The comments to which I responded in the post below made me think of the only article I published (in an obscure teaching journal) during the years at my business. This was written in 1987; I sold the business in 1992 and have been teaching English since 1993. Clearly, I’m a better teacher than I was businesswoman. But I don’t think the two are unrelated. So, here is one person’s take on a liberal arts education, first about ten years later and now about 25.
In the fall of 1963, we met every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at one in the afternoon on the second floor of Andrews Hall in Lincoln. Dr. Robinson preached Chaucer’s irony and the simple strength of Everyman. We read Marlowe and Shakespeare and Spenser. I sat between Carla Rethwich, who mocked my adolescent romanticism and affection for Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Marti Martinson, one of those worldly travelers from the SAC base in Omaha. Gene O’Brien sat in the back, never speaking, but handing in papers Robinson returned reverently.
But reverence seldom applied to Robinson that semester. He challenged the world we knew–the world of the fifties and early sixties, of small towns on the plains. And he challenged it in the context of the British literature he loved and to which he would devote his life. We handed in papers almost every week–three pages or so. They were returned with witty, often acidic, comments that set up a dialogue with us. The next year he studied medieval drama in his native London. And, after he returned I took courses in Chaucer and then in Shakespeare from him. Fifteen years later in Austin, I felt a glow of pride as I passed a display of critical works on medieval drama that included the book he wrote after that research.
The next spring we met every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at three in the afternoon on the second floor of Andrews Hall with Dr. Poston. We read Gulliver’s Travels and Pride and Prejudice and Keats, Tennyson and Browning. Jo Ann Shurigar, also from Kenesaw, sat beside me and across the room was Lance Towle, whose poetry Karl Shapiro praised in our later creative writing class. Linda Johnson, my roommate the next year, was in the class. Ruth Thomasson was there – she became a C.P.A. after years of studying psychology. (We are, of course, typical of our times.) Cathy Shapiro, an intimidating and sophisticated presence, sat on the aisle in the back, smoking cheroots. As the years went by and I married a Victorian, we would see Poston at MLA; I felt, somehow, that I hadn’t lost touch with that semester. And when I thought about my naive papers in both classes, I would feel embarrassed. But I also felt that we had been playing with the big guys–novices, perhaps, but within, not outside, a tradition.
By the end of that year, I had no idea what a thesis sentence was; I’d never heard of “topics” nor of syllogisms. But, I knew that Chaucer was immensely funny, that Gulliver’s Travels was bracing, that Jane Austen understood about growing up and falling in love. We would spend whole nights analyzing whether we – and our roommates – were “Janes” or “Elizabeths.” I would like to say that we learned more about ourselves as we spent sleepless nights writing hodge-podge papers and baring our souls the way eighteen-year olds do. Perhaps we did. Literature can lead you to a “consciousness” – it gives you the control of a broader perspective. That doesn’t, of course, mean “better.” It doesn’t make you wise or rich or stable. But it does make your mind rich – it gives you insights and parallels, it gives you laughter and perspective. I used to think that was the same as wisdom. I thought those teachers were terribly wise. It isn’t and they weren’t. But I wouldn’t trade what they did give me for very much else in the world. (Of course, only a fool would trade them for a good husband, fine children, a long life and health. Other than these, I can think of nothing that has given me as much pleasure – has truly made my life as worth living – as those hours.)
I felt alive in those rooms – and in many more during the next few years. Two years later we studied Chaucer with Robinson every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at ten in the morning on the first floor of Andrews. He approached Chaucer’s irony by constantly placing it in a moral context – such irony only “worked” for us when we understood the values that, held strongly, provided the scaffolding. I know nothing about Robinson’s private life nor privately held beliefs, but I felt in those lectures a secular and powerful vision of how literature addressed the problems that arose in my adolescent life – and would continue to arise throughout my life. These values were not personified by these men but explicated by them – the grace that went through them and out to the congregation as the Puritans would have it. (And this spiritual truth I learned less strongly in my Presbyterian childhood than in the course in Puritan literature I took years later.)
