Notes about Charles Van Riper

by William M. Shearer, Professor Emeritus, Northern Illinois University, Former Graduate Assistant (1951-1954) Speech and Hearing Clinic Western Michigan University

Charles Van Riper enjoyed being a fascinating, enigmatic figure, constantly challenging his graduate students to understand his make-up and the driving forces within him. Most of us were convinced that he could actually read our minds, which was all the more exciting because he also seemed to encourage us all to develop some of his wizardry ourselves. Another faculty member once observed that Van Riper appeared to be a true seer, in the classical sense, and could constantly surround himself with an aura of mystical wisdom, behavioral predictions, and a sense of the unexpected. He, however, always referred to himself as "an old goat," and encouraged the rumor that his horse drank out of the hat that he wore to work.

From a practical view, Van Riper was the consummate mentor and advisor, and I was able to take advantage of this quality many times during my three year term as his graduate assistant. Many pieces of his advice came packaged in simple triodes that were direct, practical, and easy to remember. Here are a few examples:

Question: "I'm having trouble organizing my classroom lectures. Is there an easy way to do it?
Answer: "Usually you should try to present only three main points in one lecture period. With each point, tell them what you are going to explain, then explain it, then tell them what you have explained. Also, don't be afraid to bluff that you know more than you do, but then go and look it up later in case they call your bluff.

Speaking of bluffs, I once told him that I wouldn't be in his class that night because I had spent the entire day in clinical work and hadn't had time to get to the library to put together the weekly orals assignment. He asked, "Will you have an extra 20 minutes before class?" I said, "Sure, I guess so." He said, "Then jot down all the answers you can think of in 20 minutes and put them in a formal looking folder. I'm going to call on you, and your answers will be as good as anybody else's in the class." (To my amazement it worked as well as he had predicted, although I wouldn't recommend this technique on a regular basis.)

Question: "I can't see what is expected from me in this required course outside the department. What do you think I can do about it?
Answer: "Professor XXXX is crazy about term papers. He always requires one, but you should do three: one before midterm, one after, and one at the end. He will give you an A." (I did, and he did).

Although many of us were in graduate school at the time, we were all still in the formative stages of our careers and relatively inexperienced in life decisions. Sometimes advice of a more personal nature was solicited. Undaunted by personal questions, Van Riper carried on as the Wizard of Oz::

Question: "How can you decide that the person you may marry is going to be the right one?"
Answer: "There is no special right one: there are a lot of people you could love. Just ask yourself three basic questions:

  1. Is it someone you couldn't really live with on a daily basis?
  2. Is it someone that you probably feel sorry for?
  3. Is it someone that you may feel ashamed of?

If they pass this test, your choice will work out as well as anyone else's.

Finally, came the penultimate question: "There are a lot of different stuttering therapies. How or why does stuttering therapy work?"
Answer: Any therapy will work on somebody. If you are the clinician and you really believe it will work, it will probably work."

Question: "That's it?"
Answer: "What do you think?"

added with permission
September 9, 1999