• October 25, 2014

Following the Family Trade

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Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

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Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

The Old English "ceapman" wandered from village to village, peddling his wares from a bag or pushcart. Like all medieval trades, it was expected that the children would take over the family business from the parents, and Ceapman the Elder begat Ceapman the Younger. From that trade name came the common surname "Chapman," which I myself bear from some ancient unknown ancestor. And since, at some point, "chapmen" were identified particularly with the selling of cheap pamphlets or small books—"chapbooks"—it seems a particularly fitting name for an English professor.

I had, of course, no idea that my daughter would choose to follow in the same profession as my own. It is true that there are pictures of me reading to her in utero, and that we bought her countless books in her early childhood. But this was true for her brother as well, and he always felt that classic literary works were the curse of a malicious god on unsuspecting children.

In college, when my daughter decided to major in English, I experienced both joy and apprehension. Of course, I was pleased to be a part of her discovery of so many works that had enriched my own life. And we shared that secret knowledge that was at the heart of the medieval guild. We instantly understood why someone would wear a T-shirt that said, "My mother is a fish." Spending a long afternoon in a good used bookstore seemed like nirvana to both of us. We watched film adaptations with the studious eye of experienced critics: "Can you believe they chose her to play Jane Eyre? Did the screenwriters actually read A Christmas Carol?" We were literary soulmates.

But I also had misgivings about what following her father's trade might mean to her economic future. Sure, it was fine for me to break away from my father's path—engineering—to pursue what I loved, but I didn't want my daughter to worry constantly about making ends meet as I had through graduate school and into my early years of teaching. Back then, our idea of splurging was buying a boxed pizza at the grocery store and renting a move on videotape. We clipped coupons, cut corners, and prayed that the car wouldn't break down. When the liner came loose on the roof of my old station wagon, I used thumb tacks to hold it in place and kept on driving. The shiny tacks on the billowing red liner made it look like a rolling Victorian bordello.

In spite of my dire warnings about poverty and unemployment, my daughter decided to pursue a doctoral degree in English with the hope of eventually landing a college teaching job. When she kept getting a steady stream of doomsday articles about employment prospects for college English teachers from everyone she knew (including her father), she naturally grew a little defensive. She recently wrote to me explaining her reason for persisting despite all the negative publicity:

"I am reminded of a scene in Tootsie where Dustin Hoffman is auditioning for a role and frantically saying, 'You want taller? I can be taller!' I think as students we all hit a hyper-obsessive mode where we scan each document we write [in job applications] for minute changes and fret over every revision. We try to possess some sort of psychic knowledge that will let us read between the lines of every job ad. At the end of the day, however, I just try to remind myself that first, I love what I do. Whether I get a job or not, I'm glad I decided to study the Victorian novel. And secondly, if I don't get a job the world does not end. As I often tell my students, there are so many opportunities for English majors, and even more for Ph.D.'s. And if that doesn't work, I could try to make a living as a castaway on a Pacific island. Reading Robinson Crusoe 10 times should have prepared me for something."

In an odd quirk of fate, my daughter is actually earning her Ph.D. from the same university where I received my first graduate degree. Since we moved away from that area before she was born, and she grew up in an entirely different region of the country, I was quite surprised when she made that choice. It certainly had nothing to do with any influence I possessed since all of my former professors have either gone on to their reward or entirely forgotten me. The young guns of the department that I knew in the 1980s are now the Old Guard.

When I was a graduate student there, our classes met on the edge of the campus in a renovated old house that lent a bohemian air to the program. I remember my old technical-writing professor would bring his dog to class and talk about everything from ancient Roman engineering manuals to analytic philosophy. When the dog began to whimper and scratch at the door, he was expressing openly what many of us were feeling on the inside. The department brought in a steady stream of outstanding poets like Seamus Heaney and William Stafford. It was the first time I had met someone in person whose work had been anthologized, and I didn't know whether to shake hands or bow down to them like some medieval saint.

My daughter's classes meet in one of those corporate-looking classroom buildings, the kind that could readily be converted into a field hospital in a time of natural disaster. Her own experiences, although uncolored by the haze of nostalgia, focus on people as well:

"I think it's the personalities, both of the faculty and my fellow students, that make graduate school so enjoyable for me. I know that in a Victorian film class you can mock the movies unceasingly, but you mustn't bring popcorn. I know that in an 18th-century class if you're willing to take a position, you will be asked to defend it both with the text and with a full range of historical knowledge. I know that in the Milton class you may be asked to act or sculpt scenes from clay. It will be those moments—the unique ones that defined a class or a person in a way I wouldn't have expected—that will stay with me. The show-offs, the long-winded lecturers, the theory-obsessed philosophers, and the impractical dreamers will always be part of any university, but it was my friends and teachers who immersed me in meaningful conversation around great books that are my fondest memories."

I've been curious in my discussions with my daughter about what has changed in the narrative of English studies over the past 30 years. Having graduated during the Golden Age of continental theory, when Derrida reigned on the Olympian heights of deconstructionism and Terry Eagleton was his Hermes, I've been surprised to learn that there is no new theorist that has dominated the profession in the way Derrida and Foucault did in the 1980s, as Northrop Frye did in the 1950s, or Brooks and Warren in the pre-WWII years. Perhaps a victim of its own deconstruction, English studies has found, as Yeats prophesied, "the center will not hold." Of course, there are certainly the remnants of New Historicism and deconstruction, with a smattering of gender criticism, postcolonial studies, digital humanities, ecocriticism, film studies, food studies, animal studies, and so on. At times, it seems more like a cable television guide than an academic discipline.

However, when I asked my daughter what she thought was at the heart of the discipline, she said simply, "We are defined by the stories we tell." I am reminded how my scientist friends talk about Einstein's thought experiments and the race between Collins and Venter to decode the human genome. Physicists still debate what Heisenberg told Bohr on his trip to Copenhagen. Indeed, every discipline has its ur-texts and archetypal patterns.

So despite my reservations about her financial future, I am glad my daughter will be taking her father's place as a "chapman" for the next generation. And if she goes as threadbare as Chaucer's Oxford scholar, at least she will ply a noble trade, for, as so many scholars have before her, "gladly wolde [she] lerne and gladly teche."

David W. Chapman is a professor of English and dean of arts and sciences at Samford University. Jennifer (Chapman) Fuller, a doctoral student in English at the University of Tulsa, contributed to this essay.

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