award). He "retired" in 1985 at age 64 but continued to teach one quarter a year until 1991.
"I was lucky that I could teach the courses I wanted to teach," he says. "I would hate to teach a course about Faulkner and have somebody say, 'Well, now I know about Faulkner. Thank God I don't have to read him anymore."'
Whan favored introductory courses because of the opportunities they offered to expose students to new material and concepts.
"What I'd like to think I taught them was to trust themselves and their own reading -- and to look up the words, you know?" he asks. "What I wanted to teach them more than anything else was to be honest. Writers who are honest are altogether different."
One senses after just a short visit with Whan that his relationships with students were honest as well. He valued them deeply, and he respected them.
"Kids are in life," he says, thinking back on a student who lost his mother to suicide, another who overcame drug addiction, a third who revealed having just had an abortion. "They win, they lose. But they're real. To say to them, 'When you get out in the real world...' in some professorial way and snicker, that's an insult."
Students sensed Whan's interest was genuine.
"I learned that my personality was one of my biggest assets and not to leave it at the door when I walked in the classroom," former student Jenny Kline says. "You felt really special."
Kline draws from three teachers' styles in her own approach to teaching at Washington & Jefferson College in western Pennsylvania. Whan is one of them.
"He's a big part of the picture I have of the ideal faculty member, of the faculty member I'm trying to be," she says.
Across Pennsylvania, Joey Grant also thinks often of his friend and fellow activist. He made it a point to introduce his daughter to Whan some years back when they visited Athens as she narrowed her list of prospective colleges.
In 1990, Grant nominated his old professor for a College of Arts and Sciences Faculty Appreciation Award. When Whan received the award the following May, the presenter read from Grant's nomination: "He is a man I've never forgotten, never will, and who ranks as the only professor about whom I wonder (at least once every week) what he is doing, where he is and whether or not people really appreciate the manner of man with whom they have dealt."
He was a teacher.
Mary Alice Casey is editor of Ohio Today.