Faculty Notes: Lessons in Wisdom

  September 29, 2004

by Assistant Professor of Classics
Jeremy Hartnett '96

I was a junior in high school when I first met John Fischer. My mentor, Bill Cook ’66, a former student of John’s, was returning to campus to give a lecture, and he invited me along to see the school. Our first stop was John’s house, and the signs of his magnetic presence were all there: the stuffed-animal pigs in every corner of the living room, an opera called Nixon in China on the stereo, and a huge cake emerging from the oven, unaware that it was about to soak up a sailor’s share of rum (John with thumb positioned to barely slow the flow from an overturned bottle:         “The boys like their booze!”).

Bill had warned me that within 15 minutes of my arrival John would have the next 15 years of my life planned. That wasn’t far from the truth, but I couldn’t have been in better hands. Over my four years at Wabash and in the years since, John Fischer has been a defining figure in my life: a teacher, mentor, friend, and now, colleague.

John’s Generosity

I matriculated at Wabash expecting to be a math major, but through his boundless energy and challenging intellect, John made studying classical antiquity irresistible. In the spring of my freshman year, I enrolled in his Roman art and archaeology course and found myself captivated—not just by the material, but by the way John presented it. For him, Romans weren’t stuffy orators strutting around in pristine white togas, but fleshed-out people with very human needs, desires, and schemes. This brought them close and made them feel palpable and intriguing: not distant relics confined to the intellectual games of the classroom, but the sort of familiar-yet-unsettlingly-different folks you wanted to have a beer with.

"John Fischer told us not what

we wanted to hear, but what

we needed to hear. His is a

lesson not always about

gentleness, but about wisdom

and its forthright deployment."



Before I knew it, I was enrolling in Greek archaeology, Roman history, and Latin, and then flying to Greece to travel with John and to intern on an archaeological project. That summer was but the first indication of the depth of John’s generosity. John opened his apartment to me and other Wallies (five of us in all at different times, by my count—a slow summer by John’s standards, hospitality-wise). He shuttled us to various sites and gave impromptu lessons in archaeology and lamb chops. At the time, I think I recognized that extraordinary level of generosity, but I don’t think I understood what it meant for John to use his own connections for his students and to arrange the internship.

Thankfully, for me and for others, moderation has never been one of John’s strongest virtues, and he’s especially immoderate when it comes to shepherding his students. I should know; by the time I finished at Wabash, I had spent a semester in Rome and another summer studying archaeology in Athens, both times on programs once led by John.

For all John did for Wabash students during our undergrad years, he also prepared us for the next step. After learning that I was thinking about grad school and teaching, John invited me to assist him with a freshman tutorial about the city of Rome. And by the time I applied to the University of Michigan for its doctoral program in classical archaeology, John had personally introduced me to more than half of the professors from whom I would later take classes, including my future graduate adviser, whom I met that first summer in Greece.
The Lessons of Fischer

Now that I’m a professor, what have I learned from John Fischer about how to do this job?

First, teaching and learning never stops—or should never stop—at the classroom door. And they should take myriad forms. John has led scores of students throughout Europe, and his kitchen has taken still more into further culinary territory. John, to my mind, relishes unsettling students, opening their eyes, and pushing them—through his outrageous statements or whirlwind trips—to re-examine their own assumptions and the boundaries of their comfort. It seems especially fitting that the College has started, and alumni and friends have generously donated to, the John Fischer fund for cross-cultural interaction.

Second, a professor’s job isn’t just to teach. By my rough calculation, John advised about 10 percent of the Wabash student body—some 80 students—at any given time over the last 20 years. Every year he took on another set of 15 freshmen and he was always accumulating informal advisees as well. You might think this would dilute his focus, but John’s advisees will undoubtedly testify to his unwavering attention. Aside, famously, from Wallies’ girlfriends’ names (John on the subject: “Until I see some jewelry, they’re all Rowena to me!”), no detail seemed too trivial for John, and he never hesitated to rein in, forcefully if lovingly, those who he thought were going wayward.

Third, honesty counts. As many of those advisees will attest, John has never been one to mince words. And his intervention has been key at many points in our lives. If only there were a tally of overwhelmed pre-meds whom John managed to steer toward lives as productive members of society! John told us not what we wanted to hear, but what we needed to hear. His is a lesson not always about gentleness, but about wisdom, born out of a genuine affection for students, and its forthright deployment. The more distance I’ve traveled from Wabash, the more I recognize the value of such candor, and I suspect hundreds of other Wabash alumni feel the same.

No Replacement

     Fischer teaches

Fischer led students through Greece during an immersion learning experience last spring.

This spring I was hired to a tenure-track position in the classics department at Wabash—the slot opened by John’s retirement—which I will begin in August. With his lessons in mind, I hope I can carry on John’s tradition of excellent instruction and mentoring in classics. Some things make me feel ready. I find his words coming out of my mouth when I chide my current students for their fecklessness. For a class last term at Oberlin, my students and I organized a Roman banquet—complete with togas, tunics, slaves, and exotic dishes—that was Fischer-ian in scope. (Moreover, it took place on the day of an exam, a pairing of gastronomic pleasure and academic pain many of John’s students will undoubtedly remember [or not!] from his famous end-of-term parties.)
Finally, and perhaps most unsettlingly, some of my students—entirely unaware of my former advisor’s porcine predilection and the stories of his pet porker, Ezmerelda—have started to give me pig-themed gifts.

Yet for all these positive signs, it would be foolish to think that anyone could replace John Fischer, who is truly an institution within an institution. I suspect that’s what made me feel uncomfortable when several people referred to me as “the new Fischer” at a recent retirement party for John. I resorted to aping the artist Prince by jokingly calling myself “the-faculty-member-occupying-the-position-once-held-by-John-Fischer.”

The truth is, after all, that no team of five people, let alone one lone mortal, could be “the new Fischer.” John was, is, and forever shall be sui generis, an unforgettable and irreplaceable part of Wabash College.

See photos from the Lambda Chi tribute to John Fischer at WM Online.

Contact Professor Hartnett at:  hartnetj@wabash.edu