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Walter A. Aue

Three Dalhousie Vignette

By Walter A. Aue


Memory is a strange process. It reconciles man with his history. It deletes, concentrates, centers, softens. The stream of consciousness flows non-linear in the pursuit of personal truth.

I was asked by my department to contribute reminiscences: I shall supply memories. Discontinuous and arbitrary, yes, but also rich and relevant.

Here, then, are my three vignettes, properly focussed in the center, properly blurred at the edges: How I entered the stream, how I swam in it, how I made it back to shore.

1. In the heat of the kitchen [1973]

His eyes, behind rimless glasses, sparkled as they tried to dig into mine. "And how can I be sure, Dr. Aue, that you are not one of those, those, ahem, ahem ... American revolutionaries?"

So here I was, facing Henry Hicks. (For the benefit of younger folk, I should perhaps explain. Henry Hicks was a former premier of Nova Scotia, an Ottawa senator, and the man who got Dalhousie "to play in the big leagues". How? By having tea with Mrs. Killam, by extracting 80 per cent of the money for his buildings from the provincial government, and by spending way more.)

Not that I knew at the time who President Hicks was. All I knew was that he had refused to sign my appointment papers until he could talk to me. Personally, that is. Which meant that Doug Ryan (then Chairman of the Chemistry Department) had to track me down at some conference in Texas and get me to fly to Halifax.

Of course I didn’t want to. What for? "Sorry, no basking on Nova Scotia’s lovely shores," I had told Zofia (my wife) from Texas. "But I’ll do the courteous thing, I’ll show up at Dal. Afterwards I’ll get myself a big crab with spring onion and black-bean sauce at the Garden View Restaurant (sadly no longer), take a contemplative walk through the Public Gardens, and write the whole thing off."

In a way, though, I didn’t mind heeding Doug’s call. I liked Halifax. "The air is always fresh and clean up there," I explained to Zofia. I also liked flying. Flying invariably gave me new research ideas. And hours of much-cherished solitude. One can never be as successfully alone as in the middle of a crowd.

But first, here was Henry Hicks, waiting for an answer to his question. I decided to sidestep the issue. "Look at me," I said. "Have you ever seen a hippie run around in a shirt and tie more conservative than yours?"

His eyes increased their sparkle, but they had stopped digging into mine. "Where do you come from, anyway? You’re not from Missouri, are you?"

"In a manner of speaking, I am very much from Missouri. But I was born, raised, educated and corrupted in Vienna."

"Ah, yes." He stuck his nose into the air as if he smelled something. (It reminded me of the start to Proust’s magnum opus. The smell of a little cake that permeates several volumes. Nobody reads these, of course, but everybody seems to remember the smell of the madeleine.)

"Ah, yes. Vienna, Austria. I have a daughter-in-law from Austria. She makes Linzer Torte. Do you know what Linzer Torte is?"

Did I know what any Torte was? Austrians love food. Even if, being Viennese, I prefer the many Torten from Vienna to the one from Linz. Topped up mit Schlag, of course. So, in a few minutes, Henry learned the secrets of a good Linzer Torte. In a few more minutes, I learned that he actually held a Master’s in chemistry — which he wisely topped up with a law degree — and once had been Premier of Nova Scotia for a full six weeks. And that he had one more question up his sleeve.

"Tell me, is there a good reason why should I give you tenure?" Not out of the kitchen yet, I thought. Poor Doug. Seems I was in the frying pan, and now I was about to jump into the fire. In less than a minute it would all be over.

(Later, when serving on Dal’s Tenure Committee, I found that Henry Hicks habitually made decisions in less than a minute. Yes, he did listen patiently to arguments for five or 10 — but then it took only a few seconds for his mental ax to fall, slicing the Gordian knot where it would most easily unravel. In fact, that’s what he had to do — because, in those days, the administrative support structure of today did not exist. It was Henry Hicks solo in his small office — and it was squeeze in and squeeze out, even for a big committee, in less than a quarter of an hour. Why? Because he had made up his mind; because all the committee members agreed; because he had to catch the next plane to Ottawa. It always worked.)

