Volunteer Spotlight: Sol Gittleman

Sol Gittleman

Sol Gittleman, H10, A85P, never had a problem filling the seats of his Yiddish literature class, or any other course he taught at Tufts. His lectures are the stuff of university lore, whether the topic was German, Judaic Studies, Biblical literature, or baseball. Many alumni today consider him their best Tufts professor. The son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Gittleman earned a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Michigan and landed at Tufts in 1964 as an assistant professor of German. He never left, rising to serve as provost for two decades. He was named the Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor in 2003 and continues to teach today. A Brighter World co-chair, Gittleman shared with One Tufts a few of the many insights he’s gleaned from more than five decades in the classroom.


College is a beginning.

We call graduation “commencement” because that’s what it is. It’s a beginning. Students starting out often don’t know what they want to do, and that’s OK. The first job they’re going to get probably hasn’t even been invented when their senior year has started. So what are we teachers doing? We’re trying to get them ready for commencement. We’re trying to light their Bunsen burner, to get them to think. It’s the beginning of a process that’s going to go on for the rest of their lives, because if they don’t keep learning, they might as well ask for a refund.


Study your Rand McNally.

Human nature doesn’t change, so when students are thinking about a major, I say the only thing you should ask is: “What do I love?” And every semester, take a computer science course. Keep up with technology. But appreciate those courses that open a window onto 6,000 years of recorded human history. If I could press a button, I’d have every one of our students major in history. There’s a lot to learn from the past.

When I was provost, every year I gave copies of Rand McNally’s previous year’s map book and history book. I got a discount because they had remainders. I handed them out to every freshman, and I said, ‘Learn what the Strait of Hormuz is. Learn where we are. Understand where the country, where the world, is and what’s going to happen in it.’


Always ask questions.

I never met a teacher who at their first class in September wasn’t scared out of his or her pants. You want to get the students’ attention. That’s why I’m a generalist and I’m a performer. I wanted my students to pay attention. I wanted to get them to think. So I always ask questions.


Temperament matters.

Everybody is wrong when they say lecturing is dull. A great lecture is possible. I learned by watching people like [late Tufts English professor emeritus] Sylvan Barnet. You can get everybody thinking, and that will be true for as long as there are charismatic lecturers. We weren’t taught how to teach in graduate school. It was just the luck of the draw that made me who I was as a communicator, as a lecturer, and in the small class environment. I realized that I had a performance temperament and personality. I inherited that from my father. He was a candy store owner, a bookmaker, and a performer. He could charm anybody. 


Do what you can.

This country lives on charity. We have more than a million not-for-profits, including universities, and if we didn’t have them, I don’t know where we would be. For me, it made sense to support Brighter World. Tufts is a very special place for myself and my family. Why not give something back? It feels right.