English professor Bob Frye and religion professor Ron Flowers arrived at TCU in 1966 and conclude their full-time careers at the end of the semester. They sat down to talk about life at TCU, their fondest memories, the role of a professor and even some things they would change.
by Richard Waters '95
More from Winter 2002
More in Campus News: Alma Matters
by Richard Waters '95
One is an English professor nationally known for writing personal letters to his students and grading papers in less-menacing green ink. The other is a pastor-turned-religion professor and one of the country’s foremost experts on the separation of church and state. They are Bob Frye and Ron Flowers, two of TCU’s most respected and honored faculty. Each has won the Chancellor’s Award for Distinguished Teaching — Frye in 1992, Flowers in 1996. They’ve both chaired the Faculty Senate, received the Honors Program Professor of the Year Award and been selected by students as Mortar Board Preferred Profs. Since arriving at TCU in 1966, their careers have exemplified the classic role of professor — dynamic classroom teacher, noted academic scholar and dedicated servant to higher education. Nearly 37 years later, these fast friends — often seen battling it out on a racquetball court or sitting together with their wives at football games — conclude their full-time careers together at the end of this semester.
Waters: The two of you are friends as well as colleagues. You both arrived here in 1966. Does it seem appropriate that you are leaving at the same time?
Flowers: I would respond to that by saying that it was completely accidental. Certainly no premeditation on our part. If it is appropriate of not, I don’t know. I guess we came here at the same time and we’re wearing out about the same time.
Frye: Yeah, I think so. Of course, he’s a lot older than I am. [Laughs] Keep that in mind. [To Flowers] You were a student here.
Flowers: I was a student here, right.
Frye: So, I was thinking this morning about how it is we wound up here, and I thought you already knew this place. You finished your [master’s] degree at Iowa and this was one of the possibilities for you. You loved coming back to this part of the country, I think.
Flowers: Right. I did and as you remember, the job market was pretty tight in those days. Not as bad as it is now, but I got two opportunities — Atlantic Christian College in Wilson, N.C., and TCU. Well, that was a no brainer as far as I was concerned because, as you said, I knew TCU and I had grown up in this part of the country. It was a wonderful opportunity, and I felt comfortable because about half the religion department faculty, at the time I joined the faculty, had been my teachers. So unlike you, who didn’t know the place at all, it was very comfortable for me. Kind of scary though to become a colleague of one’s former teachers.
Frye: I would think so.
Waters: Both of you had professional experience and professional lives before coming to TCU. You taught at other places. Tennessee [Frye] and Iowa [Flowers.]
Flowers: Yes and no. My professional life really was a pastor of a church prior to graduate school. I taught at Iowa only as a graduate teaching assistant. So this is the only full-time teaching job I’ve ever had.
Frye: Me too. I had taught at Purdue. [Frye earned his undergraduate degree at Wayland Baptist College and did one year of graduate work at Purdue.] I was there for a year and so I was a TA — teaching assistant. But then I went to Tennessee. In fact, that’s how I learned about TCU. I was at Purdue was very young and extraordinarily green. I’m not young anymore; I’m still green. [Flowers laughs] But I decided I wanted to get a Ph.D., and Purdue did not offer a Ph.D. in English at that time. So I applied to about 30 different schools for, what was called at that time, an NDEA — National Defense Education Act — Fellowship. And in addition to that, I applied to the University of Virginia for a DuPont Fellowship. DuPont, the chemical company, has a wonderful fellowship. Well, I applied to 30 because in those days you don’t have to send in an application fee. Today, I wouldn’t be able to do that. So I applied to 30 schools. I had a lot of help from a professor there who was a former Texan, native Texan, Ph.D. from Princeton, at Purdue, Robert Lytle Lowe, wonderful man. And he wrote letters of recommendation. In fact, he wrote some of them practically overnight. I told him I had deadlines. Of course I was young and was trying to be courteous but I told him I had some deadlines coming up. In those days there were no computers, so I actually had to wind up helping him type some of my letters of recommendation, which was a bit awkward because he was saying some kind things. He was a very generous man. But out of 30, I got, I think, 6 offers, one of which was from TCU because they were just getting NDEA fellowships to start a Ph.D. programs in English here. But I was a little apprehensive about going into a brand new program. I figured the standards would be awfully high for one thing. But I didn’t know much about TCU. I was impressed with the warmth of my correspondence with them at the time. I got an offer from the University of Virginia and I knew a little about it, but it was only a one-year fellowship with DuPont. So I turned it down. The fellow that called me was this world-renown bibliographer, and it was a little bit overwhelming for a young guy like me. I just told him I had a family and I needed a three-year commitment that the NDEA provided. So I wound up going to Tennessee for graduate school. When I finished at Tennessee in the discipline of English, I had several opportunities. I went to the MLA convention in Chicago and had quite a few interviews, as a matter of fact. But I had one with TCU that I had set up. Cecil Williams, who went up there to Chicago, told me I was the only one he was interviewing, so we talked for about an hour. And then when I came to TCU, he was the only person I knew at TCU. I got here and I went into see him one day and the secretary said, well, that he had died the preceding evening. I didn’t believe her. I couldn’t believe my ears. I said, “Would you repeat that?” She said, “Dr. Williams died yesterday afternoon. He was mowing the grass and had a heart attack and died.” So one of the first things I did at TCU was go to the funeral of the only man I knew here. And then shortly thereafter, Amos Melton with whom I had corresponded — he was the media relations director — he died. And then Mr. Sadler … [To Flowers] What was his first name?
