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Always the teacher

When their curious young son went “missing,” the Charles Brewer’s parents always knew where to look.

He might be playing ball with some of the neighborhood kids. But more than likely, the four-year-old was attending school unofficially in the back of Miss Laverne Kennaway’s third-grade class at Watson Chapel School, or possibly even teaching classes of his own to the neighborhood youth on the family’s sun porch.

“I was always the teacher,” said Brewer, who grew up in Pine Bluff, Ark. “Back then, the question was, what am I going to teach?”

He first considered English, history, and political science. Finally, the answer materialized during his second semester at Hendrix College, when he began Dr. John Anderson’s psychology course.

“That literally shaped the rest of my life,” said Brewer, Furman University’s William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Psychology. “Dr. Anderson was the best lecturer and the hardest teacher I’ve ever had.”

Brewer is quick to point out that he never made an A in one of Anderson’s classes, though he took every course Anderson taught.

“He was so good that it didn’t matter what my grade was,” Brewer said.

Anderson taught Brewer, not only how to construct his famous multiple-choice tests, but how to tell stories. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

Brewer went onto earn his master’s and Ph.D. in experimental psychology from the University of Arkansas. He taught first for two years at the College of Wooster, then for three years at Elmira College in New York before coming to Furman.

Even with 52 years of experience, Furman’s most senior faculty member admits he still gets first-day jitters. “I don’t sleep for two nights before that first class in the fall,” Brewer said.

It doesn’t take long for him to settle in. An old-school, rigid taskmaster, Brewer does not accept late papers and forbids students from wearing caps and hats in his classroom. He encourages students to write with “clarity, conciseness, and felicity of expression.”

He doesn’t use PowerPoint. “I have sat through too many PowerPoint presentations that have no power and no point,” he says. “No thank you.”

That’s not to say that Brewer’s lectures aren’t attention grabbing.

Jim Ewel ’79 remembers being distracted one sunny spring day during one of Brewer’s lectures. To help students understand the infinite number of possibilities, Brewer drew a line on the board from end of the board to the other, then took the piece of chalk and threw it out the window.

“That got our attention and made his point,” said Ewel, who started a box of quotations in Brewer’s honor and still has it, 36 years later.

Brewer has also been known to crawl under his desk and bark like a dog to make a point, or to perform a pirouette on top of his desk.  “I’ll do anything to get and maintain students’ attention,” he laughs. “Initially, it is spontaneous, but it’s worked so well over the years . . .”

In 1969, he received the first Alester G. Furman, Jr. and Janie Earle Furman Award for Meritorious Teaching and has received the Furman Award for Meritorious Advising. He has been widely honored by the American Psychological Association for his teaching and other exemplary contributions to the profession.

As chair of the psychology department from 1972 to 1984, Brewer rapidly modernized the curriculum to reflect more accurately the current state of the science. One of his legacies in today’s Psychology Department includes faculty who have continued to equip labs through funded grants, as well as faculty whose individual research grants make it possible for more undergraduates to be involved in original, publishable research, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean John Beckford said during a retirement dinner for Brewer and other faculty this spring.

At the suggestion of a friend, John Batson ’74 took Brewer’s class during the fall of his sophomore year and called it “the most amazing classroom experience I had ever had at that point.”

Batson and Brewer have now been teaching together in the Psychology Department at Furman since 1982.

When Bridgette Martin Hard ’01 thinks back on her first months as a freshman at Furman, she remembers feeling terrified. It was the first time she had been away from her parents for more than two weeks and she was nervous about how she would handle the transition to college.

“I had planned to take the standard freshman courses and hope for the best,” said Martin Hard. But that wasn’t enough for Dr. Charles Brewer, who served as her advisor for four years. After a few phone calls, he had her enrolled in upper-level, challenging history and English courses as a freshman.

“Brewer saw potential in me that I didn’t yet see in myself,” said Martin Hard, who graduated with a 4.0 GPA from Furman and after earning her Ph.D. from Stanford, now coordinates Stanford’s Psychology One Teaching Program. “He helped me to discover traits that I valued most in myself: my love for learning and my willingness to do hard work.”

Martin Hard’s story is one of many. Brewer’s inspirational teaching has reached so many over the years that American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award was renamed in Brewer’s honor, something he called “the ultimate accolade.”

Though Brewer may have given his last official lecture at Furman, he will continue to have a strong presence on campus. He will be keeping his office in Johns Hall and will be coming in daily, though it might be as late as 9 a.m.

He will be working as consulting editor of the journal, Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, sponsored by the American Psychological Association, and as a consulting editor of the journal, Teaching of Psychology.

Brewer is planning his first-ever trip to Europe, to Florence to look at art with his daughter, Stephanie. He also has a list of books he plans to read. The first book atop the list? A biography of Mahatma Gandhi.

“I never want students to say, gosh, he should have retired 10 years ago,” Brewer said. “I want to go out when I’m still at the top of my game.”

John Roberts contributed to this article.

Last updated April 7, 2015
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