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Tom Clayton: No Substitute

The Regents Professor newly named "Emeritus" looks back on more than a half century of classroom adventure.
August 25, 2015
Asked what he will miss about teaching, Regents Professor Tom Clayton needs no time to muse. "Everything," he snaps emphatically, sunglasses on against an early spring sun on Northrop plaza, a black coffee on the table before him. "What I will most miss—and I was keenly aware of it when I taught my last class in the fall—is the kind of intellectual stimulation I get from asking questions of students, getting responses, hearing questions, responding, and having my mind in continual process because of the way I taught.
 
"I never read lectures, and rarely talked from notes," clarifies Clayton, retiring this spring after 55 years of university teaching, 47 at Minnesota. "So it was constantly a matter of interactivity between my mind and the students' minds. I'll miss that. There's no substitute."
 
Students thrived within that intense engagement (Clayton has won the University’s top undergraduate and graduate teaching awards, as well as CLA's). And they don't forget him. "He was tough—tough in a good way," says Hazelden Betty Ford CEO Mark Mishek (BA 1974). "I took every class that I could take from him. I found him to be a tremendous teacher: very passionate about what he was doing. He brought Shakespeare to life in ways that I'd never seen before."
 
Hollywood screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (BA 1985) also took Shakespeare with Clayton, and went on to enroll with him in the Literature in London Program, a quarter in England studying Shakespeare and contemporary British drama (Clayton taught the program in 1981, '84, and '91). Clayton describes personally attending 100 theatrical performances in the spring of '84: "The students didn't get so near that," he reports with a smile, "but they did get in the habit of going regularly to the theater and thinking it was an important part of their experience there." Burns—co-producer of An Inconvenient Truth and the writer behind Bourne Ultimatum and The Informant!—states it plainly: "He had a huge influence on my life."
 
Even as phased retirement eased his class load, Professor Clayton embraced teaching opportunities. Last spring he led a directed study on 17th-century poetry for six English doctoral students. "His extensive feedback on my papers helped me improve my style and precision immensely," said graduate student Asa Olson, "and consequently helped me become a better writing instructor."
 
Another, Marc Juberg, has chosen to work closely with Clayton since arriving in 2012. "I for one am a much better reader for having studied under him," he maintains. "Dr. Clayton urges students of poetry to pay closer attention to what texts have to say for themselves. He reminds us that responsible literary criticism must not move from context to text in a self-confirming way, but must rather listen carefully to how the text's unique music, together with its discordances, helps to constitute its own context for interpretation."
 
Clayton's dedication to literature has not flagged, and he expects to continue reading, publishing, and presenting work. Blunt when talking about himself ("I like plays and poetry, I expect, for the same reason I tend to write articles rather than books: the ADHD"), he expands to learned and witty paragraphs on the subject of, say, 17th-century minor poet Sir John Suckling, or 21st-century rising star playwright Mike Bartlett (see more on the latter below).
 
Beyond the 17th century, Clayton also has a great interest in Classics: He helped found the University's interdisciplinary Classical Civilization Program and chaired it for two decades before it became a track within Classical and Near Eastern Studies last year. (The Tom Clayton Scholarship in Classical Civilization was inaugurated December 2006, by former student Victoria Keller.) "The satisfaction I've had in my research," he asserts, "is in working with extraordinarily gifted writers, certainly some of the best in the English language, who had a lot to say about the human condition in the most eloquent possible way . . . and the most ambiguous. Not wholly ambiguous, in the sense in which ambiguity is a fault, but in the sense in which ambiguity is a term for plurisignification."
 
Native Son Returns
 
Born in New Ulm, and raised in small towns in "Minnesconsin," Clayton studied at the University of Chicago before transferring to the U and graduating summa cum laude in English and Latin. He was awarded the prestigious Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University, in England, where his work toward a BLitt in English was advanced to doctoral status, and he earned his DPhil in 1960. (His time at Oxford bracketed two years in the Army, 18 months based in Germany.) A tenure-track instructor at Yale and an assistant and associate professor at UCLA, he returned to Minnesota and joined the English faculty in 1968. "My late wife Ruth [Madson] and I were both natives as well as University alumna and alumnus," he says, "and thought Minnesota was a great place to bring up children."
 
