Monday, October 24, 2011

Confessions of a Redneck English Teacher

In a previous life, the Mad Hermit was what is called “an English Teacher.” From his perch on the head of the sperm whale skeleton on Masirah Island in the Indian Ocean, he muses on that long chapter of his life.

The classroom today

When I think about it, I, too, am a bit taken aback. While skimming the internet recently I could see that many of my former colleagues, those still alive, retired from careers at a single institution in a single place where, presumably, they were rooted and loved, or at the least, rooted. Some of their careers seem unremarkable, but perhaps like Mr. Chips, some were revered by several generations of students, and God bless them, had I not been such a difficult man, such could have been my fate. If a man casts himself as a chip on the waves, he cannot complain of storms and tides.

When I reflect on my classroom career, I count the states in which I have taught, nine in all, one of them twice: West Virginia, Kansas, Missouri, Wyoming, Ohio, Kentucky, Iowa, Tennessee, and Texas. In addition, the territory of Puerto Rico, and two foreign countries (The Emirate of Kuwait and the Sultanate of Oman). That is not the full story, since in these places I have managed to teach (full- or part-time) in a total of sixteen colleges and universities: Marshall University, West Virginia University, the University of Kansas, Southeastern Missouri State University, Muskingum College, Universidad InterAmericana, Wartburg College, Our Lady of Corpus Christi (now defunct), the University of Louisville, Bellarmine College, Spalding College, Jefferson Community College, Nashville State Community College, Tennessee Technological University, Kuwait University, and (trumpets!) the Sultan Qaboos University of Oman. It is tiring just to type these out. I will not add all the addresses I had during these years—I lost count at thirty-five.

One may ask why, and I will not answer. Those are stories, mostly personal, for another time, if at all. I will say I was never fired or dismissed and was several times asked to stay on, though the decidedly frosty exit I was given from Tennessee Technological University—after five rewarding years teaching as a full-time part-timer (adjunct)—strongly resembled a deconstructed bum’s rush. And my exit from Our Lady of Corpus Christi where I was a happy volunteer with delightful students was, as is said in a certain kind of place, by strong mutual agreement. Students helped me load my possibles into my pickup truck, and a kind Catholic family lent me their cabin in the hills to recuperate from the charade.

The regrets I have about this career are now several and odd. After my experiences in the Middle East, I wish I had stayed longer in Oman (I still miss that boundlessly strange country and have recurring memories of Indian roller birds diving at my head, strolling through the markets in Muttrah, and the sense of the first day in walking the tops of glistening dunes in the early dawn).

I do wish the medieval Charles University of Prague had offered me a position, if for no other reason than the possibility of living in the very medieval Prague. The interview in 1991, was Kafkaesque: the mini-skirted policewoman who arranged the interview at my side, the Chair a gaunt gentleman who appeared not to have had a solid meal for the entire Soviet occupation. As I looked up at the huge oil painting on the 18-feet-high wall, I recognized with a shock the Scots poet Edwin Muir. Idiot! Muir was the subject of my Master’s thesis at Marshall University and, as I had forgotten, he had been the chair of the ancient Charles University English department for some years before WW II. Despite that credit on my cv and the pleasant reminiscences with the Chair, I was told my best bet for a position was a Fulbright, Prague just then being overrun with subsidized Americans happy in a new Paris. Not a tenured or published professor, I had slim chance of that.

The poet Edwin Muir

And I wish I had had the opportunity of teaching at the University of Papua New Guinea, Goroka campus (in the mountainous interior), despite the rude and exhausting four-hour interview—more like a tribal roasting—that I had there [sample question: “do you really know these things, or do you just say you know these things?”]. Imagine teaching Shakespeare there! In fact, had I my druthers, I would have started my overseas experience long before I was over fifty, and would have taught in many more out-of-the-way places, such as Brunei, or at the cheery American University of Bulgaria, where I was also interviewed with much kindness and ceremony. Though I found many things to like in most places I taught in America, I found somewhat too late that the Midwest stifled me and that I needed the stimulants of travel and the unexpected—such as hearing Arab students puzzle over the guilt of the Ancient Mariner, pushing a department putsch in Kuwait, or being shot at by Arabs as I rode my bicycle in the desert of Oman.