Flowers: Magruder. Magruder Ellis Sadler.
Frye: Magruder Ellis Sadler. [Laughs]
Flowers: That’s why they called him Mac.
Frye: I didn’t know that. After whom Sadler Hall is named. He died. So three people died. So one of the first things I did at TCU was to go to funerals. I didn’t know anyone when I came. I went up to see Dr. Williams to get some help about finding a place to rent and I was told he died. I went back to my car. I’m a brand new faculty member, and I had parked in the faculty parking lot. But there is a ticket on my car because I didn’t have a sticker on it. That was my introduction to TCU.
Waters: You both came to TCU in 1966 and have stayed and stayed. Why?
Flowers: That’s easy for me. I have found it to be a great place to be for a variety of reasons. TCU has been a very good place to work. It’s compatible with my expectations and my talents in a lot of ways. TCU, at least in my department and my guess is Bob’s had the same experience, has not given me any direction about what I should teach or how I should teach it. Academic freedom has been observed always. The religion department here has been and is a group of people who are compatible with each other, collegial. We respect each other. We disagree with each other, but we do it in a constructive and civil way. It’s been a great place for me. I will acknowledge I have not had any specific offers come my way. There’s been a couple of feelers that have been sent my direction. In fact I had a preliminary interview one time, but I decided I didn’t want pursue it because we were happy here. Fort Worth is a good place, a good place to raise our family. So why have I stayed? Because I’ve loved it.
Frye: I agree with just about all of that. No one’s been knocking down my door trying to hire me away from this place. No one has wanted to give a draft choice, two draft choices. [Laughs]
Flowers: Signing bonus.
Frye: Ha! Yeah. Signing bonus. [Laughs] No. Many years ago, I interviewed at a place and, like Ron, in the middle of the interview process, I just decided I didn’t want to go there. I just much preferred where I was. When I came here, I taught two freshman English classes and two sophomore literature classes, and Ms. Lorraine Sherley, after whom Sherley Hall is named, she had been here 50 years as a student and faculty member, and she sort of told me what to do initially. She sometimes told the chancellor what to do. She was head of the sophomore committee. I was just treated very well. I was glad to have a position. Some of my classmates in graduate school at Tennessee had wanted to go someplace where they could teach an advanced graduate seminar, and I just lacked their confidence, I suppose. I just wanted to teach. I felt like I could teach, and I was probably better at the undergraduate level anyway. Shortly thereafter, after I had gotten here, I got to participate in the Honors Program, and I really enjoyed that. I know Ron has enjoyed that as well. That’s been really important to me during my time here. I’ve just been delighted to teach in that because it’s been a privilege to work with these very bright students. One of the advantages of teaching here is that I’ve gotten also to have sabbaticals and go to England and teach over there in the TCU summer program. I did that for a number of years with Don Jackson and some others. One of the things I ran into at Trinity College at Cambridge during one of my sabbaticals was a sign that says, “People live and study here,” and I thought that’s a very simple and straightforward way of putting it. But that is basically the way I’ve found TCU. People live and study here. Now of course they don’t study all the time. I understand that. And I understand about Thursday night parties. But I’ve found the students to be very responsive, but I have especially enjoyed working in the Honors Program. My colleagues in the department have been helpful. When I came here, Jim Corder shared his courses with me. I had written my dissertation on 18th century. That was my “specialty,” and he right away began to share his courses with me. So right away I began teaching The Age of Johnson class. He even gave me all his notes and notebooks. He was very helpful. Very supportive. So it’s been a good place to work and to teach and to learn and grow. And we also enjoy Fort Worth. We sort of like the slower, laid back style, slower than Dallas. The pace is more to our liking.
