He arrived in 1988 to chair the then-Division of the Humanities. He was excited to be at The W.
"Everyone was wonderful from the start," Dr. Thomas Richardson recalled, 25 years later. "It's been that way ever since." But immediately on arriving at his new university, he learned first-hand that unexpected adjustment is part of academic life.
He was hired by former President James W. Strobel, who had stepped down after an11-year tenure by the time Richardson began his formal duties in July. On arrival, he found Harvey Craft had been named interim president, and, under the direction of former IHL Commissioner Ray Cleere, a new policy had been implemented prohibiting teaching overloads.
"That meant that everyone had to teach five classes," Richardson said. Despite his administrative duties, he felt it only fair that he also assume his share of the teaching load. By the following year, the policy had been rescinded, but his first year at The W was off to a busy start.
By October, things were to change again. Richardson attended a Mississippi Association of Colleges meeting with Craft, riding back from Jackson with the interim president. Following that, Craft was scheduled to attend a regular board meeting of The Institutions of Higher Learning. But he died that night. The Harvey M. Craft Award, later named for him, recognizes the graduating senior with the highest grade point average.
During the interim before Dr. Clyda Rent was named president in 1989, The W's then-CFO Delene Lee held the top administrative position. "So in my first year here, I worked for three presidents," Richardson laughed.
Since then, he's been tapped for positions that include vice president for Academic Affairs, interim provost and, more recently, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. He's continued to teach—courses ranging from freshman composition to survey of literature to the popular Welty Symposium seminar. It's something he loves.
Teaching: a constant in the changing world
As he prepares to return full-time to the classroom at the end of the spring semester, Richardson believes that today, as when he first began teaching, some of the basics remain the same.
"I'm not sure students have changed," he said. "Technology has changed. How students access information has changed. Our student population has become more diverse. But students still value education here, and they typically work hard. It's not necessarily because they come here from that tradition, but because they see education as important."
Seeing in students a desire to learn has kept Richardson deeply engaged in the life of the classroom. "My favorite class is whatever I'm teaching at the time," he said, although he admits a preference for 19th century Romantics and Victorian literature. This spring, he's teaching a class in 18th and early 19th century novels focusing on the development of the novel. The reading list is diverse, ranging from the early part of the century (Roxanna) to the latter (Emma, Frankenstein).
And, as always, Richardson is looking forward to the experience. "The joy of teaching has not diminished for me," he said.
He said he's taught so many outstanding students that it's hard to single one out, but a recent one who comes to mind is 2012 graduate Stefani Sloma, who pursued graduate studies at the University of Stirling in Scotland. Richardson was able to arrange an interview for Sloma with noted Scottish writer Ian Rankin while she was in the country, and later secured a signed copy of Rankin's latest book, "Saints of The Shadow Bible," for her. This kind of relationship with students, he believes, is a special part of teaching at The W. "It's nice to be able to offer students something outside the routine classroom experience," he said.
A professor and a scholar
A noted scholar of Scottish literature, Richardson also is looking forward to continuing his research about some of the lesser known but important literary figures of the early 19th century. He has published about Scottish novelist, poet and essayist James Hogg, a contributor to Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, and is continuing his research on John Lockhart, who also worked closely with Blackwood's before moving to London to become editor of the Quarterly Review.
"Lockhart was educated at Glasgow and Oxford universities and studied law in Edinburgh," Richardson said. "He had a strong classics background, and his first published book was a translation of Friedrich Schlegel's essays on literature." While not widely studied, Lockhart knew many of the literary figures of the day and married Sir Walter Scott's daughter. He wrote four novels, as well as biographies of Scott, Robert Burns and Napoleon.
From 1826-53, Lockhart served as editor of the Quarterly Review, which Richardson describes as "the dominant literary publication" of the time. "Magazines were highly political and highly personal," he said, noting that Lockhart was challenged to a duel over his role in Blackwood's.
While in Scotland on a recent trip, Richardson was able to spend time at the British Library reading letters Lockhart wrote to British Prime Minister William Gladstone. The continuing work is part of a planned critical biography he will write about Lockhart, as well as a planned edition of his letters.
Richardson has many projects ahead and many classes to teach, as well as many nights of research and class preparation. He looks back on 25 years with satisfaction and looks ahead with anticipation. The W, he said, is "a good place to be."