“Carving deep blue ripples in the tissues of your mind…”

I’m glad I went to college when I did; I get the sense that campuses have become less hospitable to eccentrics who seldom publish but thrive in the classroom. Perhaps the glut of job-seekers is to blame, or the dependence on adjuncts, or management priorities right out of the home office of Walmart. But I once knew a professor who hoped we would see that education could be bigger than all of that, and I was saddened to learn that he has, as Thomas Malory wrote of King Arthur, chaunged his lyf.

The right kind of student loved his classes. He urged us to rip our massive anthologies in half to make the world’s great literature that much more portable. He had us draw maps of mythical places, and he bombarded us with comic strips, song lyrics, modern poems, anything to convince us that knowing this stuff—and he did call it “this stuff”—let us form profound connections with our fellow humans, living and dead. When we read the Aeneid, he pumped us up by blasting Cream’s “Tales of Brave Ulysses” from a boombox and banging his head in psychedelic bliss—but then the frivolity ended as he passed around a tiny vellum manuscript in Greek and quietly asked us to consider both its fragility and its durability.

The last of the fanatic generalists, he taught ancient and medieval lit, the Bible, the Romantic poets, Shakespeare, and the Arthurian legend, but he had a special fondness for the Beats. He also loved Samuel Johnson, and I’m sure that when he went to London every few years, he roamed the alleys and streets with an 18th-century mental map. I don’t know if students see his like anymore: an outspoken liberal who defended the worth of the Western canon. He did so devoutly but without chauvinism: he also studied Japanese and joined his wife in an Indonesian gamelan ensemble.

In 1992 I was mulling over two improbable careers: cartoonist and medievalist. When I popped by his office to talk about graduate school, my prospects hung in the air for ages.

“If that’s really what you want to do, then of course I’ll write you a letter,” he said at last, “but I would be just as pleased to know that I helped to create a very literate cartoonist rather than another academic scrounging around wondering where the next pittance of grant money is going to come from.”

I was stunned to hear a professor suggest that campus life was anything other than a bower of bliss. I don’t know if he accurately perceived my eccentricities or was giving voice to his own disenchantment, but he was right to make me suspicious of the whole business. Decades later, I still make up my career as I go along. With no clear path to follow, life has been harder, and maybe I worry more, but I’ve also traveled more, written more, known more kinds of people, and stumbled more often onto unforeseen luck. More wide-eyed students should hear what I heard; it takes years to sink in.

That same year, I answered his call for a research assistant, an offer he rebuked. “It’s mindless work,” he grumbled, instead sending me home for the summer with an Arthurian tote bag: Malory in Middle English, Layamon’s Brut, and hundreds of pages of secondary sources ranging from credible archaeological studies to wackadoodle theories about the “real” King Arthur. Lacking any guidance or goal, I worked out my own mental outline of medieval Britain. I later built a ten-year teaching job on that.

When he organized a major conference on medievalism, he told me to check it out. The invitation itself was a compliment, but I was too callow to realize that such an event on my own campus was something I ought to attend. A few years later, he sent me the published proceedings, which started me thinking. I wander, I stall, but I do tend to get where I’m going. Did he know?

He could be frustrating. The forms I needed signed and the letters I needed written couldn’t compare to the brilliant conversations with Cavafy and Boswell that seemed always alive in his mind. More than once, he got into deep trouble with fussy little bureaucrats. I like to think he angered them by taking seriously the proposition that a university was a place to explore, to experiment, to gain perspective that makes you free in ways that the world can’t suppress.

We didn’t know each other well, but we shared stories about growing up in tight neighborhoods with large extended families. I hadn’t seen him in 24 years, but now and then a package would surprise me: boxes of books, a cache of poems, letters that rang with good cheer even in the face of failing health.

Good teachers leave you gifts long before you understand their value. Shortly before I graduated, he read my paper on an ephemeral modern author and congratulated me on work that was well-written and cohesive. Then he looked me in the eye and said, by way of farewell: “Study something lasting.” And so I have.


