Professor Profile: Thomas Kaplan-Maxfield

Upon entering the “cave” that is Stokes S369, wherein a man uncannily similar in appearance to Mark Twain dwells from as early as 4:30 in the morning until late in the afternoon, a fascinating collection of maps, scarves, timelines, movie posters, satirical signs, and a great abundance of books immediately strike any eager viewer. Voluminous, white hair and an impressive mustache to match, Thomas Kaplan-Maxfield, an assistant professor within the English department, has heard of his resemblance to this great American author—and many others—before: “You should have seen what I looked like before, when my hair was dark. I showed my old passport to a student the other day, and he told me I looked like a porn star. I think that’s a compliment.”

Perhaps it is his likeness to other writers that inspired his own career’s trajectory, as Kaplan-Maxfield is now a professor in addition to being a well-published author of several novels, novellas, and short stories, including, but not limited to Grail Mysterium: An Adventure on the Heights; Memoirs of a Shape-Shifter; Hide & Seek; Brockton Tales; and The Scarab Chase. His latest work, Grail Mysterium, was released in 2012 by Kepler Press and follows the adventure of a fictional group of BC students in 2010 as they break into buildings, investigate campus oddities, and search for the Holy Grail. “It’s a kind of cross between Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code,” he said of the mystery. Kaplan-Maxfield’s next book will keep with this “Adventures on the Heights” theme—“Santanis Mysterium is a murder mystery, with the Devil at BC as the dean of the business school, since I’m convinced evil in our world … takes the form of capitalism,” he said in an email.

Kaplan-Maxfield did not progress down this writing and teaching path immediately, however. While he was born in Massachusetts, Kaplan-Maxfield grew up “all over the planet” in light of the fact that his father was in the military. Ultimately graduating from the University of Massachusetts Boston in 1980, it took him 10 years to obtain his undergraduate degree. “I was an extremely restless young scholar,” he said. Taking a gap year between high school and college, Kaplan-Maxfield referenced the profound influence that his parents and other adults had on him in terms of pressuring him to continue school. “I was super depressed and scared, because when you’re 18, the voices of adults are so loud,” he said.

Therefore, Kaplan-Maxfield repeatedly returned to college until he eventually acquired his bachelor’s in English and music. “I took a random music class at UMass, and I totally adored my professor … so I declared my music major in order to take his class the next semester.” Not knowing any musical instrument preceding college, he learned both flute and piano for his major, and following his undergraduate studies, he decided to pursue a graduate degree. “I was so in love with being back in school—I felt the luxury of it, I couldn’t get enough,” he said.

After obtaining his master’s from UMass following this revelation, Kaplan-Maxfield continued on to BC for his doctorate. It was as a doctoral student that he first recognized his love for teaching. “I taught as a student, and that’s when I got the bug for it—it was this outlet for performing for me,” he said. Here, he instructs various courses, including the First Year Writing Seminar, Creative Nonfiction, and Love and Other Difficulties among others, and many of his classes expose his immense hilarity. “I don’t mind being a fool,” he said. “I don’t think I ever really grew up—still in kindergarten—but when I was a student, I would get laughed at all the time when I said things, and I thought, ‘Ouch, that really hurt, I don’t want anyone else to feel that.’” In 1993, he started at BC as a full-time professor within the English department.

Affectionately known as TKM by his students, Kaplan-Maxfield’s in-class persona is rarely serious. “Tom is too informal, you see—I wear a tie,” he joked. “I’m not really a serious person,” he said, spilling water all over his desk. Despite his incredibly early office hours, which start at 7 a.m., he has students lining up outside the door every morning. Repeatedly welcoming other students into his office throughout the course of the interview, Kaplan-Maxfield deeply values connecting to his students on a personal level, and his classes are often widely popular. “I love teaching, it’s pretty amazing and magical,” he said.

The classes themselves prove exceedingly unique—only meeting in the physical classroom on the first day of the semester, his Creative Non-Fiction workshop then convenes at a student’s Mod or townhouse, alternating each week by location and often including dinner. “We have a class of eccentrics, and I think the conversations are better outside of the stuffy, sleepy classroom,” he said. Additionally, he plays music—from ’60s rock to jazz and rap—prior to each class to develop what he calls a Pavlovian reaction.

Kaplan-Maxfield’s opinions on binge drinking and the “hookup culture” of BC also differ from those of other classes and professors, and part of his class on love indoctrination focuses on these topics. “If something is forbidden, are you going to do it, or not do it?” he asked. “Our problem is that, with Christianity, there are no stories of Jesus drunk or hooking up, and this is a Jesuit school, obviously. So, I’m basically the anti-Kerry Cronin because I am not by definition categorically opposed to random hook ups. Love starts and ends in the body—we fall in love via the senses, and from there, it goes through the whole process of spiritualizing and psychologizing.”

Although unconventional, Kaplan-Maxfield encourages his students to come “drunk” to class. “During the week, everyone is so sober. When you’re drunk, you’re spontaneous because alcohol is a social lubricant. So, to take the pressure off of being belligerent on the weekends, be drunk on ideas or the pleasure of learning. Instead of fighting it off, welcome this drunk enthusiasm into the classroom.”

Featured Image courtesy of Ashley Schneider

Corinne Duffy was the Features Editor for The Heights in 2015.

December 8, 2014
The offices of The Heights are located on Boston College’s campus. You can find us at:
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Established in 1919 as Boston College’s student newspaper, The Heights has been both editorially and financially independent from the University since 1971. The Heights serves the students, faculty, and staff of the Boston College community, as well as our neighbors in Chestnut Hill, Newton, and the Allston-Brighton area.  

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