Vassar Today

Professors Brisman, Tavel, and Hemmes Retire

By Mally Anderson '10

Susan H. Brisman ’63
Associate Professor of English

Susan Brisman ’63 has taught English at Vassar since 1973. She earned her Ph.D. at Yale University and taught at the University of California at Riverside and the University of Iowa before returning to her alma mater to teach Romantic poetry.

“One of the most wonderful things about Vassar was that I was encouraged to explore fields beyond my specialty,” she says of her early teaching days. She worked alongside some of the professors with whom she’d studied as an undergraduate — Dean Mace, John Christie, and Julia McGrew. But it was John Kinnaird who introduced her to Romantic poetry in its historical context and inspired her to become a nineteenth-century scholar.

One big change that had taken place in her absence from Vassar was coeducation, which she thinks was a positive move into the future. She has also watched with interest the development of new fields of study and new ways of using technology in the classroom. “Vassar has been prescient in acknowledging and keeping pace with change,” she says.

Brisman’s academic interests include Spenser, Milton, Romantic and Victorian literature, and twentieth-century British and American poetry. She also has a keen interest in Holocaust literature, especially Holocaust poetry. She has served on the faculty of the Jewish Studies program and the Victorian Studies program. She also served for many years on the Independent Program Committee, and for three years on the Faculty Appointments and Salary Committee.

She will miss many things at Vassar—the library, her colleagues, the beautiful campus —but most of all she will miss her “inquiring, demanding, and industrious students.”

Brisman plans to spend some of her retirement time sharpening her language skills in Italian and French. She has devoted this year to German, to which she was introduced freshman year at Vassar, and says she might even tackle Greek. Part of what she looks forward to in retirement is more time for community service and spending time with her family. She also looks forward to new opportunities to share her passion for great literature, old and new. “As Wordsworth put it,” she says, “‘What we have loved, others will love, and we will teach them how.’”

Morton A. Tavel
Professor of Physics

Morton Tavel began teaching at Vassar in 1967 after completing his Ph.D. in physics at Yeshiva University (he also has a B.S. from the City College of New York and an M.S. from Stevens Institute of Technology). His wife, Judith Fibkins Tavel ’69, was a student at the time. “She was Vassar’s best gift to me,” says Tavel.

Tavel’s particular interests are the role of physics in culture and intellectual property law. He was one of the original founders of the Science, Technology, and Society (STS) multidisciplinary program and served as director on several occasions. He also taught a very popular wine tasting mini-course for 35 years. “More Vassar grads probably know me from wine tasting than from physics,” he says. He also served as a house fellow, and remembers that “there was a very tight social climate that dissipated somewhat with the arrival of central dining.”

Reflecting on his time at Vassar, Tavel cites the students as the highlight of his experience. “They are bright, inquisitive, and never shy. They really kept me intellectually alive,” says Tavel. He says he will also miss team-teaching with Jim Challey, Glen Johnson, and David Schalk in the STS department.

The Tavels now live in Seattle to be near their son, Phillip Tavel ’93, who practices law there. They are both doing consulting work. She is writing a book; he is working for a company called Innovation Business Partners that does consulting for large corporations and government agencies.>

Richard Hemmes
Associate Professor of Biology

Richard Hemmes came to Vassar in 1972 as the first hire for the new biopsychology program, now Neuroscience and Behavior. He graduated from Antioch College and arrived at Vassar a year after earning his Ph.D. in zoology from Duke University. He has had fellowships at Rockefeller University and the University of California at Davis. Hemmes’s primary interest is animal behavior, but he has also taught environmental biology, neuroscience, and introductory biology. His laboratory research has examined the reproductive behavior of small birds and mammals.>

Hemmes has focused more recently on wood rats and their use of plants to defend against parasites. He has traveled to California with students during summers to study the rats in their natural habitat. “I love to work with students on projects and help them present their work at conferences,” he says. In addition to working with the Undergraduate Research Summer Institute program, Hemmes has served as director of the Science, Technology, and Society program and was the first Vassar professor to participate in the Exploring Transfer Program, which brings students from local community colleges to campus for summer study.>

More than anything, Hemmes says he will miss working with Vassar students. “They have always been great, but in the last few years they’ve gotten even better. They’re very interested in learning and willing to speak their minds, which I appreciate.”

Hemmes and his wife, Ruth Kava, will continue to live on campus after his retirement. He plans to pursue his hobbies of photography and woodworking and attend more plays and jazz concerts. He will also continue to do field research, and plans to lecture and take classes at Marist’s Center for Lifetime Study, for seniors devoted to lifelong learning.

As Davison House Fellow and Dean of the Class of 2004, Hemmes has had far-reaching involvement in campus life. He and Kava even got married in the Rose Parlor in 1983. Hemmes put it best: “One does get completely wrapped up in Vassar when one teaches here!”