"Not to worry, Dr. Hicks," I said. "I’ll be alright. I still like Missouri. After all, it was a 60/40 decision. But I do have tenure now — and I won’t come without it."

He fell silent for a moment. Then he said: "Why don’t I give you a ride to the Lord Nelson — I have to drive there anyway."

Despite the situation, I had started to like the small man with the big spirit, the rimless glasses, the sparkling eyes, the fast perception. And I thought I knew what was on his menu. Me. I was going to get the axe. "That would indeed be much faster, Sir," I agreed.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have. But Doug hadn’t warned me, not of that. Henry behind the wheel would have beaten the Three Musketeers to London. I wondered how Spring Garden Road survived.

And then he surprised me once more. "How old are you?" he asked. "Thirty-seven." "You’ll still be alright, then, when you retire," he mused. What he had in mind — as I know now but didn’t then — was Dalhousie’s pension plan.

Because personally he was kind, good old Henry was. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that either. So my arrogant streak began to show. "Don’t worry, Dr. Hicks," I said. "I have eight years at Missouri (it takes ten to get a pension from UM), and I haven’t let that bother me. There’s little chance I’d ever retire from Dalhousie, either."

He smiled. His eyes twinkled. Let it go, they said. You’ll be alright. He bade me farewell and tore down Spring Garden Road, knowing something that I didn’t. In time Nova Scotia would weave its magic. And, as usual, Henry Hicks was right.

2. Colonnades (1983-86)

There had always been a problem. Again, I didn’t realize it. After all, hadn’t Doug Ryan proudly told me at our first encounter that — in one year, possibly two — there would stand a new Chemistry Building?

Now, more than a decade later, the old building turned supercritical. (Sorry for that, chemists. Non-chemists, please read on.) Never mind that my own lab had been bumped, for the second time, on the departmental shuffleboard: that was just a matter of enough pizza and beer for my graduate students at moving time. Besides, the new-fangled Oceanography Building meant little more to me than sitting on top of what, aromawise, was clearly rotting seaweed.

No, my real problem concerned the undergraduates. To get into certain classes — well, Jim Pincock’s classes anyway — they would queue up at midnight in front of the Chemistry Office. I had always admired them (and Jim) for that. But now I was supposed to do something about it.

The only question was what. The bottleneck was the lab. Chemistry had already moved from weekly to biweekly labs, inserting "tutorials" into students' schedules where labs should have been. It was a move born of desperation. True, tutorials can take the time of labs — just like reading sex manuals can occupy time better spent on dates. Having tried both in my youth, I was strongly in favor of labs. Chemistry is, after all, an experimental science.

But even with the tutorials taking up half of the load, we still lacked space. The place was crawling. The fire chief threw up his hands. Prospective students were being turned away. But: how does one lift an encrusted, top-heavy system out of its rusted foundations?

It was the classical problem of Archimedes. I needed the one firm point on which to rest the lever, the one firm point that could be used to unhinge the status quo. Stan Cameron (a prof of x-ray vision, whose credit with students goes far beyond his teaching award, and who taught me Machiavelli 100 in those days) did find the point that I couldn’t seem to. He found it some distance away from Dalhousie. Heureka! We went to work.

Oh, I forgot to introduce some of the actors for what’s to follow. This was the time of Dalhousie’s first "financial campaign". The man in charge was Robbie Shaw. (Robbie Shaw, brother of Alexa McDonough, is the scion of a Halifax builder family famous for its brick walls, capitalist roots and socialist leanings.) And one of the first donors he approached was Robert Stanfield. (Stanfield, a former premier of Nova Scotia, learned his business by the seat of his pants. He sat in Chemistry’s antique lecture hall as a student and remembered it fondly, he preferred Mozart sonatas to politics, and he walked and talked in an aura of dignity. I greatly respected him. As far as my image of politicians goes, he was the exception that confirmed the rule.)

