Memories of SSU
Martin Solomon Blaze
Professor of English, 1968-1996
Assistant Dean of Research and Graduate Studies, 1990-1991
Whenever I meditate on my 28-year tenure at Sonoma State, I come to the realization that it was a benign institution dedicated to good teaching and a positive and harmonious interaction of its major constituencies: faculty, administration/staff, and students. Of course, faculty governance on all levels could be somewhat demonic but finally productive in the spirit of Sonoma State, which encouraged our teaching to be free, independent, experimental, innovative and creative. It was this same spirit that sustained us in the dark years of declining enrollments and the Diamandopoulos presidency.
Coming to California from the east under normal circumstances would have been shocking, but coming to California in the late ’60s was disorienting for me. Political and cultural protests, endless meetings, non-negotiable demands and demands for reconstituted classes to deal with current events seemed to dominate campus life.
Unfortunately there were also Caliban-like expressions of "freedom": sex in the bushes, huge free running dogs dropping their huge turds all over the place, and loud defiance of campus regulations which prohibited swimming in the campus reservoir.
Participation in the complex protests against the Vietnam War, racism and sexism were at once tempting and potentially destructive to Sonoma State which in 1968 was a mere eight years old. The local newspaper, the Press-Democrat, editorialized against what they saw as total chaos. High school advisors in the Santa Rosa system did not even mention us as a possible college to recommend to their graduating seniors. Unfortunately, circumstances eventually forced our founding president, Ambrose Nichols, to resign.
But despite the turmoil there were many students of all ages no less committed to social and political justice than their more vocal peers who wanted a good college education and were a steadying force to our faculty who experienced the tension between important and deeply felt motives for political action and the academic mission of the search for truth. Personally, I discovered the spirit of Sonoma State as a result of this tension and my teaching became more sharply focused, deliberate and less conventional. I paid more attention to the value of increased student participation.
But we were a young institution located on a beautiful campus. The whole college community was involved in the process of self-definition complete with numerous meetings, elections, writing constitutions, and whatever else was necessary. It was also "the best of times."
On weekends our campus became something of an Arcadian setting for youthful exuberance and play. My wife and I used to bring our Diana and Sarah to the campus to participate. The students loved our young children and made them part of their play. Professor Hector Lee, a member of the founding faculty, invited his friend, folklorist and singer Sam Hinton to perform (outside of course). He was enchanting. His voice was gentle and mellow and when the song called for it he imitated the sounds of animals, especially frogs.
When Nicholas Poussin depicted Arcadia in one of his paintings, he included Death in the form of a tombstone inscribed with the motto Et en Arcadia Ego. Sonoma State could be, at moments, Arcadia without the tombstone. Which brings me to my final memory, a more academic one.
A Special Memory
Among the numerous memories that crowd my mind as I contemplate my 28 years of teaching at Sonoma State University, one continues to stand out above the rest. That memorable moment occurred in 1968 (the year of my appointment to the English faculty), even before I stepped into my first class. It was my introduction to the faculty of the Division of Humanities by the Division Chair, Yvette Fallandy.
Yvette’s well-known intelligence, knowledge, wit and very warm regard dove-tailed into a memorable introduction that, for me, was deeply moving. While setting me before the faculty it also set the inner nature of SSU before me. In short, Yvette turned what is normally a routine ritual of introduction into a decisive and prophetic moment. I have many positive memories of my career at SSU but none like this touchstone involving Yvette Fallandy.
I was teaching a course in the poetry of John Milton. Rather than deliver lectures followed by discussion, we all read his works aloud (including Paradise Lost) in class and commented on the experience of the poem, its meaning, or on this or that difficulty or felicity, as we went along. We sometimes held our class meetings outside in one of our groves of trees. On one occasion the students, on their own, decided to perform Milton's masque Comus, complete with props, cardboard swords and shields and other objects in this perfect and appropriate setting. It was sheer delight (to say nothing of its value as a learning experience). It made all of us feel like the image of "laughter holding both his sides" out of Milton's "L'Allergro".
This kind of teaching was not unusual at Sonoma State. As part of our process of self-definition we paid careful attention to the significant issues of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and devoted our energies to the creation of close faculty/student relationships. This fundamental aspect of Sonoma State, and its spirit in general, was at the root of Sonoma State's development and my own as a teacher and, I hope, as a human being.