They gave us something precious–they gave us the intensity of experience that is defined and held in a work of art, they gave us the historical perspective that would keep us from the shallow sense that civilization began at our birth. They showed us less how to walk a mile in another’s shoes than with another’s horizons. They gave us the solace literature offers in bad times and the pleasure it produces in good ones.
If I spent more time on it, I could remember more names in those classes. I keep no diaries, no notes, and I haven’t seen any of my classmates for twenty years. I remember where they sat and where each class was because these were the strongest, purest, most exciting memories of my life.
I believe that this generation is being deprived–they are not being given an experience that became, at least for me, one of the most powerful of my life. My sister came along a dozen years later. When she asked one of her college teachers to look at her poems, he observed that he should charge a “consulting fee.” (The business college was growing by the mid-seventies.) Perhaps this was the act of a teacher deluged by student outpourings; nonetheless, the price of “consulting fees” were discussed in more than one class I took during my last years of course work. During those years, I became a T.A. at another mega-university. We didn’t teach literature, we taught from rhetoric texts full of syllogisms and topics and thesis sentences. These texts hadn’t the vigorous rhetoric of the Jesuits but were watered down, softened, “how to write” texts. Not, perhaps, bad, but certainly not bracing. Of course, I had not known what a thesis sentence was until I’d finished my master’s degree and had begun teaching freshmen how to write. This was a bit embarrassing. Instead of learning the “rules” for writing, I had, as a freshmen, busily reread sections of Gulliver, trying to understand why my “proof” had not convinced my teacher.
I hesitated when I started to teach my classes of freshmen. I felt I was shortchanging them. And I was. But it was for a different reason than the fact that we hadn’t used “writing” texts when I was a freshman. My freshman year had been wonderful; we had seen that style was the means by which substance was transmitted. We didn’t feel we were doing exercises in writing, we were arguing our thoughts. We wanted someone out there, someone who carried on a personal and rigorous dialogue within the busy red marks down the margins of our papers, to listen. And, he wouldn’t listen if we weren’t clear. To be convincing was to write well – clearly, thoughtfully, with a style and a wit of our own.
And, now, my husband teaches at yet another mega-university. He is pleased because next year he will only teach two classes a semester. I am pleased for him; he can meet his publisher’s deadlines. And when he publishes, he is more likely to get the year abroad he wants, he will get promoted, and we will be able to afford shutters on our house and our children’s Montessori and dance. Of course, since he is teaching fewer classes, more of the freshmen classes will be taught by T.A.’s. We were T.A.’s when we met. I don’t think we were stupid; I know I wasn’t lazy. But one year, as I was finishing my dissertation and before I’d started my business, I taught American literature. It was a survey course, and I could choose works that I had, by then, studied for sixteen years. For instance, I could assign Portrait of a Lady, which had fascinated me when I was eighteen; I’d returned to it while working on my master’s, and then devoted a lengthy chapter in my dissertation to its explication. While teaching it – and a few other works with which I had grown up – I began to feel the difference. For that one semester, in that one class, I was a “teacher.” I had more of the resonance I’d remembered, more of the pleasure in the works in front of me, more of a joy in looking at my student’s explication of works I found multifarious, exciting. I had authority, and with that authority, oddly, comes a certain tolerance for another’s vision – a desire to hold them to high standards of proof but an interest in what they have to say.
I believe, fondly, my husband has some of the resonance my teachers had, some of the pleasure in literature that was reflected in everything they did; he has committed his life to the study of these works and has found it a fulfilling and joyful vocation. A mediator, he has brought joy to people by introducing them to others with similar intellectual interests. His work has defined his ethnic heritage and at the same time related that heritage helped to modern literary criticism; his love is at once mundane and exalted, personal and general, subjective and intellectual. But that is as it should be. When Lee Lemon discussed schools of criticism, he helped us understand both our experience at McDonald’s and of a John Crowe Ransom poem. In 1963, Lee Lemon met another freshman class in another room at Andrews Hall and, I suspect, altered lives as mine was altered by Robinson and Poston. And, I respected Lou Crompton’s work on Gay Rights at MLA in part because he had taught us to intelligently enjoy Shaw — Crompton’s authority was derived from the breadth, wit, and intelligence of the lectures he had given in modern drama.
