Dr. Burling Was Pretty Awesome - Holly Schindler

Fave teacher of all time. Seriously. Dr. Burling, professor of lit at what was then Southwest Missouri State University. (Now MSU). He was kind of a skinny guy, gray hair and a beard, wire glasses. Every time I saw him, I could hear that line from the Indigo Girls song. The one about going to see the professor of philosophy--with a poster of Rasputin and a beard down to his knee. 

He taught my intro to literary theory class. The one that introduces you to all the critical theories and approaches. New Criticism. Reader Response. Feminist or Marxist interpretations.

I had no idea what I was doing. And he knew it. 

I started out really hating the guy. He drove me nuts. I wrote and rewrote every paper that was assigned. And grumbled about it every step of the way.

And then, somewhere in the middle of the semester...things started to change. I started showing up in his office to talk about my papers. And I started to click with what he was talking about. Finally.

Once I started to get it, I started to warm to the guy. We talked about music (he played guitar and wrote songs, as did I). We traded tapes of our original stuff (yeah, it was the mid-'90s). I wound up taking four different courses with him--including a sci-fi course. When I got a piece accepted in The Explicator--an exploration of a Howard Nemerov poem using the same critical theories that had once driven me crazy--I brought a copy to his office. He had me sign it and said, "One of these days, I'm going to point to a book and say, 'She was in my class.'"

It was the greatest moment of college.

When I got my first book accepted, I immediately looked up Dr. Burling--only to discover he had passed away about two months prior. 

I still think often of Dr. Burling. Of his patience with a nineteen-year-old kid who grumbled about the paper she was being asked to rework for what felt like the five thousandth time. Of refusing to let me take the easy way out--not with a paper, and not with a single sentence. Of his music and his kindness. I especially think of him when I'm revising. 

What's the best compliment you can pay a teacher? Sometimes I think that it's that they left a thumbprint. That you can feel it, the mark they made, decades later. I hope it is. Because that's how I feel about Dr. Burling.


Holly Schindler is the author of The Junction of Sunshine and Lucy, an MG on classism and beauty and folk art. It was nominated for a Mark Twain Award. Schindler wished she could tell Dr. Burling about that, too.


  1. What a wonderful testament about someone who really helped lead you toward the thoughtful writer you've become.


Post a Comment