• July 24, 2014

College and the Fall

The sun edged over the spires of the Gothic buildings, and multicolored leaves skittered across the granite steps as I ascended. A fresh-faced student -- one of the new ones from my one-semester survey of Western civilization -- held the door open as she stepped aside and said, "Good morning, Professor Benton," with a smile that seemed genuine.

I smiled back. "I really enjoyed your lecture on Paradise Lost yesterday," she said, "It's my favorite work of literature."

"Thanks," I said with just the slightest edge of self-deprecating incredulity. "One can never say enough about it."

The bell tower sounded eight as I sat down in my office amid my books, hundreds of hopeful investments in my future as a scholar. Memories flashed of half-forgotten theories -- each, in its turn, the key to all mythologies -- Gramsci, Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva, Lacan, Bakhtin, Butler, Baudrillard, Barthes, and Benjamin. (Perhaps it's time to place them on another shelf, with Lytton Strachey and Edmund Gosse? But no, another year or two must pass.)

Autumn is full of optimism for professors: new classes, new books, new chances. But there is something melancholy about the academic life cycle. We depart in the spring and return in the fall. We meet wave after wave of students, perpetually young, as we grow perpetually older. Looking at the falling leaves, I hunch in my cardigan and fold my arms, warding off the cold. (I realize that I finally feel old enough to wear a cardigan without self-consciousness.)

What happened to all my self-righteous anger? I'm an assistant professor at a small, liberal-arts college. I have just passed my third-year review. My first critical book (the product of seven years' labor) is coming out in a few months. My classes are going well. I like my students. I feel secure, and, for the first time since I was a small child, mostly content. In the mirror by my door I recognize the look in the faces of older faculty members -- wistful smiles like the creases in worn leather club chairs.

Through more than a decade of anxiety and doubt (and nearly as many years of adjuncting), I seem to have achieved the life I dreamed of when I first set out for graduate school. What was this feeling? The awareness of being respected? Of belonging in a place? Of forgetting about "the career" long enough to see my students as human beings instead of distractions from publishing?

I want to write more in this vein, but my professional education has left me ill equipped to do so without irony. Schooled in politics more than literature, I absorbed an esoteric rhetoric of grievance that few outside the academy can understand. Trying to remember the jargon is like drinking sour milk.

Just when I think he has gone for good, my inner graduate student awakens. He skulks around the edges of the room, dressed in black, seething with resentment over his unappreciated merits. He scans the book spines, hating the familiar names of academic celebrities, yet longing to hitch himself to their stars.

"Why don't you look at the MLA Joblist," he says. "I'm sure there are several plausible jobs at relatively prestigious research universities. You'll make more money. People will talk to you at conventions without checking their watches. You'll have graduate students. There are no jobs for them, but who cares? Après moi le deluge. Just play the game." He smirks at me and runs his fingers through his fashionable hair.

How do I rid myself of this demon? How do I drain my psyche of all the ambitions, fears, and hatreds of graduate school in the humanities? How can I recover the positive passions I possessed as a fresh-faced college graduate who admired his professors? What can I do now about the excitement I see in my students, who, if they go to the "best" programs, are likely to have these feelings driven out of them? With the world before them, will they be forced to subsist on the hardtack of the previous generations' resentments? If they are "successful," will they come to regard me as a mediocrity?

Why do so many graduate programs teach students to hate what made so many of us want to become teachers and scholars when we were undergraduates: reading literature -- old and new, from every culture -- as if it was more than symptomatic of deplorable cultural pathologies? How many of us have come to hate the selves we have created in the service of the so-called "profession"?

It helps sometimes to open one of the books that I loved as an undergraduate:

"Oh, Starbuck! it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky. On such a day -- very much such a sweetness as this -- I struck my first whale -- a boy-harpooneer of eighteen! ... When I think of this life I have led; the desolation of solitude it has been; the masoned, walled-town of a Captain's exclusiveness, which admits but small entrance to any sympathy from the green country without -- oh, weariness! heaviness! Guinea-coast slavery of solitary command! -- when I think of all this; only half-suspected, not so keenly known to me before -- and how for forty years I have fed upon dry salted fare -- fit emblem of the dry nourishment of my soul -- when the poorest landsman has had fresh fruit to his daily hand, and broken the world's fresh bread to my mouldy crusts.

"What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozzening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare?"

Why am I compelled to draw attention to this passage from Moby-Dick? Melville, a man with whom I could have little in common, writing more than a century ago, has summed up in a few beautifully constructed sentences a psychological struggle that transcends his specific place and time.

I want to formulate a definition: "'Literature' transforms pain into the pleasure of self-knowledge, and, from there, it draws one into the commonality of human experience." As C. S. Lewis writes, "We read to know we're not alone."

This is the feeling of "Literature" that sent me to graduate school, that gives me solace during confused and thoughtful moments of my life, that compels me to be a teacher. More and more, I find that the life of teaching and scholarship means connecting to other people through words -- not uncritically, not without a sense of social justice, but with an attitude of respect and humility -- and an appreciation for the undergraduate paradise we have lost and, hopefully, can regain.

"Oh, for God's sake. What a load of rubbish. 'Respect' and 'humility' are just complicity with power," sneers my grad-school superego, making quotation marks with his fingers.

For a long moment I cannot resist the merits of his argument. Maybe I too can be a radical with a $100 haircut.

"I guess you are going to become one of those humanists," he says, hissing with disdain. "Just pray that no one in the academy finds out about your conservative tendencies. Here, look at this new book from Duke. Everyone says it's the hottest thing."

I am tempted. But it's a beautiful day outside. I remember that I used to love to read under the fall trees. Dinner with my wife and two daughters awaits me. Afterward we'll plant some tulip bulbs in anticipation of next spring. And for fun, we'll pitch some fallen, uneaten apples at the wide trunks of our willow trees.

Thomas H. Benton is the pseudonym of an assistant professor of English at a Midwestern liberal-arts college. He writes occasionally about academic culture and the tenure track and welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at careers@chronicle.com

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