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Brilliant ideas and ruthless competition at 600 words per minute: Behind the scenes of the Michigan debate team's dramatic push for a national championship.
Michigan Today's new language columnist remembers her mentor and predecessor, Richard W. Bailey.
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U-M's Depression Center now offers an online toolkit to help people manage depression and related issues, and to get the help they need.
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May 11, 2011
It is a privilege to have this opportunity to honor Richard W. Bailey, whose column on language many of you have been reading for years now. Richard's final column, Last Words, published a couple of weeks after his death, was a poignant reminder of the great insight and candor that Richard brought to writing about the power of words.
I am a faculty member in the English Department, where I teach many of the same courses that Richard taught throughout his forty plus years in the department (e.g., History of the English Language, Structure of English). I was fortunate enough to be Richard's colleague from 2002 to 2007, when he retired. And before I was his colleague, I was Richard's student. When I introduced myself to Richard on the first day of grad school orientation, back in 1993, I had no idea how profoundly this man would shape not just my career but more fundamentally my intellectual and personal commitments, as a scholar, a teacher, and a citizen. I am the scholar I am today because I was Richard's student.
Richard's English Dept. page captures his stunning career as a scholar and as a public intellectual. Rather than repeat that impressive list of accomplishments here, I want instead to remember who Richard was a teacher, a mentor, and a colleague.
Richard Bailey had a reputation when I came to graduate school: he was the prof who made people cry. And it's true that Richard did not always indulge in pleasantries. I remember turning in two dissertation chapters and then coming to his office a couple of days later to discuss them with him. He told me a story about a writer, long before word processors, who finished his book manuscript, left it on the table and came back to discover that the maid, thinking it was trash, had thrown it into the fire. So he had to rewrite the manuscript from scratch and he discovered that the book was much better the second time. Richard then handed me back the two chapters.
So was Richard Bailey intimidating? Absolutely. This man knew so much and somehow kept that knowledge at his fingertips. And given his persona, none of Richard's students knew exactly what to call him. I did not feel comfortable calling him Richard for years, long after I had gone to parties at his home, fed his cats when he was out of town, taught with him, and co-written articles with him. And I know many former students who still refer to him with some combination of Professor Bailey, Doctor Bailey, Professor, RWB, Richard, or Sir.
But if you went to Professor Bailey's office or took his classes, you learned that behind the slightly scary reputation was a man who cared deeply about his students and treated them with the utmost scholarly seriousness. He also generously opened his home to his students and went to great lengths to ensure that we had access to the scholarly and financial resources we needed to produce truly original research, in addition to the knowledge. My colleague and co-author Michael Adams and I were reminiscing about the many conversations that began with Richard saying, "You probably don't know this. In fact, I'm sure you don't know this…" and then hearing him tell you about something that you did not, in fact, know—and were glad that now you did.
So was Richard Bailey inspiring? Perhaps beyond what I can capture here.
In a funny way, Richard was an inspiration through guilt. In the almost twenty years I knew Richard, he frequently lamented to me that he was "getting nothing done," while he was producing three times more than those of us who saw ourselves as having a productive semester, while he was teaching two classes, serving on department committees, and writing Supreme Court briefs—not to mention for the past few years producing informative, entertaining Michigan Today columns every month.
Most importantly, Richard inspired as a model. Richard modeled for me and his other students what it means to be genuinely intellectually curious, to ask impertinent intellectual questions, to be intellectually brave and honest. He was relentless in his pursuit of original sources and modeled what research can mean when we move beyond traditional sources. Richard also wrote without footnotes, to extend his work beyond academic circles. That may not mean much to people outside academia, but believe me, for a professor that was brave!
Richard modeled what it means to care deeply about your department and university, what it means to respect the incredible work K-12 teachers do, and what it means to devote yourself to training a new generation of teachers. Richard taught the core course for students gaining teaching certification—as I do now—year after year, and there was no course he saw as more fundamentally important to the mission of the department.
To many people, the history and structure of language would seem the epitome of Ivory Tower irrelevance. Yet for Richard it had everything to do with the "real world." He modeled for me and his other students what it means to do academic work that matters. For Richard, the stakes have always been real—our work is about real speakers in real time and fundamentally about social justice, equal opportunity to education, and the battling of language prejudice.
Richard had no patience for prescriptive attitudes that denigrate nonstandard varieties of English or gate-keeping mechanisms such as SAT questions that test knowledge of split infinitives rather than the ability to deploy the language with eloquence, creativity, and effectiveness in a range of situations. He defended nonstandard varieties of English in court, in print, and in the classroom. He strove to show his readers and his students the systematicity and the quirky delights of language variation and change, from regional Michigan terms (e.g., paczkis) to the unpredictable history of the apostrophe.
While Richard was home in hospice care, and I was visiting as often as I could, I found I was often thinking about him while I was teaching the courses that he so often also taught. One day, I ended a History of English class saying, "You know, I fundamentally believe you can teach Standard English without making students feel bad." I thought, "Richard would like that sentence." That evening, when I visited Richard at home, I told him what I had said to students at the end of class, and he nodded. "That's exactly right," he said. And I said to him, "You showed me that."
Richard changed many, many lives through his academic work. I know that I am not alone when I say that I can't quite believe that he will never again hand me a book and say, "You should read this," and, of course, be right. Or read what I write and help me make it stronger, giving me the obscure, invaluable reference only he would know. But I like to think that Richard's legacy lives on with all his students, and their students, who are now teachers in classrooms across the country and around the world—who are striving to pursue academic work that matters and to do justice to the education and inspiration that Richard gave us.
is Professor of English Language and Literature and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor. She also has faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.