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April 20, 2010
By John Trent
For a moment, anyway, Eric Rasmussen was completely speechless. His face was as red as the shirt he wore.
Seconds earlier, an English Department faculty meeting in Frandsen Humanities was interrupted by a group of intruders that included Provost Marc Johnson, College of Liberal Arts Dean Heather Hardy, English Professor Michael Branch and about a dozen of Rasmussen’s graduate students, known affectionately as the “Renaissance mafia.”
Johnson, who led the way into the room, quickly waved away Rasmussen’s bewildered gaze.
“Along with the ‘Renaissance mafia,’ we’re here to celebrate this with you,” Johnson said.
“This” was the awarding to Rasmussen of the 2010 F. Donald Tibbitts University Distinguished Award. Since 1973, the award has been bestowed upon the campus’ top teacher.
Rasmussen, an internationally known Shakespearean scholar who can usually pluck lines from Shakespeare’s great works with the ease of Prospero conjuring magic, flashed a bewildered smile.
“I’m,” he said, searching for something appropriate to sum up the moment. He could find nothing, other than a heartfelt stammer, which brought forth hearty applause from his colleagues and his students, “I’m … genuinely stunned.”
It might’ve been the first time during a distinguished 16-year career as an English professor at the University of Nevada, Reno that Rasmussen could say such a thing.
“It really is remarkable,” Rasmussen said a few days later in his office in Frandsen Humanities. “There are a thousand faculty on the university campus … actually, I think there are 999 … so you cannot quite say you are one out of a thousand, but it’s still a fantastic honor.
“To be in the same group as many of my colleagues who have won this award before and who are extremely fine teachers, is just so unbelievable to me.”
For Rasmussen’s students, however, there has never been any doubt.
“He has such great dedication to his students,” said Erin Fockler, who is currently finishing her M.A. in English. Fockler estimated that during her career as an undergraduate student at Nevada, and now as a graduate student, she has probably taken “six or seven” courses taught by Rasmussen. Each one has been characterized by “unbelievable knowledge,” Fockler said, as well as an insatiable sense of passion for teaching.
“He just knows everything,” Fockler said. “I had a seminar with him one time where he brought in scholars from Oxford and from back east to meet with us. We read all of their critical work. It’s just so rare to get an opportunity to actually see how scholarship like that works, by people who are actually doing it.”
Rasmussen has never met a question that wasn’t worth a thoughtful, if discursive, response, Fockler said.
“From a student’s point of view, you won’t find anyone better,” she said. Smiling, she added, “If you ever want to get him off-topic, just ask him a question … he’ll tell you about it for a while.”
The Rasmussen “touch” includes a number of key elements. First, there is the mastery of the material. Rasmussen doesn’t speak in iambic pentameter, though he probably could without giving it a second thought. He was one of two scholars chosen by the Royal Shakespeare Company to edit the complete works of Shakespeare. His scholarly work has also been recognized by the University. He was the 1999 recipient of the Mousel-Feltner Award for Excellence in Research.
All told, he has earned about $1 million in grant funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities over the years, a staggering figure for an English professor. But to Rasmussen’s way of thinking, having such an extensive record of research funding shouldn’t be the only barometer of a professor’s success.
Every summer for the past 15 years, he has made sure his students benefit from his research. He’s taken them on trips to the cradle of Shakespeare – the United Kingdom – as well as archives in Japan and the United States.
“I get wonderful research out of my students, and they get the experience of traveling to these wonderful places, which rounds them out as individuals and professionalizes them,” he said. “They really do become part of the research agenda.”
Rasmussen takes both undergraduate and graduate students on these trips. He feels it benefits him as much as the students.
“This is the way I love living my life, having interaction with these students in this way, it’s just fantastic,” he said. “I’ve talked to some of my colleagues about how they spend their research money, and for me, the answer is simple: Put your students on a plane!”
In late March, Rasmussen noted with great pride, “We had to cancel my graduate seminar, because more than half of my students (were) going to a national seminar in Chicago to present papers. I think that’s great. For me, the whole collaborative enterprise is just sort of an extension of the teaching. My students become so professionalized.”
The third element in Rasmussen’s teaching success boils down to a simple fact. Whether he will admit it or not, Rasmussen is naturally charismatic, and funny. He has an alert gusto, an affable hipness and enthusiasm, which he wears comfortably.
“The trickiest thing about being a professor,” he admitted, “is you don’t want to be one of the boring ones. You want to be somebody who walks into the classroom and the students want to be there. So you want to be engaging and interesting and funny and enthusiastic, but in the meantime you don’t want to dumb it down. You have to adjudicate really carefully between those two.