A sing-sing in Papua New Guinea

In this itinerant career, I also came to understand, by way of circumstance and my own adventurous fecklessness, the queer desirability of teaching as an “adjunct professor,” a curious institution that came into its own after the Vietnam years. During my protests of that unconstitutional war, and in the cultural havoc of the 1960’s, I left the tenure track and set out on the academic hobo road, much as my Dad had ridden the rails in the 1930’s. In those unsettled days, thousands of teachers, especially PhDs in the Humanities, found their only option in university teaching was as part-timers, which brought about economic conditions similar to those Jack London found in London’s East End in 1902. The new scenario created the outrage of teachers contracting at two to four institutions at the same time, wearing out cars and minds by teaching as many as eighteen, even twenty-one, credit hours a term to earn a pitiful income, all the while dreaming of that big break into tenuredom.

At the University of Louisville, I happily taught English, Humanities, and Philosophy while also teaching courses in philosophy at Bellarmine and Spalding colleges and at (lamentably) Jefferson Community College, where I started an Introduction to Philosophy class with 50 students and ended with three. Much later in Tennessee, I had the great pleasure of teaching mostly Honors sections of World and British literature, as well as special seminars, in courses of my own make and choosing. The value of being an adjunct, despite the constant uncertainty, is that one is not “in” a department, is not involved in any aspect of filthy academic politics or even incestuous academic society but is, in fact, an exile in one’s profession with no greater hazard than an occasional nasty department secretary. For those who have done such teaching, one knows that the adjunct professor is the lowliest person on any campus, something akin to perpetual novice monks or to Orwell’s hop pickers, lucky to have a part-time desk and (sometimes) parking privileges, if that. Perhaps, I have thought in my rambles, all professors should be in this situation. We might have more pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, more love of learning, less ideological correctness, and more enthusiastic teaching, as if we were all Abelards in the snowy fields.

The curious relationship of the adjunct to the regular tenure-track professor may be illustrated by an incident in the Washington, DC, area. While working in the corporate world (more on this below) in the 1980’s, I hungered to keep my mind on something besides hacking out government documents and proposals. I applied to the prestigious George Mason University in Fairfax, rated as one of the best in the country sub specie Ivy League. Here I received the offer of teaching two sections of World Literature for, I think, $1200 a course per semester, not much more than I had received at the University of Louisville several decades earlier (adjuncts are usually paid about as well as janitors and prison guards). Now, as I could see from the posted schedule, I would be teaching the same literature course as a visiting Nobel Laureate just down the hall, who would be making well in excess of $80,000 a year for teaching two courses a term. Mind, the student signing up for such a course would see my name and the laureate in the same catalog column and choose one, probably in the blissful ignorance students usually enjoy. I would have liked to think that the students who would choose me would have the best teaching, but, alas, the unwillingness of the chair to schedule me for evening sections prevented my taking the assignment. On the way out, I also learned that (sorry!) the post carried no parking privileges, which would have required my walking at least a mile to get to classes. O tempora! O mores!

