A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.—Herman Melville, 1851
It was not as if I hadn’t been warned. Often, in that terrible year I floundered in graduate school, I remembered the two cautions I had received, from two people I revered but whom I had chosen to ignore.
The first warning had come from Robert Fitzgerald—the poet and translator who for some years taught undergraduates at Harvard. I studied “versification” with him and also spent a term in a writing seminar in which six students met with him for three hours a week as he took us through complicated problems in literature—comparing translations of Flaubert or Dante; analyzing how exactly a story by William Maxwell or a poem by Richard Wilbur “ticked like a clock” but also “broke the heart”; and, once in a rare while, when something one of us had written seemed to him to “succeed,” treating an undergraduate story or poem to the same serious analysis of its virtues.
Discussion of our much more frequent failures, accompanied by Fitzgerald’s infinitely kind advice, solace, and reading suggestions, took place in our private weekly tutorials. Once, in that autumn of 1977, I arrived at his office to find him standing and holding out the gift of a small brown object: a copy of Elizabeth Bishop’s new Geography III. (She was a colleague of his at Harvard, and had also been a teacher of mine.) He had his own copy, and we spent the hour reading the poems to one another—his fine, dry voice almost singing the lines, occasionally stopping himself with his characteristic muttered exclamation of “umph” at a particular passage, like this: “‘… and evening commences.’ Umph!” followed by a sharp look to make sure I had registered the felicity.
Sometimes our meetings took place during lunch in a restaurant called Iruna, and it was over my first garlicky snails that I asked if he thought I should go to graduate school, specifically to an MFA program.
“No, no. You are too restless, and you would be bored. You need to get a job in New York, work, travel. If you are meant to write, you will write.”
At first, I did what he said. I found myself at The New York Review of Books, working as a kind of serf—making coffee, proofreading, making coffee, getting yelled at for my frequent mistakes, occasionally making the bosses laugh, making coffee—all the time afflicted by a kind of cultural vertigo at the heights to which I had climbed. For in those days, it was understood by everyone in the dumpy offices of The New York Review that we were at the pinnacle.
After a year or so, I told my wonderful, difficult boss, Barbara Epstein, that I would be applying to graduate schools for a PhD program in literature.
“What on earth for?”
This was not the reaction I expected. After all, many of the Review’s cherished writers were distinguished academics.
“That’s an accident, toots. Anyway, no one needs a PhD in English. Just read.”
I disregarded this—in retrospect, excellent—advice, even though it persisted through my application process, bolstered by Barbara’s citations of people she knew who had found graduate school “unspeakably dreary,” people we both knew who were “the most tired, pompous” academics, some of them “real stinkeroonies.” While I didn’t disagree, I couldn’t explain that I had decided I would never make it in the magazine business. Other assistants in the office, and friends elsewhere, had wangled actual editing work, had written for other publications, were maybe even being groomed to write a piece for the Review, while I kept brewing the coffee, reading the slush pile of poems, running errands, and cracking jokes. Vaguely, I imagined an academic career that involved long lazy days in a cafe writing poems.
Barbara was very kind to me—I took all sorts of hours away from the office, enrolled in a crash Latin course at CUNY—and she got teary when I left.
“I will miss you,” she said. “But I’m mostly crying for you. You’re like Jane Eyre going to Lowood. You’ll die in that miasma!”
She told me to call if I hated it.
I did hate it. And I was much too proud to call.
I began my year at Yale as a PhD student in English in the fall of 1980. The boredom that Robert Fitzgerald had predicted for me set in within hours of my arrival, but it was a boredom unlike any I had experienced hitherto—it was an anxious boredom; a constant looking about me and thinking, “You must be joking,” sort of boredom; the boredom of confronting the Byzantine rules of a culture I was hard pressed to believe actually existed. All the rules that mattered were unwritten, as is always the case in elaborate hierarchies. Here are some of them:
1. Most teachers of graduate seminars (unlike, say, the very same teachers in an undergraduate setting) will be tepidly enraged by their students. One going theory among my fellow students for this was that they were “jealous” of us, but I saw no evidence for that. Our professors saw us as a chore—and in fact, we were probably not nearly as malleable, bright, or complimentary as most of their undergraduates.