But, in 1987, my husband teaches his specialty to seniors and graduate students and he teaches technical writing to graduate students from other departments – who are pursued by the publish or perish bogeyman. The latter learn how to write a successful resume and how to write up their experiments so they will be published. And that is good – the ability to communicate their results is one of the most important gifts an English Department can give a student from those disciplines. That class is practical – these students’ work is often the result of hard research, thoughtful organization, and a care for form.
I do not want to undercut the importance of these skills – both to the students in the class and the community that will gain from the communication of their research. But, a skills course is not a content course. If they leave class thinking they have received the best an English department can give, then they have been sadly misled. They have been cheated of art and given technique.
Many of the people who are employed by my business are students – working part-time while going to school. Most of them are uninterested in literature (or history or philosophy). They are most often business majors. What they don’t realize, however, is that they get their bi-weekly salaries because I sat, awed and nervous and very happy, in Robinson’s class in 1963 and ended with a Ph.D in 1979. Without those years I would never have realized that apprenticeships are not easily undertaken nor quickly finished. Those sixteen years with Henry James gave me analytical skills, guts and laughter, a sense of how the world is limited and how it is not, and a perspective that the total is a sum of many, many parts. Setting this business on its feet and making it steady enough to support others was easier and faster than my previous apprenticeship.
My favorite author then was Henry James. I loved his metaphors. The Marxists in the fifties argued that they were terrible – the metaphors of a capitalist. He always saw things in terms of money they would say. But that doesn’t bother me. Perhaps it is because I, too, worry about paying for things – saving for my children’s college, paying our mortgage. Money is a part of my life and striving for it has governed my actions in many mundane particular ways. I’m fully aware of the fact that money is purchased by lost time, expended effort; I’m equally aware that the freedom I want for myself and my children from daily needs is, in some part, purchased by that lost time and expended effort – symbolized by the money that is exchanged. I’m not going to apologize for that; I am a mother and a wife and I owe financial as well as emotional and intellectual support to my family. But that is not why I felt this kinship – the metaphors really aren’t of money. They are of ironic, sometimes tragic, never simple, reality. That is, we have to pay for what we want with something else that we have and are willing to sacrifice. This is not always, but is often, true. We don’t have to sacrifice our love for one child to make way for love of another – much else is a trade-off; if we have one virtue there is often a contrary vice, if we spend time on one part of life, we’ll have less to spend on another.
I finished my dissertation a few months before I started my little business; he stood beside me every day during those first – trying and not always profitable – years; his advice was often good. He had taught me about objectivity and perspective; he had taught me well the lesson of trade-offs. We usually have around twenty employees, many of them part-time workers and full-time students. We need employees who love customers, who love machines, who love detail work, who love getting a lot of work out fast, who love word processing, who can see the big picture, who can catch the smallest detail. We soon found that one who loves customers is less likely to love machines, one who loves detail is less likely to see the big picture, one who enjoys marketing schemes is not as concerned with production. But these trade-offs worked. Few employees over the years didn’t have a niche and few didn’t have something at which they were very good.
