The Great But Silent Man on the Stage

Emeritus

At Vancouver Island University’s convocation ceremony on June 3rd this summer, something called the ‘Recognition of Academic Emeritus Designation Award’ was bestowed upon the very deserving Bob Lane. Bob, who was referred to in the program only as “Robert Lane, Professor, English (Retired)” did not speak, nor was anything really said about him when the award was conferred. There was nothing else to indicate who this man, who sat in his paradoxically imposing but gentle-looking way, is. He smiled and nodded benevolently as his name was mentioned and a witty comment was made, betraying to nobody that he was stoically sitting through the event with a sore and aching back – a ‘mala spina’, as he joked later on. It occurred to me then how odd it was that the great majority of the audience members, and indeed those on the stage behind him, had any idea who this enigmatic man was or what he had been to the former college that was now granting the degrees being conferred on stage. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine what, if anything, Vancouver Island University would be if Bob had not been a part of it. And as a friend of fan of Bob’s and a former member of the VIU Philosophy department, I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that it falls in part to me to fill in that on-stage silence with a few words after the fact.

While Bob and I were, in an important sense, colleagues in the department, our years of teaching there did not overlap, much to my regret. I belong to the Silver Age of that department: a brief but intense period of philosophical excitement in which the department attracted a dozen visiting speakers a year from nearby universities, held post-colloquium dinners with an eager and impressive group of students, and hosted a thriving and mercilessly ambitious Philosophy Club, The FOG as it then was called, whose members presented at international student conferences on weekends when they weren’t debating hot issues while climbing Mount Benson or taking walking tours of nearby islands. Like all silver ages, the VIU philosophy department’s owed a great debt to the golden age that had preceded it. In our case, the Golden Age was what I think of as the Age of Bob. Though Bob was hired on to teach English at Malaspina, as it then was, and though he is generally known at VIU for his work in bringing the original Liberal Studies program into being, one of his more impressive triumphs was surely the creation ex nihilo of the Philosophy department. Though at many schools this would consist of creating and proposing a curriculum, and then advertising the teaching positions, Bob did much more than that. He created not only the department itself, but also its spirit, out of himself and the bare materials around him.

Bob sometimes jokingly refers to himself, in his familiar self-effacing way, as a ‘redneck’. A Colorado farm boy who made his way into academia after a stint in the US Marines, he certainly doesn’t present himself as a patrician, nor does he seem to hope to give that impression. But the term that comes to mind when I think of Bob is not ‘redneck’, but ‘pioneer’ or ‘frontiersman’. Bob’s the sort of man to walk into a situation, see what needs doing, work out the best way to do it, and then get the job done with clean and powerful efficiency. He once told me about a letter to the editor he read in the days when having a college was a very new idea in Nanaimo, whose residents at the time were none too sure it was what they wanted and were suspicious of the very new breed of person who showed up to teach there. The letter noted that one of the new instructors was seen walking through town in the middle of the afternoon one weekday, while the good, hard-working citizens of Nanaimo were paying the fellow’s salary, etc. The task of putting a public face on the new thing in town would not have been easy for most people, but Bob was a natural at it, both inside and outside of the classroom. He got the public involved in the intellectual life of the university in intriguing and creative ways, and in the process helped create a new intellectual scene in the city, though one can be sure that he never condescended to anyone – Bob simply doesn’t have a patronizing bone in his body. On the new campus on the hill, meanwhile, things were physically coming together just as Bob was making his magic work in the classroom.