2. We were reminded by the administration and by our professors that there were “too many” of us (twelve, I think, in my year) and that some of us would “have to go” by the end of the first year, as there were only “jobs out there” for “four” of us. I still remember that chilling math, and I also remember snorting aloud with laughter the first time it was said to my group; it was melodramatic, silly, like the driver’s-ed class where the instructor asks for “volunteers for death.”
3. The men will speak in class 90 percent of the time. (Or was it only 89 percent?) About half of us were women, but effectively only the men spoke. Of course this was the Dark Ages of 1980, before women had learned how to talk, or something. But since I had come from a university and a workplace and friendships where women talked all the time, these graduate classrooms looked like something out of a corny biopic—Marie Curie, head bowed as she washes test tubes for the men scientists in a lab at the Sorbonne, or Virginia Woolf denied entry to the library at Oxford. I tried to speak; I was baffled by sharp correction and by indifference.
4. The author will have no place in our consideration except as a stumbling block. This was the broad rule; then the subsets went into two different directions. The old-fashioned teachers, for whom the tenets of what in the 1930s had been named New Criticism still held sway, engaged the class in discussion of the text, and subtext—but never with reference to the author’s intention or life—in a way that was familiar to me from college but, since we were in graduate school, seemed infinitely less playful. The wave of the new—and this was an assortment of structuralist, poststructuralist, deconstructionist, and various “cultural studies” styles of reading—proclaimed that the author is a fool; he does not know what he did. The author is a fraud; he tries to make us think he is doing X, but actually, and evilly, he is doing Y. The author is racist; moreover he is anti-Semitic, imperialist, capitalist, misogynist (for these purposes, we pretend to be feminists).
5. To learn Anglo-Saxon, you will submit yourself to the tutelage of a sneering martinet who will moreover inflict on you his spring replacement, a visiting professor, a crackpot from South Africa who thinks that the Bantu are one of the lost tribes of Israel, Anglo-Saxon poetry derives from the lost tribes of Israel, and a kenning is not a metaphor.
Need I add that, as time went by, I began to suspect that I would be a volunteer for death? This in spite of charming fellow students, two whiz-bang seminars (one taught by Harold Bloom, another by Paul Fry), and my pride. During the spring term, I began my slide into long days spent in bed reading Dickens—and not for class. I just thought reading Dickens would be a good idea, as it was then and is now. I read every novel except Barnaby Rudge. I think all the copies were out of the library.
On the day I decided to leave Yale I started to write poems again, for the first time in many months. I saw this as an omen, a promise to myself that I would not pinch and stuff my art and my intellect into preexisting molds, that I would not submit my thoughts and love for literature to the scrutiny of the cruel and the foolish, that I would try to direct my own life in literature as a reader and a writer, and above all—as I then thought—that I would never darken academia’s gates again.
The old dream of the liberal arts education was to make college students into generalists who would, as the song says, “know a little bit about a lot of things.” One can make the claim, which is by no means original, that what is wrong with graduate education, at least in the humanities, is the model of science-like specialization applied to fields where it is inappropriate—and where, moreover, this specialization of PhDs may actually render them unfit to teach undergraduates. It’s not blowing the lid off a big secret to point out that universities have a hard time convincing professors to teach introductory or survey courses; or that small liberal arts colleges often struggle with the difficulty of providing a broad education in literature because their faculty wants to teach specialized, graduate seminar courses to unprepared and ignorant college students. Why should a sophomore—who has read only one Shakespeare play, never heard of Chaucer or Herbert, and thinks Jane Austen is for girls—be thought fit for a class in “hypertext” or Foucault?
Unknotting this problem is not simple—and I would like to emphasize that my evidence is entirely anecdotal—but perhaps at its heart is the conundrum of who becomes a teacher, and why. When I sailed off to graduate school, I really had no idea of being a teacher. Although teaching as an assistant in undergraduate courses was a coveted job, there was as far as I remember no preparation, no helpful hints or even the suggestion that real teaching (engaged teaching, impassioned teaching) was demanding and difficult. That one could think about the life of a professor as primarily engaged with teaching was, I think I can safely say, anathema.
My eventual route to becoming a college teacher of literature was through my writing and was essentially by accident. It turns out that aspiring writers will take classes from writers who have published books—and so the 92nd Street Y in New York asked me to teach a class after I had published a book of poems. It was 1992; I was at that time working, as I had been for a decade, as a magazine editor and book reviewer.
