Round Table

On the eve of his classmates’ 50th Reunion, Bill Dill ’51 remembers the legendary Bobby Berkelman.

By William R. Dill ’51

As the older Bates grads begin a new century, Bobby Berkelman is still their write-hand man.

Bobby Berkelman

Bobby Berkelman greets alumni at a Bates Reunion in the 1970s. What is the legacy of Berkelman, one of the most memorable professors of the older Bates graduates?

Would Bobby Berkelman, perhaps the most memorable professors of the older Bates grads, have embraced computers in his teaching?

Contemplating the legacy of a professor born a century ago, as my class prepares to celebrate our 50th Bates Reunion at the beginning of a new century, is more than nostalgia run amok.

Berkelman and computers. He would have abhorred how technology—e-mail and word processing—can make writing slapdash. But Berkelman also hated the lazy writer’s excuses. With computers, we can draft and revise with ease, use the Internet to invite critiques from Timbuktu as well as next door, get deus ex machina advice on spelling and even points of grammar, and once a good draft is ready turn out and distribute attractive copies of the finished product. Indeed, he would have seen how technology gives little room for the artful dodger.

Robert Berkelman grew up in Duluth, Minn., and graduated from Lawrence College in Wisconsin with membership in Phi Beta Kappa. He taught briefly in high school before becoming an instructor at Bates in 1924, while he worked on a master’s degree from Yale.

His brusque manner frightened, even angered, some students. But it was one way a slight, shy instructor could take charge. After an hour of reading poetry to freshmen in one of his early classes at Bates, Berkelman paused to glare at the skeptical faces of athletes in the room. “Some of you may think I’m a sissy. If any of you does, I’ll come down to where you are and punch you out.” Brusqueness also meant impatience with slackers. During World War II, he returned a sloppily written assignment to one yet-undrafted male with only this comment: “Men are dying to protect your opportunities.”

Berkelman was not as remote as he seemed. He could let down his hair, what little remained after 25 years in the classroom. Debaters who met him in New York City while he was on sabbatical at Columbia remember his skill juggling apples on a moving subway train and his confession to reading the Times in the back of a classroom “because Lionel Trilling’s lectures were so dull.” One married veteran at Bates under the GI Bill talked about transferring for a quicker degree at Boston University. The veteran complained of the pettiness of some teachers and the childishness of many classmates. Berkelman gave the man tips for coping and argued persuasively that staying with Bates would be the better choice.

Of Berkelman’s many legacies, his advice on writing may be the greatest. From freshman English to his seminars on creating essays and short stories, he taught the craft of working with words. Berkelman liked short assignments with word limits to force planning and encourage conciseness. (On final examinations, he asked that as much as half the time be spent conceiving rather than writing answers. He usually accepted only one bluebook per student.) His suggestion to write down one central idea for each page read helped us absorb. He keyed his comments on papers to lists of principles that he wanted students to learn so that through life, they could continue to develop by becoming their own critics and teachers. “You’ll probably hate me now for this,” he wrote at the end of a particularly harsh critique. “But you’ll thank me in later years.”

The lists of principles changed from course to course and year to year. Two samples are presented here. One is “official,” courtesy of Channing Wagg ’61, from courses he took in creative and expository writing. The second is crafted from quotations that successive Bates graduating classes associated with Berkelman in their yearbooks.

The principles were as much questions as recipe—things to ask while you draft, revise, or try to make sense of a critique, or while you diagnose why someone else’s writing pleases or annoys. They encouraged you to analyze whom you want to reach, what you want to accomplish, and how you should organize to inform or persuade. They did not detail grammar and style; but they reminded you both of standards, like preference for active voice, and of frequent personal failings, like loading on of adjectives.

His principles gave students the confidence to read with a critical eye, all their lives. We can read and say, “this is good” or “bad,” and analyze why the adjectives apply. We dip now and then into someone else’s advice on how to write: Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, George Orwell’s Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays, Claire Cook’s Line by Line, or perhaps even guides that run against the tide to enlighten lawyers and bureaucrats: Sir Ernest Gowers’ Complete Plain Words and the Securities and Exchange Commission’s recent Plain English Handbook.

So, Berkelman and computers? As his daughter Anne ’57 points out, he hardly mastered the typewriter. Certainly, he would not have let ease of typing, fascination with fonts, and simplicity of printing get in the way of learning the essentials. In this new era, though, he might have led. Remember that he taught both literature and art. Imagine, 75 years ago, how he must have scrabbled to build a world view of literature and art to help him teach Bates students how to open their eyes and minds. From drably printed texts and black-and-white reproductions of art, he drew life, color, and meaning.

Today, computers and other new media are opening a world in which even routine messages get conceived as combinations of words and graphics. People like Edward Tufte of Yale are trying to derive principles of graphic communication that match what teachers of writing have devised. Heirs of Tufte and Berkelman increasingly work together.

Fifty years from now, old Bates grads will recall their most memorable teachers. These professors will have built, as Berkelman did, their teaching around a short list of tersely phrased fundamentals, but will have helped students apply these to integrate text, numbers, images, and eventually even sounds into new kinds of expression.

It is a new challenge, but just remember how well Berkelman juggled apples on the train.

    Berkelman’s Principles of Writing

  • Know your subject.
  • Consider your readers.
  • Unify.
  • Organize.
  • Complete your thought.
  • Begin attractively and pointedly.
  • Choose the exact word.
  • Make your sentences flow smoothly.
  • Be specific and concrete; back up generalizations with specific details and illustrations.
  • Avoid triteness, passive voice, pretty-pretty personification and adjectivitis.
  • Cultivate apt, fresh figures of speech to enliven style.
  • Read writing aloud to eliminate awkwardness.
  • Cut down wordiness; reduce predication and platitude.
  • Cultivate contrast or conflict.
  • Put odds and ends in the middle of the sentence.
  • Make clear what you do not mean as well as what you mean.
  • Seal paragraphs with strong sentences or epigrams.

(Circa 1960, courtesy Channing Wagg ’61.)

    Berkelman Said…

  • From the sum total, we shall deduct 10 percent for spelling, 10 percent for glaring grammatical errors, 10 percent for….
  • Free verse is right if it doesn’t become too free.
  • Now more than ever for economy.
  • We’ll entertain ourselves with a little writing this morning.
  • Leave out the tapioca.
  • He may have written some dry stuff, but he ate his apple pie.
  • The ideally educated man or woman, I believe, has intense intellectual enthusiasms and is becoming well-rounded without turning into a billiard ball.
  • Let’s put our brains on paper this morning in concise, penetrating, specific, concrete sentences.
  • So what?
  • React with the eye, and the brain behind the eye
  • Keats did it before he was 24. Could you?
  • Let’s sum this up clear-headedly in two words….
  • Let’s not be la-de-da, boys and girls.
  • We have everything here—high, low, jack, and the game.
  • Good students plan ahead.

(Attributed to Bobby Berkelman in the Bates Mirror, 1925–1970.)