This week, I spoke with Dr. Robert Lapp, professor and Head of the English Department at Mt. A. Now 66 years old, Lapp will be retiring this term, finishing his time at Mt. A after 25 years. Lapp reflected on the moments that brought him here, and what he’s learned from his time on campus.
Lapp completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto and said that, “based on a course I took on the undergraduate level, I knew I absolutely loved the Romantic period and really resonated with the work and poetry.” After obtaining his Bachelor of Arts, he was unsure of his next step.
He wondered about working towards a PhD at that point, but decided against it: “There was a part of me that wondered ‘do I have it in me to carry on and go right to the end and get a PhD?’ and after my BA I thought ‘no’ and then I went and did what people do and got a job in a restaurant,” he said.
Soon after that, Lapp changed his mind. Although he was still uncertain about his career path, he said: “I went and got the Master’s just for its own sake because I loved [Romantic literature] so much.”
After finishing his MA, Lapp began a career in tourism, not because he was passionate about that field, but because it was a job that was available. “It was only later when I realized that tourism too was not going to be fulfilling in the long-run,” he said. He worked his way up from there, eventually working as a manager, and going to different places speaking to groups about Toronto. Talking to these groups allowed him to learn what he was truly passionate about: “I like educating people about things that I’m excited about.”
With the support of his partner, Lapp began applying to PhD programs and eventually accepted a spot at Dalhousie University.
After finishing his PhD in Halifax, Lapp began teaching courses at a few different universities; “In the year before I came to Mount A., I had graduated, and I was teaching two courses at Mount Saint Vincent, a writing course at Saint Mary’s and a summer course at Dalhousie just trying to patch together a living,” he said.
He began his career at Mt. A with a temporary position teaching Romantic Literature. By the end of 1998, Mt. A began the hiring process for a full-time position teaching Romantic Literature. Lapp interviewed for the job, feeling nervous about the outcome. “Even as I did my degree, I was anxious that I would never find a position,” he said. On the day of his interview, he learned that his book, Contest for Cultural Authority: Hazlitt, Coleridge, and the Distresses of the Regency, would be published, which he was excited to mention to the hiring committee.
Once he was hired for a full-time position, Lapp knew he wanted to stay at Mt. A: “My intention right from the get-go was to stay right here in this space that offered such a good opportunity for the talents I could bring to the job and to have the safety to develop those talents over the long term,” he said.
Although Lapp has always been passionate about his research, he prefers the teaching side of his job; “I was also inspired by the research but teaching was always the goal,” he said. In 1998, he went to a conference held at Mt. A hosted by the Society of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE). Reflecting on this moment, Lapp said, “My mind was blown, all of these people just felt like my peeps. They all cared about teaching, they came from different disciplines and so right from the beginning I was inspired by them and all these cutting edge ideas about what teaching should be.” Lapp quickly got involved in the group, and eventually became president; “One of the most important things I ever did in my career was being president of STLHE,” he said.
The STLHE is an interdisciplinary national organization that focuses on all modes of higher education. Lapp has always prioritized the scholarship of teaching and learning: “Right from the beginning, I was always attending teaching seminars and talks, and it became one of the most important sidelines of my work, even to the extent of becoming part of my research.”
On teaching, he said, “there’s no one perfect way to be a teacher in any context because it is a combination between the fundamentals of pedagogy and of psychology, how people learn, but that’s always mingled with your own talents.”
Lapp’s approach to teaching has changed throughout the years. One of the more recent changes he’s made is his approach to final exams: “Final exams are a big issue in English Literature,” he said, “The conclusion I’ve come to, in part nudged by the pandemic, is to make it optional.”
Dr. Lapp now gives students the option to weigh their grades differently; giving more weight to the final project gives students the ability to opt out of final exams. He also provides the exam questions at the beginning of the term.
Although Lapp is still passionate about his career, he believes that it is best if he retires. Last year, he turned sixty-five, the age that was once the mandatory retirement age. He decided to stay one more year, to finish his term as the head of the department. Part of the reason he decided to retire was to make room for younger academics; “It’s an issue in the discipline, because there are so many young really talented people who have PhDs but no jobs.” Therefore, he said, “It struck me as the right thing to do, to move on even though I didn’t legally have to retire.” Lapp believes that his position should be filled as soon as possible: “The University should replace me. […] As it is now, they are letting my position remain unfilled.”
Although he is retiring, Lapp plans to continue to explore new research ideas, “I still have ideas for research, I still have something to say about the crisis we’re in,” he said. Lapp spoke about his time working with Bruce Wark making “The Poetry Lover” for CBC: “It was like teaching to the public rather than to the university,” he said. He’s considering doing something similar in the future; “a kind of podcast of sorts might be fun to do,” he said.
Lapp is also excited to spend more time with his grandchildren. He feels fortunate to have them living here in Sackville with his daughter, who owns Blind Forest Books.
Lapp is a beloved professor at Mt. A, and will be missed by many. A note on his impact from the perspective of English students will be found in the online issue next week.