“What I’ve learned from just about every professor I’ve ever had, is that you have to achieve that balance, of being very intellectually vested in the material, but at the same time making it accessible and available to your students.
“That’s why I teach.”
It hasn’t always come easily for Rasmussen. For the better part of a decade, he commuted to Reno each week while his wife, Vicky Hines, worked and raised the couple’s two young sons, Tristan and Arden, in the Bay Area community of Orinda, Calif. A little less than two years ago, the family finally moved to Reno. They settled into one of Reno’s most notably historic residences, the former home of the late Reno Gazette-Journal columnist Rollan Melton and his wife, artist Marilyn Melton.
“You would think that would have been difficult, but I’m telling you, this is an amazing man,” Tristan, now a 17-year-old student at The Davidson Academy on the University campus, said of the decade-long commute from the Bay Area to Reno. “He managed to do the three and a half, four hour drive, every week, twice a week, coming and going … and he never complained about it.”
Rasmussen, a self-described “positive” person, said the drive wasn’t all that bad.
“It’s funny how that sort of became ‘the’ talking point about me,” Rasmussen said of his long drives. “People who didn’t know me did know that I commuted 200 miles each week to work. But, it was funny, it would take me three hours to drive to Reno sometimes, and I have friends in the Bay Area who would have to sit that long in traffic each day. And I got to drive through the mountains and then once I got to Reno, I would live in casinos because the mid-week rates were really cheap. Pretty soon, (the casinos) just started to assume I was a high roller because I would stay there so often, and they would upgrade me to these lavish suites and penthouses.”
There are a lot worse ways to spend a decade commuting, obviously. And now that they’re all in Reno, Rasmussen said his family is “deliriously” happy. Arden, now 12, is a student at Mountain View Montessori School, while Tristan is weighing options for college.
Tristan, who as part of the Davidson Academy can take college courses at the University, said he’s not quite sure what makes his father such an outstanding teacher. He said his father is never pushy, and while the temptation might be great, has never foisted a love of Shakespeare on him.
“He’s never forced it on me, and he’s always let me do my own thing,” said Tristan, who by the way, does enjoy Shakespeare.
“I keep asking him why he’s so good at it,” Tristan said of Rasmussen’s teaching prowess. “And he keeps telling me it’s magic. I don’t think he necessarily has a photographic memory, but he has a really good memory. I think it’s because he loves this kind of thing. Because he loves it so much, he remembers it, he knows how to tell it to other people, and … he makes them love it as well.”
From an early age, in fact, Shakespeare gripped Rasmussen’s imagination with an uncommon intensity. Growing up in and around New York City (his father was a business executive and his mother was a professional hand weaver who had been an English major in college), Rasmussen recalled one of the first moments when he realized the work of Shakespeare represented a brave new world to him.
“When I was three years old, my parents bought a new station wagon, a Pontiac Tempest,” he said. “And my mother named it ‘Miranda’ after the character in Shakespeare’s ‘Tempest.’”
What was more, his mother baked a cake, with light blue frosting, in honor of the new car “Miranda.”
“I was clearly locked in at an early age,” Rasmussen said with a contented chuckle. “When I was in college, I was thinking about working with contemporary drama or renaissance drama. And it occurred to me, contemporary drama is already pretty accessible. Renaissance drama seemed like something worth studying, something that was worth the effort to work back through those centuries to make it real and viable. Along with my mother’s ‘Miranda’ cake, that was what got me interested in it.”
At the end of the “Tempest,” Prospero, the protagonist, tells the audience that it is their applause that he must receive, if his final spell is to be broken and the play is to end: “With the help of your good hands: Gentle breath of yours/My sails must fill, or else my project fails.”
Luckily for Rasmussen’s students, it isn’t applause that their English professor seeks. Rather, it is their attention. It is that rare Rasmussen mix that makes it all possible: a joyful spirit that shares rather than enforces knowledge, as well as an artist’s talent to enchant and inspire.
“There are students who have a knee-jerk reaction to not want to go to class,” Rasmussen said. He paused for a moment, knowing that his work, even after all these years, is still bold and exciting, like watching a time-lapse film of a deeply-rooted tree still extending toward its full measure. “I think one of the worse things we can do as teacher is to validate that feeling.”
Rasmussen flashed another smile, this one more radiant, less surprised, than the stunned expression he wore a few days earlier when confronted by the provost and the Renaissance mafia.
“The best thing,” he continued, “is to surprise them, to exceed the expectations of my students. I love that part of student evaluations, when students will write, ‘I actually wanted to go to class.’ I love the ‘actually’ in a comment like that. A comment like that is one of the great joys of my life.”
John Trent is Senior Editor of News and Features in Digital Initiatives.