History professor reflects on life and laughter
The atmosphere in the history class was comfortable; students entering for the first class of the semester were greeted warmly and smiled quietly as they took a seat. The professor had already begun to make jokes about the video recording that would be taken during the class.
“It’s for posterity,” he said. “It will make everything you say sound smarter.”
This marks Terrence Cole’s 30th year as a history professor at UAF. In September 2017, he was diagnosed with Stage IV gastric diffuse adenocarcinoma. By the time of the class, he had just returned from a few months of treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York City.
His sense of humor is a striking mix of self-deprecating and light-hearted jokes. The students he knows well are often the subject of his jokes, but they do not hesitate to share in the laughter
His sharp wit and intellect are striking. His hearty laugh is a sound that quickly becomes both familiar and contagious. He clearly loves what he does.
Cole isn’t secretive about his condition. He asked students to please wear a mask if they come to class with a cough.
“Cancer isn’t communicable. However, I do have some cancer jokes,” he added. “With gastric cancer, for some reason, one of the side effects is to go like this.”
He rubbed his stomach, subtly making a joke about Napoleon (whose paintings often depicted him with his hand on his stomach), who died of gastric cancer.
“Hopefully, I’ll be here most of the time,” Cole said. “If I’m not, Mary will arrange things. I’m really privileged and lucky that she’s here. She’s done all the work. She’s always done all the work. She always bails me out.”
Mary Ehrlander, professor of history and director of Arctic and Northern Studies, is co-teaching the “Polar Exploration and its Literature” class alongside Cole this semester.
As class began, amid the discussion of syllabus topics, he made statements regarding the role of students.
“The most important person in the room is you,” he said. “It’s not the person in front of the room.”
He also commented on the role of the teacher.
“We’re all self-educated, self-taught,” Cole said. “[Professors] are just mentors; we’re not any different. Sure, we’re a lot smarter than you guys; no, we’re not smarter.”
Cole continued, discussing his view of the university.
“The university doesn’t educate you as if education is a passive activity—that’s ridiculous. Any idea of passive learning is nonsense, it’s just nonsense,” he said. “I know that’s the whole drive of modern education, and I don’t want to be critical of UAF, but I’m going to be. It shouldn’t be run like a business.”
His views may seem over the top, but as evidenced by the conviction in his tone, these are not beliefs he came upon lightly. They have been tested and tried over the course of his 30 years at UAF and are fundamental to his approach as a professor, teacher, mentor, friend, and advocate of students.
He has a reputation for being “eccentric,” the ultimate “absent-minded professor,” according to Ehrlander.
“He made such an impression on me,” Ehrlander said.
Ehrlander had the opportunity of knowing Cole as a professor when she first began taking classes as a Political Science student in the late ‘80s. She took a US History class taught by Cole.
“He was animated, a goofball, but so intelligent and engaging,” Ehrlander said. “I remember thinking: ‘If only all my boys’ teachers could be like that.’ He made history so interesting.”
Spend even a short time with students who have taken his class and it’s clear his priority in teaching: students.
“He’s like my academic dad,” said Victoria Smith, an Arctic and Northern Studies Masters student. “Without his mentorship, support and friendship, my life would look vastly different.”
Smith is grateful to Cole for his tireless support of her, both in her academic career and personal life, as she went through some difficult experiences during her undergraduate years.
“I was even invited to his house for Thanksgiving and Christmas a couple times, since my family lives out-of-state,” she said.
Cole has been an advocate for students in and out of his classes. He always sought to find and obtain resources for students in whatever form was needed.
“I can’t tell you how many times he’d come rushing in my office, ‘Mary, what can we do about this or that student?’ Even with the students who were not as invested in history, he would try his best to connect and engage with them,” Ehrlander said.
Smith can recall similar stories from her years working on her undergraduate degree.
“He scrounged up scholarships for me as an undergrad,” Smith said. “He always found ways to get funding to go to conferences and he always came with us.”
Sarah Evridge, a UAF alumna, valued Cole’s expertise and willingness to help. Everidge was a history student during her time at the university and encountered Cole in his classes.
“His breadth of knowledge allowed him to point me to resources that I never would have been able to find otherwise. Only three months to write my thesis and only so much time to dig—he was able to streamline that process and point me towards things that were extremely useful in my research,” Evridge said.
Terrence Cole initially came to Alaska on a whim in 1970, driving up with his oldest brother, Patrick.
“I don’t think I had ever heard of Alaska,“ Cole remembers.
After completing his senior year of high school in Taiwan (where Cole’s father had moved the family for work) and a year with his twin brother, Dermot, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Cole followed in his oldest brother’s footsteps in 1972, moving to Fairbanks to attend the University of Alaska Fairbanks, looking to major in geography.
“Geography was a subject about everything and I was interested in everything,” said Cole, “and I wanted to travel. Then, after I was here a year or so, I became particularly interested in Alaska and the north, so I majored in Geography and Northern Studies together.”
Upon earning his Bachelor of Arts in Geography and Northern Studies in 1976, he decided he wanted to become a writer, and history appealed to him as an interesting topic. He went on to earn an master’s degree in history from UAF in 1976, followed by a Ph.D. in history from the University of Washington in 1983.
After working in the private sector for several years, he joined the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1988 as an assistant professor of history.
A History Teacher on College Hill
Cole has ample advice for students at UAF.
“You know, people talk about schools like, ‘Oh this or that is a good school,’ but really any school can be a good school if you’re the right person; that’s hard for people to accept,” he said. “You just need one person to really inspire you or take an interest in you and has the ability to communicate in a fundamental way.
He recalls two mentors he benefited from during his studies at UAF: Norma Bowkett, an English professor, and William Hunt in the History department. Hunt was a prolific author, Cole recalled, and made him think.
