Robert Travis ’98 Fondly Recalls a Professor’s Prank

Rob Travis 98
Robert P. Travis ’98 is the rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in High Point, N.C. After graduating with a B.A. in German studies, Travis worked in the nonprofit sector doing market research and volunteered in the Episcopal Church before beginning professional ministry. He earned an M.Div at Sewanee: The University of the South in 2006 and has served as an Episcopal priest in Florida, Tennessee and Rhode Island.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I was very socially engaged and active. When I went to the first club fair, I had so many interests I signed up for about a half-dozen clubs — as you can imagine, I wasn’t able to participate in most of them. I was a walk-on varsity fencer and as a former swimmer; I later played water polo. I played the cello and thought I would join a chamber group. I thought I was accomplished at many things; consequently, I was shocked when I realized that most of my new friends had accomplished more in high school than I dreamed possible, and were also much more advanced academically than I was. My father, Robert Carroll Travis ’62 shared a lot to prepare me for the experience. Thanks to him, I entered campus feeling like I knew what it would be like to study the Core Curriculum. I even brought a couple of his books with me. But I found that things had really changed since the early 1960s.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

I had a single room on the ninth floor of Shapiro, affectionately named “Hotel Shapiro.” It felt like it was more in the city than the dorms behind the Gates: It was relatively new and very nice. There were music practice rooms in the basement, but practicing my cello in my room didn’t bother my neighbors, so I never used them. I had a neighbor from China who was nice and quiet and rarely left her room, but there were plenty of friends on the floor who did mingle, and our doors were usually open to each other. Four of us eventually became fraternity brothers in Zeta Psi in our sophomore year.

Here’s one of my more embarrassing memories: Our RA put up signs inviting us to “Study Break” every Wednesday, but I was so busy with daily fencing and cello practice, various clubs and my work/study job in the German department that I didn’t join them for the first month or so. When I attended my first Study Break, I brought all the books I was supposed to be reading. The others looked at me strangely over their snacks and conversation. “Why did you bring your books, Rob?” I replied, “Isn’t this a time when we take a break from all our other activities to study together?” Not surprisingly, I didn’t do very well on my midterms that first semester, but improved quickly thereafter when I dedicated more time to studying.

What Core class or experience do you most remember, and why?

My father advised me to take Contemporary Civilization first, since that’s what he did in 1958. My advisor approved my request, but I didn’t realize that, all those years later, almost all the other students would be sophomores. In my first class, when Professor Anders Stephanson GSAS’87 asked about our expectations, I said that I hoped that even though I was young, my opinions on the reading would be valued and respected. Even though Stephanson often said I was over-simplifying things, I still felt respected whenever I shared.

By the time I got to Lit Hum in my sophomore year, with Professor David Yerkes, I was in a different place, academically, than many of the first-years in my class. One day, he said for our next class some parents would visit. He thought it would be fun to play a prank on them and asked if I would be willing to pretend that I was the professor and he another parent. I went from wondering if my opinions as a young person would be respected to getting to play the professor for a group of unsuspecting parents! It was truly fun and a liberating experience. By the way, he did eventually let the parents in on the joke.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

The campus is full of nooks and crannies, delightful to discover. One of my favorites was the small reading room next to the periodicals section in Butler. Perhaps because it was out of the way, it was hardly ever occupied by more than one other person and always quiet. It was gemütlich, with dark wood paneling, soft lighting, a bright window and big, comfy leather chairs that swallowed me up. From sophomore year until I graduated it was my favorite place to read.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

This question could be looked at in a couple of different ways. Is a do-over going back and doing it differently a second time? Or is it a repeat of something exactly the same way, from nostalgia? If the former, I would do my entire first year over, this time spending less time at the fencing clubs and more time getting to know friends and eating with them. At that time, most of our practices were at competitive clubs throughout Manhattan, which meant I missed communal dinner most nights. I also missed those dinnertime conversations that friends talked about when we hung out on the weekends. For some of my friends, those were the conversations where the ideas discussed in the Core really sank in.

If it could repeat what I experienced, I would love to go back and take Lit Hum and Contemporary Civilization again. At the time I was much more into the latter because I loved political theory, but I lacked the value of deep reading that I have now. As a result, I skimmed through so many books that would be better served by a long study. Perhaps I will still go back and read them again, but if so, I think I’ll take four years to do it rather than two, and see how much better it is to savor the thoughts.