Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Al Kelly: Professor Extraordinaire

In explaining the origins of this blog's title, No Straw Men, I usually point to the first column I wrote for my college newspaper under the same title. This morning, I dug up an essay I penned on the professor who inspired the title, Al Kelly, the Edward B. Graves Professor of History at Hamilton College. I just put the essay online at; here's an excerpt:

Last summer, as I struggled to concretize a proposal for a Watson or Bristol postgraduate fellowship, I knew there was one person whose guidance I needed. I had talked with others, but no one had this person’s ability to explain any subject I’d ever asked about with such clarity, conciseness, context and cogence. Add this to patience that never flags and a wit that never runs dry, and this is why I think of Al Kelly as a personal encyclopedia.

I showed up unannounced at his office one weekday, doubtless while he was hard at work on his own research. What made our meeting special is Professor Kelly’s consistent brilliance to immediately distill the essence of an issue. Since my passion for a fellowship far outran any specific ideas for it, we spent about an hour and a half clarifying the reason for and goals of my project. Not where I would travel, or what I would do, or how I would do it, but simply why. Surely, anybody else would have either given up or moved on after say 20 minutes, but here was Professor Kelly calmly, happily connecting disparate dots, drawing out the big picture, and raising points as important as they were seemingly hidden. He knew that without a sound foundation, I was dooming myself to failure.

Yet rather than condescend whatsoever—how, with his intelligence, he does this is extraordinary—Professor Kelly never interrupted but let me hold forth as I attempted to verbalize my thoughts. Only when I finished, as is his unique habit, did he reply, speaking slowly and humbly, choosing his words thoughtfully, and asking me pointed questions. When I left, he transformed my mental chaos into lucidity.