By Doni M. Wilson
I am a college professor. When I was growing up, I did not think about professors very much, because I did not know any. I grew up in a suburb of Houston, and there were teachers and engineers and stay at home moms and men in the energy business. But as far as I knew, no professors.
In fact, for years I referred to myself as a “teacher,” until one day one of my friends, in a fit of exasperation, said, “For heaven’s sakes! You are a professor! You do not teach third grade! You do not wear denim jumpers! You do not own socks that commemorate holidays! Please! You are a PROFESSOR!!!” While that was vaguely flattering at the time, I have lapsed back into calling myself a teacher, because who could imagine that so many mild-mannered dorks with tweed jackets and sensible shoes and horn-rimmed glasses could be held in contempt by so many Americans for what many consider to be, ahem, the crime of doing nothing.
There seems to be either a level of profound distrust for a wildly liberal agenda infiltrating university classrooms, or a milder distaste for the idea that one can read a book, think about ideas, and have the audacity to call it “work.” Honestly, I can see both sides, but those professors embodying such representations are usually on television, making fools of themselves, indicting the profession as a whole, talking in circles, while there is nothing I can do about it. Why? Because I am probably not even watching them ruin my reputation, as I am busy grading papers, or trying to figure out if teaching The Aeneid is too dicey, as Dido, the Queen of Carthage, is quite the slut, and for some reason, that upsets people. In any case, it seems like “professor” has become kind of a dirty word, like “lawyer,” or, “journalist,” or, “politician.” But here is a little secret: if you are going to be a professor, you sort of have to be all of these things. If you cannot handle a little contempt, this is not the profession for you.
When I decided to become a professor, I didn’t know what was behind the scenes, but I sure liked what I saw up front. Basically, you could get up in front of a captive audience, say what you want, and no one could stop you—at least for fifty minutes. I was a victim of parents who never wanted me to draw too much attention to myself, so this had some obvious appeal. I liked how you could make people read stuff and then force them to listen to what you thought about it. It’s like having a conversation and not having to let anyone else have a word in edgewise.
I didn’t know about the boring meetings, the petty departmental politics, the excruciating pressure to publish what few will ever read. I just knew about the explicating some sonnets in front of others part. I went to Baylor University and one of the best professors I ever had was Ann Miller. I think she could have been a first rate actress. She had auburn hair and a striking, expressive face that was not exactly beautiful but got your attention.
When I was seventeen, I wanted to take her literature survey because someone told me I might as well not even attend the university unless I was going to take one of her courses. So when I entered her office to get enrolled over the class cap, she said, “Are you just trying to get in for the time? Tuesday--Thursday eleven o’clock—you know some people just want the time.” I had no idea what she was talking about until I became a professor, and now I totally get it. Some people will watch paint dry if they can get a college credit for it at 11 o’clock twice a week. I didn’t even answer her —she had that effect on me—deer in the headlights effect. She must have thought I was mute or honest or something sufficient enough for her to sign the add slip. Whatever her thinking, I was in, and that’s all that mattered to me. Somewhere, deep in my subconscious, I thought, Note to self: Try and become a professor and by all means get a Tuesday--Thursday schedule. Even I could do the math on that one.
She didn’t teach in a traditional way—I mean she never lectured. She would just tell you what she thought about things - like a sibyl or a tarot card reader - as in, I see this as the truth in this Keats poem. She sometimes would just read through a poem, but so dramatically that it came alive on the stage of her classroom, and you would suddenly understand it. She thought her students should learn to intuit or dominate a poem: “If you don’t understand a poem, just read it over and over and it will just yield itself up to you,” she would say.
I didn’t have much experience with anything yielding itself up to me. But the idea sounded interesting, and that sentence has lodged in my head for a very long time, even though it seems cryptic, like a riddle, or a foreign phrase. Then she would end with a tease: “If you really want an ‘A’ you could read a biography of Wallace Stevens.” She never had formal assignments or official extra credit all laid out in a syllabus like a legal document the way I have to now, but somehow, she was highly motivating.