One of my favorite Bob stories involves him teaching while construction is going on in the hallway outside, only to be surprised by the appearance of a drill bit coming through the wall just where his head had been a moment before. I wasn’t there to witness the event, but a mental image of it comes into my head frequently these days. Inspired by the legend of Bob the frontiersman-teacher, I’ve started taking advantage of every opportunity my own university has to offer for trying out innovative work: scheduling my classes in new collaborative classrooms that are built a week before classes start, working with new plans that keep shifting around in my head until the moment they actually happen, teaching the odd online course whose components are still being tinkered with by the developers frighteningly close to the moment each day of class begins, and so many other things that make me feel I’m walking onto a stage whose floorboards are just rising up to meet my feet as the show begins. And once I make my entrance, well, it’s on me if the show doesn’t go well. The mental image of Bob soldiering on with the drill bit physically intruding into his classroom reminds me that the greatest teaching doesn’t come from copying someone else’s style on a clean and familiar stage with a glib, polished PowerPoint rattling through slides in the background. It has more to do with throwing out your preconceptions about the best way of getting yourself and the students from Point A to Point B, and then going wherever your own new idea takes you, not worrying that you don’t look like, and aren’t, the professor everyone expects in the usual classroom setting. If things don’t go perfectly, then that just becomes a part of the show and part of being an innovator. On a good day in class, one can appear as an idealized Platonic form of the skilled university professor. But Bob, through his unpretentious stories and advice, has helped me see that a great day in class is really the latest in an incomplete set of rehearsals for the class itself: it’s a sincere journey into uncharted waters in which both you and your students are on an exciting adventure together.

The Bob-the-frontiersman image also works well with the work he did outside the classroom. He saw an opportunity for the Philosophy department to flourish in an unconventional academic setting, the Faculty of Social Sciences, so there the department went. He had his early department meetings alone in his bathtub, as he likes to say, safely away from people who didn’t share his vision; and he made great things happen on his own. He later decided the department was ready to expand, and went around finding interesting candidates, some of whom didn’t even see themselves as on the ‘job market’ for philosophy, to come work with him. Most importantly, perhaps, he established the Institute of Practical Philosophy. Nowadays, applied ethics has been fully integrated into the discipline, and it’s hard for most philosophers to remember that, when Bob established it decades ago, all this was deeply disparaged by many in the philosophical mainstream. Bob dealt with this in his usual way: coming up with a good idea, thinking through the practical details, and then getting to work making it happen, without giving a damn what anyone had to say against it. In my position today at Rutgers, which demands the most of me in innovation, persistence and vision, Bob’s inspiring example is always starkly before me more than anyone else’s.

In this way, Bob brought philosophy to Nanaimo, created it in his own image, and then invited others to come and work with him the world he created. But like any truly great person, he never expected those who joined and succeeded him to share his vision. With magnificence of spirit, he left ample room for the people he had hired on to bring their own ideas and personalities to the expanding department, and it was his constant hope that they would do so. His broad-mindedness and lack of petty complacency distinguished him throughout my all-too-few dealings with him during my years in the department. On the few occasions when he joined our departmental conversations after his retirement, it was always to take the side of the innovators against those who were content with the status quo – even though he himself had helped create what later became the status quo. I remember several emails in which he pressed us to think of the department as evolving, and not as some static thing we should perpetuate unquestioningly. It always stood out to me then how interesting it was that this older, retired man had never lost his youthful vision, and how much younger and fresher he always seemed than colleagues a generation (or more) his junior. Though he had become great in ways most of us could never achieve, he never let his past successes get in the way of new projects or directions. For some, approaching an unfamiliar world is an uncomfortable threat to one’s security. But Bob has never been one to let complacency and self-love to win out over doing the right thing.