Flowers: I agree with Bob in all that. It’s been a good place to live and work and study. But I teach all undergraduates. Unlike the English department, the religion department doesn’t have a graduate program. We had one for a while but we decided we weren’t going to pursue it because the main thing we’re interested in is undergraduates. Anyway, the only thing I would add to Bob’s comments is that the size of TCU has been ideal as far as I am concerned.
Frye: Yeah. I’d agree.
Flowers: It’s not a gigantic place and you get lost in the shuffle or a tiny place where there is not much in the way of facilities or resources and the like. TCU’s been an ideal size to be able to teach and have a personal relationship with the students at the same time have a good library and good opportunities and a large enough student body to have a full program of courses for a very talented faculty to offer.
Waters: Let’s talk a minute about the role of the professor — as teacher, as scholar, as mentor to students and colleagues.
Flowers: I think the word that I have always thought of that helps me to define what I do and who I am in this role of being a professor is a calling. It’s a vocation in the truest sense of the word.
Frye: Yeah. I would agree.
Flowers: It’s not just a job or not just a craft. There are certain skills you can develop as a craftsman, but it’s not just a craft. It’s a calling. And that means to me that it’s an opportunity, a way of being with students, to lead them along, to help them gain insight and perspectives on life, on my subject matter, which is religion. And I hope that it has been as enriching for them as it has been for me. Teaching is not a one way enterprise. We learn from students and students learn from us. And that’s been a great side. And again the size helps a lot. To be able to have relationships with students outside the classroom has been a really good thing. The buzzword today is mentoring. That’s not a bad buzzword. Consequently, teaching for me really has been a ministry. Not in the sense of a religion professor using that word. I want to be very clear. Ministry in a university setting is very different from ministry in a religious institution setting. In a religious institution, ministry nurtures and stimulates faith. Teaching in a religion program, even in a church-related university, is not designed necessarily to nurture or stimulate faith as much as it is to inform faith, to help understand what religion is.
Frye: To examine.
Flowers: To examine. And how they respond to that in terms of their own faith or lack thereof obviously is their business. To be able to show students, both by word and example, that religion can bear the same kind of critical inquiry that any other academic discipline can bear has been, I think, an opportunity to both me and them to grow in our understanding of what religion is, of what being a human being is. You couldn’t ask for anything more exciting that that.
Frye: I agree. Ron and I are on the same page on this. That’s the way I view teaching — as a ministry in that sense of being a service to the students. I think of myself as a student, as just the oldest student in class.
Frye: Because it is an opportunity for learning with the students, for the students and also because of the students. They challenge me. This is especially true of the Honors Program. Ron and I both have taught in the Honors Program, particularly in the humanities sequence. There is a lot of interdisciplinary learning and a lot required of us as participants in that program. When I am teaching with someone teaching art history, philosophy, religion and music, as I was in the honors humanities sequence in 1987 when my colleague Tom Copeland died and I succeeded him. When I am faced with a lot of material that I need to know much more about — how to do a visual analysis of a painting, how to read Schirmacher when David Graham is encouraging us to have that wonderful and glorious opportunity. What I see I do is a calling and vocation, and that is where Ron and I differ a little bit from some of our younger colleagues, at least among a number of colleagues in our college on the campus. Generally, there is a sense that there is a career here and they’re going to do what is necessary to move ahead in this career. Last year at the Phi Beta Kappa banquet, I gave an address — I was honored to be asked to give an address — but one of the things I talked about was the distinction between a career and a vocation. I even looked at the etymology of those words with the help of a book by William Sloane Coffin, who was chaplain at Yale of Harvard — one of the Ivy League schools — where he talks about the entomology of those words, career and vocation. Vocation is that notion of a calling. It has a religious sense in that there is a seriousness, a solemn sense of duty, but not a sectarian sense, I would say. As opposed to the word career, from which we get the words car and careen. Same root word. It has to do with going around in circles. At the end of that section of the chapter, William Sloane Coffin draws on something from an SMU professor as a matter of fact: “If you succeed in the rat race, on this career track, you’re still a rat.” There is an important distinction in my mind between career and job and what Ron and I do, which is minister to the needs of students in that intellectual framework and keep abreast of all the recent developments in our field. We’re trying to do some research and writing ourselves. Ron has done a lot of that on church and state relations for example. I’ve done some work myself. We’re also a little bit different than our younger colleagues in that we have always felt a real strong commitment to service at the university. That’s been just part of the package. Ron’s been chair of the Faculty Senate and I have too. We’ve done a lot of committee work at the university and just seen that as part of our obligation and another way to serve.
