Sensei. n. A teacher or instructor usually of Japanese martial arts (such as karate or judo).
“No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away…” ― Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man.
On Monday, I learned that one of my doctoral committee members had passed away. As one should do when a person’s made a big impact on your life, I’m going to throw my own rock into the proverbial River of Time to commemorate someone most of you never had the joy of meeting.
I first met Al Hamscher in Spring 2006. Dr. Hamscher taught “Writing In History,” a class solely devoted to developing an article for professional publication. I walked into his class having won awards, scholarships, and money in writing classes. In short, I thought I knew what the hell I was doing writing-wise, and that this was basically going to be a pro forma easy A.
I’m not saying that this was Dr. Hamscher’s actual face…
…but I am saying it was close enough.
I mean, I’ve been hazed. I’ve been forced to box against the Corps of Cadets champion for the sheer amusement of my instructor. (Okay, fine, not just sheer amusement…) Bent into a near pretzel shape only to be told “high zero.”
None of these things approached the sheer frustration I felt in the first few weeks of that course. Dr. Hamscher warned us up front that he was acerbic. I figured I knew what that word meant. Born and raised in Philadelphia, the man made me understand how Santa Claus got booed at the Linc, why Rocky was dumb enough to fight Apollo Creed the second time, and why “The City of Brotherly Love” was the biggest false advertisement since the Serpent talked Eve into biting the Apple. From a man who walked into that course supremely confident in my abilities, I was beginning to doubt my ability to string together coherent sentences. I could see the same creeping “What the ___ have we done?” creeping into my classmates’ faces also as we each presented our drafts in round robin fashion.
Then a funny thing happened. About draft number 3, after getting good and strafed (he may have said “Tell me everything you know about the Golan Heights. Leave nothing out!” and apparently misheard my inquiry of “Uh, everything?”), it was like something clicked. Really clicked. As in, suddenly I had leveled up as an author and as a historian. The end result was “The Heights of Ineptitude,” my first professional article of any sort.
Both of my classmates also subsequently published their articles in professional journals, nor were we alone. At one point, Dr. Hamscher had an over 90% success rate with folks who took “Writing In History.” I didn’t matter whether it was military, women’s, American, or some other historical discipline. If a student was willing to have a thick skin and take direction, Dr. Hamscher was able to be a cross between Pai Mei and Obi-Wan Kenobi for historians taking their first steps into “publish or perish.” Although I am fairly certain each of us getting published will never compare to the joy he felt when his beloved Eagles finally won the Super Bowl, Dr. Hamscher always made sure I knew how proud he was of me and what I’d accomplished. Having taught thousands of undergraduate and graduate student, the ripples Al Hamscher created will continue to lap against various intellectual shores for decades.
“Philly Philly,” Dr. Hamscher. I’m glad to have known you both as a mentor and a person, and thank you for making me a better writer.