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Dr. Roald Tweet, mentor to generations

Dr. Roald Tweet

Dr. Roald Tweet reads his essay from the Festschrift, a collection of writings, published in honor of his colleague and friend Dr. Dorothy Parkander.

Dr. Ann Boaden '67 reflects on her former professor and lifelong friend, Dr. Roald Tweet. Dr. Tweet died Nov. 4, 2020, at the age of 87. (More memories from alumni and friends follow this essay.)

He was my teacher. From the time I was seventeen, before I ever had him for class. He remained my teacher all my life.

That teaching began during registration for my first year at Augustana. We registered for courses then not online but by presenting our actual physical selves in an actual physical location: the college gym that smelled of sweat and old socks. Faculty sat in august rows at long tables, and we students signed up with the professors for each class we wanted.

But the professor I wanted, Dr. Dorothy Parkander, was an icon. The queue for her class stretched to the door. So a newbie instructor, sitting next to her, was assigned to handle the overflow.

That instructor, I later learned, was Roald Tweet, himself destined to become an icon.

But back then he was just a round cheerful man—round head with wisps of blond hair, round blue eyes that could and did open very wide, round mouth that would exclaim “ooh!” when he was really impressed. I looked at the students crowding Dr. Parkander’s station.

“I suppose her class is full,” I said gloomily.

“Right!” he said cheerfully.

“Do you think,” I said, “that she might possibly let me in?”

He said, “Why don’t you ask her?”

This story, for me, encapsulates his teaching.

Why don’t you ask?

We were just moving into the sixties when Tweet came to Augustana, and at that time the college ethos still resembled that of the fifties. Professors were awe-inspiring beings. Some were adored; all were feared. They dressed professionally: suits, ties, crisp white shirts for men; dresses, stockings, heels for women. They lectured—some spellbindingly, others not so much. Students, compliantly taking notes, were addressed as “Mr. Johnson” and “Miss or Mrs. (not Ms.) Anderson.”

In other words, formality and dignity were the orders of the day. (There were a few exceptions: Dr. Parkander’s “deep indecorous” laugh of delight was legendary.)

Roald Tweet changed all that.

He’d hove lightly into a classroom, dressed in gray washpants, open-necked shirt and a blue sweater that served him for at least three decades, and hop onto the table in front of the room. Give a preliminary dry cough, flip open his book to the day’s assigned reading and begin with: “So, Boaden, what’d you think of this poem?” (I use myself, obviously, as a representative of all his students.)

I’d plunge into the brilliant explication I’d worked out the previous evening. Tweet would listen, sometimes looking out the window, sometimes glancing down at the open book, sometimes taking a sip from his ubiquitous coffee mug. He wouldn’t say, as all my high school English teachers had said, how smart or creative or interesting my interpretation was.

Instead, after maybe a brief silence, he’d ask me to clarify a statement, or explain further what I meant by an assertion, or support my ideas about the work with specific evidence from the work. And by the time he’d finished, I saw both the flaws in my own interpretation, and the richness and possibility of the work I thought I’d mastered.

Usually I’d been too quick to impose an abstract “meaning.” Tweet would help me return to focus on the specifics, the details, on how those details generated experience, and only then what might be the significance of that experience. On many occasions his adroit questioning changed my opinion. I “thought” differently about the poem when class was over. Because he asked.

I might have been devastated at this dismantling of my ideas. But he was so inexorably gentle, so playfully precise, as he teased out the tangles of my thinking, that I loved it. He never made us feel put down; his challenges demonstrated his respect for our ability to see further and more clearly. And above all, his kindness throughout the process shone with a warmth that made these discussions a safe place to grow. We trusted in that kindness, absolutely and rightly.

The discussions didn’t end when the class period did. They carried over into the old College Union (where Tredway Library now stands). There, ensconced at a round table beside floor-to-ceiling windows, nursing his blue plastic Union coffee cup, he’d sit reading the latest book that had captured him.  

Students would stroll in from class and pull up chairs to join him, and the questioning, of ideas, of interpretations, of political and philosophical positions, would go on. Sometimes he’d be there all afternoon, the groups of students changing as the light slipped down the hills.

And he read our stuff, draft after draft, with that same bracing respect and uncompromising clarity that he accorded our attempts at analysis. Most Tweet students remember some one-liner that went right to the heart of our particular weakness. Mine was overwriting. His advice:  “Take off the earrings.”