Unlike me, she didn’t have to resort to threats. I hated Waco, Texas; but in her classroom, I felt that I was doing something highly esoteric and exotic, and I knew that I was on to something - that reading literature was this amazing insurance policy against being bored, or worse, and I am pretty sure that knowledge has saved my life at least once or twice. She used to grade her papers by not writing any comments except at the end, where she would put a flashy scarlet “A,” and write GRATITUDE in big letters and underline it several times.
It wasn’t until I was a professor myself that I understood how starved one can get for a truly great paper. When I get a truly great paper I want to put it up on a billboard I’m hyper-grateful for it. I read a lot of papers that are pure fakery. I feel like I’m being had. And most of the time I am being had, which can get irritating. Maybe she didn’t even read a word of some of those papers. But she sure knew what she was doing, as very few people got an “A” from Ann Miller. It was a little intoxicating, like taking a hit, or reading a poem by Wallace Stevens.
Anyway, I ended up majoring in history, the major where everything has already happened, but kept taking her English classes anyway. When she read lines like “imperfection is our paradise,” it seemed charged with truth, vatic, a lyric gospel. And that was saying something because my required religion classes left me cold. Only in her class did I feel transported. And boy did I work hard to please her. She smiled a lot at me, like I was part of her tribe, but she had seen many students like me before. I am not even sure she knew my name. But I applied for graduate school in English anyway. I had several other good professors, but she was so far above the rest. She was so unpredictable in her particular strain of genius that as much as I wanted to be like her, I knew it would be hard to even come close.
How could I? She had married her political science professor who was many years her senior. She had been all over the world. She had a grandson named “Zeus.” And as far as I could tell, she had read every book known to man. Clearly, I had a long way to go. But miraculously, I won a semi-big-deal fellowship, and went to Chapel Hill to study Lit-uhr-ah-ture, and let me summarize: I knew nothing. This was easy to figure out, because you have a lot of experts in graduate school specially trained to point this out to you. I almost failed out of graduate school because of my inability to translate the dead language known as Anglo-Saxon into contemporary English. It might be a bit much to say I was suicidal, but I was absolutely suicidal. And what maybe kept me from jumping off that particular cliff was a professor named Linda Wagner-Martin, who taught modernism and twentieth century literature and, yes, there were certain things lost in translation. But that was a good thing and it gave a lot of people something to write about. Plus, she was very democratic and would say things in class like, “Not everyone went to school in Izod shirts!” And I loved hearing this because I actually did go to school sometimes in Izod shirts, but it was in Houston, Texas, rather than, say, Kennebunkport, Maine, and I didn’t even play tennis. So it was fraudulent and suburban and what everyone did and I just loved how she would say something like that and she could reveal a lot about life very efficiently, like an imagist poem, another thing she knew a lot about.
Unlike Ann Miller, who was quite the drama queen, Linda Wagner-Martin was all about Midwestern practicality. She had published over fifty books.. When I was struggling with my master’s thesis, she would shift her head to one side and smile this little Doris Day smile and say, “You know, it is really just like cleaning out your closet.” I have no idea what she meant by this, but it did make the task seem at least a bit more manageable, like something I might actually finish.
I was one of those people for whom the blank page is not necessarily a country to be conquered, but more like a desert that will kill you with the sheer cruelty of thirst. In short, Linda had her work cut out for her. But she never acted like I was a hopeless case, and feigning that confidence is sometimes the biggest act of generosity you can give a student, who is always already lost on some level. You have to at least play along in case this student turns out to be any good in the long run, and you have to be willing to wait for them to be cured of their own mediocrity, and sometimes that takes a long time. Fortunately, Linda was patient with me.
When Linda retired this year, it seemed unimaginable—she lived up my image of a professor in every way. And in every way, she was not at all like me, even though I, too, am a professor. I am relatively uncomfortable in my own skin and Linda is, well, not. I’m someone who can wallow in waves of regret over not having gone to law school, not having been taller, not having the ability to make a decision without a hundred visions and revisions. Linda, on the other hand, evokes confidence, self-assuredness.