Higher education in British Columbia is, for political reasons, anomalous. For the past few decades, there have been new degree-offering universities (formerly ‘university colleges’) that don’t hold their faculty responsible with a tenure review system or even, at present, any regular evaluations for long-serving members. This structure, or rather lack of structure, allows for the best or the worst to happen, depending largely on the personal and professional integrity of the individual faculty member or department. At best, the lack of evaluative structure gives room for highly devoted academic units or instructors to develop exciting new projects without worrying about bureaucratic hurdles or pressure for immediate success. At worst, it can lead to the polar opposite of healthy self-evaluation – an environment in which everyone tacitly agrees to keep the standards of work low by putting pressure on their hardest-working members to be less remarkable so as not to embarrass their colleagues, and in this way to pursue the lowest common denominator. At a large university like Malaspina/VIU running on this evaluation-free system, it is not surprising that there are some enclaves of high integrity and productivity and others pushing in the opposite direction. It is very much to Bob’s credit that he was always on the side of the angels. His sense of duty, generosity of spirit, and love of bringing good things to his community led him to push himself and his colleagues to do their best, not to be complacent with a degenerating mediocrity or to take seriously the meaningless puffery of such things as the insincere ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ External Review system employed by the province or the similarly empty ravings of Degree Quality Assessment Board reports, which by tacit agreement give lavish praise to everything and rule out nothing. To misquote John F. Kennedy, for Bob the question was never ‘What can your school do for you?’, but rather ‘What can you do for your school?’ Without Bob’s integrity and sense of duty, it is all too easy to forget that the job of an educator is to serve one’s students to the best of one’s ability, and that the ethical choice one faces is not that of looking out for oneself vs. looking out for the comfort and selfish interests of one’s colleagues collectively, but a choice between tacitly keeping standards low for the benefit of one’s least committed colleagues vs. doing the best one can for the education of one’s students. Bob is friendly, charismatic, and very fun, but he also has the integrity to know that there are times when one must put one’s foot down and stand up for what is right even when it makes one unpopular to do so. Here again, I had many occasions to admire Bob’s values and character.

Knowing Bob has helped me see in real life a distinction that has been around since at least the time of Socrates: that between a true philosopher and someone who is merely paid to act like a philosopher. To someone who lacks the true calling, it’s just another job. Insurance salespeople don’t keep selling insurance after they retire: why would they? They’ve put aside enough for their retirement and it’s now time to do what they really want to pursue. But Bob has the real stuff and can’t keep away from his work, even now in his eightieth year, and with no thought of earning pay from it. Through his Episyllogism blog, to which he contributes very regularly, Bob continues his heartfelt mission of bringing philosophy not only to former students but also to strangers who would otherwise have no contact with the intellectual world Bob offers them. Indeed, one of my greatest students at VIU, Laura Marino Rugeles, was a former engineer who got turned on to philosophy by reading Bob’s blog and then writing to him. Bob and Karen took Laura out to breakfast to talk things over, and the next thing anyone knew, she had enrolled in the brand-new VIU philosophy program. And on a personal note, I can never forget the enormous favor Bob did for me in coming to a full three-hour meeting of one of my introductory courses to observe me one evening when he surely had far better things to do with his time and had not been on the payroll at VIU for years. His very generous evaluation of my work and his subsequent efforts on my behalf, which were far from trivial, led to my securing two different jobs, including the one that has now blossomed into the wonderful career I have now. I shudder to think where I would be today without Bob’s efforts, and will always be deeply grateful for all he has done for me in this way and by presenting an inspiring example of what an honest, down-to-earth, dedicated, innovative educator looks and acts like.

By rights, Vancouver Island University should erect a statue of Bob, sitting in silence like he did on that stage this summer, as a perpetual reminder of his role in bringing that school into being and giving it shape. For that matter, so should the city of Nanaimo, for the culture he has brought to what was once a rather anti-intellectual city in a way that only Bob could have made so palatable for everyone. Knowing Bob, he would get even greater joy from just continuing to be of service. But I hope the work he has done will not be forgotten.

If anyone reading this can make use of it elsewhere, where it can reach a broader audience, I’d be pleased to have it reproduced.

20 thoughts on “The Great But Silent Man on the Stage

    • Yes, I really think so! I think it’s quite common for universities to put up statues or busts to commemorate the careers of those who have given a significant part of their lives to teaching and shaping the institution. And Bob has certainly done that for Malaspina/VIU! He was a major mover and shaker there from the beginning, and stayed with it for many decades.

      If others take up the cause, I’d be glad to help out.

      I know, it’s not always thus: the school where the remarkable Jaime Escalante taught doesn’t even have a plaque to commemorate his service. But perhaps we can do better.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. One slight addition to justinthecanuck’s elegant piece: My son, Steve Lane, was on stage with me on that day and he, sensing that there was a need to say something, kindly said a few words about his father when he had a chance!
    It was a long ceremony. And the registrar was right to speed things up.
    Steve is seated on my right in the picture; he is the Associate Vice-President, Academic at VIU.