That’s why students loved him. He was always available to them, not as a pal but as a provocateur. He gave them space to think and question—and be questioned. He gave them the elasticity of his mind, and they bounced their ideas off it. He was never about small talk. He was always about big talk. And about big questions.

Memories of Dr. Tweet from interviews and social media

Julie Stamenkovich '80 Falloon

Tweet made everyone feel comfortable. Not only was he encouraging with your writing, but also with what was going on in your life. He was the most creative person I've ever known, and was open to all great ideas. He taught Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter," and that has stayed with me for life.

He also liked to have fun. When Tredway put out wooden spikes on campus where he wanted to plant trees, Tweet got a bunch of us together and that night, we put out about 300 wooden spikes all over campus.

Something he used to say is "Everything counts, but not too much."

It's hard to believe he's gone. He was so valuable in my life.

(Julie had to take a dip in the Slough after losing a not-so-fair weight loss contest with Dr. Tweet; he had constructed a metal belt and wore it under his trademark sweater for all the weekly weigh-ins until the final one.)

Linda Catanzaro '77 Boberg

My heart is heavy. My college advisor, Roald Tweet, died of COVID. He was such a special man, taught me writing but also said writers need hobbies where they can say, "This is finished. It can't be fussed with any more." His hobby was wood carving. These are the Norwegian Wedding Spoons he carved for us. Last night I realized that he also taught me how to mentor college students. RIP, my Norwegian Godfather.

Lisa Lockheart, Rock Island Library

We're so sad here. I just pulled a bunch of photos from our Frieze Lecture series, where Roald was a frequent speaker and audience member. We could always depend on a full audience when Roald was in the house. He had a way of spinning out a story that kept everyone in the palm of his hand.

Kai Swanson '86

There was never anything practical about him, or his house. They had a pet skunk, and a three-wheeled car that you opened from the front to get in.

He had dozens and dozens of remote-control planes, boats and cars and so many models he had made. He had so many they were in display cases on the front porch. 

It was the most magical house. You never knew what to expect when you stopped by.

Emily Isaacson

When he worked with me on my paper for Nancy Huse's Emily Dickinson seminar, he told me to stop being afraid of my own ideas. I pass that encouragement along to my students all the time.

Marsha Smith

He was such a good mentor—not only to students but to faculty as well! I still have my "Tweet" earrings he made for me before I came up for tenure in 1987!

Gail Foster '77 Sederquist

I remember him telling the class that it’s easy to describe the beauty of the mountains and the seashore. In the Midwest we are blessed with the challenge of describing the beauty of the prairie.

Kristin Lindgren '98 Lemmon

I remember being tired on the Machu Picchu hike and thinking, how in the world has Tweet done this multiple times?! He was a force in so many ways and it was such a gift to spend those weeks with him.

Deborah Seidenzahl '74 VanSpeybroeck

When I was a freshman there was still a curfew at night—we had to sign in and out of the dorm, and if we had too many “late minutes” we got grounded. More than once I didn’t sign out, and was allowed to sleep on Tweet’s porch til the next morning.

I went on a Spoon River canoe trip with him, got up in the wee hours to see the sun rise over the Mississippi, visited his family farm in Minnesota and watched a chicken get beheaded, and saw Peer Gynt at the Guthrie with him.

When my daughter was born, he gave me a delicate little carved rocking horse, except it was a unicorn.

After having had an extremely strict college prep English teacher in high school (whom I loved and feared in equal measure), having Tweet for freshman English was a revelation—I loved his quirky assignments: Write an essay using only one-syllable words. Write an essay about a single word. I loved him to bits.

Tamara Felden

I didn't have Tweet as a professor but experienced him with amazement when I was very new on the faculty many years ago…. When I think of him I see the iconic plaid shirt and the cardigan he would always wear along with the tall stack of papers that went with him everywhere. To me he embodied everything the word "teacher" means.

Allison Moe '99

When I cleaned tables in the Snack Bar, we used to chat. He once thanked me for cleaning the cups that were full of chew (and suggested that I put the cups in their fraternity mailbox along the wall)! I loved my sci fi lit course I took with him!

Alice Larson

Godspeed, Roald Tweet. Loved your knowledge and wit. You pointed this young hippie runaway in the right direction. Thank you.

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