The following profile by Genevieve Haas appeared in the June 2006 issue of Dartmouth Life.
Bill Cook, Israel Evans Professor of Oratory and Belles Lettres, and one of Dartmouth's most familiar figures, retires this year after over three decades at the College. Of everything he's done, he says he'll miss teaching the most, and speaks warmly of his students. "I never planned to do anything but teach and I love teaching," says Cook, also a professor of English and African and African and African American studies.
One of the most notable changes he's witnessed during his years at Dartmouth, he says, is that many students now arrive on campus having already read much of the course material he teaches, which can be both a blessing and a curse. "There are some materials that shouldn't be taught in secondary schools. Advanced Placement classes will pull down college material, but students may not be emotionally or intellectually prepared for it." Cook says he's concerned that students don't have an adequate grounding in classical and mythological texts for some of the sophisticated material they cover in high school. "I call it 'dumbing up' the curriculum," says Cook.
Cook's students speak warmly of their experience in his class. Christian Ogden '09 described him as the best teacher he's had at Dartmouth and says that he was so inspired by Cook's broad and integrative approach to teaching that he hopes to follow in his footsteps and become a college English professor. "Professor Cook is a remarkably talented and gifted teacher and will be missed by all his students," says Ogden.
Cook's love of teaching brought him to Dartmouth in 1973 to teach poetry. "At that time, African American studies had only one part-time person trying to cover all the disciplines. Now, we have people all over the College, from many different subjects, which is as it should be," he says. Cook played a crucial role in the development of the African and African American Studies Program at Dartmouth, first as chair of the steering committee for African and Afro-American Studies and later as two-time chair of the program. Largely as a result of his work, the current program has flourished across the disciplines.
But Cook's impact on education hasn't been limited to the Dartmouth campus. The impact of his work has been felt far from Hanover through his long-standing commitments to scholarship and theater. The two things he is most proud of, he says, are his contributions to the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), of which he was chair in 1992, and his role in founding the African Grove Institute for the Arts (AGIA) in the wake of the National Black Theatre Summit at Golden Pond held at Dartmouth in 1998.
CCCC is an organization devoted to supporting and promoting the teaching and study of college composition and communication. Under Cook's leadership, CCCC instituted the Scholars for the Dream travel award, designed to encourage scholarship by historically underrepresented groups.
The National Black Theatre Summit grew out of Cook's collaboration with a visiting Montgomery Fellow, the late playwright August Wilson. Their association led to the creation of AGIA, which has helped regional black theater survive. Preserving and celebrating theater has been an integral part of Cook's life at Dartmouth.
Cook also speaks with pride about the College's theatrical tradition. In his decades at Dartmouth, he has directed and performed in a number of stage productions and will continue to advise and coach student performances even after his retirement. He speaks fondly, as well, of his students' appreciation and enthusiasm for poetry, his other love. "Dartmouth students have a real affinity for poetry," he says.
Cook also has a secret passion for cartooning. Though sometimes bordering on the risqué, his cartoons are a big hit with the recipients of his annual Christmas card. With retirement approaching, he might reasonably expect to have more time to devote to drawing, but he has no intention of giving up teaching and training. He would miss it too much, he says, a sentiment enthusiastically reciprocated by his students. "He brings humor, love, and enthusiasm to the course that creates a desire within students to be in his presence," says Damaris Walker '09.
Cook was also profiled in "They Make Dartmouth Dartmouth" featured in the October 1997 issue of Dartmouth Alumni Magazine