The Inimitable, Irreplaceable Professor Hashimoto

Quin Nelson

Leaning back in his swivel chair, hands clasped over his stomach, Associate Professor of English Irvin “Hash” Hashimoto sits calmly in an office that looks like it was torn apart by a natural disaster. This is because Hashimoto, 68, is retiring, and packing up all of the belongings he has accumulated after working at Whitman for 30 years. There are stacks of books and papers strewn about, as one would expect from an English professor. However, one can also find a banjo, a mountain bike, a log and a Frisbee. Hashimoto is certainly a unique professor and person, one that Whitman will miss dearly.

“He has this delightful quirkiness about him.”

There is very little about Hashimoto’s teaching style that one would consider conventional.

“The first day of class, he threw bouncy balls all over the classroom. He was trying to give them to people, but it turns out people aren’t very good at catching bouncy balls,” said junior Nathan Sany, who is currently in Hashimoto’s expository writing class.

Sany also has a gold bookend in the shape of a duck head that he got from Hashimoto.

Associate Professor of English and General Studies Sharon Alker once sat in on his class and he taught an entire class on the semicolon.

“By the time I got out of there, I was passionate about the semicolon,” she said.

Via email, junior John Masla recalls “writing about Apple Pie recipes” and “bartering for a toy whistle” among the more unusual moments in Hashimoto’s class.

“He’s really original and creative,” said Alker. “He has this delightful quirkiness about him while bringing such academic rigor.”

This is a sentiment echoed almost verbatim by fellow Professor of English Roberta Davidson.

“I think that for Hash, the line between expository and creative writing doesn’t exist. He sees that all writing has a creative component, and all teaching has a creative component as well,” she said.

Seeing the world

After this laundry list of anecdotes and quotes, Hashimoto sounds like an eccentric genius, and he may be; he has a rare ability to combine creativity and substance. Here’s another important duality with Hash: He is both very successful at what he does and very humble. He has won a number of awards, including the 1986 Burlington Northern Award for Faculty Achievement, but talking to him, you would never know.

“He is the most modest person I know,” said Alker. “I think he is one of the most accomplished and modest people I have ever met. And that is quite the remarkable combination.”

This is very apparent when talking to Hashimoto, who is nothing like the bombastic presence one might expect after hearing of his classroom exploits. Reclining in his chair, he gives quiet, thoughtful answers often punctuated with a quick laugh that sounds like a cough. After teaching at Northern Colorado Laboratory School, Idaho State University and University of Michigan, Hash came to Whitman in 1983, where he has taught and directed the Writing Center.

“I like the students here,” said Hashimoto. “And I like the freedom that Whitman gave me to do the things I wanted to do here.”

“I have a lot of fun. I like to challenge people to do things better, to think in ways that they aren’t comfortable thinking,” said Hashimoto when asked about his unique teaching approach.

This concept of challenging students and getting them out of their comfort zones is the reason Hashimoto does things like give seemingly random essay prompts, such as on apple pie recipes.

“It’s easy to write about something you know, rather than something you have to go out and learn about, explore and think about. I want to make writing a more active endeavor than just thinking about what you’d say,” he explained.

This is because Hashimoto sees his writing courses as more than just about becoming a better writer. Most of his students are not English majors, but the class is valuable in a broader sense.

“It’s about seeing the world better and seeing issues. I think writing courses are about that, working on what they see and what they think about,” he said.

Sany, an anthropology major, sees how Hashimoto’s teaching has extended beyond his class.

“I’m more in touch with my writing. I’ve really fine-tuned my skills and how my prose flows, but it has also helped reading articles for anthropology. It’s easier to break down how different genres work and critique what the authors are saying,” he said.

Hashimoto is certainly teaching writing, but more than that, he is teaching life skills and the ability for his students to develop new perspectives. In this way, Hashimoto is the liberal arts ideal; he is helping his students become well-rounded individuals through his English classes.

Alker remembered a time in which she asked Hashimoto for advice on what she should look for in hiring a new English professor for the department.

He said simply, “They need to know how to fish.”

What he meant was that the professor needed to have skills other than writing to be an interesting teacher. Hashimoto sees writing in a holistic manner: The other aspects of one’s life will guide the way one writes.

“I think that to be a good writer, you have to be an interesting person,” Hashimoto said.

Mastery

Talking to Hashimoto about his banjo playing, he said, “Mastery is not just about how much you practice, but it’s about what you do and how you live, what you see. It all affects the way you become better.”

While he was talking about playing the banjo, Hashimoto could have easily been talking about any craft. By his own standards, Hashimoto has achieved mastery of his own craft: teaching. He is interesting and has an original way of seeing the world that challenges his students. Perhaps this mastery is why he sounds so at ease with retiring and moving on to the next phase in his life. It is also probably why when Alker and Davidson were asked about replacing Hashimoto, they both quickly replied that he is irreplaceable.

Hashimoto wants to continue teaching in some capacity and is looking forward to having more time to play banjo, travel with his wife Marianne, visit his children and grandchildren and tend to his yard at his home in Milton-Freewater.

“I want more time to sit in my backyard and watch the things grow,” he said.

After a career of helping students grow in unique and exciting ways, this seems to be the perfect picture of Hashimoto in retirement: leaning back in his chair, hands clasped over his stomach, watching the things grow.