Duke University Alumni Magazine

by Ed DeHoratius

efore unleashing his celebrated candor, Francis Newton, professor of classics at Duke from 1968 to 1998, wears a wide, wry grin--part exasperation, part disgusted amusement. John Geyssen Ph.D. '92 of the classics department at the University of New Brunswick reflects that "it was almost a pleasure to be criticized in that genteel Southern manner."

Having taken four courses with Professor Newton and having had him oversee my senior honors thesis, I myself grew quite accustomed to that genteel Southern criticism and can report that the key word in Geyssen's quote is "almost." During my four years at Duke (and for a few afterwards), Newton censured me quite explicitly on everything ranging from not eating breakfast to insufficient preparation for class to lack of focus in considering my post-Duke future to allowing emotion to supersede more important practical matters. Yet it is through such constructive reproach that he has articulated an unwavering commitment, both personal and academic, to countless students.

On the occasion of his retirement, Newton was honored last November with a symposium, Eius Dignitatis Cultores, which gave students, friends, colleagues, and family the chance to thank him formally for this commitment. We came together in appreciation of his work, including his high expectations and his dynamic classroom presentations. Although many of his Medieval Latin students may have forgotten the intricacies of the texts we studied, few can forget our awe at his strong, rich, steady rendering of Medieval Latin hymns booming over the class, interrupted only by his pleasantly stern admonition to sing more loudly. One former student describes the effect as "magical in a way, as if for a moment the Gothic buildings were more than just a fa?ade and we could have been anywhere and anywhen."

But Newton's renown as a teacher is best evidenced in his enduringly popular "Myth in Literature" course. He developed the course, which often carried a wait list, to augment interest in the classics, specifically among students who would otherwise never consider enrolling in a classics course. Toward this end, he expanded the texts of the course, "challenging himself to understand and to incorporate new theoretical approaches to literature," as former department chair Mary T. Boatwright says.

In addition to reading the primary mythological accounts of Homer, Hesiod, and Ovid, among others, students considered Jung, Freud, and Levi-Strauss in an examination of the theories and psychology of myth, and they discussed W.B. Yeats and George Will when exploring the hero typology. Newton's commitment to all students, whether they were majors or just had an ancillary interest in classics, exemplified his integrity toward his mission as a teacher.

His students, whether undergraduate non-majors in his "Myth" course or doctoral candidates preparing their theses under his direction, carry the model of his amiability and humanity well beyond the confines of his classes. Jeremy Prager '98, who only took one class with Newton, describes how they met in Monte Cassino, when Newton gave him a tour of the town below and the monastery above: "I will never forget the kindness and interest in teaching that these acts revealed." He concludes with an unrelated but equally revealing comment: "Dr. Newton is still the only teacher who ever asked to read other papers I had written."

Geyssen says it was Newton who "helped me recognize the human spirit that lies behind the printed word." Roberta Stewart Ph.D. '87, acting chair of Dartmouth's classics department, remembers how he taught "that the greatest tribute a student could give to a teacher was to move beyond that teacher's particular ideas, indeed to disagree with one's teacher--if the student moved beyond the teacher's ideas, the teacher was a good teacher. The intellectual humility, indeed the personal humility, remains with me to this day and has set a standard for me in my own research and teaching."

Mary Jane Morrow '80, Ph.D. '99, now in the history department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, summarizes Newton's lesson from a teacher's point of view: "I do remember his gift for being able to be tough and compassionate at the 'right' times. His standards and expectations were the highest, yet he knew how to bring a student along if she or he was in a tough spot. Now that I am teaching, I realize how hard that balance is to achieve, but Dr. Newton's example stays before me when I am unsure how to handle difficult situations."

Newton, still teaching as a professor emeritus, possesses the singular courage that all great teachers possess: to issue challenges and to trust their students to rise to those challenges. For his part, he will impart the necessary tools and information, whether in or out of the classroom; but the commitment he requires is reciprocal. Students must hold up their end of the bargain; if they do not, he makes certain to remind them. Still, he remains unflinchingly compassionate and committed to the well-being of his students, whether that means coaching them along or leveling an honest assessment of their work.

As a teacher, to echo Morrow, I have discovered the difficulty in striking that balance with students. Challenges are rarely met with initial enthusiasm. But I persist as he did with me, presuming, not without some trepidation, that my students will come to understand, as I did, the commitment and respect inherent in such challenges. Either way, I thank him for the courage to believe in me, and the respect to trust that I will rise to his challenges. His commitment to me has helped make me the teacher I am today. The closing of his graduation note to me, dated May 14, 1995, embodies my debt to him: "Perhaps the best wish I could form for you would be that [the combination of teaching and research] will bring you something like the satisfaction that it has brought me."

Indeed, Professor Newton, thanks to you, it has.

DeHoratius '95 teaches in the classics department at Wayland High School in Wayland, Massachusetts.

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