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.