Flowers: Bob and I have talked about this over the last decade. We do perceive a different attitude between folk who came along during our generation and some of our younger colleagues. Not to disparage those people. Many are extremely bright and some of them are very good teachers. But there is a kind of careerism as opposed to a vocational understanding.
Waters: What’s the best thing about TCU 30 years ago and now?
Flowers: Well, that’s interesting. [Long pause]
Frye: [Long pause] Well, they still allow us to teach. It’s a privilege.
Flowers: It’s a blessing.
Frye: It’s a privilege to do it honestly. I’ve always thought of teaching as a privilege. When I wrote my letter of resignation to Vice Chancellor Koehler, I said that when I started teaching as a teaching assistant at Purdue in 1961, I considered it a privilege to teach and I still feel that way. I felt that way when I started at TCU. It was always a privilege. It was never a right. I was not so much concerned about if I was being mistreated but rather how was I going to get the work done that was asked of me in order to help those students understand more about writing or literature. I would say 30 years ago I felt the same way I feel now in that regard.
Flowers: I would agree with that. [Long pause] I’d like to meditate on that. [Long pause] Of course, the best thing about TCU 30-something years ago is they had the great judgment to hire us. [Laughs]
Frye: One answer to that question is the students, I think. That’s been my focal point the entire time because, as I say, I’ve always thought of myself as an older student in the classroom. So I see students as classmates, not in a touchy-feely sort of way, but in the sense that we’re all engaged in an intellectual enterprise. And my job is to equip them the best I possibly can to really think, to think better than they have, and I am also working on that myself. I did that this morning. I brought in a couple of things to talk about that have to do with 9/11. There was an email I got Sunday night from someone saying here’s an editorial from a Tampa newspaper talking about immigrants coming over here wanting to keep their own particular cultures, and we really ought to have them be Americans or send them home. There was another piece I cut out of the Sunday paper about Thomas Friedman writing about 9/11 lessons, and he had three questions: who are these terrorists, who are we and how can we respond to all this. And I was trying to get them to think. I mostly listened this morning and they talked. They really liked this idea of sending them home. So we tried to figure out who the immigrants are and where we came from. I tried to get them to examine that and analyze it a bit, but we didn’t spend the entire class on it, didn’t have time. But the whole idea was to get them to think, but they made me think and that’s what’s enjoyable about teaching.
Flowers: Did you get them to understand that unless they are children of Native Americans they were all children of immigrants?
Frye: I tried. I tried. It’s one of those notions I had when I had to give a talk as an Honors professor. I talked about failing at a very high level, and that’s what I tried to do even this morning. I could have mentioned what Ron said and made a better point.
Waters: What does “failing at a very high level” mean to you?
Frye: I start with the assumption that “there is none righteous, no not one.” We see through a glass darkly now. We’re all imperfect. We all mess up. We make mistakes. So I accept that as a given, but that doesn’t mean we don’t try to excel, especially working with these honor students. I’m trying to get them to excel even beyond what they thought they themselves could do. I remember in my talk I referred to a bit of verse by Reid Whitmore. He says, “It is not clear where we go from here. Or for that matter, who we’re.”
Frye: There is a lot of uncertainty about ourselves and Pope has this wonderful line in his essay on man, actually on human beings, when he says that we as human beings are the glory, the jest and the riddle of the world all at the same time. We can do extraordinary things. We’ve been to the moon. We can use our voices. We’re using them now. I find that a miracle in itself. So we’re lords of the world, but we’re also jokes. We really do some stupid things, ridiculous things. And riddles. It’s hard to figure ourselves out. We’re puzzled by all of this. So when I say we want to fail at a very high level, I just remind them that Einstein failed his Ph.D. exams the first time he took them. And yet in terms of his contributions, I would say he failed at a very high level. Now, I’m not in that category, but many of our students are so gifted. I worked with one three years ago, Roderick Olivarez Branch, in the Honors Program. Triple major: English, French, music. I just mention English in passing.
