A teacher, not a professor

Of all the challenging assignments I have had to complete at Williams, summing up Sheafe Satterthwaite, lecturer in art, in 900 words is the hardest of all. For 44 years Sheafe has been a part of the College community, and although he will undoubtedly remain a part of it, this is his last year as a professor. When it was first announced that Sheafe’s contract would not be renewed after the 2011-12 academic year, current and former students wrote letters to the administration (which were published on a blog) in support of Sheafe and his unique brand of teaching. Certain aspects of his style came up again and again. Three of the recurring themes were Sheafe’s insistence that students ask “dumb” questions; his teaching method in which digressions are the point, not a useless amendment; and his sharing of students’ essays with the entire class in bound volumes, with the idea that we may learn more from one another than we do from him. Combined, these traits make his classes unusually practical, even though he will be the first to admit that his courses are in no way vocational. He teaches students how to be universally inquisitive and not linearly goal-oriented. He teaches us to learn about our surroundings from the people who surround us. Ultimately, Sheafe teaches us to learn beyond the limits of an educational institution, a trait that is undervalued these days at Williams.

Since my first day as a freshman in Sheafe’s “Aspects of Western Art” conference I have called Sheafe “professor” and in return he has called me “student.” Sheafe is notorious for forgetting the names of his students, or simply calling them by names that aren’t theirs. Although I’ve been called “Lucy” instead of “Lizzy” once or twice, I am convinced that Sheafe has other motives behind calling me “student”: It is indicative of how Sheafe views his relationships to his students. Until I started calling him by his first name, which displays a level of comfort and informality rarely practiced by other professors, he wasn’t going to call me by mine.

When I made the drive with four friends to Sheafe’s home in Salem, N.Y., this past Thursday, he told me that with no children of his own, the students in his classes are somewhat of a substitute for a family. A unique aspect of all of his classes is a large amount of time spent with both him and classmates outside of his Lawrence Hall lecture rooms. A mandatory overnight field trip to Montreal is a constant feature of Sheafe’s courses. He pointed out to me that on these trips the students in his class spend almost as much time together, and with him, as they do during an entire semester’s worth of classes.  In comparison to his colleagues, Sheafe not only spends a huge amount of time with his students, but also gets to know them quite well. EJ Johnson ’59, professor of art, pointed out to me once that the great thing about Sheafe, both as a teacher and a human being, is that to him everything and everyone is interesting. This especially applies to his students, and even though he may not always get their names right, Sheafe has more insight into who his students are than any professor who merely memorizes 20 names.

Sheafe insists on making it clear that his home and his time are always open to students who require them. The walls of his historic home are covered in prints, maps and photographs of landscapes and buildings in America. His home, much like Sheafe himself, unknowingly promotes learning amongst all those who engage with it. Sheafe, to the point of self-deprecation, credits his students with being smarter than he is in many subjects, and constantly looks to us to teach him something new about the world. When we do, he enthusiastically shakes our hands and pronounces “A-plus!” Unlike most professors, who give good grades like they are life itself (a concept too many of us buy into), Sheafe is quick to praise students for asking a thought-provoking question and gives out extra credit for merely looking deeper into something discussed in class. You would think that the inquisitiveness and open-minded research that Sheafe encourages in his students are traits that the College would want its future alums to have. The current administration disappointingly misses the value in Sheafe and what he teaches us, and is ignorantly letting go of the last professor who promotes learning for curiosity’s sake.

Williams students have changed, Sheafe told me, in that they are more cautious now. The prestige of being “number one” and the rising cost of tuition (among other things) contribute to a lack of adventure-seeking and risk-taking that used to be some of the best characteristics of Williams students in the ’70s (for many of us, our parents’ college years). The institution is concerned with its public image now more than ever, and as a result we as students become more concerned with our grades and transcripts than we are with trying something new. The difference between the Williams of the past and the Williams of today seems to me to be the difference between teaching students and merely educating them. Sheafe has stubbornly swum against the tide of changing ideals that compose a Williams education. A relic of a past time, Sheafe is a teacher, not merely a professor, and for this, his students will dearly miss him.  


Lizzy Kildahl ’14 is from Williamstown, Mass. She lives in East.

Comments (3)

  1. Lizzy:
    Thank you for your beautifully written letter, “A teacher not a professor” (5/2/12), capturing the essence of Sheafe Satterthwaite. As a Williams student in the 70’s, Sheafe was one of the best professors and teachers I had. Sheafe’s passion for inquisitiveness and, as you say, urging students to “learn about one’s surroundings from the people who surround them” is something which has stayed with me ever since graduation. Yes, in the ’70’s I think we were more “universally inquisitive” and much less “linearly goal-oriented.” It is a shame this is apparently not true of Williams students today. The administration has chosen not to renew Sheafe’s contract. Instead of letting him ride off quietly into the sunset, Williams should be giving Sheafe a gold medal. The College is losing a great teacher who has positively influenced the lives of countless Williams students over 44 years.
    Dave Livermore
    Class of 1977

    1. Dennis, you’re from Michigan. After 30 years, he said: “dennis” horses don’t have shoulders”! Since age 5, I’ve been very adept at equine art & filling in the correct circle. Over a million miles on bikes, over 30 horses, it’s what you see, not what you ride. God Bless you for seeing. & sharing. PEACE, my name is dennis, I am a veteran..

  2. I have recently visited Sheafe and can attest that he is his old self, ever curious about others and their heritage and surroundings. His newly planted orchard and home take up much of his time. He does miss all of you students and would welcome your letters.

    David D. Plater
    Class of 1958
    September 16, 2015

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