In a recent fit of procrastination compounded by nostalgia (why, yes, the first paper of the semester came in about the same time), I did a web search for the name of a man whose class I took in the final semester of my undergraduate career: let us call him Ambrose Booker, for that was not his name.  He was a VAP, visiting from the Ivy League.  This seemed very prestigious to west coast undergraduates at the time, though of course I have a radically different view of the status of VAPs now.  To be sure, during the same semester a number of us also took the class of a very distinguished visiting senior professor, likewise from an Ivy League school, who subsequently returned to that position, so we had some reason to be confused about how this “visiting” thing worked and what it meant.  I don’t know whether the senior visitor was considering moving to the west coast, or if she had research to do at our library and worked out a teaching gig to supplement her sabbatical pay, or what the deal was.

But to return to Ambrose Booker, my web search showed that he died more than five years ago, at a shockingly early age.  That is, at Sir John’s present age.  Sir John, I hasten to add, enjoys robust health.  All the same, it is a shock to a wife’s feelings to consider that men of her husband’s age can die of natural causes.  I was further surprised to find that Ambrose was still an academic, because in some previous fit of nostalgia—presumably more than five years ago—I had sought him online and in the MLA bibliography and found not a crumb.  But my conclusions were wrong.  He had taken a job at what we might as well call East Jesus Tech, in the sort of department that has one full professor of, it might be, Spanish, a couple of associates whose terminal degrees are in philosophy or rhetoric, a trio of assistant profs (at least one tenured assistant professor) in French, Japanese, and another humanities discipline of your choice, and a legion of instructors who may or may not hold terminal degrees.

In other words, the ass-end of nowhere.  The sort of job where the Chron fora divide between urging “Bloom where you are planted!” and “Leave academia; you can find other uses for your skills.”

He was chair there for most of his tenure.  He was beloved by students and colleagues, so the obituary assured me, and I believe it, because his students at my undergraduate institution adored him, even the ones who struggled with the esoteric topic of his course.  He was so enthusiastic, about the topic and about us.  It was in his class that I realized that I had a real talent for analyzing poetry, that I understood grammar better and more easily than most of my classmates; and yet this discovery, welcome though it was to both me and Ambrose, did not distance me from the other students, because he treated them with the same encouraging enthusiasm.  At the end of the semester, after grades were in, he took a group of us out to brunch, at the coffee shop where he did his grading, near the hotel where he lived that year.

He graded in a coffee shop!  He lived in a hotel!  Like Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre!  He was leading a Parisian life in a west coast city!  I can’t tell you what an exciting discovery that was.  He let us into his life, at least briefly; he showed us such amazing possibilities.  He was kind.  I was suffering from heartbreak, and he suggested that, as the world is full of circular journeys, my boyfriend might, in time, return.  He was intelligent: he had mastered his esoteric topic, he spoke several languages fluently, he had studied with Very Important People at his Ivy League school.  And he made us feel that we might do all these things as well, or at least, if we could not, we could warm our hands at his fire.

But what about that invisibility in the MLA bibliography?  I searched again.  I searched J-STOR.  I worked through any number of online bibliographies to which LRU’s library subscribes, and finally found his dissertation and a couple of book reviews.  I wondered if he had published in Europe, and somehow missed being picked up by Anglo-American bibliographies; but if that were the case, J-STOR still ought to pick up his name in footnotes, when other scholars reference his obscure writings.  So I think not.

As for that dissertation, my first thought was “WTF were your advisors thinking?”  It was a study of a trope in two authors of radically different periods, through a lens that might, perhaps, bring them together adequately; but I had to wonder if Ambrose had been playing the flâneur in graduate school until someone told him, “Take some of your seminar papers, write an introduction and conclusion that will tie them together, and we’ll give you a degree.  But you have to finish.”  There was no way it would make a workable book, and it didn’t even look to me as if the chapters would have worked well as stand-alone articles.  If that was where he was starting from, I’m not really surprised he didn’t publish.  Better just to start over.  I suppose what his advisors were thinking (this was, after all, more than 30 years ago), was “We are Big Names in the Big Leagues and of course our students will get jobs no matter what because of our Big Names.”