Here are some things I remember about my first class: among about a dozen students were two outrageously talented young poets who later went on to publish excellent first books and could have done so without the least bit of help from me; a woman who centered all her poems on the page like greeting cards; a man who wrote about drinking, both his own and that of famous writers; a boy not out of high school who wrote “randomized” poems that sometimes were only punctuation and who had not yet heard of the Dadaists; and an older woman who wrote about trees.
Work Projects Administration poster promoting education, c. 1936–1941. United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs, Washington D.C.
I was confident of only one thing: the best help I could give these students was to tell them what to read. Some of them hadn’t read anything; none had read enough. I assured them that I, too, had not read enough. I reserved a time for each class to talk about what we were reading. Only the unconscious Dadaist and the two stars took my suggestions.
Sometimes light would break when we talked about their poems. Mostly we just slogged on through. I did not enforce “positive” remarks, but I did enforce tact. Often I was the only one with anything to say. And yet something happened to me—I got the idea that I could be a teacher.
Now, just like lots of PhDs, lots of writers make lousy teachers. They seek teaching jobs because of the income, because our culture does not support artists, and because they can’t think of anything else to do. Plenty of them would be doing everybody a big favor if they’d just become veterinarians or landscape gardeners or sell popcorn at the movies. But some of us are also real teachers. I know a novelist who can manhandle a student and a manuscript until that student is a writer and that manuscript is a story. I know a poet who can listen and then alight on the poem with the right question, on the exact right word, that turns the student into a thinking, listening writer herself.
As for me, what I am really good for is teaching literature. I started knowing it at the Y, and then in the days that I taught a couple of courses to undergraduates at Barnard, and then in the stint I had of three years at Amherst College as a visiting writer. Although there has been less time for dawdling in cafes than one might have hoped, I discovered that, after all, I like the life of academia for the same reason I liked it as a college student: I am learning all the time. I now teach literature at Bennington College, where there is a longstanding tradition, since the school’s founding in the 1930s, of John Dewey’s ideal of the “teacher practitioner,” and where all of my colleagues in literature are also (nonacademic) writers, and few if any of us have PhDs.
I also teach graduate students in writing and literature in a low-residency MFA program that convenes twice a year in Bennington for workshops and lectures and that conducts most of its instruction through the mail. And every term, for the graduation ceremonies, I put on my plain black robe, unadorned by the colorful hood that would tell the world of an MA, an MFA, or a PhD, and take my place. Sometimes I feel defiant, sometimes I feel sad or embarrassed or replete with irony, but I always feel something about my students receiving a degree that puts them, in the academic hierarchy, above me.
One of the ways I like to describe what I do—that is, how a writer teaching literature does it differently than a regular academic does—is by saying that I start with the two basic hermeneutical questions, “What does the text say?” and “What does it mean?” but then go on to ask the question, “How did the writer do it?” Examining the choices that the writer makes—this aside here, two villains there, a weak hero, an odd rhyme, a flashback, a third-person alternating with a first-person narrator, free verse, prose poem—is essential to how I teach, with the writer at the center of the discussion.
It is not my intention here to propose sweeping policy changes for the academy. Some of my best friends have PhDs and teach, brilliantly—although I am inclined to think that this might be in spite of their training. But there might be sense in rethinking who teaches literature to college students, and perhaps one way is by deploring the relentless trend of academically inspired contempt for the writer. It is almost impossible to imagine an art historian, say, talking about a Caravaggio without some mention of “the color he used here” or “how he focused on this aspect of the Biblical story.” And yet the author of a novel is not usually taken into account with the same respect in a literature class. No doubt because academic critics of literature must themselves write, and yet for the most part cannot write the poems, plays, or novels they are writing about, they are afflicted with a built-in competitiveness with authors. That the great ones rise above this—I am thinking of one of the finest books I know, by the late Yale professor Richard Gilman on Chekhov, as a perfect example—does not obviate the central problem.
Despite the stranglehold that the “Ph.D. Octopus,” as William James called it, still has on the economics of who gets hired to teach, my experience at Bennington gives me hope that perhaps other enlightened institutions will also discover that having a PhD may have nothing to do with loving literature and being able to teach it well.
I am a hopeless romantic, and a hopeful democrat. I always tell students that Shakespeare already belongs to them as their inheritance, but that they have to do the work to own him. Literature does not belong to the academy, it belongs to each of us; and the right teachers—in or out of the academy—are the ones who can show us how to take it, and own it, for ourselves.