My students know all of this. I am a terrible actress, cannot come close to hiding these fundamental truths that are self-evident. When my students are not in tune with me, not understanding the genius of Emily Dickinson or Silvia Plath or whatever I am teaching, I will say things like, “I wish I had gone to law school. I wish I were taller so that I didn’t have to wear these high heels every day. I wish you would read these poems so that I feel like I went into the right profession, because if I didn’t, that will require a lot of exhausting rethinking on my part. So please read the frigging assignment. Thanks.” Linda would never say anything such thing, and I wish I didn’t. My only wish is that I was more like her.
A conference celebrating her rock star professorial career was planned. I was asked either to give a scholarly paper or a more personal talk about her influence on me. I was torn. Linda is and has always been a wonderful person to know even if she had never written one word of all those books with her name on them. On the other hand, she has taught me so much about literature that I wanted to honor her work by actually presenting some. So I decided to talk about Edith Wharton, a writer who was rich and successful, and was someone I knew nothing about until studying with Linda. It was while reading Wharton’s The Age of Innocence under Linda’s direction and working toward some sort of stab at my dissertation that I experienced some of that particular magic Linda has for helping students discover their own voices - the way she can listen to an idea and inspire such a deeper level of thought and creativity under her guidance that you actually begin writing and start to find your way. From time to time I try to steal her approach. I try to act calm yet enthusiastic, as if my students are expressing the most original thought on the planet. And when my enthusiasm for their ideas infects them, I know they will start writing and keep writing. I am very grateful that didn’t get me started on some cycle of intellectual abuse that I surely would have passed down to the next generation, requiring possible interventions. In short, she has saved me a whole lot of grief.
She also was the kind of professor who didn’t follow fashions and trends, and I was lucky to be her student. Partner me in with, say, a French theorist and I would have been the sort of insecure pupil who would follow them around, serving them espresso and compliments. I was reminded of this lucky alignment of stars that was in place as I fell under her influence when I was at an academic conference with a group of graduate students from an excellent program from another state, which I should not mention, but I will. It was Emory University. They were all brilliant. They were all working with a brilliant professor. He had a very specialized specialty in a highly complicated area of psychoanalysis, which they all deftly applied to a particular author, whom I should not mention, but I will. It was Hemingway.
I was sad that I didn’t understand a word they were talking about. They were all presenting pretty much the exact same paper, and there were so many of them. This would never have happened with Linda’s students. Never! Ever! She taught her students a lot about making it new—and what I took from that shows up in my classes today: if my students parrot what I say on an exam, I give them an “F,” because I already know what I think, and I don’t need it repeated back to me. This makes students nervous, makes them ask what will be on the exam, makes them think that they might want to drop the class, because it is very scary stuff when someone wants you to say what you think, and not what they think that you might want to hear. It turns conventional thinking on its ear, and I like that.
Linda also taught me a lot about how to read fiction - how the life of the artist bears a complicated but essential relationship to his or her work and that writing about it can be tricky. She once wrote a book about writing women’s biographies, and it helped me realize that such books tended to follow a formula, and that as women’s lives changed right along with history, those formulas no longer seemed to work.
Edith Wharton’s life and work illustrate how finding something like her excruciating love letters that she wrote to the journalist and narcissist Morton Fullerton, mess up that script, and change everything about the books we think we know, even the major ones like The Age of Innocence or Ethan Frome. When she was working on her book about writing about women, her male editor wanted her to take out her chapter on Cher, thinking she was too much of a celebrity figure to include in a book about women’s biographies. Of course, that was why Linda was including Cher. Linda was walking with me across the Chapel Hill campus, the fall leaves falling all around us, when she told me she was keeping the chapter on Cher in her book despite her editor’s request. There was no good reason to take it out, she said, and it was her damn book anyway.
I admired Linda’s refusal to cave because at that time in my life my first instinct would have been to fold like a house of cards and wipe out Cher as soon as I could to please that editor. What Linda taught me I apply to a lot of arenas of life, not just writing a book. Now, when I comment on my graduate student papers, I try to always add the note: “…but this is still your project,” because it is, and it’s important for a professor or editor to remember that.
When I came to Chapel Hill and before I met Linda, I had never heard of Edith Wharton. When I swittched from undergraduate history to English for grad school, I had a little Keats and Dickinson under my belt, but that was about it -- all because of the Lady Gaga of my intellectual pursuits, Ann Miller. While Ann Miller was remote like a performance artist, Linda Wagner-Martin was authentic like a friend who will tell you that you need to have a therapist and the sooner the better, but doesn’t hold it against you.
