by Professor Carl Straub
Celeste and Noah, Mrs. Branham, friends: nothing we say can relieve the poignancy of this hour. Despite our gathering here, this seems like an empty room which we are trying to fill with the furniture of mind and with the tapestries of memory. Surely before we leave, each of us, through the idioms abiding in our silence, will add our individual meditations to our collective mind and memory.
I have been asked to reflect on Robert’s journey through Bates College, a distinguished career of nearly 25 years. He joined this faculty in September 1974, one year after his graduation from Dartmouth. He became professor of rhetoric, in the Department of Theater and Rhetoric, in 1989, surely among the youngest in the history of the College to receive full rank.
As we know, rhetoric came into the curriculum of higher learning because of the formulation of it by Aristotle. As the Athenian experiment wavered, in part under the sway of sophistry, Aristotle recognized that sensible and capable legislators needed training in the art and logic of persuasion. Aristotle knew that rhetoric, akin to poetry, was the necessary means by which virtuous persons could argue persuasively for justice over injustice, for the good over the not-good, for peace over war. To read again in Aristotle’s Rhetoric is to know the historical roots of Robert Branham’s academic journey through the College. In the courses he taught, in the training of debaters he coached, and in the wide-ranging scholarship he pursued and published, Robert was focused on the uses and misuses of language and of speech in the affairs of the American polis. He was focused on documenting the ambivalences of our national life through the ways we speak in public, through the messages we bear, one to another, and to all. Like Aristotle, he understood that the language of a people is its fate. He knew that the integrity of our common life rested on the integrity of our speech.
That is what his teaching was about. His steady offering of courses in argumentation, persuasion, public speaking, and public discourse were complemented in the past decade by imaginative courses in documentary film and video. Courses in fantasy fiction and science fiction took their places alongside offerings in “policy debate,” where the rhetoric of nuclear policy, Vietnam policy, and the civil rights movements found appropriate analysis and reflection. Robert was the driving force behind the popular interdisciplinary course on the 1960s, an era when the rhetoric of deception and of racial strife shook the American character.
Nowhere was his firm commitment to the discipline of rhetoric more evident than in his single handed, pioneering design of the undergraduate major in the field. The major was an early model of trust in the interdisciplinary process; it was a lesson in what could be accomplished curriculum wise when personal dedication to student learning eclipsed professional orientation toward narrow interests.
In coming to the College, one of Robert’s obligations was to restore and then sustain the truly great tradition of undergraduate debating, an activity co-terminous with the founding of the College. Under his faithful leadership and brilliant coaching, the past quarter-century of the program has been marked by international, national, and regional championships. No student activity at Bates, including intercollegiate sports, has nurtured as great a degree of personal self discipline and of shared commitment to competitive victory, as has College debate under Robert’s leadership. Through personal example and by professional expertise, he has made clear to hundreds of students that ideas matter, and that they make a difference in public life when advocated with logical thinking and with clarity of voice. One wonders how many of the recent generations engaged in this program will in time take their places alongside earlier debaters who have been among the most distinguished graduates of the College.
Robert Branham’s learning was prodigious. He read widely and deeply. There was a wildness to his intellectual life, a capacity to shift into new territories without leaving the old. He was relentless in exploring new areas of culture and of history. With sustained yet quiet energy and with no regard for frivolous things, he assiduously uncovered connections among historical facts and unmasked meanings of ordinary things. Alongside his American focus was a deep appreciation for Japanese culture. This energy was not only in service to his scholarship; it was also in service to his teaching. He was a masterful teacher whose generosity of caring for his students was matched only by his skills for educating them.
Beneath Robert’s professional successes, however, there was a very private person. He felt things deeply, although he almost never laid those feelings on others. I believe there was a melancholy and a profound sense of both the ambivalences in human life and the ironies in human history. It was this realism about human affairs, rather than any brittle ideology, which was the wellspring of both his respect for individuals and their differences, and his respect for institutions, including those of the American experiment and those of the academic inheritance.
Two days after he was diagnosed with cancer, Bob called me from Portland. In the course of the conversation, he said that he guessed he would not have any more opportunities to make a fool of himself in faculty meetings. I did not quite know what to say, except something along the lines that I never thought he made a fool of himself. But I didn’t need to make a response. For after a pause he said, “But you, of course, will continue to have ample opportunities.” We both howled with laughter.
His humor was often like Hogarth’s: it was at the expense of the pompous and of the pseudo pious figures on the political scene. The humor came my way most often on cold winter days when we crossed paths. He was usually going to the Den for that 9 o’clock coffee with friends. I would see him coming with that slight bounce in his walk, the dark beret on top, usually a twinkle throughout the entire face. I would initiate the quick exchange by asking something about the morning news. Then the humor came, carried on a razor-sharp insight in service to a moral indignation. We would laugh, and move on. Some days I could hear the cold wind flapping the flag as I headed toward Hathorn or Lane, still smiling. Occasionally I would look back.
As is our circumstance, Robert journeyed here not only as teacher, scholar, colleague, but also as husband, father, son, friend, citizen, partisan, raconteur, clown, writer of haiku, connoisseur of jazz, merciless squash player, magician for children, dying patient. The intricate fabric of living, into which we are all woven and from which we cannot extricate ourselves even though we often try, was — of course — Robert’s true place, like it is the true place of us all.
What we in the academy so easily and so often forget about our collegiality is that beneath it, and around it, and through it pulses a life together with obligations and privileges, desires and needs, satisfactions and hurts having nothing to do with keeping our appointments and having little to do with balancing on the knife edge of our professional climb.
So today, in sadness but with gratitude, we not only celebrate a young life of high learning, a teacher with rare talents, a scholar who had the courage to keep his eye on the big picture. We also celebrate a companion in living. After the rupture, he would want us to heal.