by Jerry Bannister
I remember the first day I saw Danny Vickers. It was in September 1986, and he was one of the instructors in my first-year History course, “Ideas and Society in the West,” a team-taught lecture at Memorial University of Newfoundland. He was tall, thin, and paced back and forth when he lectured, with a curious blend of anxious energy and relaxed reflection. When he paused to make a point, he tended to cough, and he waved his arms around a lot. We liked him and he had a good sense of humour in the classroom, but rumour around campus was that he was a tough marker who expected students to work hard.
When I took his fourth-year seminar on popular culture in Colonial America, I discovered that the rumours were true. Danny expected a lot. Each week we had to complete a ton of reading, most of it classics in English and American social history, and we had to keep a journal to demonstrate that we had grasped the arguments of each author. We had to design a major research project, based on a diary or similar primary source, and then present a draft paper to the seminar for peer review. After our presentation, Danny gave each of us an extensive list of revisions to be completed for the final version of the research paper. At the end of the course, each of us received, typed on a red index card, an assessment of our performance for the term.
On my index card, Danny explained that I needed to improve my writing style, because I relied too much on the passive voice. He had hammered me for my poor writing all term, and he was not going to let me off the hook. But, in between the criticism, Danny suggested that I consider applying to do graduate work in history. No one had ever suggested that to me before – I had some vague notion of going to law school – and I was stunned that someone who was so critical would think that I had a possible future as a graduate student. Even now, 31 years later, I think about this when I advise my own students, because I know how much a single word of encouragement can impact a student.