But I get bracketed by history. Back to action, then, back to leverage. Because Dalhousie didn’t want to bus its students to sister institutions with better looking labs, it was decided that the financial campaign should support chemistry’s undergraduate education. Undergraduate education was the in-thing, anyway. And as long as we kept riding its wake, research labs could be dragged along.

First things first, though. "Carpe diem!", Stan and I agreed in our rusting Latin: Let’s get concrete (a correct, though not a literal translation of Catullus’s immortal plea to his beloved). Concrete is a fact laid in the ground. Even abstract chemistry must be based on concrete facts.

(No, we didn’t know that the top of the Weldon Law Building would burn up a couple of years later, and that the then president would be a lawyer. When our millions — 10 on paper, nine in practice — hadn’t yet been transformed into hoods and benches. But, yes, we were safety-minded as chemists are supposed to be: We did acquire the copy of a letter from Bob Stanfield who, on behalf of the Windsor Foundation, spelled out in a few, precious lines that a cool million was to go to Chemistry. Pronto or else. Thank you, Mr. Stanfield, for hammering it out on your old, rickety typewriter. Thank you, Sir, for forging the lever.)

But first came Robbie Shaw. Robbie Shaw was a man of action. Indeed, it was he who got Bob Stanfield talking to us. It was he who knew how to make money for Dal — for instance by taking Dal’s operating money out of its customary no-interest checking account and investing it — and it was he who spent it, too. "I’ll send you the architects," he said, and that was that.

Except that architects are a very peculiar breed. Whenever they grind their wheels, the sheer dust turns any chemist’s hair white. And whatever is engraved on their wheels keeps coming up again and again. Like a century of hoods that, in case of a bursting water hose, deliver the flood invariably onto the lab floor (plus floors beneath) instead of into the drain. Architects are the chemist’s professional hazard.

So here we were. One of our indefatigablest faculty members, Chuck Warren, had gone to several of the newest labs in Canada and the US, bringing back the best in lab design. It was an offer even the architects could not refuse. Which meant still more work for poor Chuck.

But it was brainstorming the new labs that really made the sparks fly. The architects wanted to minimize space and heating costs; we wanted to maximize chemical experience. We wanted our students to enjoy experimenting with their own hands and minds. In other words: the architects wanted walls, we wanted windows.

One sparking episode will stay in my mind forever. I had tried to convince the architects that appearance mattered more than they were willing to admit. Thousands of students would walk by there every day, I argued. What they would think of the great "(che)mystery" (a graffito over chemistry’s then back door) would depend on what their eyes would see. Eyes see form, not function. That’s why architects build churches — or, for that matter, banks or parliament buildings — the quaint way they do.

But that didn’t get me anywhere. So I conjured up a hallowed icon of their profession. "Remember," I said, "how Bernini designed the colonnades of St. Peter? So they would frame the basilica, concentrate the spirit and — on the other side — open up into one of the loveliest views of roma eterna?"

There was a second of stunned silence. Then they nearly busted their guts laughing. They gasped for breath. So did I. After I had regained mine, it was time to join their good-natured laughter.

Today, when you walk by chemistry’s undergraduate labs, you see a "colonnade" of large lab windows (the largest and prettiest of them dutifully belonging to Stan Cameron’s advanced inorganic), where students enjoy doing chemistry. I know they enjoy it, because I often walk by and watch them. They even have a laugh now and then.

But the last laugh was the architects’. In the end they threw the book at us. The provincial guide book, to be exact. When you step back from those large, beautiful windows, you see the labs topped up by a veritable colonnade of cacogenic chimneys.

No, of course it wasn’t necessary. There are less visible ways of dispersing exhaust; less costly and just as safe ones. No wonder the venerable chemistry building in the background looks with disgust upon this multiphallic monstrosity, while tears of shame are slowly dripping down its lovely Victorian countenance. At least that’s the way I see it when it rains.

