In Memoriam: Dr. James Bynum, English Professor
Dr. James J. Bynum, a longtime professor of English at Georgia Institute of Technology, passed away on December 8, 2017 at Presbyterian Village Health Care Center in Austell, Georgia.
Originally from Raleigh, North Carolina, Dr. Bynum graduated from Needham Broughton High School there in 1953. He went on to earn a B.A. in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1957. He returned to Carolina for an M.A. in English, and earned a Ph.D. in English at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
In 1961, Dr. Bynum accepted a teaching position in Georgia Tech’s English Department, later known as LMC, which is a unit in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts. He spent most of his 41 years at Georgia Tech teaching Shakespeare, Tolkien, Lewis, Frost, and film. For eight years he worked in the Graduate Division, reading theses and dissertations, eventually succeeding to the position of Graduate Dean.
Dr. Bynum served as a Resident Hall Advisor for more than 30 years, living with his family in apartments in Brown and Glenn dorms. He was on the Athletic Board, Student Center Board, and Publication Board, and was a member of Omicron Delta Kappa and ANAK honorary societies.
Dr. Bynum is survived by his wife Jean and three children. A memorial service was held on Thursday, December 21, at the First Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, Georgia.
The obituary for James may be found on the Legacy website.
The College asked Col. Stephen C. Hall to share his recollections of his former professor and friend. Col. Hall is a 1967 Georgia Tech graduate with a degree in Industrial Management, who is a member of the Ivan Allen College Advisory Board and former student of Dr. Bynum’s. He and his wife, Pamela, endowed the Bynum Suite in Skiles Building and further remember Dr. Bynum through a plaque in the Stephen C. Hall Building, home of LMC's Writing and Communication Program.
Dr. James Bynum, the Professor Who Changed My Life
When I walked into my first Georgia Tech class, Composition 101, in the Skiles Classroom Building, Room 302, at 8:00am on Saturday, 28 September 1963, I expected to learn many things, but I did not expect to learn the single skill that would enable nearly every professional success I was to experience in the following 50 years. Yet that is exactly what happened. Composition 101 (now English 1101) taught me the science and the art of good writing. That duo, and Professor James Bynum, changed my life.
Dr. Bynum taught me to organize my thoughts, to turn my thoughts into arguments, and to present those arguments in a manner that was understandable and easy to accept. He taught me to use structure, logic, and evidence to support my assertions, to separate the few significant facts from the trivial many, and to show proper respect for the conventions of grammar, syntax, and usage. He taught me that to produce a truly persuasive argument, the writing must engage the audience with ideas that flow gracefully one into the next, must use language that is stylistically compelling and elegant, yet must speak always to the context of the moment, the audience in front of us, and, the purpose we seek to achieve.
Professors plant the seeds; students grow the crops, and the seeds planted by Dr. Bynum blossomed into the crops that sustained me over a professional lifetime. I was never the best technician, never the best logistician, never the best manager, but almost always the best writer. “Thoughts-to-arguments-to-understanding-to-acceptance,” morphed into something exponentially more powerful: “thoughts” became “theories”, “arguments” became “options”, “understanding” became “specifications”, and “acceptance” became “execution.” It was rhetoric made manifest, rhetoric that paid the rent for many years.
Dr. Bynum was Marine-Corps-tough, set a high standard, and would brook no deviation. In his class, one misspelling, one error in grammar, or one patch of convoluted syntax would produce an automatic “F.” From this position he would not vary. He was the umpire, we were the pitchers, and the strike zone was tight. We threw compositional baseballs in the direction of the plate, and he called them balls or strikes. Dr. Bynum taught me very quickly that the only way to get more strikes was to throw better pitches. It was a life lesson I never forgot.
But as tough as Dr. Bynum was, he was also imminently fair. The first paper I submitted to him he returned with a bright red D- emblazoned in the upper left corner. I was infuriated...not with him, but with me. Dr. Bynum had clearly told us the requirements for the paper and the rules we must follow; I had simply ignored them. But the D- got my attention, and I aced all nine remaining papers and the final. When grades were posted I fully expected to see a “B” beside my student number, thinking that the D- had cast its ugly shadow over the entire semester. But to my surprise (and great pleasure) I read an “A.” I actually visited Dr. Bynum in his office and told him I thought he had made a mistake. He checked his grade book and said, “Mr. Hall, you missed the pitch on that first paper, but you learned fast and produced A-work the remainder of the semester. I ignored that first paper. Enjoy your first “A” at Georgia Tech; you earned it!”
That was my last student-teacher visit to Dr. Bynum. I never took another class with him, I am sad to say. But we remained close over the years. I was commissioned in the Air Force, lived all over the world, and would return to campus every five years or so. I would always find Dr. Bynum and would drop by for a chat. Every time I knocked on his door he would greet me with his Nobel Prize winning smile and “Officer Hall, good to see you!” We would catch up on events, share stories about Georgia Tech, and add another thread to the storyline that was to last for 55 years.
From time to time I would publish an article, usually in a professional journal. I would always send a copy to Dr. Bynum and on those occasions when we met, he would always refer to the article and would comment and offer suggestions...decades after he and I had parted company in Composition 101. Within the writing community there exists a well-known maxim: “If you wish to become a better writer, find the best editor.” How lucky I was to have Dr. Bynum in that role for so many years.
Some years ago my wife and I endowed a scholarship in honor of Dr. Bynum. To date it has helped five Yellow Jackets complete their degrees at Tech, and one graduated this past December. It is a five-year scholarship and will continue forever. Its recipients have enriched our lives more than I could ever tell, there are more to come, and Dr. Bynum made it possible.
And so I now cast a challenge to all students who have read these words: Have you found the professor who will change your life? Have you found the person who will create within you that “Aha” moment when all becomes clear, when you see, feel, and grasp the nugget of knowledge that makes perfect sense and offers near-boundless possibilities? Someone is out there just waiting to provide that epiphany. If you have not yet found this person, look harder.
That professor is waiting for you.
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