(Polaroid Land Camera photo of a grotesque near the University of Delaware campus)

13 thoughts on ““Carving deep blue ripples in the tissues of your mind…”

  1. Such a wonderful tribute! I was terribly fortunate in my teachers, too: and I share your anxiety about how many of their kind can still survive in the modern academic world.

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  2. This is really lovely. Thank you for sharing. May he rest in peace .

    I do think the “fanatic generalist” is much less common than it used to be, though anyone who’s truly just a narrow specialist–in the sense of having few serious intellectual interests outside of his or her time period–isn’t much of a teacher (or, in my experience, likely to be much of a scholar). Undergraduates are by definition generalists, trying to forge connections across time, genre, culture.

    He sounds like a wonderful teacher.

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  3. A lovely tribute. It is a shame how things have shifted. I had Dr. Robert Ryan, whose passion for British Romantcism still resonates with me. Today, the business of education has created a breed of teaching administrators. Sad to see the dwindling numbers of eccentric scholars, indeed.

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  4. Oh, I like that salute to your professor. Lovely that he remained part of your life.

    And it is distressing to see changes in the humanities and some of the social sciences. The adjunct situation is disturbing, both in terms of lack of benefits (I have a friend who has no retirement after teaching decades) and also sometimes in inappropriate teaching assignments that people feel they simply must take, though they don’t have time to do the work to present it clearly (occasionally experienced via my children, alas.) It’s sad how grateful I am that I left my tenured post long ago.

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  5. Dale: Thanks for stopping by! Back then I was too ignorant of the field to understand that the more widely published, professionally connected profs were the real career-makers. In hindsight, I’m grateful for my own cluelessness.

    Flavia: That sounds about right. Students are lucky when they encounter a versatile professor (like you). I’m positive that the extra things you do, like visits to the art museum, are changing their lives for the better, even when it takes years to sink in.

    Chris: Welcome back from the UK! I think our culture has gotten superficially more tolerant of eccentrics while actually giving them fewer hospitable nooks in which to thrive. Now that all the weird-kid stuff has gone mainstream, where can the oddballs thrive?

    Marly: Yes, I left my otherwise terrific ten-year adjunct gig when it became so bureaucratized, corporatized, and standardized that I felt like I may as well have been working in human resources at Walmart. I was lucky to have a solid and rewarding non-academic job waiting for me, but good heavens, I knew several impoverished adjuncts who taught without benefits on a semester-by-semester basis for decades. I could never tell if they were still holding out unwarranted hope for a full-time job, or if they loved teaching that much, or if they just didn’t know how to begin building new, more sustainable careers in middle age. Often it seemed to me that by staying in academia, they preserved their last shred of pride; leaving would have forced them to think of themselves as failures. Straight talk from my professor long ago probably saved me from a similar fate.

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  6. That idea of keeping on as adjunct to avoid seeming a failure…. It’s so sad. There are many areas (the arts, particularly) where worldly success is vanishingly small, and you simply have to look away from the worship of worldly success, which is not always a good measure of achievement.. But to not be able to quit a post as adjunct out of pride is heart-breaking. We need to grasp that almost no one gets a marvelous, head-spinning career, that most people get jobs that pay the bills. Otherwise, there’s too much disappointment, too many illusions.

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  7. Lucy: Good to hear from you! I hope all is well in Brittany.

    Marly: I agree on all counts. It seems to me that the people who literally can’t leave are not unlike people stuck in other sorts of abusive relationships.Fortunately, I’ve also found that people who walked away from academia on their own terms are some of the most interesting people I’ve known. (My dear, departed prof would have enjoyed this conversation. When I knew him, he was especially proud of former students who continued to live immersed in history and literature even though they hadn’t set foot on a campus in years.)

