Final Act

At Rice University, a Legend Retires

Famously energetic English professor J. Dennis Huston exits the stage after 50 years of teaching.

By Sarah Rufca Nielsen April 28, 2016 Published in the May 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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"I don’t like anybody in this play,” announces J. Dennis Huston. “I don’t really like this play at all.” It’s fair to say he isn’t a fan of The Merchant of Venice, which he’s nonetheless teaching, on a mid-March afternoon to 40-odd Rice undergraduates.

Now in his seventies, Huston paces the classroom with a surprising spryness, occasionally jumping up to sit on his desk and point out a particularly important piece of text. Most people would consider his standard speaking voice a yell, but it’s a jovial yell. “That’s just Dennis’s opinion,” he repeats often, referring to himself in the third person as he debates the Shakespearean characters’ motivations with his students.

Huston’s energetic teaching style is legendary. The Council for Advancement and Support of Education named him Professor of the Year in 1989, and he’s won Rice’s George R. Brown teaching award so many times (six, to be exact), he’s no longer eligible. His Shakespeare on Film class is often subject to a wait list, practically unheard of at Rice; it ballooned this semester after the school announced that Huston would be retiring at the end of the academic year, after 50 years on the job (47 of them at Rice).

For this class—Huston’s specialty is as a Shakespearean, but he also teaches courses in writing, performance, and Renaissance and modern drama—he opens by asking for comparisons between the play’s dual settings, Belmont and Venice, but doesn’t make much progress on that front over the next hour. The lesson, instead, is spontaneous—a conversation, really, that has little to do with the outline on the blackboard. Does Bassanio love Portia, or is he just after her money? Why does Shylock really hate Antonio? What does Morocco mean when he speaks of his “complexion”? Huston spits out question after question, only a few of which the text answers definitively, calling on students to answer them.

“The big difference when I got here [from Yale] is that Rice students tend to be more passive,” Huston says. “It’s one of the reasons why I call on everybody at random, because I don’t want them to be that way. They’re used to going to classes where they take notes and take exams and sometimes write papers, but where they’re not grabbed by the throat and made to communicate with me.”

Though it’s hard to imagine today, Huston’s life almost took a different direction. Raised in Connecticut, he enrolled in law school at the University of Virginia, intending to follow in the footsteps of his father and become a lawyer. But he found himself surrounded by students who, he says, were less interested in ideas than in becoming politicians or making a lot of money. Huston dropped out in his first year and switched to the English graduate program at Yale.

Still, law school had a profound effect on the professor. “I think I learned more about teaching in eight weeks of law school than I did in the whole rest of my life,” he says. His question-and-answer style is basically a modified version of the Socratic method that’s widely used in legal classrooms.

“Somebody like Dennis runs around like a banshee and jumps around and doesn’t quite swing from the chandelier. It’s very physical and sort of spontaneous,” says Huston. “It’s different every class because I don’t know what we’re going to do. I just know I’m going to listen to the students and see where they go. The trick is to find what works for you.”

Though his retirement will become official at the end of next month, Huston is taking it in baby steps. He’ll continue to teach writing seminars at Rice through 2018. “Harold Bloom wrote in the preface to his 27th book, ‘I begin this year teaching for my 50th year; they’re going to have to carry me out in a body bag, and I’ll still probably be talking.’ I think of that as the way I feel about teaching,” says Huston. “I’ll miss it—I’ll miss it too much. I’m happiest in a classroom.”

That’s especially true when he’s teaching Shakespeare—even if it’s The Merchant of Venice.

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