James also taught me about perseverance. Not only in these books but in my experience of those books. In the spring of 1965, during my sophomore year at the University of Nebraska, I studied late-nineteenth-century novels. We read Tess and The Way of All Flesh, but what especially stuck in my mind was Portrait of a Lady. I chose to write my paper for that class on Portrait and remembered it fondly. In 1968-1969, James’ short stories helped me through a lonely and somewhat chaotic year in the south of Chicago. In 1971, Walter Wright taught a wonderful seminar in James at Nebraska; we had a glorious summer of reading late James. And finally, in 1979 and at the University of Texas, I defended a dissertation that included explications of Portrait, The Bostonians, and The Golden Bowl. It had taken me fourteen years, and I still didn’t feel that I had it completely “right.” I had it better, of course, but that was not enough. In a very real way, that experience taught me not to expect a profit that first month, or even the second. I didn’t feel that I had to “get it right” immediately; with sufficient work, I could keep at it and maybe, eventually, get it a little more nearly “right.”
A realist, James showed varied perspectives not to undercut factual truth, but to demonstrate its richness. And, of course, he used it to demonstrate how we are likely to choose a perspective that is attractive – and often profitable – to us. That perspective is generally not immoral nor wrong, merely incomplete and subjective. The reasons are real – but so are other, often quite different, ones. “Consider the source” was an important criteria in my judgements over the years – of my employees, of my employees on my employees, of my customers, of my customers on my employees, of my salesmen on their products. But this was not a mean-spirited response. “Consider the source” does not discount an interpretation; it merely indicates another perspective might have another interpretation – not another reality, just another interpretation of a reality that was deep and wide. It suggested that this interpretation was probably right – but also probably partial. This has stood me in good stead.
And this understanding that each perspective is relative was important as we learned to look at each job through our customer’s eyes. This need not disintegrate into sloppy and amoral relativism – it can, at its best, offer us a perspective that helps us understand the world. For instance, if we are unable to see things through another’s eyes – and some of my younger and less perceptive employees have that trouble – then we don’t understand why a customer, bringing a book upon which he has labored for ten years and of which this is his only copy, is shaking when he hands it to us to copy. But, if we look at that book through his eyes, we touch it reverently; we would never think of placing it on the floor, of bending a page – we have, for that time, tried to become totally aware of his perception of those pages. And there is considerable truth in his perception – that is ten years of his life. And, of course, there is some truth to my novice employee’s perception that it is just another copying job. And our occasional impatience at someone who brings a job to be typed an hour before class is tempered by our sense that, to them, that paper’s acceptance by a teacher may mean the difference between graduating this semester or next. Of course, another truth (their teacher’s if they knew of it) is that they have not lived up to their responsibility in preparing it in time. And, from another perspective, it is another typing job on a very busy day. It does not take years of working with Henry James to help us to multiple perspectives – an honest empathy with our customers comes quite naturally to some. But his example was helpful – it gave me a vocabulary and a habit of looking that I tried to pass on to my employees.
James would look at a story – a life history – and see a pattern in the carpet. Or, at least, he would believe there was one there, even if he hadn’t found it yet. Well, I guess I believe in that, too. Years of warm acquaintance with him have probably defined my vision – but, then, I guess I always thought that anyway. That’s why I liked James. And, as he stood at my elbow during those years when the business was defining itself, he has stood at my elbow during the years in which I was learning to define myself.
Certainly, those classes have also make me chafe at my current life. This was not how I saw myself – car-pooling youngsters to ballet and Montessori, obsessed with my little business’s monthly gross and profit/loss statements; worried about the price of paper and gauging the costs of new machinery. No, I had thought that somehow I would be able to endlessly discuss Camus, search for the true kernel of meaning in The Golden Bowl, keep up with the newest critical theories and keep that old torch of almost thirty years ago burning brightly.
But, I am here because I was there. And I am thankful that the “there” made the “here” stronger, resilient, intense, and, I believe, happier. And, I regret my children can not go to a public university and have that experience. Monster classes of 250 students and scantron tests dilute the high proof experience that made us heady twenty five years ago. And writing classes that take as their subject transitory or subjective topics diminish the seriousness with which a modern student will approach writing. If a student is asked to assume horizons that are narrow, the composition will be less an exploration and more an exercise. An experience that is less serious will be less breathtaking, less wrenching, and, finally, less useful.