by Christian Alexander
Bearing a resemblance to Gandalf, his frizzled seasoned gray hair dangles just above his shoulders. Engulfed behind a fortress of literary works and hidden behind his silver handlebar mustache is the smile of Associate Professor of Literature Lee Schlesinger.
He has been teaching at SUNY Purchase since 1975, just eight years after the college opened. Teaching courses that range from the Ancient Epic to Contemporary U.S. Poetry, Schlesinger has read many stories and has many of his own.
Schlesinger’s nearly 43-year career at Purchase began when the academic job market was coming to a crash and finding a teaching job was not easy. “I had three offers,” Schlesinger said, “one to stay at Yale where I was working a dead-end job, one from St. Mary's in the Midwest and a one-year replacement job at Purchase.” A Midwesterner himself, Schlesinger was drawn to St. Mary’s and the lure of being back home and working what he called a “good, solid job.”
Schlesinger’s final decision came down to more than just location. Aside from the similarities that Purchase shares with Schlesinger's own undergraduate experience at Brandeis University in the 1960’s, he recalls a time when he was interviewed at a Humanities divisional meeting. “I was invited into the room, where they argued and worked right in front of me and I thought; this is great. This isn’t secretive, esoteric power-play bullshit. I was a part of Humanities from the moment I came here,” said Schlesinger.
His feeling of complacency was echoed by his success when a one-year replacement job turned into a full-time one and eventually into tenure. “Purchase has allowed me to do and value what I do. My main strategy was to make myself indispensable and 40 years later, here I am," Schlesinger said.
In 1985 his success was recognized when he received the Chancellor's Award for excellence in teaching. “I didn’t have tenure then but I was up for it, and I thought, 'Could I win this award and not get tenure? I got both though, and 1985 was a great year for me,' ” said Schlesinger. As well as receiving these two honors, he also delivered the commencement address at graduation the same year.
Schlesinger’s willingness to grow and to pleasure taking in difficulty is a key factor to his continued longevity. He attributes his success to the people and environment around him. “Purchase students are interesting and very educable. I also have great colleagues. We’re able to disagree and discuss without being disrespectful,” said Schlesinger.
Ross Daly, Dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences and a colleague of Schlesinger's since 2007, remembers a debate that took place in the staff lunch room between Schlesinger and another colleague on the meaning of transcendence throughout history. “It was great, it was a moment I really remember,” said Daly.
Schlesinger own love and passion for literature also takes the labor out of his job. “They pay me to walk into a room and talk about Emily Dickinson, I mean what could possibly be better than that?,” he said.
When it comes to teaching, Schlesinger isn’t the traditional college professor. “I don’t like grades,” said Schlesinger as he recounted his early days at Purchase when grading was based on pass/fail. Instead he shifts his focus on getting students to keep alert and stay awake. "I want students to give a shit, to look up and out at the world.”
Based on the dynamic atmosphere in his classroom, Schlesinger said, “Interesting students make for interesting classes.”
For junior and two-time Schlesinger student Rocky Rubin, the same is true for professors. “He influenced me to do what I want to do,” says Rubin. After writing a response to an essay topic her freshman year, Schlesinger reached out to Rubin to meet and discuss what she had written. “He just wanted to talk,” said Rubin. “He was like, I want to know more about what you think. It showed me he really cared and was genuinely interested in what I have to say. He’s the type of professor I want to be.”
Schlesinger transcends his teaching outside of the classroom as well. What started off as a bird watching/literature class turned into weekly bird watches. “I had such a good turnout and lots of interest that I decided I would just do bird walks.” Ross Daly relates Schlesinger’s bird watching to his literature classes. “It’s about being observant and aware of what's around you, much like literature,” said Daly.
Throughout these 40 years, Schlesinger has seen all types of changes but insists that changes are neither good or bad. “Styles have changed - the many modes of craziness and popular drugs - but by and large Purchase students are nice to each other,” said Schlesinger.
Schlesinger’s theory on education isn’t something that neatly starts or ends; rather, it is a continuous cycle of thinking and asking questions. “In my classes, I want to give my students things to think about forever,” said Schlesinger. Recently, Schlesinger received an email from a former student in the 1980's: “Thank you for giving me things to think about for the rest of my life,” it read.