For almost 20 years he helped select and coach nominees on the University's Rhodes Scholarship Interviewing Committee: One of them, English major Clay Jenkinson, in 1977 ended up winning Rhodes and Marshall Scholarships and a Danforth (Graduate) Fellowship. Jenkinson is now Director of The Dakota Institute through the Lewis & Clark Fort Mandan Foundation; you may have seen him on PBS' The Roosevelts documentary. "It is absolutely certain that I would not have been a Rhodes Scholar without his direct intervention and encouragement," asserts Jenkinson, who describes Clayton's teaching as life-changing. "His classroom style was perfect: brilliant lecturettes, witty digressions, Socratic questioning of students, sudden flashes of genius about English poetry and the world of the Renaissance. One could never come to class and just sit and absorb what he was doing. It was English literature as a contact sport."
 
In 1978 Professor Clayton received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and CLA made him Scholar of the College from 1989 to 1992. He served more than two decades in the CLA Assembly and University Senate, sitting on and chairing numerous committees. In 1999, he was awarded the University's highest honor, a Regents Professorship, for service, scholarship, and that exceptional dedication to student development.
 
Two of Clayton's PhDs, Linda Anderson (PhD 1984) and Janis Lull (PhD 1983), instigated the publication of a 2002 festschrift of essays, A Certain Text: Close Readings and Textual Studies on Shakespeare and Others in Honor of Thomas Clayton. "The genesis of that was some good-hearted souls who thought I deserved such a thing. I was about to become 70 years old," Clayton notes drily. "Probably everybody thought I wouldn't live much longer, so it'd better be now rather than later."
 
This spring, he departs campus with some reluctance—but also with a feeling of optimism about his long-time home. "I would like to say," he advances, "that the English department has been the beneficiary of new blood that's very creative and academically productive and scholarly—and also good-natured and likely to do a lot of good for the future of the department and the University."
 
Will his retirement include the embrace of new non-academic pursuits? "There aren’t any non-academic interests," scoffs Clayton with a straight face, enjoying the provocation. "Everything is grist for the mill of the intellect. 'Academic' is not as confined to scholasticism as some people think."
 
The wind lifts his paper cup, and he jumps up to retrieve it. "One thing I look forward to is seeing a lot of people that I haven't had much opportunity to see," he says, returning to the table. "And they're all over the place." He's still in touch with classmates from Oxford, as well as students and colleagues from his years at UCLA, among others. "I would describe myself as a gregarious loner," Clayton remarks briskly, "but I'm very much attuned to other people, whose company I richly enjoy."
 
There was that day in 1967, for example, when a student showed up at his office and asked if he'd like to hear "your madrigal." He assented, of course. She called in two more students, and, with herself on guitar, the three performed. (First line: "The Tin God sits upon his perch, Alleluia!") As Professor Clayton remembers, "It was a satirical representation, but a rather warm one, of my teaching style.
 

"It was called 'Omnibigmouth.'" Still pleased at the students' sauce, he laughs into the sun.

Professor Clayton Recommends . . .

Three among other plays I saw in London in January were particularly invigorating intellectually as well as affecting and witty. Two were written by Mike Bartlett, a rising star playwright of 35. In 2011 I saw his Earthquakes in London, an ecologically apocalyptic play with an enigmatically hopeful ending, sort of, in 2525. Beginning in 1968, the play took us through and past the early twenty-first century and the edge of consequences Stephen Emmott addresses in his 2013 book, Ten Billion (performed in 2012 as a lecture in a facsimile of his study mounted at the Royal Court Jerwood Upstairs). The humor and satire of Earthquakes took the edge off what cuts like a razor in Ten Billion. The point of both was to question where we're all going, and why and how soon.
 

Bartlett's two "January plays" are vastly different: Bull, a 70-minute one-acter, and King Charles III, which fictionalizes the future when the Queen has died and Prince Charles becomes king. And he's not a good king, because he's too much of an activist. So he is forced out, and Prince William is to become king. William shares the Queen's philosophy, which is to be above party politics. The ghost in the play is of course Lady Di—who tells both Charles and William that they have a brilliant future ahead of them [laughs]. Bull by contrast was cutting and finally savage. You'd never know they were written by the same person, except that Bartlett's range of understanding and expression is extraordinary.

I also saw Tom Stoppard's first play in about eight years, The Hard Problem. It's all about the origins of consciousness and its nature in relation to human being [sic]. The question was alive and well in the Middle Ages, and John Donne saw it as "the subtle knot that makes us Man" and otherwise. How do you get from brain to mind? They didn't solve it, and Stoppard doesn't solve it, but he brilliantly contextualizes it especially in its psychological and ethical relations. Indeed, the play is partly about the compulsion to take up the hard problem and the impossibility of its solution—and also its not needing to be solved for people to get on with meaningful life.