Passing It On – II – The Personal – Or How the ’60s Changed Everything

Or, the accurate but revealing title, How Moments Lead to Life Time Prejudice, Unmoved by Research

I loved literature classes. My general fecklessness led to reading 17th century prose on night duty at the mental hospital when I was 20, absorbing little. My choices were seldom sensible – at first I had the excuse of being 17, of hitting college when the world changed fast – but still, I matured slowly. Few I knew experimented with drugs, but we successfully screwed up our lives without them. Simply put, my judgement was lousy in men, jobs, and energy/time management. But I loved going to class (not, mind you, always doing the work – I often hadn’t read the assignment). But in the hot world of adolescence, especially in the sixties, the cool calm of walking into a classroom ordered my days, gave me a separate peace – quiet, cool and cerebral. It challenged my mind as the world outside my emotions.

That’s why I keep distance. My friend describes my teaching as cool – well, yes. I address students by their last names. I’m not their friend nor entertainer; I don’t want to offer me but the work – deep and textured and lovely. That’s where our eyes focus – on the text. So, that old model persists. Harvey Mansfield’s address notes that formality has its place, signals respect.

I’d pulled myself together sufficiently to be reading criticism as well as primary works by my senior year and then started part-time graduate work. That year, however, my first somewhat sensible (I had low standards) relationship fell apart. So mid-spring, I set out to find myself in Chicago. I worked in the library for 16 months, then left for Europe. Chicago offers much. But my grades wouldn’t have gotten me in to the school – and that wasn’t my goal, anyway.

I seemed to think finding myself was subjecting myself to bizarre – and rarely wholesome – situations. Arriving in the south side two weeks after King was assassinated, I found what seemed chaos. And alienation – in Lincoln as you passed someone on the street, your eyes met. That wasn’t true on 53rd Street. The halls outside the reserve room were filled with chants & protests. Eating lunch, my eyes widened as the elevator doors opened and police brought out Flacks on a stretcher, covered with blood. He survived. Everything seemed hot – and I needed cool. Nor did this pursuit of self fare much better as I hitchhiked around Europe. I thought I’d find myself in strange places and with strange people. What was I thinking?

But, during those years, memories would arise of those voices in those classes. I lurked in the used bookstore down the street – run by an older guy who would chat about the books; he got me through that year – that, and a big helping of Camus. (Of course, I misread much – if I took the advice of those authors I wouldn’t have ended up where I did.) I was homesick of course – I remember James E. Miller, who seemed a bit nostalgic as well – he observed, as Wright Morris said, Nebraska isn’t a state as much as a state of mind. My eyes misted. And the next year, I read Greek tragedies by the side of the road and in tavernas in Greece and D. H. Lawrence (banned) in an Irish hostel.

Nebraska was remarkably and quietly generous – they took me back and let me finish my master’s. And I hope I lived up to that trust. That year, I really did work. But, if that generosity and those great classes were still a part of my days, so, too, was a changed department.

Some teachers were caught in the zeitgeist. I had gravitated toward 17th century poetry and signed up for Milton. We sat in a circle: our topic Paradise Lost. But a classmate brought in the New York Times, starting class by listing the Viet Nam dead. When an older-than-average woman (whose son had died in a freak football accident the year before and desired, I suspect, the same calm I sought) commented that she’d thought we’d talk about Milton and his critics, the newspaper reader said she sent a cold chill down his spine. Well, this response to theory might be refreshing today; then, it was opting for sentimentality. And an approach to Milton (like many today) so indirect it never reached the text. Such approaches spread through the 17th century for at my next try, I found a teacher who divided us into groups, then announced he wouldn’t attend the next classes because he didn’t want to influence us.

Influence us! I had little trouble enjoying Donne, lonely in Chicago. I’d begun reading secondary sources. I was still cocky and irritating but now more aware of how much I needed guidance: to study under a scholar. I didn’t need someone to influence my politics or encourage friendly chatter.
And friendship wasn’t going to happen in that group. One young man entered this mode fully, cheerfully giving his responses. But he’d only taken a couple of classes in English. Another intended to write her dissertation on one of the poets – taking the course to review for orals. She was grumpy. She felt she’d been asked to teach. The disdain of the naïve youth didn’t help her mood. Lectures or class discussion firmly led might have mediated. But we had none of that.

