Left: Tom Roche; Right: Bo Smith
Bo Smith and Tom Roche came to John Carroll three years ago as the Gerard Manly Hopkins Visiting Professors in English Literature (known on the JCU website as the Hopkins Chair in British Literature). Luckily for us, they are still on staff. If you have been lucky enough to get to know them or have them as professors, then you are familiar with their inspiring teaching, fantastic sense of humor, and kind and friendly nature. Bo and Tom, as they prefer to be known, have a wealth of professional and life experiences behind them that only enrich the knowledge that they impart upon their students.
What has your career been like before coming to John Carroll?
Tom: I was an undergrad at Yale before returning to my prep school to teach for a year. Following that, I was a fellowship student at Cambridge, where I studied Spenser one-on-one with CS Lewis. That was a very interesting story, actually. My classmate at Cambridge, Harold Bloom, told me that CS Lewis was coming to Cambridge to teach, and so I wrote him a note, asking to read Spenser with him in the following term. The next day, I got a postcard back that read “My dear Roche, The reason I left Oxford was to escape students, particularly American ones.” Well, I didn’t like that response so I went to the dean, and he got Lewis to agree to teach me one-on-one after telling him that I was a Yale New Critic. I was Lewis’s first American student. After I studied with Lewis, I came back to the US and got my PhD at Princeton. From there, I taught at Williams for two years before returning to Princeton, where I taught for 43 years. Following that, I’ve travelled and taught with Bo for the past 12 years.
Bo: I started acting at age five, and I was in several PBS teleplays. I’ve been doing theatre my whole life. I went to Northwestern University for my undergraduate degree. After I graduated, I was one of three students chosen out of 1,000 to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Actually, I did a stint on the show Jeopardy, where I won three times. That’s how I paid for going to London. After that, I came back and did classical theatre. I lived in Manhattan and worked there for 25 years. I’ve also done archival work for the British Film Academy – I worked on the British Oscars. I then took five years off to care for my parents, as they were both very ill and dying. After that, a mutual friend introduced Tom and I, because Tom was getting ready to retire and was bored. We then joined together and taught a Shakespeare course for a year at Princeton, before traveling for the past 12 years.
I know that you’ve both had some incredible experiences in your lives/careers. What has been the most profound or influential experience for you?
Tom: Getting my PhD at Princeton. The critics there were by far the most influential on my life.
Bo: My brother’s suicide and taking care of my parents for those five years. In those circumstances, you discover what in you allows you to go on. And I think that becomes a source of strength and comfort in a way. You can go on. The worst can happen and you can still go forward. I think that’s very valuable for me.
Bo, since you’re an actor, how would you say that your time on the stage has influenced your teaching?
Bo: I would say that it’s being aware of the necessity of getting over self-consciousness combined with a desire to communicate. But, I think getting on stage and doing a play and walking out in front of a class for the first time is very similar. The similarity is that you’re just trying to communicate.
Which schools have you taught at as visiting professors?
Bo: Well, we were at Princeton for two years, then Arizona State University for three years, followed by the University of Notre Dame for another three years. And now this is our third year here at JCU.
Out of all of those, which has been your favorite school to teach at?
Tom: Princeton, because as a senior in high school, I applied to three schools: Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. I wanted to go to Princeton, but they’re the only one that didn’t accept me. I ended up teaching there for 43 years.
Bo: John Carroll. I have felt most accepted here. Both in terms of colleagues and students, I have felt an embellished sense of being welcome and accepted here.
What are your favorite topics to teach?
Tom: The renaissance, Spenser, and Shakespeare.
Bo: My acting classes and Shakespeare. With the acting I think it’s because my goal is just to really dig under the surface, to really, really get at something, and explore and realize yourself as much as you can. I think the bane of most people’s existence is self-consciousness. And to open yourself up to it is just exhilarating to me.
Why keep teaching when you could have retired?
Tom: Boredom. And a love for teaching.
How do you stay inspired to teach the same thing time and time again?
Bo: The students are new. It’s the same thing with doing a long run of a play. It never gets old because it’s a new audience.
Tom: I learn more. So I can teach more
What is your favorite part of the John Carroll community?
Bo: The students. No question. You know our story when we were at ASU. The chair of the English department wondered why we took students to lunch or dinner. Tom, without missing a beat, answered, “Because they’re infinitely more interesting than the faculty.”
Tom: I agree. Oh sure, absolutely.
Which classes are you teaching this semester?
Bo: Two acting classes: performing Shakespeare, and another one called acting for film and television.
What are some hobbies that you take part in outside of teaching?
Bo: Well, we’re both voracious readers. Tom works all the time. If he’s not writing a book or preparing for class, he’s working on an article. He’s one of the most disciplined people I’ve ever known. I guess my hobbies would be reading and movies.
How does it feel to be considered celebrities on campus?
Bo: I have no awareness of it. I go back to just feeling very welcome here. You can’t ever feel like a celebrity because you’re so aware of your own faults and shortcomings.
Tom: Oh, I don’t feel that I’m a celebrity at all.
Are you teaching anything next year?
Bo: Well, nothing is for sure yet, but we are teaching a poetry course over the summer.
The JCU community is so grateful that we have the privilege of working with such amazing, accomplished professors. Oddly enough though, as the interview was concluding, Bo admitted that this experience for him has been a cause for thanks as well, stating, “Every day I come into work I feel like I’ve won 12 Oscars. The last 12 years of teaching have been more rewarding than acting for me.”
Photo Credit: Allison Gall