by Alexander Mika, ’21 (CLAS)
After fifty years of teaching at UConn, A. Harris “Hap” Fairbanks retired from his associate professor position in Spring 2020. On a brisk and spotty-interneted December morning, I had the pleasure of speaking with him about his career, philosophy, and projects.
Teaching, Researching, Writing
According to Fairbanks, he knew that teaching was his calling “probably from the time [he] was in the eighth grade.” The decision to teach at the college level, however, came after he completed his undergraduate coursework at Swarthmore and received his master’s degree in teaching at Johns Hopkins. At first, he thought he would teach high school English: “I first got a job at a military school, which I hated. I detested it. And I could see that teaching at the high school level meant that you had one hundred twenty-five students, you were teaching five classes, and you couldn’t really get to know people, so I decided to go into college teaching, instead.”
At UConn, he found an environment conducive to his pursuits; while research was desirable and encouraged, he could focus on teaching (“the central component of my professional life,” as he put it) without institutional pressures to constantly publish. As his career progressed, his interest in research grew: “In fact, one of the reasons I retired is because I became very interested in doing some research … and I wanted to do more writing.” Now, he gets up at four or five o’clock every day and spends the first half of the morning working on his current project: geometry and chess as rival models for decision making and how these models have contributed to an increasingly competitive world.
Fostering Independent Thought
Fairbanks designed his courses on the principle that students should “think of their education as posing interesting questions. I wanted to make them think for themselves.” One guiding principle was to create an environment in which students could be both comfortable with and willing to challenge their own ideas. For a course like Rhetoric and Political Discourse, which he co-taught with associate professor Jerry Phillips, he sought to encourage lively and respectful debate with the promise that all students would have a judgment-free platform to voice their views if they could express themselves in an informed and productive manner.
For his short story course, Fairbanks took a different approach to creating engagement. “I always went through the major little magazines and picked out what I thought were the best of the stories … and of course, there would be nothing written about these [pieces]. Students have come back to me in later years and said that they learned so much from that. It was the process of analysis, getting to appreciate the structure of something, how it works. It was to make these real problems. When you’re writing a paper, you can’t start with a thesis: that comes out of the analysis. You have to start with an interesting question.”
Fairbanks also recognized that this was a process for himself, as well. “One thing I learned is to draw students out, get them to come to the office and say to them, ‘Tell me about yourself.’ I would have started doing that earlier.” He once was confronted by a group of students who claimed that he was not being sufficiently accepting of their interpretations. “So, I thought about that. I became broader minded about recognizing the arguments they were making. In other words, I became less dogmatic. That’s the most important thing I learned.”
The Very Model of a Modern Major Generalist
Although his primary areas of research include nineteenth-century British literature, rhetoric, and poetry, Fairbanks believes in an interdisciplinary approach to answering those “interesting questions.” He says, “I’ve always been a generalist. That can make life a little difficult, though. Typically, the way most people proceed in a career in English is to be a specialist in something and get to be known as an expert in that field.” As a generalist, however, his work draws from a range of fields.
His current project, for example, implements applications of cognitive theory, geometry, politics, rhetoric, history, and economics as he examines how various models have been used to predict and control behavior. “The article I’m working on now starts with Adam Smith’s comment that the ‘man of system’ thinks that he can arrange the pieces on the chessboard any way he wants to, but in the great chessboard of society, the pieces have their own ideas about how they want to move.” By applying concepts from a wider field of view, Fairbanks can connect seemingly smaller, unrelated phenomena to explain how a certain frame of thought has influenced society at large in several spheres.
Thank you, Hap, for fifty years of compassionate teaching. We wish you great success with your projects, painting, and research going forward.