You may well ask, why and how on earth did you get into this business in the first place? And why stay in, despite the money and the madness? As for getting in, I had the reading disease from the time of cereal boxes and comic books, plus Huck Finn and the other classics on our home bookshelf. I had four excellent English professors as an undergraduate when I never had a serious thought about the morrow but was living in the pleasures of reading, reading, reading; dialogues on walks and in beer halls; and hearing my teachers speak hours of interesting stuff about literature. Tough Jesuit (pre-Vatican-II) sequences of philosophy, history, and the arts added to the ratio studiorum mix. I wrote a Bachelor’s thesis (imagine that these days) on The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, and along the way I was introduced to the best current thinking in literary criticism from Cleanth Brooks to William Empson. One day my wife-to-be asked what I was going to do when I was graduated (notice the correct verb usage). Blank. “You have to go to graduate school,” she said, many, many, times. This required a great stretch in my thinking, just as great a stretch as when I was in grammar school and tried to imagine being in high school. My professors were as gods, high above my plebian, West Virginia imagination. Be one of those? But, poor as a scrawny alley cat, with small Latin and no Greek, I went, first for a Master’s in West Virginia, then for a doctorate at the University of Kansas, known popularly as “the Harvard on the Kaw.” It was still the post WW II heyday of graduate study in English, and the state universities were churning out doctorates like Fords and Chevrolets. The race, I soon found, was not to the swift but to those willing to conceal their giggles and true nature.

Graduate school from the beginning was a constant experience of having the wind knocked out of me. Fresh from a traditional Thomistic education, I was nothing if not logical and questioning. In every class and conversation, I heard absurdity, contradiction, nonsense, from professors as well as students. At first, I assumed that much of what I was hearing was a coded language to which I lacked the key, that the wily Jesuits had somehow neglected to give me the whole story. Queer, supercilious questions were asked for which I had no answer. Superior smiles and ironic comments made me feel like a backwoodsman in a Parisian salon. Gradually, however, I began to perceive that I had not entered the seminary of higher learning but an increasingly byzantine game of catch and get caught out. Poor old souls on the tail end of 19th century attitudes—that, for instance, as Dr. Samuel Johnson would have it, biography is the most important part of literary criticism, or that historical accuracy was a necessary perquisite to literary scholarship—were being crowded out by the sleek, the prissy, and the unnatural. While the sometimes worthwhile “New Criticism” was all the rage when I entered graduate school, day by day the goose-step ideologies were on the march. After the backwash of Freudianism and Jungianism came, like creatures leaping out of Satan’s head in Paradise Lost, the dull, perverse parade of Feminism, Marxism, Maoism, Multiculturalism, Levi-Straussism, Deconstructionism, and what-have-you: all nasty machines through which poetry is ground to produce academic sausage.

During these years after I had scooted across the finish line with a doctorate, I began to meet teachers of literature who seemed to have no idea of what literature is. Fortunately for me, I had not lost the philosophical habit of mind the Jesuits gave me, nor the traditional legacy of the band of brothers (Shulenberger, Nelick, Quinn, Senior) I was fortunate to have met along the way [see the entries for August 10, 2011, and March 31, 2010, as well as]. Also, during graduate student days, I was also blessed to meet others equally inspired by the KU traditionalists who were excited to enter the classroom with nothing more than fundamental questions, a 3x5 card, a fellow teacher with whom to dialogue, and a good or great book. And, I might add, a sense of wonder arising from the perennial questions about the nature of reality, best expressed in Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and other writings, wherein sticks, stars, riddles, walks, fire places, tales, and friends are the panes through to view the madness of the world.

Something else, something very important, gradually entered my awareness of what was happening in the academic world. Literature teachers who had no personal history outside academe—hothouse plants raised on thin, watery foods—were more cloistered than any monk ever was. Just as Orwell recognized of his middle class world, I became more aware of who these ideologues were that dominated Humanities departments in the latter half of the 20th century. Imagine a teacher shaped through twelve years of public school—that first nursery of Huxley and Orwell’s imaginations—then rolled through the dark satanic mills of graduate school and thrust upon the classroom stage, sans sweat, sans labor, sans calloused hands, sans everything. If literature is about life and the teacher has hardly a wisp of that, he can only do what the academics do from the Sophists to the French perverts: fall back upon systems,
-isms, and –ologies.

