July 15, 2024
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Al Vos: The heart of Hinman

Collegiate professor and English scholar says goodbye to Binghamton University after a half century of service

Al Vos stands in front of Hinman College, where he served as collegiate professor. Al Vos stands in front of Hinman College, where he served as collegiate professor.
Al Vos stands in front of Hinman College, where he served as collegiate professor. Image Credit: Jonathan Cohen.

​Al Vos had never heard of Binghamton when he applied for a teaching position at the SUNY school in early 1970.

“In my imagination, Binghamton was indistinguishable from New York City,” he says. “They were both in unknown, distant New York.”

Vos, who was born and raised in rural Iowa, retired in August from Binghamton University, having mentored thousands of students for half a century as both an English professor and Hinman College (residential community) collegiate professor.

“With a grin, I sometimes say to my students: ‘If you want to know how weird I am, consider this — I’m married to my first wife (53 years), I’m living in my first house (purchased in 1974), I’m working in my first job and I’m old enough to retire. Do you know anyone else who can say this?’ Of course they don’t,” Vos says. “I go on to explain that I’m a person who puts down roots, and draws strength from those deep roots.”

Those roots in Binghamton University and the community earned Vos two Chancellor’s Awards and the Liberty Bell Award from the Broome County Bar Association. He also created Hinman’s Public Service Learning Community, chaired the University’s Faculty Senate and served in the SUNY Faculty Senate.

“Binghamton was as unknown and as foreign to me as Iowa is now to my students from New York City and Long Island!” says Vos, who received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Calvin College in Michigan and the University of Chicago, respectively. “Yet Binghamton has become home, and I have invested my time and energy in it.”

IN HIS OWN WORDS, HERE IS VOS’ 50-YEAR BINGHAMTON UNIVERSITY STORY:

I asked my University of Chicago professors what they knew about (what was then SUNY Binghamton). I always consider their answer prophetic: It’s an up-and-coming school.

In my early years at this University, the humanities were its strength. The division’s medievalists were its most renowned members — perhaps the most renowned of any professors on campus. They shaped not only the English Department’s curriculum, but that of Harpur College as a whole. My first course was LIT and COMP 101, which included the classics from Homer to Dante. The first choice I had to make: Would I teach The Odyssey or The Iliad?

Classes were small. I came in 1970 without any teaching experience — the University of Chicago considered us grad students to be scholars in training, and we’d learn on our own how to teach — and together my students and I, each of us energized by the cultural ferment of the 1960s, figured out what to make of these old classics.

When I arrived, Harpur College still had the vibe of Glenn Bartle’s “Public Swarthmore.”

It was equally true that the University was growing rapidly, and the English Department had begun to offer a PhD only five years before I arrived. I was lucky to come near the end of a hiring spurt occasioned by our relatively new status as a University Center. Still, when I arrived, there was no engineering school; the business school was small. The English major was the biggest major in the school, and remained so for many years.

The biggest changes (over 50 years) involve not simply the increase in size, but also the increase in the range and diversity of the programs the University offers — which involves, of course, the creation of additional campuses. Harpur College, once the soul of the institution, now has to compete for its place in the sun, and the English major is a small niche in the gallery of options.

The arc of my career bends toward students.

I began as a fledging, untutored professor with an office in the basement of the (Bartle) Library. Thirteen years later, my best friend and colleague said: “You should become the undergrad director in the English Department.” I went for it, and learned the joys and satisfactions of working with students outside the classroom, advising them on schedules and requirements, troubleshooting the crises in their lives and guiding them on their journeys.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the dozen years I spent as undergrad director in English prepared me to become collegiate professor in Hinman. My role in Hinman gave me the freedom to literally meet students where they live, cheering them on, offering advice, blessing them with my supportive presence. Nothing makes me happier than seeing my students grow into leaders, and to be their admiring cheerleader. Nothing makes me happier than hearing students say that they feel like they belong, and that “Hinman is home.” That almost always happens outside of class in odd and unexpected, yet extremely fulfilling, moments. Over the years I have learned that as collegiate professor I’m not just an instructor: I’m a community developer, a creator of culture, a spirit-leader.

My favorite class? The one I was teaching at the moment.

This may seem to be an artful dodge, but it contains a deep truth: I don’t teach well if I don’t have a passion for what I’m teaching. I have learned over the years that I teach not only with my head, but also with my heart. The latter counts at least as much as the former.

Having said that, I’m happiest with a rhythm that I’ve had for almost 20 years: “Literacies of Power” as a small class in the fall for first-year students living in Hinman, and Shakespeare in the spring as a large lecture for English majors and others.

I love hearing students tell how their resistance or fear changed into respect and admiration for Shakespeare’s work. Even in a large class I pour myself into the lecture, and every student has seen me choked up with emotion at one time or another. And on the final day of class, I surprise them by dressing up as Shakespeare, impersonating him as I interpret The Tempest not only as his farewell to the stage, but also as his meditation on the arduous process of learning how to live wisely and well. I get choked up one more time as I, along with Shakespeare, say goodbye: “Gentle breath of yours my sails/ Must fill, or else my project fails,/ Which was to please.”

What will I miss the most? Everything!

Mostly I will miss the unique opportunities and unique joys we collegiate professors have. In our professional lives, our students are gifts to us, and that truth has grown on me over the years as I, no less than my students, discovered my talents, and found my spiritual home in Hinman. The collegiate structure, with a dedicated professor woven into the life of each residential community, is the genius of Binghamton’s undergraduate program. But, alas, too few of the faculty have any idea, and as the University gets bigger and more multi-faceted, it’s harder and harder to keep that fact front and center in the minds of students and direction-setters at the University. I’m so grateful that my career at Binghamton culminated with my service as collegiate professor of Hinman.

Posted in: Campus News, Harpur