I felt betrayed. Those years of knee-jerk radicalism and free love and head shops gave us ersatz liberation. We threw out much that was useful and some that was good. In those classes I saw the beginnings. Such thinking reached fruition in the following decades as any issue of Academic Questions and many of City, New Criterion, First Things and Commentary record today. We betrayed and were betrayed a good deal – though perhaps nothing was (and is) more betrayed than common sense.

That was a transitional time and I’m grateful for great classes. Some teachers led firmly – and led me to a sense that in these books I could find myself – or more properly lose myself productively. I left for Austin comfortable with my choices. Lincoln gave me much. Sometimes I am surprised by who and what I remember, in the midst of an explication: surprising insights stuck and still reverberate. But I also suspect this was an early sign. Discipline was breaking down and soon so would the discipline.

I’m grateful for a consequence: this made me an Americanist. Without that, I wouldn’t have taken history and literature classes that broadened my understanding; most of all, wouldn’t have been teaching American lit in the late nineties, finding in it after 9/11 my heritage, pride, and solace.
That solace was real – in the texts of the Puritans and founders, in Winthrop and Adams and Douglass. That old discipline helped us burrow in to their thinking. Surely, such reading prepares us for those who lie to us. Your sensible response may be that many trained in liberal arts seem bothered by neither lies nor deaths. I don’t think that is the flaw of lecturing – it’s a betrayal of close reading, of the old discipline, but most of all of what is closely read. And that’s a topic for another time.

So, I lecture. I tried to give my customers their money’s worth in my business and now I try to do the same for my students – at least my idea of money’s worth. A lot of lectures, several tests, multiple papers – and comments. Age changes us; I prefer history to literature now – but in part because it enlarges literature. And it’s useful at giving context in those “potted lectures” on-line. Reviewing for the final, I see what they’ve picked up, how they connect. Identifying passages is central – and generally they do it well. Such understandings are necessary before interpretation stands a chance of being sensible. And that review means they leave the course with those writers’ words in their ears.
For now, I’ll record lectures every couple of semesters, mark up papers as mine were marked. Surely irritated at sloppy thinking and superficial interpretations, grammatical mistakes and mixed metaphors, our teachers paid us the great compliment of reading us closely. My teaching is my way of passing that attention, too, on to my students – ones I can’t see. If others doubt this works, well, they may well be right. But what my students know by that final gives me hope – they seem to be reading, thinking, and listening.

And the great old standard – what works – is my defense. I do it because it worked for me. Sure, it’s an anecdotal fallacy – small and unrepresentative. But it’s the sample, the evidence, of which I am most sure. I know what worked for me. I still hear those voices.

I’m open to critiques, but I’m prejudiced. I don’t have all that much faith that discarding old methods leads to better or deeper learning. Besides, I like to listen. And, talk.

10 thoughts on “Passing It On – II – The Personal – Or How the ’60s Changed Everything”

  1. I am still grateful to the English Literature teachers I had in 1960. I was there because I needed a student loan to go back to school and do pre-med. They would not give a loan to a pre-med but they would to an English Literature major so I was one. I took both classes, including one at LA City College, a junior college. I still have a couple of English Lit textbooks. One is on “English and American Drama Since 1890.” We read all those plays. Shakespeare, Beowulf, Andrew Marvell, Donne, Shelley and Keats.

    I especially liked the example of the grasshopper and cricket poems by Keats and the contest with Leigh-Hunt.

  2. When it is over if any History is written from 1965 forward to whenever Thermidor or Brumaire or the Goths deliver us from that generation…their history shall be one word: Locusts.

    All the rest torn and blotted out, erased.


  3. “most of all, wouldn’t have been teaching American lit in the late nineties, finding in it after 9/11 my heritage, pride, and solace.”