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  2. I sent this email to the Financial Aid office at VIU:

    Recently a long tribute to my service at Malaspina/VIU was published here.

    Over 500 folks have viewed it. Please read it and think about how we might help more students.

    Statues are out of the question, but I thought you might be able to somehow
    tap into the interest generated by the article to enrich the “Bob and Karen Lane Bursary.”

    Cheers,
    Bob

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    • Great, Bob. I didn’t even know there _was_ a Bob and Karen Lane Bursary. What are the details, please? Perhaps we can all contribute!

      Speaking of which, I’m not sure whether I told you this, but when I was back in Nanaimo last summer cleaning out my old storage locker, I packed up what must have been about a thousand philosophy books, most of them hard-to-find volumes and all of them quite valuable, in fifteen big boxes and tried to donate them to the VIU library under your name. Unfortunately, the acquisitions person refused to accept them unless I first made a complete inventory and waited around until they had told me which ones they would accept. I didn’t have a few weeks to spend on the project, so I tried to donate them to the Nanaimo Public Library in your honor instead. They, too, said no to the gift, citing as their reason that the only appropriate branch was the downtown one, which was at the time under renovations. So they all went to Value Village and presumably have been scattered in the winds now.

      I like the bursary idea as a way of making up for that failure.

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    • Apparently the VIU librarian didn’t think they’d be likely to read any of _my_ books, seeing that they were largely about the history of philosophy and that sort of stuff.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Justin, to say these are nice words doesn’t do justice to this well deserved accolade. Bob is soooo cool; and you too. And I love when you say I was one of your greatest students. How can someone not be great having a maestro like you, and an inspiration like Bob? But one thing stands out for me within your piece. When you turn tough and talk about mediocrity, complacency, and low standards, even if one doesn’t feel mediocre, it certainly leaves a strong resonance: Am I doing something really innovative in my class? Am I doing something for my institution? Am I doing enough for my students? Can I change things? How can I change things? Am I complaining too much and not acting? Am I being excellent; the best I can be? Am I afraid of performance evaluation? Ay! I feel shaken up.

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    • Good to hear from you. I can still easily bring up the image of you walking toward the White Spot on that day we first met. An exciting conversation we had! I hope all is well in your world and send along best wishes for 2016.

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      • I remember that day very well Bob. For me, at that time, there was something very wrong: I was not thinking much and my mind was not happy. I was doing some job, making a living but that was so boring!. I needed some inspiration and I got the best. Giving you a call and meeting you gave me the motivation I needed and it changed my life!! I will never forget you asking me about religion and me giving you a naïve and simplistic view. I had never given a thought to my beliefs and their implications. How refreshing, Bob. That was water for that thirsty mind.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Laura! It’s been so long. How are you? Pamela and I still think about you and Kelly in your little town in Columbia (at least, that’s where you were the last time we heard). Thanks so much for your high praise! I’m very flattered.

      Yes, you were absolutely one of the greatest students in the VIU Philosophy program during the Silver Age. I remember those great essays you used to write, and the drafts we’d send back and forth, arguing through every point, and then you’d always work at them and in the end, you’d come up with great ideas and vivid examples for all the parts of your papers. You really brought fame to the department, with all your publications and presentations as an undergrad! We were all so proud of you.

      Like you, and like Bob, I subscribe to the idea that it’s always possible to do better. My old friend Jerry Andrus used to say that you can climb a mountain and then enjoy the view and camp out for a night, but a day later, you need to ask yourself, “What’s next?” Remembering that helps me avoid complacency a little.

      That trip down to Forest Grove, OR with all the other students when you presented your paper at that wonderful Pacific University conference still stands out to me as one of the great moments during my time at VIU. It would have been good, though, if there had been some source of funding for you to go and do that. Hm… maybe a good way of helping to preserve Bob’s legacy in the Philosophy department would be to have a sort of bursary, in Bob’s name, to cover the travel expenses of VIU Philosophy students who are going to present papers at conferences. I don’t know whether that would conflict with the already existing Bob and Karen Lane bursary, though.

