A reason not to cut class

Robin McNallie offered a compelling classroom experience
By Donna Pleasants Isaac ('76)

Robin McNallie, 1972 Bluestone

Robin McNallie, 1972 Bluestone

Originally published in Winter 2001, this is just one of many stories from Madison magazine's award-winning Professors You Love series, written by JMU students and alumni, about the professors that have made the most impact on their lives — then, and now.

It was the '70s, and my friends and I had been known to cut classes, especially in the warm Shenandoah Valley summers.we would gather at Blue Hole, the girls in leopard bikinis and the boys in cut-off jeans, jumping from a jagged precipice into a deep blue flue of water surrounded by a shallow, icy creek pool.

We girls would hang out on the edge of the sandy shore and talk about classes and friends. We were Phineas and Gene from A Separate Peace, Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye, and rebels all the way.

But I never cut any of Professor Robin McNallie's classes, although I felt he would understand the gathering in the mountain covert. Understanding was just one of McNallie's attributes.

Donna Pleasants Isaac

Donna Pleasants Isaac

During a summer session of Early American Lit., I sat in the back of the classroom, smoking a Swisher Sweet, a particularly cloying small cigarillo. Although I had been in some classes where professors or students smoked from time to time, it was still not totally acceptable to do so. Professor McNallie entered and began to jump around the room. He spoke passionately of Whitman and Out of the Cradle, Endlessly Rocking. Listening, enthralled, I drew upon the cigar, which halted McNallie in mid-sentence.

"Ms. Pleasants, are you smoking a cigar?" he asked.

All eyes turned to me, and I felt nervous; yet I was used to being confronted by authority figures. After all, it was the '70s. "Yes sir, it's a Swisher Sweet," I replied. McNallie rushed hurriedly through the rows, shoving aside desks and longhaired students. Striding right up to me, he reached out his hand. "Was this teacher demanding I hand over the contraband?" I thought. Instead he shook my hand and sputtered, "Let me congratulate you. The only other woman I know who smoked a cigar was my wife on our wedding night. And I'm her biggest fan."

I had been exonerated and lauded all in one small speech. With his sense of humor and understanding, McNallie made me feel welcome. And I learned so much about American Lit. that year that I enrolled in another McNallie class, Advanced Writing, in my junior year. Here, I learned about poetics in writing, parallelism and transitions. For the first time I felt that I knew how to write. McNallie gave me the language and the "nuts and bolts" of writing.

Robin McNallie

Professor emeritus of English Robin McNallie

I am grateful to Professor McNallie for his dynamic teaching, his love of learning and his caring for students. He has been a true role model as I enter my 25th year of teaching. Thank you Professor McNallie. I teach English at a secondary academy and oversee the school's writing lab. I won't, however, condone smoking in the corner of the classroom.

About the professor
JMU associate professor emeritus of English Robin McNallie taught English at JMU for more than 30 years. He lives in Harrisonburg and remains active by volunteering his time in local theater productions and political groups.

He was also nominated as a "Professor You Love" by two other alumni: Ken Sullivan ('82) of Sterling, Va., author of The Way I Saw America, who says, "I began writing my book about a seven-month backpacking adventure across the United States and was inquiring about getting academic credit for it when Robin McNallie came into my life. He helped me through the long process of writing, editing and re-writing. I sell my book with his name on the front cover in gratitude for all his help."

Donna Mary Pleasants Isaac

Donna Mary Pleasants Isaac

Christine Wilk McClenny ('73) of Virginia Beach, who writes, "Professor Robin McNallie was an instant LIKE for me. At 8 a.m., he entered the room, fairly short in stature, with crazy dark hair in constant turmoil, sparkling eyes and a thick Massachusetts accent. English was never an 'A' subject for me, but professor McNallie changed my views on my own abilities."

About the author
Donna Mary Pleasants Isaac teaches critical reading and writing and rhetorical skills and oversees the writing lab at Saint Thomas Academy, an all-male, military preparatory school in Mendota Heights, Minn. She lives in Inver Grove Heights, Minn., with her husband, Matthew.