Flowers: Of course [Laughs]
Frye: He had a 4.0 when he graduated. When he came to this country he could not speak English. He was from Mexico. He went to Arlington Martin High School and they put him in the slow learners group. I don’t know if he was valedictorian or not, but he came to TCU with an enormous number of advanced hours. He finished TCU and several of us wrote on his behalf to go to Harvard law school. He went to Harvard law school and he said that his work here in the honors program was better than anything he experienced at Harvard law school. I thought that was a very good compliment to us.
Flowers: We’ve had the same experience in the religion department. We had students go to seminary and graduate school at a variety of places — Vanderbilt, Chicago, Yale, Emory. And occasionally they come back and contact us, either personally or by e-mail, and we always ask, “Did we prepare you well?” And almost unanimously, they say yes. Well, Bob is right. None of us is perfect. There are good religious descriptions of that imperfection, but by darn, we’ve done a pretty good job, I think, in trying to draw out from our students their very best and to instill in them what we’ve learned over the years, both our undergraduate training and the time since then. It’s a cliche that we use around here, but it’s absolutely true: learning is a lifelong experience.
Waters: What’s the work that you are most proud of?
Flowers: Well, for me, I have to mention two things. First, being a classroom teacher. It has, far and away, occupied most of my time and been the most joy. Also been the most frustrating. [Laughs] You know, sometimes students don’t respond for whatever reason. But I also have to say for me to be able to write and publish has given me a sense of accomplishment. Some people here at universities, not just TCU, expect publication. Publish or perish and all that business. For me, that’s never been a problem because I’ve enjoyed doing it. Writing is not easy for me. My guess is it’s not easy for hardly anybody. I’ve enjoyed it and I’ve tried to keep some project going all the time. Although my scholarly output is not nearly as large as many scholars at this university or others, it’s been a satisfaction for me. In fact, I intend to do that until I retire … or change my mind. [Laughs] But people ask us all the time — [To Frye] I assume they ask you — what do you intend to do when you retire. Well, I don’t know for sure, but one thing I know is I want to continue to use my education and experience. Since I won’t be in the classroom as much in the future, but I think I would like to continue to read and to write. Because not only is it a satisfying activity for me, it’s also another dimension of this business we’ve talked about — service. Can you make a contribution to the learning of the community, the broader community, the reading community? I hope so. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from that. I was at a conference in Connecticut a few years ago on religion and journalism and a reporter came up from Los Angeles, I believe. “I read your book That Godless Court about Supreme Court decisions on church-state relations in a seminar I was taking in a journalism program It was so useful to me.” Hey that’s good, I thought. And there have been others saying similar things. So I think being a classroom teacher, first of all, and also having the opportunity to read and write have been points of satisfaction to me.
Frye: Ditto. [Laughs] I agree with what he’s said. I’ve heard Bill Koehler say many times that the central mission of this university is teaching. He defines that broadly, as I think he should. There’s teaching in the classroom. Teaching in the studio. Teaching in the lab — chemistry lab, physics lab, whatever kind of lab. But for me, what I am proudest of is that I have been allowed to teach from freshman honors up through Ph.D. seminars, and occasionally it’s worked. I was asked two or three years ago to be the facilitator or moderator of a series of breakfasts on teaching. We looked at a book by Parker Palmer called The Courage to Teach exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. My colleagues from across campus, for whom I have a lot of admiration, came over to this seminar and allowed me to be the leader of it. I found that to be an extraordinarily satisfying experience that they would allow me to do that. I was surprised in many ways. I think one of the things I appreciate most about my career here is the respect and willingness to allow me to do what I think I can do, which is teach. Part of that is writing. I’ve done some writing and publishing along the way. I haven’t done nearly as much as some. Ron and I were very active early in our careers in service. I even coached the women’s basketball team. So we’ve been very much a part of this institution in ways that I think sometimes some of our younger colleagues just don’t realize how gratifying that is. They don’t understand how rewarding that is to be part of a particular institution. I think sometimes there is a sense that one is loyal to one’s own profession within the university. I think both he and I feel we have a very close connection with this particular institution.
Flowers: He’s exactly right about that. I would agree with that.
