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Summer 2001

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Tête à tête: Transformational teacher drives ideas home

by Barbara A. Melville

     Each spring Professor of French John Anzalone hustles his students outside, for classes en plein air. “I hate to be inside when it’s like this!” he proclaims.

“I love the transaction of teaching,” says award-winning professor John Anzalone.

     So on a warm, gusty April afternoon, his French 210 class plunks down on the grass outside Tisch Learning Center. Crosslegged among them, he teaches in expressive French, unfazed at the possibility of being upstaged by the lively swirl of life across Case Green. For Anzalone, chosen this year as the inaugural recipient of the Ralph A. Ciancio Award for Excellence in Teaching, holding his students’ attention is a piece of cake. Even when the course, “Introduction to Literary Analysis,” is tough and the reading, Flaubert’s classic story “A Simple Heart,” is difficult.

     In this story, “c’est tout nuance,” Anzalone warns. In fact, it’s so much nuance that soon he slows his rapid-fire French, tosses in some English, and—his pedagogical forte—begins to act out the text. “Suddenly a bull comes out of the fog, a grand bête,” says Anzalone, holding his arms a grand horn-span out from his head. Bouncing up onto his knees, he emits a thunderous bull-like snort, then rhythmically pounds his palms on the grass: “Here he comes—and look at Flaubert’s sentences! They’re getting shorter, merging the narrator and the character into one person, one voice! That,” he explains, “is called free indirect discourse, and it tells you that this story is family history, told many times, after dinner, around the fire. Flaubert does this in all his great works. Understand it, and look for it. Bien?”

     “I’m understanding about one out of every thirty sentences,” a student admits as class ends.

     “I know this is difficult,” says Anzalone soothingly. “Thank you for persevering.”

     French was hard at first for him too, as he often tells students. Growing up in a working-class Italian neighborhood in Boston, “most of my childhood reading was comic books,” he says. He only became an avid collector of real books during his undergraduate years at the University of Massachusetts. After an M.A. and Ph.D. from Tufts University, he taught at Tufts, U-Mass, and Boston College, and directed Dartmouth’s study-abroad program before coming to Skidmore in 1985. “Skidmore wanted someone with qualifications in nineteenth-century French literature, film studies, and study-abroad programs—they could have written my name on that job description!”

     Among Anzalone’s other talents: intensive research and prolific scholarly publication, faculty committee service, advising Master of Arts in Liberal Studies students, and teaching seminars for older adults. He has also organized exhibitions on book illustration and design (an interest he shares with wife Ruth Copans, Skidmore’s humanities and special-collections librarian) and served as review editor of The French Review. A born performer, he appeared in the multimedia “Satie/Cage Tango”staged at the Tang Museum last year, and he plays sixties-era British rock music in a Skidmore faculty band.

     A former coordinator of the college’s junior-year-abroad program, he remains a self-proclaimed “study-abroad activist and zealot.” Through Skidmore’s own Paris program and others, “we send students overseas at the first blush of their educational maturing. The experience changes them profoundly, makes them, as the French say, bien dans leurs peaux [comfortable in their skins]. This fall we’re sending a crop of wonderful students,” including some from that alfresco Flaubert class. “I’m just correcting their papers, and I am finding such gems,” he crows. “We throw very hard stuff at them, but they stay with it.”

     “It is hard,” admits Patrick McEvoy ’03. “Studying seventeenth-century French is like reading Shakespeare in French.” And Anzalone’s students perpetually gripe about the workload—many difficult texts, five papers per semester, homework that comes back red-splashed and annotated. “But you seldom see anyone miss a class,” says McEvoy, in part because “everybody is waiting for him to say or do the next astonishing thing! When we study a Molière play, he acts out scenes, gets down on his hands and knees and crawls under a table—anything to get the idea across.”

     Guiseppe Faustini, professor of Italian and chair of the foreign languages and literatures department, notes, “John was formed as a teacher before there was image-making technology like computers and videos in the classroom. He not only uses the spoken word, he acts it out too.”

     But Anzalone’s allure is more than a good show. “Sometimes he’ll recite a favorite poem, by heart, and you can see that he’s moved by it,” says McEvoy. “He stirs your emotions.”

     “He pours himself into it, so you do too,” observes Katherine Ostrye ’03. “He expects your good writing, your good work. He really wants you to find a personal connection to the material, something you can turn around and make your own. That’s intellectually difficult.”

     Which is why, back in his office, Anzalone is ecstatic. “Wow, I got great papers! It’s rare to have students reach so wonderfully—they’re not just giving me back what I gave them,” he marvels. “What I do as a teacher is try to set off reactions within my students—not all will be the same quality, but the sine qua non is that something has happened.”

     Ostrye can tell you exactly what: “He changes the way you think about your work. Once you’ve had the experience of learning like this, you can’t go back.”

     “Ah,” grins Anzalone, “I love this whole transaction of teaching. I love students.”

     They know that, because “he tells us,” says Tamar Paxson ’03. “He’ll say, ‘Teaching gets better every year—you kids are great, your ideas are wonderful.’ He says things like, ‘It makes me sincerely happy that you guys will come to class and speak Molière with me.’”

Scope writer Barbara Melville still remembers some of the French she learned in high school.

 


© 2001 Skidmore College