When I was an undergraduate at Oligarch University I, and I suspect many of my peers, had three desires that were utterly in conflict: to be invisible, to be free and to be special.
Against the advice of my mother, who wanted me to go to a liberal arts college where faculty would pay attention to me, I wanted to attend a school that was so big that no adult could exert any authority over me whatsoever.
I got my wish.
Soon I discovered that a major research university where undergraduates were expected to be autonomous had possibilities I had never imagined. Not go to class? Who knew if there were 500 people in the room? Sit in the back of a dark lecture hall as one Great Masterwork after another flashed up on the screen and take a little snooze? Why the heck not? Turn in all the papers for a class at the end of the semester because the professor really didn’t give a sh!t? Play with the edge!
But I also wanted to be noticed, to be picked out as especially talented among a group of awesomely talented peers. See? I told you these were contradictory desires. I didn’t want to be noticed for the slacker I was becoming, but for Who I Was. Whatever that was.
Eventually, I acquired accomplishments during my Oligarch days. Perhaps the most important of these outside the classroom was to be tapped as the co-editor of the university newspaper‘s monthly Magazine. This entailed (along with a co-editor who was in charge of design) assigning articles, writing a few myself, arguing with our publisher about whether some article we were publishing was going to pi$$ off an advertiser, editing every piece, organizing production and layout, and delivering (on time) the pages in large, flat boxes to the Hartford Courant plant for printing. We would then all eat breakfast, go to bed and get up for lunch, by which time the Magazine had been delivered in large piles to each residential college dining hall.
Funny that I could hit deadlines on the Magazine, but not on a 5 page essay.
Prior to becoming editor of the Magazine in the fall of my junior year, I had amassed what was, for me, a singularly undistinguished record. My first semester in college I not only assembled this exact set of grades — A,B,C,D — I had had the wit to sign up for two courses whose times overlapped (an upper level seminar in James Joyce and the introduction to anthropology.) This was something you could do in a world that was not run by computers and in which attendance was not taken in large lecture courses. But why did I think it was a good idea to attend only half the anthropology classes?
The Joyce seminar, which met once a week in a room that smelled of wood polish and books, was my dream of what college was supposed to be. That was the A. The introduction to anthropology, which I took to fulfill a distribution requirement, met twice a week (once during the Joyce seminar) in a vast lecture hall built for three times as many students as were enrolled. That was the D. Ironically, of course, I am now an avid reader of anthropology: James Joyce? Not so much.
The following year, I had a semester where I got a B in everything. Not B+, or B-. Just B. Which wasn’t so terrible when you consider that I had adopted Mary Jane as my study partner, and she was a slacker from hell.
I’m not one of those people who thinks of herself as always having been successful just because I am more or less successful now. In fact, remembering the bad decisions and risks I took as an undergraduate, and remembering how thoughtless I was about them at the time, has always helped me see my students as the three dimensional people that they are. I remember vividly, for example, the pure panic that drove paper writing during those years, as I stayed up night after night trying to make up for the lack of work I had put into the course or the research I was doing on the fly. Furthermore, because I had been an excellent student in high school, and had some basic skills, I actually knew what a good paper looked like. So I understood, when I finally had to turn in whatever piece of garbage I was working on, what it might have been.
And yet, for the first two years of college, that had little exemplary effect.
Remember when I said that my strong desire to be left alone was linked to a far more subterranean, and ultimately stronger, desire to be noticed? Well, I became editor of the Magazine because another student – Sarai Ribicoff, who became a journalist and was murdered in the course of an armed robbery a few years later — noticed me. When my athletic career terminated in the fall of 1977 I went to work for the college paper, and somehow ended up writing a filler piece for the Magazine when I was hanging around on their production night. Sarai went over it with me, line by line, in one of the best writing lessons I have ever received. Then she invited me to switch over from the sports department and write for the Magazine. In addition to the fact that the Magazine had a reputation for being kind of radical, producing it entailed monthly meetings ruled by large pitchers of beer at the Old Heidelberg Inn (now a Thai restaurant), followed by more writing, more editing, and learning to do every single task associated with putting out a publication.