Frye: That this has been a very special place for both of us to learn and to grow and to teach and to contribute in a variety of ways. I guess for me that’s very satisfying to think that Ron Flowers even knows who I am. I’m pleased to have him as a colleague and close friend.
Flowers: I thought about one instance that has kind of stayed with me. It’s been 10, 15 years. Wait. Longer than that. It was before I became department chair. Twenty years ago.
Frye: You were just a boy.
Flowers: I was just a young lad. But anyway, I was sitting in my office upstairs one afternoon late — 4:30, 4:45 — and it was quiet. Everyone was gone. I was just reading and all of a sudden, a woman walked in. She introduced herself as a former student. She had taken my course Sects and Cults in American Religion. I didn’t remember her, but she introduced herself to me. Told me she had been in that class , and she said, “You know I was on campus today and I wanted to come over here and say to you that that course has meant so much to me and my whole life because you taught me to be open minded.” She said, “I came to that course with a particular religious faith, and I went away from that course with that same faith except for the fact that you taught me by examining 15 or so other religious groups, some of which I had never heard of, some of which I had heard of and thought were pretty nutty, to respect those people for who they are and to respect those people even though I disagree with them theologically, that they have a right to believe the way they do.” She said, “You gave me a habit of open mindedness that has been enormously useful to me in a variety of ways throughout my life.” She was in my office 10 minutes at the most because she had to scoot. We had a brief conversation, but I have thought about that conversation so many times because that is precisely the kind of thing I hope I have been able to do for all these hundreds and thousands of students I’ve had the last 37 years. So, that one anecdote really is a microcosm of what I hope and believe I’ve been able to do. And I know Bob would concur as well in his field.
Frye: Yeah, I can think of two brief anecdotes. One is for many, many years, especially when my children were young and still at home, I got up very early. I got up about 4 and started grading papers at 4:30 or so.
Flowers: That’s a sickness. Not a virtue. [Laughs]
Frye: [Laughs] I’m not saying it’s a virtue. At the time, I thought it was a necessity. I’m a very slow grader and very thorough grader. I really write a lot of comments, copious commentary as they say, on these papers. All this green ink. I use green because it’s less menacing and the bleeding of red and all that.
Flowers: I use red. [Laughs]
Frye: [Laughs] But in any case, I got up especially early one morning, 3:30. That does sound a little ridiculous. I used to have a dog when we lived at our two-story house, and he would sit on the landing. And he would put his head up and put it back down like, “You’re crazy. No one should be up at this hour.” Even the students were asleep at this time across the way because I live right across from campus. About 4:30, I hear this little tap at the door, not the doorbell, just a tap at the door. And I go to the door and there are four honor students from my freshmen composition class. And they’ve been up baking cookies. They have chocolate chip cookies and a couple of other kinds and they were hot out of the oven. They knew I was up grading papers very early in the morning because we had discussed it. So they saw the light and wanted to know if I wanted some cookies. I said, “Well, this is not going to help your grade.”
Frye: Because I do have this reputation for sort of being an ogre when it comes to grading. Hard-nosed. Really difficult. This is not new. I’ve been consistent for 37 years of being a very difficult grader. But I said, “It won’t help your grade, but come on in. I’ve got some milk.” So we got the milk out and sat down and ate cookies. It’s still dark outside. One of those students went on to get his Ph.D. and M.D. as well, and I still hear from him from time to time. I think the point of the story is that since I am like an elder classmate, they felt they could do this. I wanted them to feel comfortable to do this although I don’t know how they came out on those particular papers. Some of those honors students would get back a D on a paper, and they couldn’t understand it because they never had a D in their lives. But this is not an uncommon experience in my honors classes. The other experience is along the lines of what Ron was saying. A young woman named Elizabeth Lunday, a very fine student in the Honors Program, was an English and Journalism. She was a brilliant student. I tell you — I wouldn’t say this to too many people — but it’s a little scary sometimes to have such bright students.
Flowers: Oh, boy, is it ever.