“This is great, I could learn how to do this,” Cole recalled, thinking. Both professors were inspirations to him as a student and aspiring writer. Now, Cole encourages all his students to find mentors, just as he had.
“Just find one or two people who can really inspire you. Really touch your life,” he advised. He attests to the fact that this can make all the difference in a student’s university experience.
While not everyone in the community recognizes Cole, they may recognize his twin brother, Dermot, a long-time Alaskan newspaper reporter, columnist and author. Terrence sums up their individual personalities.
“We’re very similar, but also very different,” he said. “I’m a little more light-hearted than he is. He’s more serious. Everybody would say that.”
They often get confused for the other, particularly Terrence more than Dermot these days, according to Cole.
“[Dermot] is the famous one,” Cole said.
However, Terrence has earned quite the reputation on campus for his high standards and expectations for students.
“People have come up to me and said, ‘Oh I got a D or an F in [Terrence’s] class, but it was a good class,’ or ‘and I deserved it,’” Dermot said.
Cole estimates he’s taught at least 12,000 students over his career.
“A lot of people don’t belong there if they don’t want to do the work. I’ve often been harder on people who are better because they need their standards set higher,” he said. “Some people get by on being glib, but they haven’t applied themselves, and no one can really be what they should be unless they’ve really tried.”
His teaching style is often what students remember most distinctly about him, according to Dermot. He’s been known for grabbing newspapers from students reading in class or answering their phones when they go off. Cole admitted that if a student was sleeping in class he would say, “Shhh… he’s having a good rest.”
“Most students don’t realize I likes to joke around on everything, except going through TSA at the airport,” said Cole. He said tries to use humor as a way to communicate with people.
“Everything is to get people’s attention, then to connect to the bigger point, first of all,” Cole said. “These things [in history] are serious, even if I’m doing it in a humorous way.”
Smith, one of Cole’s graduate students, remembered spending the first couple weeks of class angry at him because she didn’t understand what he was trying to accomplish.
“He was trying to get a rise out of us and had no shame in doing it—kicking trash cans, trying to shock us with things he’d say, or argue with us about our religious beliefs,” Smith said. “Basically doing everything you’re technically ‘not supposed to do’ as a professor.”
Then, after a few weeks, it clicked. It was a strategic approach to teaching a lecture hall full of university freshman.
“Oh my god, now I understand why he’s doing this,” Smith said, recalling her moment of clarity.
Before teaching a class, Cole said he takes a moment to consider, “What would be the most provoking thing I could say? Not insulting, just funny.”
He quite successfully grabs students’ attention; although, some don’t always take it well. Mary Ehrlander found that students often misjudged him; according to her, they mistook his habit of joking and general absent mindedness for lack of substance.
“But those who really paid attention recognize his brilliance,” she said. She acknowledged that his style didn’t always suit students who were simply focused on the test.
Once, when teaching about the roots of liberalism and freedom in the Western world, he wanted to show how far we, as an American society, have come on issues of free speech. He brought a Bible to class, going through it, ripping out pages for effect saying, “Well this doesn’t make any sense,” or “I don’t like this,” essentially demonstrating how Thomas Jefferson went through the Bible, cutting out parts he believed were fraudulent, now famously known as the Jefferson Bible.
“I didn’t mean to offend anyone too much, but to help students realize the privilege of living in a free society. We forget that free speech is only free speech when it’s uncomfortable,” said Cole.
Ehrlander attests to the effectiveness of his teaching style.
“That is a sign of a good professor, a good education—when students feel uncomfortable,” said Ehrlander. “It means they’re being exposed to new ideas that test their assumptions; that students are being subjected to other ways of thinking.”
Cole readily admitted he rarely teaches quite the same way twice and enjoys the challenge of teaching the introductory history class.
“It’s hard to sit and listen to someone for an hour and a half,” Cole said.
He said the goal is always to appeal to the way people learn differently, whether visually through pictures or through actions, words, or stories.
“I’m not a musician but my son is a good musician and he learned jazz. If I had a music style of teaching it would be jazz. Constant improvisation,” Cole said. “But it’s not just banging on notes; it’s improvisation off of the riffs or themes or chords that you come back to again, instead of a completely scripted thing where all the notes are correct.
“I do really believe the idea in teaching that there’s no such thing as a mistake if you can fit it into your lesson,” he continued.
A Matter of Perspective
Cole says cancer has given him new perspectives, but also confirmed that he has never felt cheated in life because he always tries to “make a joke about whatever came along.” In his teaching, he likes to say things that “would maybe bring a smile to someone’s face.” This attitude persists through his illness as well.
“My new slogan is ‘HOPE—have to play every day’ but the ‘to’ has to become little ‘t’, capital ‘O’, but that’s my slogan for having cancer,” said Cole.
One aspect of cancer that has changed his perspective is that he says he is now more existentially aware of time.
“There are lot of things I want to do,” said Cole. “I’m still working on a couple books that I’d like to finish, and Dermot’s helped me a lot.”
Of his many publications, one of Cole’s originals was a book he wrote as a masters student on the history of Fairbanks. “Crooked Past: The History of a Frontier Mining Camp” is still in print nearly 40 years later, Dermot said.
Cole still speaks fondly of his years living in Fairbanks.
“I’m really lucky. I got to come here almost 50 years ago. I can’t believe it,” he said. So much of my life has revolved around the university. It’s still a place where students can find something that really speaks to them, and I hope that I’ve been able to do that for some students.”
This is Cole’s last semester at UAF before retiring. His will be giving a “Final Lecture” during the Summer Session on Wednesday, May 23 at 7 p.m. at the Murie Auditorium with a reception following.
For more information on Cole’s battle with cancer, readers can visit https://www.caringbridge.org/visit/terrencecole