Then Sarai chose me to be the editor. To this day, I don’t know why, because I was just as much of a f^ck up as I was someone who was able to pull herself together under good mentoring. But she did choose me. And incredibly, I rose to the occasion.
As if by some weird pedagogical formula, everything else came together too, even though being editor of the Magazine was the equivalent of a part-time job. OK, maybe it’s not a mystery: I think I was depressed for those first two years. I have some theories as to why, but it doesn’t matter. The point is that something entirely un-academic shifted me into an different register as a student. While the following two years had their ups and downs, the world shifted on its axis for good, and I began to see the university and its academic offerings in technicolor. This included the following notable, and equally transformative, events:
- I developed a huge crush on a member of the English department and took every class she offered. This resulted in endless hours spent on close readings of Renaissance poetry (yes, Flavia! Renaissance poetry!) This I did in the hope that I would Be Noticed, but as a bonus I learned an awful lot about the Renaissance. This has, by the way, paid endless and unexpected dividends in a later life of cultural studies scholarship and having to occasionally teach 16th and 17th century North American colonial history.
- I came to my Modern Chinese History class early one day and walked in on the Famous Professor organizing his teaching assistants for that week’s discussions, chatting with several of them in Chinese. I had a sudden and unprecedented epiphany that this class was part of, well, something bigger than papers and tests. I never sat in the back row of that big lecture hall again.
- I took a course on the French Revolution and became mesmerized, not by the professor, this time, although he was and is a truly memorable guy, but by his intellectual breadth and the dramatic quality of his lectures. At the end of the semester he invited the whole class over to his apartment for a kegger: I ended up talking to him for an hour about his mentor, who eventually, by a happy twist of fate, became one of my mentors too. So now we are kind of related.
- Walking down the street with my first-ever-out-gay professor whose class I had cut for two weeks, I tossed off my normal BS excuse about having been sick (I actually was sick a lot in college, but it wasn’t why I had cut class.) He stopped walking and said. “Look at me.” I did. “Go ahead and lie to me if you like,” he said. “I expect it. But for God’s sake don’t lie to yourself.” Needless to say, the further I get away from this event the more I realize what an act of friendship it was for him to cut through the drab politesse that allowed teachers and students to accept mendacious behavior as a matter of course.
- On the recommendation of a fellow student who spent his summers earning tuition dollars on the Ford line in Flint, I took a course in labor history from a newly arrived professor. “He’s a Marxist! He’s so cool!” my friend urged me. He was. In addition to being a kick-a$$ teacher, he would come to lunch with us and tell us stories about being a Communist organizer in the factories. And he introduced me to the best teaching assistants ever.
- The best teaching assistants ever, incredibly, became my friends. And they helped me learn to act like a grown up.
By the time I graduated, I had not pulled myself together completely, but I had pulled myself together. When I decided to go to graduate school a few years later, not in English — my college major — but in History, it was in many ways because of a very few people who had demonstrated to me what it meant to be a writer and an intellectual, and because of one student who had the patience to help me be my better, if not my best, self.
One feature of aging is endless chances to re-narrate your origin story until you get it right; over time, there are fewer people around to contradict you. Mine was a lot messier than the one you just read, believe me. But these snapshots are some of the truest ones, regardless of how accurate they are, because they are the ones I draw on as a writer, scholar, teacher and colleague today. What did I learn?
- Be open to new opportunities and new people.
- If you work hard, someone will notice you.
- When people notice you, let it lift you up.
- The student in the room who is really screwing up might just need a small adjustment to excel. Never write a student off.
- Take opportunities to close the social gaps between student and professor, senior and junior colleague, faculty and administrators.
- When students fib, don’t blame them, but do them the favor of responding honestly. It is the moral equivalent of an intravenous shot of Red Bull to be held accountable but not judged.
- Be generous.
For more stories by college profs, go to the essays bar on Questions for Colleges: Wise Words for Wisdom Seekers.