Remembering Greg Colomb

This Friday, the UVA English Department will memorialize Greg Colomb, our friend, mentor, and colleague who passed away in early October. Ryan Cordell has already expressed well how grateful many of us are to have had Greg as a model for teaching, but I also thought I might also share my own thoughts on Greg now that I’ve had a month for the loss to register:

The day I heard that Greg had died, my deep personal mourning over the loss of a respected mentor and friend mixed with selfish practical concerns. Greg sat on my dissertation committee, after all, and he was both my writing coach and the person I talked to most candidly about matters of departmental politics and my fears about the academic job market. Where would I be without him? While I still feel a bit guilty that my mourning was mixed with my panicked thoughts on the logistics of my life as a student, it may be fitting, for Greg was probably the most practical teacher and scholar I have known—he managed to extract genuine joy from the abstract thinking of academia even as he thought of it as a kind of playful game. I remember him telling us in dissertation seminar that at heart, scholars of literature are finally just “people who enjoy having incredibly intricate conversations about books that we love.” He’d never say that on the job market, of course—he’d be at the ready with answers to the entire chain of “so what?” questions that an imagined interlocutor might ask—but I continue to value the way that Greg so thoroughly mixed his deep pleasure in academia with his acknowledgment that there is more to life than books.

In the days leading up to this memorial service, I’ve been revising a chapter of my dissertation, and I’ve realized that many of my practical concerns were unfounded: Greg’s lessons inform each sentence I write. The man in person is gone, but the principles he taught me live on. One of Greg’s greatest insights as a force in our department, I think, was that by showing us how to be excellent teachers, he’d also help us be excellent scholars. But the teaching was also a clear end in its own right, and I’ll never forget the respectful attention Greg gave all his students, from grad students at the end of their careers to pre-matriculated first-years in the transition program.

Even more than these practical matters, of course, I’ll miss Greg as a personality and as a presence. A few times each week, he’d loom at the doorway to the graduate lounge, an inquisitive look on his face, striking up provocative conversations even with the few graduate students he didn’t yet know. I remember his stories, from the description of roasted lamb-on-a-spit he told to his ENWR 380 students, to whom he memorably also quipped that “children listen to adults because if adults sit on them, they will die,” to his descriptions of the way the entire Serbian community of Chicago celebrated with him after his turn as an expert witness at a trial and his descriptions of his experiences on trips to Japan and China. Many graduate students began their careers as teachers skeptical of LRS, but I saw Greg win them over one by one. I’ll miss sorely, as all of Greg’s students will, his capacious good will, his free-flowing gift of gab, his deep, infectious laughter, and his omnipresent smile.

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