Soon I shall be searching for the Pearly Gates. Then, I am afraid, I shall have to walk the colonnades. No, not those of St. Peter. Those of my own making. Those that still remind me that the essence of life is not what was, but what could have been.

3. The Course of Life (1988-98)

Many questions St. Peter will ask me, but one he will not. It is the one that has been asked of me all too often during the later years of my life: Why do I spend a good two, three hours preparing each lecture of my first-year course, while spending only minutes for a fourth-year or graduate course — even though I have been teaching first-year continuously for most of my life?

I could reply that this is because fourth-year students do understand easily what I am trying to say. First-year students don’t.

I could also blame my background. At the Alma Mater Rudolphina ([as Vienna’s university is known since 1365), the big courses are all taught by the big profs. Right. So is it just the conceit of a big, old prof? Sure, why not — conceit is a prime motivator of progress, anyway; in science or in education.

But, while true, that’s not the real answer. I guess I just came to believe in first-year teaching. In teaching students while they are still young and malleable. In making them glimpse reality before knowledge covers it; in instilling insight before rote blinds it. And in doing it the only way humans can truly learn: as fully absorbed players in the game of life. But, of course, I did not realize that in the beginning. I simply did not understand the game, I did not understand the rules.

Small wonder, that: When I first came to Dalhousie, I was given to teach one of the dozen or so sections of "General Chemistry". I was also handed a parachute — called Masterton-Slowinski if memory serves me right — and I parachuted right into a well-established pattern, without so much as a second thought. After all, I was young and mainly interested in research.

But this I did not realize: Teaching can be research, too. And what sits reflecting behind a desk can be far more interesting than what sits refluxing in a hood. Because it is interactive, endowed with inalienable rights, and obstinate. In other words, it is an "I" - a version of myself. But it is also an "I" that can still be improved. Teaching may redeem in the future what can no longer be redeemed in the present; teaching can reach through the glass darkly; teaching will sculpt what is still soft and yet to be.

Big words that. Too big, in fact. Because, like most research, it all started in mere serendipity:

I was teaching the pharmacy section at the time. No, "pharmacy" didn’t refer to content. "Pharmacy" referred to a numerically fixed, highly motivated and closely knit student body. Like the body of a Guaneri, it had the most marvellous resonance. I preferred playing pharmacy over any other of the first-year sections.

But then the School of Pharmacy dumped their own first year. That left me high and dry. And the Department of Chemistry moved to common exams. That left me uneasy. Fitting into other players’ schemes just wasn’t my forte. Teaching is an art, and art is rarely a cooperative venture. (Yes, yes, I know it was a cooperative of three Rhodes sculptors that chiseled and polished Laocoön and Sons. But have a closer look. Wouldn’t you rather call the result "Common Exam"?)

So I went to see Jan Kwak [then Chair of the Chemistry Department] with a simple question: Should the old pharmacy course be terminated or should it be given a new lease on life? As usual, Jan was kind, Jan was perceptive. And if I had ulterior motives, he had ulterior plans. It was he who gave the baby - some claim the bastard - its proper name: "General Chemistry for the Life and Health Sciences".

This course addressed an age-old problem: Which is chemistry’s audience? The one percent of students that gets degrees in chemistry, or the ninety-nine percent that don’t? Should the tail wag the dog or the dog wag the tail?

Well, would you believe it, that dog of a course jumped right in, proudly wagging its tail and sweeping up students that otherwise would not have dreamed of leaving the clear shores of biology and psychology for the foggy shoals of chemistry. We started with 39 students in 1988, a decade later there were over 200. At that point, the experiment had become a bit too heavy not to run afoul of the shoals. But was it ever fun while it lasted! Something new had been thrown into the old pond, and the waves had started to reflect back and forth. All kinds of interfering waves.

