Students appreciate Terry Telfer’s guidance

The wealth of knowledge afforded to MCCC by professor Terry Telfer will be lost at the end of the semester.

“What I’ve always liked about Dr. Telfer is that he’s a real intellectual,” says dean of humanities Paul Hedeen.

“And he has a real intellectual’s approach to things. Moreover, he’s an active intellectual. Which is to say that he sees that ideas have an important part in the process of social change.”

Telfer’s colleagues and students have all benefited from his knowledge.

“Terry’s been wonderful since I started at the college,” says professor of History Edmund LaClair.

“He’s always friendly, coming down to the office. He’s deeply interested in history – it was actually one of the fields he wanted to be in. His passion there has always been 19th Century American history and literature. We often talk about Herman Melville and ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener.’

“He’s a brilliant enough man to have taught at a four-year research university, but he grew up as a working-class kid. He worked in factories before going back to college. He’s brought his love of learning here, and we’re lucky to have that.”

Fellow professor of English Carrie Nartker is perhaps unique among Telfer’s peers in that she was previously his student.

“Terry’s Creative Writing class was the first time I felt like I was being taken seriously as a writer,” she says in an e-mail. “When we read our poems aloud, he would sit back, close his eyes, and listen. When we were finished, he would have thoughtful feedback that made us feel as though he was genuinely interested in us and our work.

“College politics, movies, gender, Emily Dickinson… whatever the topic, I can always count on Terry for a conversation that includes insight, as well as respect for my ideas.”

Students Andrew Berns and Phyllis Alexius in Telfer’s 11 a.m. English Composition II class are very candid about how much they enjoy the professor.

“He’s my favorite teacher so far,” Berns says. “He’s really easy to talk to and he gives great feedback.”

“I just feel like Dr. Telfer has made me a better writer,” says Alexius. “He’s really opened my eyes to a whole new world of writing, and I’m grateful for his insights. I hope the college is going to continue with his ideas of doing the research paper based on movies and movie reviews. It kind of goes along with the humanities side of it. It’s ingenious.”

But what of Terry Telfer himself? What’s his story?

Born in November 1947, Telfer’s childhood was awash with discussion.

“On my dad’s side, they were what they used to call Roosevelt Democrats. My mother’s side wasn’t political, but they all came from down there in Appalachia,” he says. “We had a lot of political talks – my mother’s family didn’t talk politics, my dad’s family lived for it. So every dinner was that, and when his brothers and uncle came over that’s what they did for the weekend: drink and talk politics.

“I was allowed in on that, so it’s always something that’s been there with me.”

Telfer is not a native of Monroe, hailing from the neighboring community of Detroit Beach.

“We weren’t especially liked by Monroe. I think it’s probably still that way,” he says. “But I had a cousin who was all everything at Monroe High. He was the opposite of me in high school. Great athlete.

“I went up to Monroe with him a couple of times and got to know some of the people from Monroe High. It kind of gave me a free pass into Monroe. People wouldn’t bother me.”

When asked why he got into teaching, he explains that it is due to his love for both reading and writing. He recalls a time in his childhood that really got him into reading.

“I had a grandmother who was a manic reader,” he says. “She’d come over for Sunday dinner about once a month, and she’d be reading in her chair. Then she’d fall off to sleep for maybe five to ten minutes; then she’d wake up and start reading again. All she did was read.

“She gave me the collected works of Charles Dickens when I was about seven or eight. That had a big influence on me. Other than that, she just was not a grandmother. There wasn’t anything grandmotherly about her. But that book got me more interested in reading.”

Lately, Telfer explains, he’s been reading 19th century Russian authors such as Leo Tolstoy, Georgi Plekhanov, Zbigniew Barański.

“I think the novels everybody’s going to remember were written in the 19th century,” he says. “It was just such an explosive period for fiction.”

He recalls the moment that piqued his interest in poetry, which later led him into teaching.

“I ran into a bookstore – literally, I think, or pretty close,” he says with a chuckle. “It was here in Monroe, the old Book Nook. For whatever reason, I stopped at this one aisle, and they had a book of contemporary poetry by Robert Creeley.

“And for whatever reason – might have been the cover – I picked that book up. I opened it and it just hit me like a rock because I’d never understood that poetry was actually about the way people talk and think.”

Telfer attributes his prior misunderstanding to the poetry selection offered by his high school, which included Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s seminal “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” which even he admits “bores most people to tears.”

He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in 1974, then took time off from schooling and worked for a publishing company in Cincinnati, Ohio.

“There were times when it was just a godawful job,” he says. “Eight straight hours of just proofreading. Do that for two or three weeks straight. It was something I got to the end of and I knew it was the end.”

Telfer returned to college and received his doctorate in both Early American Literature and Early American History from Bowling Green University in 1991.

“I really enjoyed that I could put those two together, because those are two things that I love,” he says.

Much like his former colleague, William McCloskey, he says that anyone planning to go for their doctorate really has to want it.

“Unless you’re really interested in the topic, don’t do it.”

Telfer began at MCCC as an adjunct soon after receiving his degree. He enjoys working at a community college level due to the variety of students, and how he can see them grow and develop.

“Improvement is certainly one of those things that makes you happy as a teacher,” he says. “But I think more of the thing is, you know, is being here long enough to see students go through two or three years and see what happens to them.”

One instance he recalls, not long after he started at the college, resulted in a very happy ending for the young man and woman involved.

“They got to be such good friends that one time we were looking over drafts and she was reading over his. The classroom was quiet,” he says. “Then all of a sudden she looks at him and I hear, ‘That might be the stupidest sentence I’ve ever read in my life!’ And I said, ‘You guys are getting close, aren’t you?’

“They ended up getting married a year or so later.”

In addition to his responsibilities as an instructor, Telfer has been an advisor to the International Students for Social Equality organization on campus.

“I’m very proud of that,” he says. “We’d get, at the most, four or five people a semester, but it wasn’t about getting numbers. It’s a very different kind of campus organization than your normal one.”

The club would often go to meetings in Ann Arbor and Detroit plus have guest speakers at the college, he explains.

“We have a couple who are now at four-year schools that started their own organizations,” he says. “One in South Carolina, of all places, which you wouldn’t think about that, but he managed it!”

Telfer himself has been part of the Socialist Equality Party for the last two decades. He clarifies that it is “very much different” than the Socialist Party of America.

“It’s recognized as the only actual Marxist party out there. Period,” he says. “For a lot of people out there, especially on what they call ‘the Pseudo-Left’, that’s not good, but that’s their problem.

“It’s a life-long thing. That’s what I do until I don’t do anything anymore.”