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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


From engineering to English: The journey of professor Eugene Hammond

Professor Eugene Hammond poses for a portrait in his office. Hammond offered to donate $75,000 out of pocket to help keep as many adjuncts as possible for the Spring 2018 semester. GARY GHAYRAT/THE STATESMAN

In 1964, just as the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War began to escalate, 17-year-old Eugene Hammond entered the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. He was interested in pursuing a degree in engineering.

Everything changed the first summer after his freshman year when he was sent to the West Coast as a member of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. The proud son of a World War II veteran, he happily signed up to join the navy. He even wrote a paper for his writing class titled, “Conscientious objectors are lily-livered,” criticizing people who resisted the draft. For young Hammond, the journey from his home state of Wisconsin to the foreign land of California was an unbelievable experience. But even more unforgettable was the look he saw in the hollowed out eyes of his peers returning home from Vietnam.

“It seemed like something about their inner vitality had been stripped away from them,” Hammond said. “The eyes of those marines… just got to my soul. And I couldn’t ignore that. And I’ve never met anybody like that before, growing up in a happy town.”

When he returned to Notre Dame at the start of his sophomore year, Hammond experienced a huge crisis. The classes he was taking in statistics, thermodynamics and economics failed to provide him with any guidance on how to handle his relationship with his country and the war. In an English class, he read books by John Dos Passos and Erich Maria Remarque which he said provided him with unique perspectives on the realities of war. In a philosophy class, the works of Plato, Aristotle, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche led him to ask important ethical questions like, “What’s good in life? What’s beauty in life? What’s just in life?” 

About a week into the semester, he changed his major to English. “I think it’s undoubtedly the most important decision of my life because that’s when I started thinking about being a teacher,” Hammond said. 

Eventually, Hammond would go on to become the director of the program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stony Brook University. Now 70 years old, Hammond has since left the position, but he continues to teach writing at the university. Sitting in his office on the second floor of the Humanities Building, surrounded by replicas of Greco-Roman antiquities and posters depicting the African nation of Djibouti, Hammond said he feels discouraged. With several adjuncts from his department at risk of losing their jobs, he said he has not heard any updates since last month, when he and his colleagues held a protest in opposition of the cuts. The writing program director from 1978 to 1984 at the University of Maryland, and later at Stony Brook University from 2008 to 2014, Hammond said he hoped his legacy would last longer here at Stony Brook. As the director he fought for reasonable pay for adjuncts, higher portfolio standards for students and he influenced others to teach writing in a way that is applicable not only to literature, but to other subjects as well.

He once described the writing program at Stony Brook as one of the best in the United States and bragged to his friends at Maryland about how great it felt to be a involved in a program with healthy competition and friendly rapport between faculty members. “Since the first of September, I haven’t been able to brag about that, saying that the legacy has lasted,” he said with a laugh. “I think the most important thing was morale, and that’s what I think has been crushed,” Hammond said. “The feeling that you can be dismissed at a moment’s notice, and that a good chunk of our faculty was dismissed at a moment’s notice hurts everybody else too, not just the people who are gone.”

“This is actually a nationwide challenge,” said Shirley Logan, a retired writing professor from the University of Maryland and Hammond’s former colleague. She said there has always been discrimination against writing professors and it has always been a struggle to argue how valuable they were and for them to be seen as “equal citizens of the department.” Logan said Hammond had a strong voice and argued support for writing and composition at the University of Maryland too. “It’s hard to believe even 20, 30 years later, we’re still having this fight,” she said. “It’s kind of interesting that he’s still having to do that same thing.”

On Nov. 17, Hammond wrote an email to Sacha Kopp, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, offering $75,000 out of his own pocket to help keep as many adjuncts as possible for the spring semester. Kopp thanked him for his message and generous offer, and said he would confer with the director of the writing department and will get back to him. As of Dec. 3, Hammond said he has not received a return email from Kopp.

Hammond’s participation in education does not stop at the national level. Shyam Sharma, assistant professor in Stony Brook University’s writing program, has worked with Hammond on an international level. In the summer of 2016, Sharma, Hammond and three other American professors voluntarily traveled to a small public school, Mid-Western University, in the small town of Surkhet, Nepal. There, they taught faculty teaching methods on how to teach writing. “I was really fascinated how much he energized and inspired university administrators,” Sharma said. Although Hammond has never been a university level administrator, “his philosophy came out, his vision came out and worked with those professors. They honored him for the work that he did.” Sharma said Hammond constantly got lost in the mountains while exploring the area by himself. “He was one rogue traveler who wouldn’t take up phone calls,” Sharma said. “He didn’t give a damn.”

After spending a month or so in Nepal, Hammond traveled to Sweden, Northern Italy and Turkey during the 2016 military coup. He taught writing at SUNY Korea, and traveled to Japan, China, Vietnam, Myanmar, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand that summer.

“Every time I go to a new country, I feel like I’m able to help people from that country more than I was before,” Hammond said. “I feel like I can imagine what their life was like before they got here.”


Correction: Dec. 3, 2017
A  previous version of this story falsely stated that Hammond joined Notre Dame to play on its football team. It also falsely stated that Hammond joined the military, when in fact, he joined the navy. 

Update: Dec. 3, 2017
Hammond has yet to hear back from Kopp in reference to his donation. 

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    MaryAnn DuffyDec 4, 2017 at 7:20 am

    Working under Gene Hammond has been one the best professional experiences of my life. He is an amazing leader, academic, listener and truly a Renaissance Man. Stony Brook is luck to have him, and the Program in Writing & Rhetoric is an amazingly strong department thanks to him. The latest slashes have decimated what he has worked so hard to build.