Mind you, this course was tough to take and tough to teach. Why tough to take? The grades were far lower than, say, those of the average course at Harvard [where about half the students get a grade of A- or better - cf. The Economist, April 14, 2001, p. 32]. There were masses of (true) pop quizzes and students had to turn in at least half of them to receive a final grade. All the hallowed principles of first-year chemistry were there, plus quite a bit of organic, physiological and nuclear chemistry. Animate examples replaced inanimate ones. And, quite often, the course referred to what students were concurrently learning in first-year biology, psychology and physics. In fact, our course - I call it "our" because it was shaped as much by my students’ efforts as by my own - began with a big bang. The Big Bang, to be exact: the primordial event that started chemistry. No expensive textbook for us, therefore, just two voluminous collections of lecture notes. Tough.

Tough to teach, also: When I got myself the first-year textbooks of the above-mentioned disciplines (plus that of mathematics, just to be sure), it actually took me quite a while to slog through the ones on biology and psychology. It seems life can pass even a chemist by. But those textbooks allowed me a refreshing dip into the cool mainstream.

Yes, I can highly recommend such swim-or-sink exercises, dear Colleague. After all, they deliver you ever so gently on the very same stream into which you customerrily [sic] throw your students, head first.

Sorry, dear Colleague, what did you say? Whence I got the time for all that? Well, my research suffered a bit. My sleep suffered a bit. My wife suffered a bit, too.

Not my time, you meant, but lecture time? How I could cram all that content into one course? Ah, yes, that’s what graduate students are for. No, not just for taking research off my shoulders. For telling me the truth and for letting me have a look at their own chemistry notes from high school days. Reams and reams of them, it turned out. (Thanks, Kevin, and I hope you have a lot of fun teaching first-year yourself!)

Kevin’s Notes provided a very rude awakening. For suddenly I realized why the eyes of my best undergraduates glazed over so often. It was because I was repeating, mostly albeit unwittingly, Nova Scotia grades 11 and 12 high school chemistry. [If you don’t believe me, dear Colleague, check "A Teaching Guide, Document #108", N.S. Department of Education; library call number 2CP NS ED 1.72 1988.]

Ah, yes, you say, but do the students really know the high school material when they enter university? Well, of course they don’t. After all, will they know the material of their first-year university course once they enter second year? Just ask any second-year prof. (In fact, you won’t have to ask: second-year profs are quite forthcoming with their opinion about that, asked or not asked.)

So why repeat, hope against hope, the stuff the students heard already? Why not give them something new? Give them something interesting, something challenging. Something to which they will actually listen. Start waving electrons in front of them and assume they know what came before (i.e. chapters 1 through 6 of typical first-year textbooks).

But what about stoichiometry, I hear you cry? Well, what about it? Stoichiometry they can pick up in the lab. It is only on the battlefield that the true warrior learns how to fight.

How much all that fighting saves? About two months of lectures for the prof - and lots of boredom for the student. When you call it successful? When students note that chemistry has become "interesting". When, to their own surprise, they find that chemistry is "good for a lot of things", that it "relates to real life" (meaning theirs). When they enjoy travelling the road less travelled. When they remember in their life what once they learned for only the exam.

Obvious, you say? Yes, in hindsight. But for me, that hindsight was painfully difficult to obtain. In life or in lab, the complex can be acquired fast; the simple takes a long, long time. And all one can hope for is that true understanding doesn’t come too late.


Life is years of travail, punctuated by seconds of exhilaration. Memory rights the balance, and that is as it should be. That is why my three vignettes are synthesized of pure memory.

So are they all true? I can give no better answer than Axel Munthe did in the Foreword to his autobiographical Book of San Michele: "Where my book is at variance with history, I was misled by the better man I could have been" (book out of print, quotation from memory).

There remains only one last task: To thank the students who taught me everything I know — everything important, that is — and to apologize to those who had come too early.

Walter A. Aue Head of St. Margaret’s Bay,
in the Spring of 2001