Remembering Dr. John J. Glanville

I recently was saddened to discover that a former professor of mine, John J. Glanville at SF State University, passed away. Dr. Glanville, as I knew him (he referred to me a Mr. Brown, saying he would call me ‘Richard’ after I had earned my M.A.), was one of those professors who you either loved or hated. He had very high standards and was not squeamish about hurting one’s feelings if he thought one’s answers/work was sub-par. I was one of the one’s that loved him (I took 5 class with him, where I learned everything I know about Ancient Philosophy. He would often remark that for someone with my modern interests I gave “unusual attention to the history of Ancient and Medieval philosophy”) so I thought I would take a couple of minutes to reflect on his influence on me.

I transfered to SF State as an undergraduate in the Spring of 1997. Coming from a community college, I was very excited to be at a four-year school and to be taking classes in my major. In the Fall of 1997 I took Ancient Philosophy and History of Christian Thought, both with Dr. Glanville. Dr. Glanville was a very intimidating figure in the classroom, always asking questions about the readings and chastising those who did not know the answers. But he was also a teacher who took his job seriously and I have never had so much feedback on papers and exams as I did from him. I would turn in 10 double-spaced pages and get back the same 10 pages with copious notes in the margin and between the lines full of challenges, comments, queries, encouragement, etc. All written in tiny print and in pencil. He once famously wrote on one of my classmate’s papers (who shall remain nameless), “I have stopped reading for fear of what I might find,” a testament to his blunt no-nonsense approach. It was the first time I had ever felt like someone was taking my work seriously. For me it was a tremendous feeling. But beyond this gruff task master exterior lay an intellect and wit that was hard to surpass. He could be quite funny in the class, often making jokes that dated him, and it was obvious that he kept up with the literature, often making a comment about a new book or article on Parmenides or Democritus. As tough as he was on our work, he was twice as hard on his own work. We read a couple of his papers in grad seminars and they were excellent. He would say ‘I’ll send them off when they are better’ and we would be blown away; how could they be better? I surmise that there must be several books worth of material lying around in his house. I hope these come out some day and he is recognized for the tremendous scholar that he was.

I remember one particular incident in the History of Christian Thought class I took with him. I was to give a presentation on the section of Acts (I don’t recall the specific passage) where they discuss an encounter with Greek philosophy. Those who know me know that I am agnostic about the existence of God but I am not, nor have I ever been, agnostic about extant religions. I find that they have been a major force for evil in the history of Human Beings, well, at any rate, the point is that I started that presentation by writing on the board a quote from Neitzsche: “There is only one Christian and he died on the cross”. I then proceeded to criticize the metaphysical and epistemological principles of Christianity, arguing that they lost the argument with the Greek philosophers. I later found out that Dr. Glanville was deeply religious but he did not stop me or show anger of any kind (some annoyance seeped out as I recall ;). Rather, he engaged with the arguments that I was presenting in a serious way, trying to show me that I did not quite have it right, and that some of what I said was apt, etc. Now, as an instructor myself, I can only imagine what his real thoughts must have been!

In spite of all this Dr. Glanville ended up writing me a letter of recommendation when I applied to PhD programs in late 2001. He sent me a copy of the letter with a short handwritten note on it. I still to this day find it to be some of the nicest things ever said about me and one of the greatest compliments I have ever received. I here quote a short bit of the letter,

Brown has a lively imagination which he knows how to apply in the service of philosophy. This put him in sync with the thought experiments found in the Pre-Socratics and the response in kind needed by modern readers to test their hypotheses. I am reminded of Heisenberg’s observation on the challenge to his imagination in arousing his mind to a life of work in theoretical physics –the challenge offered, he says, by his study of the Pre-Socratics on the Gymnasium level of German education. –Just the sort of stimulus so often missing in the education of our American youth.

In my considered judgment Richard Brown will one day make significant contributions in the area of Philosophical Psychology. His record of talks and publications already portend that, as does his MA record with us at SFSU.

