Heather Treseler ’10Ph.D. | February 19, 2021
With a tactical wisdom I would not understand until I myself was an English professor, my undergraduate mentor at Brown University began his office hours at 7:00 on Friday mornings. He concluded them at 8:55 sharp, minutes before the parking meters required quarters. Yet Professor Michael S. Harper — a poet, Roman Catholic and African American — brought such intellectual intensity and pastoral concern to his teaching that there was often a line of students queued at the door by 6:30.
Harper did not work with everyone who sought his tutelage, and his demands of students were bracing. In my first month of his Advanced Poetry Workshop, he had me read all of John Keats’ poems and letters, followed by the poems of Sappho, Adrienne Rich and Muriel Rukeyser and a geological survey of New England, and watch three films about the tango. The next semester, he had me assemble my own anthology of American poetry and defend each of my choices in essays. Harper, who had joined the Brown faculty in 1970, had earned a reputation for guiding poets, novelists and scholars to their subject matter, helping them find their life’s work. He was, by all accounts, a literary polymath with the sidelong gifts of a fortune teller.
For that, I was willing to get up early. He was, as I would later joke with him, the oracle of Wilbour Hall, which housed the university’s distinguished professors of English and Egyptology in spacious, book-lined offices. As a scholarship kid at an Ivy League university, I couldn’t believe my luck, and I wasn’t going to let it go.
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