Frye: That’s another privilege of working in the Honors Program. You really have to be on your toes. You really have to be ready, so I really worked hard at that. So Elizabeth came by my office on a Friday — April 4, I just happen to remember the date — and she and I got to talking about feminism. She was very interested in some feminist issues, and I told her about a book I had been reading by Carolyn Gilligan called In a Different Voice. Gilligan was arguing that, generally speaking, women sort of have this nurturing side , and they want people to take responsibility whereas we males are not always as willing to be responsible. So Elizabeth and I talked about this, and I raised some questions about this Carolyn Gilligan. We talked a little while and Elizabeth went away. Then on Monday morning, she came by and gave me a nine-page, single-spaced letter in which she talked about her position on these various feminist issues. Her opening was something like this: “You’ve done it again. You’ve caused me to think.”
Frye: She says, “I came in just to talk about some other things and we got to talking about these issues.” And she says, “it has caused me to go away and really write this down and commit them to paper because I know you have thought about these issues yourself.” So she considered mea serious artist. She said, “I hope that we together perhaps can discover some truths.” Well, I think that notion of a student working with a teacher is the epitome of the good faculty-student relationship. Here you have this extraordinarily bright young woman, who was co-winner of the Boler Award when she presented her senior honors paper. Now, she’s a graduate student at the University of North Carolina, and I still stay up with her. I’ve written a number of letters of recommendation for her, which is another side of supporting students we haven’t mentioned much. I know Ron does a lot of that, supporting students in other ways outside the classroom. But this really epitomizes the wonderful relationship that I occasionally have the opportunity to engage in with students.
Waters: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in the classroom or in an area of service or publishing?
Flowers: One thing I learned about myself is that I am a much better lecturer than a discussion leader. What that means to me is that I developed my style over the years. I do deviate from it, but I try to stick to it. But I do think I am a pretty darned good lecturer.
Frye: That’s why I’m listening now.
Flowers: [Laughs] That’s right. You’re captivated.
Frye: That’s right. Taking copious notes. [Laughs]
Waters: You mentioned your styles. How have your methods changed over your careers?
Frye: I went on sabbatical in fall of ’77, and when I came back, I decided to use letter writing in the spring of ’78. So I told the students I wanted them to write a personal letter to me every week. I would not grade it. And I would write them a personal letter every week. They couldn’t grade it either, but they were going to make some judgments, I understood. But the only criterion for this was to make the letter worth the time and energy to read it, So we did this letter writing over and above our regular coursework. This was an honors section, but what this did was put me in the same fix that the students were in. That is to say I had an assignment every week. In fact, I did one this morning. I wrote one of my honors classes this morning. But I started it in 1978 and I did it straight through for 20 years, without fail, unless I was out of town. I wrote a letter to them every week. I have written 350, 375 and they wrote me a personal letter. I’ve kept every one of their letters. I have about 5,000 or more of their letters. That’s one reason my TCU roommate — my wife, Alice — says we don’t have much closet space anywhere.
Flowers: And they have a two-story home. [Laughs]
Frye: [Laughs] But really it helped me understand better the position the student was in — an assignment that must get done, even sometimes when you don’t want to do it. So that was very helpful. I will also say that having two children to go to TCU and being married to a woman who went to TCU, that also gave me still another perspective. That helped me better understand the students’ perspective, puts me in their shoes, puts me in the same fix they’re in. So that was invaluable to me.
Waters: What did you write your class this morning?
Frye: I tried to write a letter of encouragement because these freshmen have just been through the first two weeks of school and they’re doing their laundry for the first time, I trust. If they don’t, we’ll probably know. [Laughs] They’re making all these adjustments and have all this free time and it’s not as structured. It’s a little harder to have the discipline that they need. So I wrote a letter about the importance of letters, and I used the story of Loren Eiseley, chancellor of the University of Pennsylvania and who when he turned in his first English assignments in college, the teacher said, “Oh this isn’t your work. You can’t write this well.” And accused him of plagiarism. It drove him right out of majoring in English and he wound up majoring in science instead. He became this great paleontologist and wrote a lot about evolution and eventually became the chancellor of Pennsylvania. His inspiration came over one time when his father had died and his aunt was taking all his father’s letters and burning them. He was able to read just on little section of one letter from his father about his confidence he had in him and that gave him the strength and encouragement to go on to be an extraordinary scholar and extraordinary human being. He was an honors speaker here one year.
Flowers: He was here the year I won the honors professor of the year.
Frye: That particular year, my TCU roommate, Alice, and I took Loren Eiseley out to a party after the honors banquet in my old ’38 Chevrolet, which I still have. So I told my students a little about that in my letter. I told them about how he signed his autobiography in the backseat of my ’38 Bonneville while I held a flashlight. I just tried to let them see that letters really can make a significant difference I also told them about one of my heroes, Vaclav Havel, whose letters made a big difference in his work in Czechoslovakia . So my purpose in the letters today is that letters can instill a great sense of encouragement, and especially post-9/11, we all need encouragement.