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      • Justin, the trip to Portland was pure joy! And I think you are right, some financial help would encourage students to present at conferences. I hope it happens (or it is happening). We are still living in our little farm and I’m still teaching privately and at the university. I love it!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Well deserved tribute to Bob!
    One other tribute, written by Professor Ian Johnston, when Lane retired, is also worth reading. It speaks of Lane’s skill as an administrator.

    What About Bob?

    A Tribute to Bob Lane

    by Ian Johnston

    I arrived at Malaspina College (as it then was) in 1975, the last year we were in the old hospital. One of the first things I noticed was how often the name Bob Lane came up (usually in an expression of approval and affection, but not invariably), although he was nowhere to be seen, since he was away on leave studying philosophy at Simon Fraser University. So long before I met the man, I had concluded his was a presence of some stature among the faculty.

    When I did finally meet Bob (in 1976) and in the years thereafter, I had many opportunities to congratulate myself on my first judgment, and although we had momentary tiffs here and there, I learned to esteem him as an exceptional member of the faculty, for me a touchstone on many issues when the political and moral climate of the place grew too murky for my manic analytical skills.

    That was particularly the case when my conduct was investigated by an ethics committee headed up by Chairman Lane. I’d done some serious mouthing off in print about some other faculty members, constructing a vast rhetorical mountain out of a mole hill. I can remember the first meeting of the committee, when Chairman Bob began the proceedings by demanding, first and foremost, a scrupulous attention to the facts. Now, that, I thought, seems like an eminently sensible way to proceed. How come no one else around here works this way? As it turned out, the committee, after weighing the facts, pointed a finger at me, and I received a mild reprimand, which required a quick (but sincere) grovel. My irritation at that soon passed, and I have always counted myself extremely fortunate to have received such judicial treatment.

    This is not the place to list Bob Lane’s various accomplishments at Malaspina, even if I knew them all. What matters most to me about the man is not this or that list of books, positions, articles and so on (impressive and important as that list is) nor even the high quality of his teaching (to which thousands of students can attest better than I), but the spirit of his relationship to the college.

    Bob Lane has always seemed to me to personify the highest meaning of that overused word colleague. It’s not that we were particularly close friends or anything or appeared together at many social functions. True, one year we were both seriously crippled, he with a back operation and me with a ruptured Achilles tendon. We used to inch along, passing each other from time to time (usually by some Fire Lane sign, oddly enough), like two scarred battle cruisers which had seen healthier days.

    No, my esteem was based more on a sense that I (and others) could always count on him to think clearly about a picture larger than the canvas delineated by his own department or area and then to act calmly and firmly on the basis of that rational consideration and discussion. Perhaps that is what made him so often in demand as an MCFA executive member (especially President). And no faculty member ever possessed such an unerring nose for crap detection. Of course, this was in the days before we all became totally desensitized to bullshit.

    But the major reason why I have always been happy to have Bob Lane as a colleague is that no one I know around the place ever cared more for the total college as an institution of value. Nowadays, when we are all encouraged to pursue our private scholarly agendas and are locked into aggressive or defensive departmental turf wars which incite us constantly to complain about the university-college as something oppressive or stupid or whatever, a statement like that must sound hopelessly sentimental. But there was a time, corny or not, when what some people most cared about was MalaspinaCollege itself (rather than their own little corner of it) and when they were prepared to work to make the whole place as fine as it could possibly be. Bob Lane stood at the head of that contingent, now almost totally decimated.

    Anyway, the recent news that Bob Lane is retiring at the end of this semester makes me sad, not for him but for us. This is not just another retirement. For Bob Lane, unlike an old timer or two I could mention, embodies a great deal of what used to (and what still should) matter most at Malaspina, and his departure leaves us all that much more impoverished. What he represents is, given what we have turned ourselves into, irreplaceable.

    So, Bob, thanks for the memories. We’ll miss you. No, scrap that. What I mean is this: we’ll really miss you.

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