    Solace is a great thought. I read mostly history or technical books these days, but this makes me remember that literature always provided a sort of respite and sanctuary. Thanks for the reminder. Hopefully, you can post one of your lectures once in awhile.

  4. Maybe to understand the 60s one should read Hogg’s The Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Or maybe one should just read it anyway: it’s the most shiver-making novel I’ve ever read.

  5. Ginny: It seems that we were in the same place at the same time. In spring 68, I was a third year at UofC. I lived at 6033 Woodlawn, which is now a parking lot behind the Mott building.

    Which library did you work in? Harper? I don’t think Regenstein was open then. Was the bookstore Powell’s?

  6. You have a much better memory than I – and I haven’t been back since ’69. But Harper does sound right – it seemed to me that there was an interesting statue in front of Regenstein already – but, I know it wasn’t there. Bookstore title I don’t remember – but it was I’m sure (well as much as anything from that long ago) it was a one-man shop. The only teacher I talked to was Miller (he’d been chair at Nebraska for 10 years); my supervisor/friend ran the reserve room, I think her name was Coats – she’d worked for NSA after getting an art history degree from Chicago – the humanities do prepare for analysts – and then returned to get a library degree. Lots of students worked part-time – I can remember some but few names. I lived in three different places – including a strange hotel for the first week.
    This must be a bore to everyone else, still, it is nice to think there is some degree of the “real” to the blog world.
    One memory that really made an impression and has come back to me a lot more in the last few years was the Clark – double bills, changed every day, cheap, cheap, and with the IC a short way away. The number of hours I spent there – and the education I got – was well, it seemed important then. Looking back, I am pretty sure a steady diet of Bergman and the French at that time was not what I needed. And what seemed necessary to the well-trained mind of 1969 has become some obscure reference in most 21st century conversations. Oh, well.

  7. Ginny: Harper was the main library at the time. It was on the south side of the main quadrangle in the middle. There were some smaller departmental collections. Regenstein opened in 1970 and replaced Harper. The Reading room of Harper was recycled as an undergraduate study area.

    The statue in front of Regenstein (on Ellis Ave. bet. 56 and 57) was created by English artist Henry Moore and is called Nuclear Energy. It is on the place where the old football stands had been, and where Enrico Fermi had built the first nuclear reactor. When it was installed in 1966, well before Regenstein was commenced, it was visited by Prince Phillip. My classmates and I went out to greet him, and he was very gracious to us. He asked us where our digs were.

    I had some chances to see the campus again in the early years of this decade. My daughter had a job in Hyde Park and her husband went to UofC Medical School. I don’t know about my memory being so great, it was the 60s and I was there.

  8. It was the reserve room for the social sciences. I was stunned by the budget. Nebraska was the 50th out of 50 libraries (much else was wonderful, of course, but the library wasn’t.) The budget was minimal. I’d worked at the front desk (got 10 cents more an hour because I had my B.A. – my salary was considerably higher at Chicago – but so were the prices.) And been the only full-timer at nights and Saturday morning. At Chicago, standards were higher and so was the money.

    There, teachers could request that a book be put on reserve that was hard to get and terribly expensive and we were supposed to order it (I think 1 for 10 students). I screwed up on some orders – I just couldn’t believe the money going out and so under ordered. Mostly, though, the requests came in and the orders went out.

    John Hope Franklin would request rare & expensive narratives, for instance. (That’s my memory – I don’t remember ever meeting him – I don’t think the teachers came in but just made the requests.) So it wasn’t the main library. (My memory – say of the tort reform here of a few years ago – is hazy and not getting better, so you might take this with a grain of salt, but it is how I remembered it.)

    You were lucky to study there.

  9. Maybe to understand the 60s one should read Hogg’s The Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Or maybe one should just read it anyway: it’s the most shiver-making novel I’ve ever read.

    As one of the few who has read this novel (of which half could have been cut without harm to its effects), I find your comparison to the ’60s mysterious. As to the second, in theme it resembles Crichton’s “Terminal Man,” in which that which is supposed to heal (or motivation for good) supplies instead harm (or motivation for evil) but within Calvinism rather than techno-optimism.

Comments are closed.