After nearly 50 years, Professor Silver retires

Professor of Humanities Paul Silver has a vast knowledge of history, particularly American history. And especially of the Declaration of Independence, the signing of which he witnessed first-hand. Or so goes a common “Paul” joke, reflecting his nearly fifty years of mentoring students through the maze of the past.

He has played numerous roles here, on committees, as department chair, serving on the Ellsworth Trust, as longtime reader of Writing Proficiency Exams, but none has as important to him as teaching.

“He was classic in many ways,” said JSC alum Bryan Scanlon, who minored in history. Scanlon had Silver as a teacher in several classes from 1988-1992. “He was one of the few non-writing professors at the time to have almost entirely essay-based tests.”

His comments on those exams have enlightened and sometimes mystified students for decades. “He found every single grammatical error made,” said Scanlon of Silver’s proofreading.

Scanlon said that Silver taught students “to not just spit [answers] back out but write intelligently about them. He was determined to teach us to challenge the facts… from an informed position and perspective. What happened in the past is a source of truth.”

Scanlon said of one of his biggest takeaways from his time as Silver’s student was that history is important, especially for the lessons to be learned from it.  Also, important, was to know your facts before you comment.  “We so easily dismiss history now, and it’s a mistake… Paul gave you that base of what was recorded, and demanded you know that before you challenged [it].”

Aside from American history, Silver has taught courses in Chinese and Japanese history, but his interests extend to all corners of the globe. Always willing to engage students, he has also taught a number of independent studies over the years. Scanlon had the benefit of one of them.

 “My independent study with Paul was fantastic,” he said. After being awarded an Ellsworth Trust grant to travel to South America, Scanlon started working with Silver, who at that time served on the Ellsworth Trust. Scanlon says the memories of his independent study with Silver are some of his fondest with the professor.

While Mayan history isn’t Silver’s focus, Scanlon said Silver prepared him well for the trip. “We spent many hours in his office talking about the rise and fall of the Mayan empire,” he noted. “He could help me find parallels throughout history and understand my ‘American’ lens on what the events mean.”

For Ray Brior, technical services librarian at NVU-Johnson, Silver was also an important part of his education at Johnson State College. Echoing Scanlon’s observation that Silver was “a classic,” Brior noted of his former professor and longtime friend, “He’s not flashy, and he’s rather technologically challenged. In some ways he’s very much the sort of old-fashioned history professor whom so many people may imagine.”

And indeed, Silver looks very much the donnish professor, right down to the rumpled tie and jacket. Only the pipe is lacking. He has a wry sense of humor, a courtly, gentle way about him. His office is straight out of Central Casting – a masterpiece of clutter and ostensible chaos with overflowing bookcases, stacks of papers that seem to be haphazardly arranged on the floor, and not much of his desk’s actual surface visible. Yet, so they say, he can locate anything in seconds.

A history major, Brior had Silver as a professor and advisor from 1996-2001. Brior said that, although reading Silver’s handwriting “is an acquired skill for sure,” he found his comments on essays and assignments to be helpful and informative. “It always amazed me the amount of knowledge that he had at his command regarding his subjects,” he said.

 Silver was Brior’s advisor from his first day on campus, and Brior registered for his first classes with Silver during summer orientation. “I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do,” he said, and Silver helped guide him through the process and made it possible.

Both Brior and Scanlon said that Silver maintains connections with his students in remarkable ways, having attended both of their weddings and maintaining a presence in their lives.

“He stops by… my office to bust my chops at least a couple of times per month,” said Brior. “He has also never let me live down how in the spring of 1999 I consistently misspelled the word ’emperor’ on an exam.”

Brior also recalls some non-digital photos of himself and Silver at his graduation. “In one he is faking strangling me,” he said, “and in the other I am pretending to hit him over the head with the ceremonial mace.”

“He cares a great deal about history and about his students,” Brior said. “It’s hard to say what may be the most important thing that I learned from Dr. Silver. It might just be some of the key elements of the craft of dutiful research and scholarship: consider your sources and their biases; examine multiple perspectives; be careful and considerate in your analysis and interpretation.”

History has been central to Silver’s life, having done his undergraduate work at Oberlin College and earning a PhD at University of Pennsylvania. Even more so is teaching, something he still loves despite his pending retirement.

“I like teaching – telling important stories, interacting with students and broadening their horizons – and mine,” he said. “I’m not fond of reading exams but think the students need to learn to write clearly, a talent that will serve them well after graduation.”

For Sandy Noyes, staff assistant for the Humanities and Writing and Literature departments, Silver, more than anyone else on the campus, possesses vast institutional knowledge, which will move off campus with his departure. “He was our own private Encyclopedia Britannica in the Humanities Department and  for Johnson State College,” she said.