Arthur Johnson is putting away his red pen. For the past 46 years at Central, the associate professor of English has corrected the prose of undergraduates, urging them to focus on what he sees as the virtues of writing: simplicity, economy, color and freshness.
Johnson started working at Central in 1968 after a six-year stint teaching at Iowa State University, where he completed his undergraduate work. Johnson also earned a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin, which he describes as “an enormous factory lacking only the smoke. It was a strange thing to come to Central and have absolute strangers say hello to me.”
During his time at Central, Johnson taught a variety of classes including British Novel, Shakespeare, Short Story Writing and Comedy, a class of his own design. “I’ve always liked comedy better than tragedy,” he says, “being an absurd fellow by nature.”
Yet Johnson did not originally intend to study English. He spent four years as a student of architecture and designed houses for relatives before deciding the client/architect relationship wasn’t one he cared to pursue. “What they wanted, I didn’t want,” he says. So Johnson decided to major in history, but when the history adviser didn’t show up for the appointed meeting, he walked downstairs and became an English major instead.
As an English professor, Johnson specialized in teaching students how to write. He is known for the care he took editing papers, meeting face-to-face with students to go through their writing line by line. Johnson says the tutorial method encouraged students to consider more than a grade at the top of a paper. “I always try to give students their money’s worth, whether they want it or not,” he says.
While some students may have shrunk from having a magnifying glass turned on their work, many blossomed from the experience. “He scared some people to death and he made some people want to be better writers,” says Chad Ray, professor of philosophy. “I know him as a colleague with a heart of gold.” Ray says Johnson is “hugely generous,” helping students in need with tuition and encouraging faculty to set up a fund for students.
Johnson says students have not changed much during his time at Central, saying they are always mixtures of excellent and weaker students. As for himself, Johnson found teaching to be a constant learning experience. “You learn far more by teaching than you do sitting in a classroom,” he says.
Former students — or anyone in need of a refresher course on writing — can consult his book on the subject, “Why Nobody Can’t Write Good,” where Johnson lays out the finer points of writing (“Pomposity is not profundity.”), along with amusing examples from past classes and academia. Johnson has also written two novels, the latest set in Jane Austen’s England but focused on the lives of the lower classes.
When not turning deft phrases, Johnson plays chess, reads and pursues hobbies, such as coin collecting and art. In Central’s Jordan Hall, home to the English department, he hung 115 framed prints of paintings he considers important to the history of art. He hopes students may acquire an appreciation of them “just from the friction of walking by.”
Ray says Johnson “loves to turn a good phrase. He loves the English language. He is fearless.”
Johnson is not one to effuse about his accomplishments. “We all write our names in water,” he says. But Johnson’s name is also written in ink — in the red that decorated students’ papers for 46 years and in the improved prose they learned to create. In the interest of economy, we’ll leave it at that.