Linda never made me feel self-conscious that I had never read anything, that my major cultural influence was the shopping mall, that my relatives were all business people, and that I was not too sure what I was doing in many pursuits of my life. Instead, when I confessed all of this, she just chirped, “Oh good, you studied history. You’ll do well on your comprehensives.” Well, gee, there is nothing like looking on the bright side. And now that I am a professor, teaching people who haven’t read anything, live at the mall, and want to major in Business Administration, this is a very good thing to know how to do. After all, high school has become such a joke that sometimes I think I am starting tabula rasa, and try not to exploit that for evil. I attempt to remember that I didn’t know very much at all when I started school, and I try to keep the eye-rolling in check.
Students don’t take it that well anyway and I’m aware I’m dealing with the must have perfect self-esteem at all times generation. So I try to keep it together so they won’t fall apart. I read some Edith Wharton in Linda’s classes, and even ended up writing about her some in my work. And when I went to Newport, Rhode Island and looked at all those huge summer estates on the coast, I had a much better idea of what I was looking at, and what it all meant, and how most of us have to read books in order to come close to imagining being in those houses, walking those halls. Great literature can pretty practical in that sense.
Delving deeply into the work of Edith Wharton with Linda taught me that we don’t ever really know an artist. And the more we discover about them can shake up our understanding. Wharton’s love letters to Morton Fullerton, written while she was still married to her mentally unstable husband Teddy -- so full of longing as to make even the coldest customer a little wistful - are the perfect case in point to prove that she was not as conventional as one might have previously assumed.
Now this is great to know if you are professor, lecturing to a class, explaining that Edith Wharton was her own person and her own artist, and not just an extension of Jamesian psychological realism. In fact her letters to her friend Henry James suggest many points of disagreement between them on aesthetics, even if he did encourage her with some excellent writing prompts, such as, “Do Old New York!” which, of course, she did, and we even got that great Martin Scorcese movie version of The Age of Innocence out of it. But what I got out of reading Wharton is that she helped me understand other authors that mean a lot to me, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald. I could see how indebted he was to her particular brand of the novel of manners, even if he had to change with the times and produce novels of bad manners.
I began to see how reading Wharton or Fitzgerald or any other author can help me with everything I read. This discovery has been helpful to me when students say they don’t like a particular author. I tell them “you need to read everyone you can so you can compare and contrast and accept and reject and this is how you get through life.”
So good for Linda for introducing me to Edith Wharton, which was like opening a door to a building I would never have entered, never have noticed, would have missed entirely. I would have never gone to the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas, never looked at her love letters, never seen Edith Wharton’s own handwriting describing Henry James’s suicidal tendencies, her whirlwind life composed of important events and interesting artists, her pleas to Morton Fullerton (who rejected her cruelly and repeatedly, and oh how I hate him for that) to please answer her letters, please stop his silence, please stop his indifference, which is killing her.
There are a lot of please please please please please please please keep talking moments in her letters—pure Wharton without artifice— and that’s an important matter to think about. Sometimes you need to know something about an artist’s real life before you can even begin to wrap your mind around her fiction. At certain moments – I can’t help it - I channel Ann Miller. I tell my students, “Well, if you really want an “A,” you would read a biography of Edith Wharton.” Then someone calls the Dean, complains it is not on the syllabus, and it ends up on my evaluations, and I worry about getting fired. But at least during my moment of channeling Ann Miller, I feel almost high.
A lot of people idolize writers and try to emulate their lives or try to think the way those artists thought, with the hope that it will translate into great writing. Unfortunately, my favorite authors are Fitzgerald and Hemingway. I try not to imitate their lives, at least not too much. And thanks to my professors Ann Miller and Linda Wagner-Martin, I know what sort of Fitzgerald-Hemmingway behaviors to avoid, even if I do wish I could write just like them. Instead, I have had the better lot in life as whenever I am in trouble, I think, What would Ann do? Or What would Linda do?