Dr. Glanville then hand wrote on the letter “Richard, now you have to live up to it!” (This was the first time he had ever called me ‘Richard’, by the way). I used to joke that my 2006 paper “What is a Brain State?” which was published in the journal Philosophical Psychology had discharged this obligation. I always thought I would run into him at some apa meeting and get to make that joke in person. Sadly I won’t get that opportunity. Nor will I get the opportunity to thank him in person for his belief in me, his patience with my ignorance, his stern criticisms of my sloppiness, and his impact on my life. But I like to think he knows already. I am sure he had that level of impact on countless students. We should all be so lucky.

Rest in Peace Dr Glanville.


5 thoughts on “Remembering Dr. John J. Glanville

  1. Hey Richard,

    This is a very nice remembrance. Dr. Glanville was definitely the most challenging figure of my time at SFSU, and like you, I really wish I had made an opportunity to talk to him again after I left — I somehow always knew that I would eventually learn that he was gone months after the fact (I just found out about a month ago). I found him terrifying and awe-inspiring, and while I don’t really try to emulate every aspect of his classroom style, I did treasure the care he put into his feedback. One of his plus marks in the margin, especially if accompanied by a “good word work here” or other encouragement was worth a lot, and went a long way to soften the impact of all the minus marks which were invariably (and frustratingly) insightful, useful, and carefully tailored to help _me_ improve.

    I know a lot of people were profoundly influenced by him. As you say, we should all be so lucky.

    All the best,
    Mark Nelson

  2. I had Glanville in ’87 or thereabouts. He was one of my favourite teachers at SFSU although I have to say that I had many great teachers there (Donald Provence and Kent Bach among them). If you are interested in early Greek philosophy do yourself a favour and read Kingsley’s book on Empedocles – starting with the first one. Mind-blowing. (Seriously)

  3. Hi! I am John’s daughter, SFSU alumna… and one-time student. I wanted to be sure I took one of his classes before he retired, so I sat in on a graduate seminar on The Republic. It is very touching to read all your comments! It is all true. He was a brilliant mind, a great political activist, an exacting scholar and anabsolutely devoted teacher. You are right. His books were written in margins in pencil and in brilliant manuscripts he never felt were complete. He really loved teaching and as feisty as his comments may have been, he habitually accepted late papers on our doorstep and put in late nights on “vacation” to pour over them with rapt focus. He was a Catholic who was deeply critical of both dogma and oppression. He was fired for organizing the first union at a Jesuit university in the mid 1960’s, and an active participant in the student/teacher strikes at SFSU in 1967. My siblings and I were raised in a secular environment due to my dad’s concern about imposing religion upon us. Sure, he was passionate, exacting, sometimes imposing, but he was also a very gentle and playful person, a deeply imaginative person, a lover of all sorts of beauty &… the guy who taught me to body-surf in the Pacific Ocean!

  4. Hi,

    I just want to thank you for this remembrance of Dr. Glanville. I was an undergraduate in English and Classics at SFSU from 1998-2001. I transferred there from a community college in southern California. Dr. Glanville introduced me to philosophy. Before that all I knew of philosophy was stuff I had read in Christian apologetic contexts. I am one of the students that loved him and his seriousness. I took Ancient Phil. and Medieval Phil. with him, and after speaking with him he let me sign up for a grad. seminar on Aristotle’s De Anima (if I remember rightly). All of these classes were so challenging, so eye opening, and so humbling. A few years after I graduate I applied for a D.Phil. at Oxford, and Dr. Glanville agreed to write a letter of recommendation on my behalf, and he sent me a copy of the letter. He was very encouraging and said something to the effect about my needing to live up to his expectations. I hope I’ve done that. I’m an Assistant Professor of Philosophy now (UNC Asheville).

    While I was at SFSU I came to learn he was Roman Catholic through a classmate, Jordan Wells. Jordan was what I took to be Dr. Glanville’s best student and biggest fan that I knew of (my sample size was small, admittedly). In any case, on one occasion I went with Jordan to his church which was also Dr. Glanville’s church. There Dr. Glanville learned that I was a Christian – I remember having a conversation with Dr. Glanville’s son (I don’t remember his name) about Christian belief and Dr. Glanville seemed happy with that sight. If I remember rightly, I think Dr. Glanville’s wife was/is an Episcopalian — as it turns out, that’s what I’ve become.

    In any case, I have a big debt of gratitude for Dr. Glanville.


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