An era ends: Wilkinson retires from English department

Mark Mussari

“Better than a thousand days of diligent study,” says an old Japanese proverb, “is one day with a great teacher.”

For some forty-nine years, thousands of Villanova students have known countless great days with Dr. Robert Wilkinson. A pillar of the English department and a teaching legend in his time, Dr. Wilkinson will retire at the end of this school year. His departure marks the end of an era.

I first encountered Dr. Wilkinson in the mid-1970s in a summer graduate class in post-World-War I American fiction.

With his sorbet colored ties and impeccable style, he burst into the room with all the theatrical energy of John Barrymore (in the late actor’s pre-delinquent days). Wilkinson was an inveterate showman, a teacher who knew first and foremost that education is a performing art.

More than this he loved his subject matter, and his exuberance for it drew his classes into every piece of literature they studied.

As many of us were then incipient teachers, we quickly realized that this lesson alone was worth the price of admission.

While students sauntered onto campus on those humid July days, Wilkinson used to hover overhead on the walkway between Tolentine and St. Thomas.

His sonorous New England inflections boomed above us as we entered the building: “What are you rapscallions up to?”

You had to love him: Someone who still used “rapscallions” with a straight face. Even with no air conditioning in Tolentine, we looked forward to every class and argued vehemently about such once-dry subjects as Dos Passos and Dreiser.

The following year brought a Faulkner seminar with the professor nonpareil. Wilkinson was completely in his element in this course; he loved Faulkner and you loved the crazed Mississippi master by osmosis.

We squeezed a semester’s worth of Faulkner’s macabre characters and endless sentences-my kingdom for a period!-into four and half weeks. “Light in August”, “The Sound and the Fury”, “Absalom”, “Absalom”-the titles flew at you like a literary hurricane.

We were fortunate to have a genuine Southerner in the class-a bird-like woman from Mississippi who liked to fill in the cultural blanks. Once, when teaching “The Hamlet”, a baffled Wilkinson asked: “And what is that Snopes character doing with that cow in that field?”

Our diminutive Southern lady raised her delicate hand and intoned gently: “Why, I believe he’s having sex with that cow, Dr. Wilkinson.”

Many students have come to know Dr. Wilkinson as much more than a teacher; he is renowned for his accessibility, and his affability is infectious.

He has been a confidant, father confessor, soggy shoulder, and trusted friend to a number of fortunate young people-and their lives are richer for it.

The source of this attraction is not an educational sleight of hand; it is, instead, a relentlessly positive energy in a tirelessly negative world. A student can never be a “nobody” in Wilkinson’s class: his enthusiasm simply will not allow it.

Dr. Wilkinson belongs to a time when being a great teacher was tantamount to being a great scholar.

In the past 20 or so years, bottom-line administrators and theory-driven academics have crafted a world of publish or perish, an environment that fosters ultra-competitive scholars and, sadly, resentment for classes.

In Wilkinson’s class, however, the real subject matter has ultimately been each and every student. And that is a lesson well worth learning-and one that will be sorely missed.

-Mark Mussari, Ph.D., is an independent scholar, freelance writer and educator living in Tucson, Arizona.