Flowers: From what I can tell Bob is unique in this and it’s one of the things that’s made him such a great teacher over the years with this dialoguing either on paper or one-on-one with students. I’ve not had the discipline to do it myself so I take my hat off to him. Waters: What’s a trait you admire about the other? Frye: We don’t have enough time on this one. [Laughs]
Flowers: What I admire about Bob among other things is that he’s a great scholar and he’s conscientious. In fact, I’ve said this to him. He’s conscientious to a fault. He gets up at 4:30 in the morning more often than the law should allow. But he really cares — about this place, this university, the students. And he’s a bloody good racquetball player. [Laughs] [Frye Laughs]
Flowers: He and I have played over the years a lot and he has mightily defeated me, but I keep going back because he’s so much fun to be with. I really have a good time with him.
Frye: Of course, one of the qualities I admire is his patience. He’s patient with me. He’s a very patient person. He’s the sort of person that when I have a serious question he really does have a thought. He’s sort of a pastor in that sense. I admire his scholarly work. He is one of the foremost experts on church-state relations. He has a book in its fifth edition. In terms of personal qualities, he’s generous, modest about a lot of things. I know he wouldn’t say that. He’s a terrific teacher.
Waters: How did you meet and become friends?
Flowers: Funny thing. I don’t remember exactly.
Frye: We were predestined.
Flowers: Well, he is a Presbyterian. [Both laugh]
Waters: What is the best thing about TCU 37 years ago and the best part about TCU today?
Flowers: As far as today, TCU is forward looking. But I confess I don’t agree with everything that is going on here. In many ways, I feel TCU is moving beyond me. I suspect that is a good thing in some ways. Still, it is difficult to articulate what I am feeling. Mostly, it’s a gut level thing. I have been at TCU for almost 40 years and this seems like the perfect time to leave. When I came here, TCU was much different. It has moved from what was thought in some circles as a glorified high school to a first-rate university. But along the way, they’ve de-emphasized the humanities. Not to disparage anybody else, but it seems the school of business is the tail that wags the dog. I would like to see them return that emphasis on the humanities. I guess what I want to say is that I feel some dis-ease about some of the changes going on here. But if I were starting a career, I think TCU is still a place I would like to be.
Frye: I agree with Ron. I too have seen some of that loss of emphasis. We still are a liberal arts institution, and I would like us to remain true to those areas. But I’ve also noticed a good deal more emphasis on publishing. And that’s fine. I understand that. But teaching is still central to the profession. Service is also very important too. I think we’ve lost that collegial sense of our work. I would agree that careerism has begun to rise among our colleagues. One thing is that I’ve noticed in students is that there is an entitlement attitude — to grades, finest facilities, things of that nature. Those are all good things, but I have perceived that students aren’t as curious as they once were or wanting to learn for learning’s sake. Now they’re more interested in marketing skills. It’s not true of all students, but it’s how they’ve evolved since the middle ’60s when we stared teaching. Partially, it’s TCU’s fault. But it’s not just TCU. It’s academics in general. Whenever co-curricular activities take the place of learning or there’s a threat of them becoming co-equal with academics that’s troublesome. Let me be blunt. A lot of these extra activities are resume builders. I tell my students, “Think about learning. Worry about learning and let the resume take care of itself.”
Flowers: The word erosion comes to mind. Not saying that any of us are know-it-alls, but there’s been a shift in philosophy and I don’t think we’re in complete agreement. For many, many years, I thought I would work here 40 years. It was a nice round number. But I won’t reach that, and part of the reason is the change in attitude in students and the university. This business with the UCR [University Core Requirements], to put it bluntly, I think it’s a crock. I made the decision to retire a little early. I hate to sound upset, but I am concerned about students.
Waters: What advice would you give students?
Flowers: Take advantage of every academic opportunity you have. It’s a rich place. We’re small but the size has been perfect. Yet we’re large enough to have enormously rich programs. Take advantage of co-curricular activities, but don’t let it get out of balance. Let your education be the principal goal.
Note: Flowers recently published his fifth book, To Defend the Constitution: Religion, Conscientious Objection, Naturalization, and the Supreme Court.
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