That Professor Sheila McCarthy conducted a 36-student class in the fall semester of 1980 as an engaging, affirming, and challenging discussion still stands out — over a lifetime of working and studying at colleges — as the ideal way to teach college students. Modern Russian Literature had so many students that fall because Sheila was a popular and caring professor who would rather adjust her teaching style to 36 students than cap the class at a smaller, more Grinnell-like number.
I started the course with a passion for Dostoevsky and left it transformed by the unforgettable ways McCarthy brought us into the literary world of Russia in the 19th century. I still remember her telling us the significance of Ivan Karamazov’s devil speaking in French and how Turgenev was derided by his literary peers as more European than Russian. I also remember being very sad when the class came to an end, the way that you are sad when you know you have experienced something special that may never happen again.
It is hard to imagine a college professor anywhere who was better than McCarthy at conveying passion for her subject, at pacing and communicating its complex material in clear and vivid ways, and at showing a genuine interest in each of her students.
I was sorry to learn of her passing and wanted to pay tribute to her life by sharing these memories that have lived on for more than 40 years.