Marshall Gregory, a Professor Who Showed His Peers How to Teach, Dies at 72

Butler U.

Marshall W. Gregory
January 21, 2013

Marshall W. Gregory had been teaching Shakespeare for decades when he decided to risk public humiliation and enroll in an undergraduate acting course to improve the way he delivered the Bard's words in class.

Mr. Gregory, who until his death late last year was a professor of English, liberal education, and pedagogy at Butler University, wrote of the experience that teachers who are used to "sitting like complacent, serene Buddhas on top of their mountains of knowledge" would do well to climb off their perches and remember what it was like to be a student.

Mr. Gregory, or Greg, as he was known to colleagues and friends, died on December 30 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 72.

The accounts of his bumbling attempts to act alongside his own students delighted legions of college professors who flocked to his teaching seminars nationwide.

Being rolled back and forth on a gym mat by undergraduate women while reciting a soliloquy from Hamlet using only vowels "was the death blow to any shred of dignity that I might have tried to fake as a wise old owl hanging out among a flock of fluttery undergraduate songbirds," he wrote in 2006.

Mr. Gregory led more than a dozen of his teaching seminars at Emory University.

"He was willing to be vulnerable in ways that faculty members often aren't," said Donna Troka, associate director of Emory's Center for Faculty Development and Excellence. He taught professors how to empathize with their students and to understand how their insecurities might hold them back in class.

Mr. Gregory, who had taught at Butler since 1983, also taught English earlier at the University of Indianapolis and the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. He served in the mid-1980s as national director of the Lilly Endowment's Post-Doctoral Teaching Awards Program.

He wrote or co-wrote several books and nearly 60 articles on literary theory, liberal education, pedagogy, and writing.

While undergoing chemotherapy, he finished a book on teaching excellence and was working on another about the importance of the liberal arts.

Jay Howard, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Butler, called Mr. Gregory "the most eloquent and compelling advocate for a liberal education that I have ever encountered."

And he recalled how Mr. Gregory decried as "intellectual and class snobbery" suggestions that vocational training was enough for low-income and minority children who were considered not cut out for a four-year college education.

In a 2003 essay in The Chronicle Review, Mr. Gregory urged liberal educators to combat the trend toward focusing on career training. Valuing training over education, he wrote, "comes perilously close to making colleges and universities minor-league farm clubs for the world's corporations and bureaucracies."

Maryellen Weimer, editor of the Teaching Professor blog, recalled in a column how Mr. Gregory would say that professors thought they were inviting active learning when they asked students questions. "Usually," he wrote, "we ask few questions to which we do not already know four different answers that we are eager to explain."

That observation made her think about the importance of preparing open-ended questions for which she might not know the answer.

Dozens of Butler students and graduates wrote notes to thank him, which were presented to him during a ceremony in October. The notes described him as a man with a towering intellect and commanding classroom presence who could at the same time be irreverent, funny, and approachable.

Dylan Griffith, a 2001 graduate and English major, described him as "the kindest man who genuinely terrified me" and said he never worked harder to impress a professor.

Correction (1/21/2013, 6:21 p.m.): The original version of this article misidentified the Butler University graduate quoted in the last paragraph. He is Dylan Griffith, not Griffin. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.