In the coal fields of West Virginia, I had dozens of jobs and occupations before I ever got to graduate school from carrying newspapers, hawking on the street and at ball games, shining shoes, washing dishes, short order-cooking, janitoring, and all the rest of the growing-up jobs of the blue collar family. Those roots served me well when I read the great books and poems, and helped me find more kinship with the real-world literary criticism of Dr. Samuel Johnson, the natural wisdom of Ernest Hemingway, and the earthy writings of the Russian writers than with the effete poets of France. “’Sophisticated?’ Professor Arvid Shulenberger, a rough-and-ready World War II aviator, asked, and answered, ‘more complicated than it needs to be.’” After I left the academic track in 1970, I spent years as a social worker, mental health and family therapist, night clerk, editor-writer, writer-editor, technical writer, magazine editor (twice),cashier, bureaucrat, and, again, janitor. Like George Orwell, I saw society from the underside and the backside. When I re-entered the academic world for the third time in 2003, I did so with zest and the old delight. A classroom is a classroom, after all, and once inside those doors, it’s back to the great and good books and the fundamental questions, which have always made good teaching from Socrates to Thoreau to Senior and Shulenberger.

Dr. John Senior

Dr. Arvid Shulenberger

Or so I thought when I signed on last year to teach courses at a community college here in Tennessee. Besides the now universal replacement of blackboards and chalk (O Chesterton!) with white boards and stinking Chinese markers, the other changes that had been arriving while my back was turned had reached demonic proportions. In sum, there are no teachers now, only programmed processors using ideologically correct texts chosen by ideologically correct committees backed by eternally present and vigilant computers. Soon, they will videotape all classes, and the censors will come, if they have not already. The idea of Socrates in the street or “Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and me on the other,” or Thoreau bothering his neighbors with real questions we have—what? The Nanny State and the Nanny Teacher. The students, God help them, are ready: they’ve been playing the game since first grade. They speak a different language, if it is a language at all. Maybe one in fifty has doubted the sophistical doctrines of the day, and that one usually has enough redneck or hillbilly left in him (or her) to be open to something other than the poisonous pabulums of the time.

Over the years I have met retired university English teachers who confess that they no longer read. In some cases, I wonder if they have ever read, really read, a poem without a crib or a study guide. Even at 73, I devour books, new and old, from Homer to Coetzee. And my summary conviction? Abolish English and Humanities departments altogether; teach languages only; and let the young discover literature on their own terms with the secret libertarian delight of thieves and prisoners. But then, I also believe in the abolition of public schools altogether. They only feed the growing tendency toward the Absolute Nanny State.


  1. Its good to get a better sense of what makes you tick & where you are coming from. :o)
    Hope you'll head back up to WV one of these days for a visit. Be sure to look us up!

  2. Excellent post! I've found since being graduated that I read more satisfying literature now than I ever did in college! I found the most useful classes I had in college were the foreign language ones-- I could not have studied Chinese as effectively on my own as I did in a group setting with native speakers. But even French was a mess of lazy teaching-- no vocabulary lists, no assigned reading, homework books we were never asked to use, etc. etc.

    Glad I survived.

  3. Audrey,

    when I finished the PhD, I sat down and started reading about the Civil(so-called) War to clear out my head. Later, in 1973, I went to the woods to build a house and for some 6-8 months, read nothing at all. There were later, similar periods. Now that I have exorcised all the literary evils, I read what I want with joy. Just now, a great deal of Orwell's books and his biographies. Read Orwell's essay on Charles Dickens--now that's my idea of "literary criticism," the honest response of the common reader with no folderol.

  4. I really enjoyed this! You've got me thinking about something. Have you ever considered how remarkable it is that we ever crossed paths? What a strange and unforseen coincidence! I'm grateful to God (and Kirk Kramer) for having met you that fine morning. Sometimes I wonder, what would my life be like had we never met? What other person or ideology might have influenced my thinking? You have done more good than you may ever know.