There can be a lot worse things to have in your head if you are trying to survive as a professor. The current economy has been a cruel factor in many university decisions, and at my small liberal arts university, at least 24% of the faculty and staff have been let go over the last two years. In the perfect storm of economic uncertainty, changing curriculum, and a Provost named Captain Ahab, you can call me Ishmael. In fact, I find Pinot Noir to be my favorite form of self-medication as I treat my lingering case of survivor guilt. I am the only original English department member left since our new Provost took over the helm.
This is in great part not because I am so great, because trust me, I had wonderful colleagues from top-rate universities who were let go in what could only be considered some sort of the theater of the absurd--except it’s real. But my surviving the worst times in higher education owes a great deal to having these two women as professors. Ann Miller taught me that sometimes you have to conduct your classes as if you are in a divine frenzy, or in the zone; in other words, you are so concentrated on your subject matter that people have a hard time imagining you not doing what you are doing. This is hard to pull off, but it must be tried. In other words, you must adopt a code of romanticism and give a primacy to the imagination so that it seems as the only thing worth studying, and that is your story, and you are sticking to it.
It makes it harder for people to fire you if you are that committed, even if they secretly think that maybe you should be committed. Linda Wagner-Martin taught me not only to read well and engage with literature, but how to be right 99% of the time regarding the practicalities of the profession itself. My point here is that not everyone is so lucky to have a professor dedicated and generous enough to tell you also how to read the tea leaves, or, when times are tougher, the writing on the wall. You learn to pick your battles, learn to bite that hole in your tongue, because if you are fired over one sentence, then you are not around to teach your students about all the sentences that they need to know from other people, other books. Who would have guessed that my favorite professors of literary art—fiction—would teach me so much about negotiating real life? With these professors, all things seemed possible, and that is what keeps things possible.
When I first studied Edith Wharton, I realized that her true subject was the minefield of social relations, and how difficult it was to interpret what she called “a hieroglyphic world.” Using the incorrect fork while dining, wearing the wrong opera gloves--even the act of Wharton’s beautiful and vexed heroine, Ellen Olenska, boldly and inappropriately walking across the room to talk to a man -- these were all caveats for the reader warning against making the dreaded faux pas. But I will tell you, unless you are a debutante, these things are of limited use. I love Edith Wharton. But I didn’t learn the art of avoiding a faux pas in the academic minefield from her—I learned that skill from Ann Miller and Linda Wagner-Martin.
It is true that I am not as flamboyant or attractive or dramatic as Ann Miller was in the classroom, and when she died of cancer I thought that more of the world should have known about her intensity and erudition beyond Waco, Texas, and those dry fields and asphalt roads that kept people in and out of such a place, and made her inaccessible to a larger audience. It is also true that I am not as intelligent or prolific as Linda Wagner-Martin, and that she still does not hold it against me. But when I hear about the “professorial class” on television, and how cushy professors have it, and how all we do in the classroom is political brainwashing, I have no idea what to make of that.
I don’t know what my students believe - and I mean this with affection - I don’t care. I’m more interested in them reading about what other writers believed. If they believe that “After great Pain, a Formal Feeling Comes--” well, fantastic, but if not, at least they had to consider it. What I know for sure is that if I am worth anything in the classroom, or on the page, it has an awful lot to do with my two professors, and that’s reconfirmed unconsciously every time I step into a classroom. If you are going to imitate someone, make sure they’re the very best.
One time someone asked me what I “professed” and it sort of stopped me cold, like someone asking whom the love of your life is, but your husband’s name is not the first thing that comes out of your mouth. I should have said “American Literature” or “The Fundamentals of Composition” or something in the college catalogue that would be commensurate with what people expect. My professors professed their enthusiasms and their imaginations, and those things were unique to them and cannot be replicated.
Their subjects could not contain them, and that is what I hope happens when I am professing, acting as a propagandist for studying the imagination, demanding that the brain is wider than the sky, tricking my students into excessive reading. My nine year old son, when talking about my students, will sometimes say, “Well, you can just make them do what you want them to do—you are the professor!” But that is not really true. You can say a few things over and over again until it begins to sink in. And if you’re lucky, a few will stop checking their messages in class and yield themselves up to all those sentences that you have been stringing together, yield themselves up to the poems that may save their lives.