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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Spring 2002 > College Row
College Row

Armour Craig.
A life in the classroom  

Prof. G. Armour Craig

Armour Craig '37, the college's Samuel Williston Professor of English, Emeritus, who served as acting president in 1983-84 following the death of President Julian H. Gibbs '46, died January 29, after a long illness, in Hanover, N.H. He was 87. He had moved to Hanover several years after retiring, in 1985, from 45 years of teaching English at the college.

Generations of Amherst students took composition and literature courses taught by Craig, and many in later years remembered him as their most influential college professor. At a ceremony where Craig was one of six teachers honored at President Jimmy Carter's White House in 1980, the poet Richard Wilbur '42 said Craig had taught him "not only to be fiercely attentive to texts, but also to watch what we said and wrote . . . . Armour Craig was forever asking the embarrassing question, 'What do you mean?'"

For many years Craig was more closely associated with his faculty colleague, Robert Frost, than any other member of the English Department, and he liked to recall Frost's saying "that the faculty tries to 'frisk the students of their principles.' What I learned from Frost and Amherst, and what I try to perpetuate in my teaching," he said, "is to help students escape from the chains of fantasy in which they are entangled when they arrive."

Craig's areas of specialty were 17th- and 19th-century English literature, but his professional life was centered in the classroom. Remembering Craig's way of asking unexpected questions, his colleague and former student, William H. Pritchard '53, Henry Clay Folger Professor of English, also recalls his "engaging way of saying, 'I never thought I'd get paid for reading books and talking about them!'"

Craig was particularly influential in developing freshman English with the late Theodore Baird and a sophomore introductory literature course with the late Reuben A. Brower. Baird once said he could not have kept his famous English I going for 30 years without Craig's "powerful support." Craig was second only to Baird in the number of assignments he drafted for the course. It was he who had the idea that one way to get students to write was to ask them to explain what they were doing in other classes, such as physics and calculus. Craig said he told his students, "I am not going to ask you to talk about your sexual or religious experiences; all I am asking you to talk about is your experience as a student, as somebody who is trying to know."

In a retirement tribute to his former teacher, Alan Powers '66 recalled a day when Craig looked out the classroom window and asked his students, "When you look out there, can any of you see drumlins?"

Powers recalled that the students looked.

"Drumlins? Gremlins? Nobody saw them."

"Well," Craig said, "They are all over the valley, but you can't see them if you don't know the word."

Drumlins are rounded hills caused by glacial drift. Powers remembered that the lesson stuck: "Ignorance blinds us. We see only what we know. The world we see depends entirely on the language we have for it."
Craig's former student Richard Poirier '49, a literary critic, has identified Craig as the professor "from whose teaching I profited most as an undergraduate." In his book Poetry and Pragmatism (1992), Poirier wrote that "deconstructive" reading of literature "was the kind of thing Craig showed us how to do long before the term 'deconstruction' was used to describe it."

Craig discussed his view of teaching in an essay, "Teaching Confidence," which appeared in this magazine 46 years ago. "The teacher pushes and hauls," he wrote, "he cajoles and demands, and once he thinks the student is looking at what he wants him to see, he withdraws. And upon the teacher's withdrawal comes the student's own move. It is his move because it can be that of no one else. And when the student has made his move, when he has seen what he can see, he may have done much or he may have done little. But what he has done, it is not within the teacher's province or indeed within his capacity to tell him. The student has had his experience, and whatever it is no one can decide but the student himself."

Craig was born in Cleveland, Ohio, where he attended the Hawken School. After graduating from Amherst, where he belonged to Alpha Delta Phi fraternity and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, he received an M.A. from Harvard University in 1938 and a Ph.D. in 1947. When the college's Trustees named him in 1983 to serve as acting president of the college following President Gibbs's sudden death from a heart attack, it was seen as the capstone of Craig's long and distinguished Amherst career. During his 15 months in office he oversaw the abolition of campus fraternities, which he and others thought had become obsolescent, obstructionist and anti-intellectual.

Craig is survived by a son, James Ball Craig of Albuquerque, N.M.; a daughter, Sara Craig Ballantine of Hanover, N.H.; and four grandchildren. His wife of 57 years, Margaret (Ball) Craig, died in 1996.
The college scheduled a memorial service to be held just before Reunion Weekend at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, May 31, in Johnson Chapel.

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