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  8. I don’t have time to articulate all of the issues which this post raises, but I agree that some of the people complaining about graduate school and the academic job market (or the lack of one) might do with a bit of acknowledgement of the issues which all kinds of creative or athletic people face today. Its not easy for novelists or golf players or cabinetmakers either.

    I once knew someone who gave up painting and crossed the Atlantic to become a tattoo artist. He didn’t like the work as much, but he did like earning more and not having to pay a cut to a gallery and not know when they would sell something.

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  9. Sean, you may be surprised to find that I agree with you, or at least with what I think you’re saying. Here in the U.S. there’s a massive oversupply of would-be professors who, to my amazement, haven’t been deterred by front-page news stories or NPR features about the pitiful job market, nor have they heeded more than a decade of candid and often depressing blogs by scholars at all stages of their careers. Aspiring to an academic career is in some ways comparable to wanting to be an athlete, a rock star, a successful filmmaker, etc., but I suspect the costs are higher and the consequences of failure are worse.

    There’s clearly an oversupply of people and only a tiny trickle of jobs that demand their services. No one at this point can claim they didn’t know what they were getting themselves into—yet I still see people express surprise about this all the time.

    For the record, my dreary take is this: There is no happy solution to the oversupply of aspiring humanities scholars. Unionization efforts and de-adjunctification would both reward only a handful of underemployed people with livable jobs and still leave hordes of people with nothing. Under current conditions, I see only two ways to rebalance that world: a massive reduction in the number of new humanities scholars being trained or a massive rebirth of interest in the humanities among both administrators and students. Only one of those things has a chance of happening.

    Even though, Gott sei Dank, I don’t have a direct stake in the whole mess, I still follow it, because I do have an indirect interest. As a writer, a history buff, a museum-goer, and a supporter of the arts, I don’t want to see the people who are going to help perpetuate those things become demoralized and impoverished and put books, art, and history behind them.

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  10. Jeff: For whatever its worth, in academic circles I have never met anyone who thinks that most people in graduate school today will get tenure-track jobs.

    I think its important to attack the problem from all sides, and to look at it from a structural perspective. Just talking about how things are wicked is not enough if you don’t try to understand why people do those wicked things and change the structures which shape those choices; changing the structures may not succeed unless people agree that they should be changed. So in the biomedical sciences, administrators chase rankings so set tenure requirements at a high number of publications. Assistant professors with a limited budget find that the cheapest way to staff a lab is with graduate students and postdocs. By the time they get that appointment, they have usually racked up debts and committed many years of their lives to their scientific career, and discovered that whether you can get publications out of six months of work or a hundred thousand dollars is very unpredictable, so if they refuse to participate (or pay their graduate students and postdocs better than other universities) they are at a disadvantage in a high-stakes game of chance which they can’t afford to quit. Some American universities and federal departments worked together to break the cycle, although the change in administration may have disrupted that plan http://www.scienceforthepeople.ca/episodes/stem-pipeline But note that this is a structure which only exists for a handful of academic disciplines!

    There are other structures which are issues of labour or creative labour more generally, and those might be things where people in universities and elsewhere can work together.

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  11. Also, I guess, and I really don’t have time to articulate this … starting by making the lives of graduate students and sessional instructors better (even if if may well mean that there are fewer of them in ten years) seems to have some advantage over starting by trying to make graduate students fewer and hoping that the survivors and graduates will have better lives one day. But doing something seems better than just sitting around and talking about it.

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  12. As an outsider for a long time now, there are only two things I can do: warn aspiring scholars about the bleak odds, and hire people to be my colleagues at my non-academic job when their vocation finally has no use for them. (We’re a small firm, but I’ve done the latter three or four times.) I assume there are administrators and tenured professors here in the U.S. who wish to change the culture of higher education and actively work to improve conditions for graduate students and adjuncts. I wish them well. But I’m most useful when I let people know that life as a writer and reader can be just as rewarding beyond the campus.

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