About the only thing I learned in grad school


I took a seminar on the English Romantic poets during my first semester in grad school, one taught by a snappily-dressed but rather intimidating professor who often snorted at student responses and seemed somewhat irked by the job of teaching itself.  He knew his stuff, but he had little time for students.  It took about two class periods for him to dragoon the class into a silence that only the most cocksure (or foolhardy) would ever dream to disturb with a comment or question.

It was only later that a more experienced grad student took me aside and put me wise that this professor was in a bitter, long-running feud with the rest of the department.  He had gone to Penn or Brown or one of the Ivies and now here he was tenured and trapped at some cow college in the Midwest. 

But, like I said, he really knew his stuff, which is all it ever it takes for me to stay interested.  It's never mattered to me whether my professors were good teachers or even if I agreed with their critical stances (I actually kind of like it when I don't.  Makes things more stimulating).  Indeed, I've had wonderful experiences in classrooms with profs who everyone warned me not to take. So, despite feeling a bit intimidated, I stayed in that seminar and put up with the guy's snorts and eye-rolls.  

There were two papers assigned during the seminar and a take-home essay final.  The first paper I wrote had something to do with Wordsworth's political transformation from ardent supporter of the French Revolution to his later incarnation as something of a Burkean Tory.  I played it safe and simply summarized various critical views.  I was probably too afraid to say what I thought.  I mean what did I know?  I hadn't written seven books on the Romantics.

The main objection to my initial effort was a comment on the paper's legibility.  I had printed it on a dot matrix printer and the prof's comments made it clear that this was unacceptable.  The point was underscored by three emphatic lines slashed beneath the phrase "NEVER DO THIS AGAIN!"

I don't recall what I wrote my second paper about, but I do remember the take-home final.  There were five open-ended questions and we were told to select three.  These questions were mash-ups of poets on certain themes, things like
Using two first-generation Romantic poets and one from the second generation, discuss the theme of escape, exile or alienation.
That was it. There were no instructions about how long the responses were supposed to be or whether we were to include a summary of critical views, our own thoughts (or even a preferred font and point size).  I was terrified. I had come to grad school from a small college English Department whose primary function was teaching composition. A handful of actual English majors was all that kept viable a slim selection of upper-division lit courses, so we were fussed over like prized garden tomatoes. Whatever nonsense we wrote was greeted with an indulgent, grateful forbearance. I had never encountered anyone like this professor before.

I remember, too, the critic Jane Tompkins visited campus that first semester of grad school.  She told a story about her first semester and a seminar she took with Cleanth Brooks, a grand critical poo-bah from long ago.  In one early class meeting, Brooks had asked his students whether the poem they were looking at--something by Marlowe--was a pastoral or an elegy.  One savvy grad student had responded, "Well, I would say that Marlowe believed himself to be writing a pastoral but he unwittingly wrote an elegy."  Tompkins was dumbfounded.  She wasn't sure if she knew the difference between a pastoral and an elegy.  "Hell," she thought, "even Marlowe didn't know and he wrote the damn poem."

Sitting there in my crummy grad apartment staring down at my English 570 final, I knew just how she felt.  Consider the situation. I had to demonstrate to a man with a vast knowledge of these works and their secondary literature that I had something worth saying.  Are you kidding me?  I just read a lot of these poems for the first time in the past two months.  What do I know?   So I fretted and I put things off, but eventually I had to write something. 

I didn't think I could begin to get a handle on the secondary literature in the few days I had available, so--almost in desperation--I threw myself at the poems with nothing but my own ability to read and think.  I didn't play any cute critical games or mention any of the prevailing schools of thought.  I just naively rolled the dice by reading the poems and responding to them. I riffed on how Shelley's Hymn to Intellectual Beauty reminded me ironically of the psalmist's bargaining with God.  I teased out some interesting parallels between Keats' Ode to a Nightingale and Coleridge's This Lime Tree Bower, My Prison.  Then I held my breath, found an open laser printer on campus, and turned it in.

The prof had told us we could pick up our finals after a certain date.  They were to be in a box outside his door.   So I anxiously went up to his office on the appointed day and was rifling through sealed envelopes in a cardboard box when his door swung open and there he was staring imperiously down at me, a cup of coffee in one hand.  "Oh, it's you," he sniffed.

I must have mumbled something about coming by to get my final.  He nodded and told me to come into his office and take a seat.  Nervously I walked in and sat down. "Tell me how you went about writing your final," he said.  I shrugged and admitted I had been unsure how to go about it, so I just read and wrote about the poems.

"Yes," he mused absently, "you were the only one who did that."  Then he sat there looking at me for a moment as my heart sank.  I wasn't sure if he were about to take me to task or accuse me of plagiarism.  Finally he asked, "Who have you decided to do your dissertation with?"

I told him I hadn't made that decision yet.  It was only my first semester.   "Well let me know when you're ready," he said.  "I'd be happy to work with you."

I didn't end up writing a dissertation with that guy, but in retrospect he had taught me the most important lesson I ever received in graduate school: Trust yourself.  Trust yourself as a reader.  Trust yourself as a thinker.  What you have to say may be right or wrong, it may be good or bad, but it has to be yours. 

It's something I tell my students all the time.  They're always looking for the right answer.  I almost always would rather read theirs.  This is maybe the hardest lesson to learn in school.  And the funny thing is you have to keep learning it again and again.  Pretty much for the rest of your life.

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