Maybe he really didn’t care about publishing.  Maybe all he wanted to do was teach and administer a humanities program.  I feel reasonably certain that he was happy, because he met the world with such enthusiasm.  He appeared to love it all.  At any rate, I hope that wasn’t just delight at being with us on the west coast, away from the eastern winter.  I hope he enjoyed his students and colleagues at East Jesus Tech, and opened up new worlds for his students there, and made his instructors feel like colleagues.  Maybe I’m a snob to wish that he’d managed to turn his lectures on his esoteric topic into at least an article, if not a book, so that there would be something written in which I could hear his voice again.  Maybe there are some other students of his who, like me, have become publishing academics; perhaps we are his legacy.  Or, who knows, he could have written a dozen well-received novels under a pseudonym.

I do know what he would say to me now, if he could still speak, because he said it to me during that long-ago spring, about another death: “Portez le deuil, mais ne le portez pas trop.”

Adieu, Ambrose.

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35 thoughts on ““Things which are not”

  1. That’s a very fascinating post. When I’m on my death bed, I expect I’ll be thinking a lot more about the people I’ve mentored and their successes and happiness than I will be counting publications.

  2. I want to like this post. I am always interested in memory, and in the way that people come into and out of our lives and leave traces they don’t know about. Plus, it is beautifully written.

    But honestly . . . I teach at an East Jesus State (how offensive!) in “the ass end of nowhere” (really?) and I haven’t published much, what with the 4/4 and the excessive service load, and the near-total absence of sabbaticals and money to support research. My academic career is not at all what I would have expected or what my adviser would have wished for me, though I usually like it well enough. But I assure you — when I die, I will not hope that one or two of my students along the way became “publishing academics” so that I have a “legacy.” I will look for my professional legacy in the enormous number of mostly first-generation, rural students who are worthy, valuable people in their own right, and who I had a hand in teaching.

  3. I went to a big name in my field. Not everybody who graduates has publishable dissertations. Those who don’t tend to go into business rather than academia. It isn’t a case of advisers saying, “our big names will get academic jobs” but “this student didn’t have a workable dissertation despite our advising, we will graduate him but we will not write letters for academic jobs.”

    1. This guy got all these VAPs and then a real job, and was apparently very well educated & a great teacher — not like the people one graduates just because of needing to keep our numbers up and so on.

      1. Nobody said he was either not well-educated or a great teacher. Nobody said he was graduated to keep his numbers up.

        DEH was blaming his professors for allowing him to graduate with an unpublishable dissertation, saying that she was sure that they were thinking, “We are Big Names in the Big Leagues and of course our students will get jobs no matter what because of our Big Names.”

        I was pointing out that Big Names can and do graduate people not because they think they will get jobs no matter what or because they even think they will get jobs in academia. People in the program I graduated from who don’t have publishable dissertations do very well for themselves outside of academia. The PhD program from which I graduated certainly does not need to keep its numbers up. But it does realize that teaching at a top 30 school is not something everybody needs to do after graduating.

      2. But N&M, you’re not in same field. I don’t mean to diss your PhD granting institution, and I am sorry if it sounded that way. My current institution does graduate people it knows will not get jobs, but we are, like, 3d tier. Where I studied, I don’t think anyone who graduated was not suited to an academic job and I am not aware of anyone who graduated but could not get letters. That would not have been well looked upon at ALL and I cannot imagine signing for someone and not writing them a letter unless they had done something really egregious (sexual harrassment, or something really bad academic) and we had discussed it

        BUT (unlike DEH) I am not sure the dissertation problem was the fault of the professors or the student. It sounds as though the program had certain rules and everyone was busy and this, given the rules (what courses you could take and so on, what fields you had to cover for exams) and the busy-ness of faculty, was the dissertation he could come up with.

        I have a very mild version of this problem myself, which is why I can see it or think I can … it is really not a problem of the student or the faculty, it has to do with programs and program rules, everyone caught in a vise.

      3. I do not know, but have reason to believe, that his advisors thought he was the cat’s pajamas. I also think that they were extremely short-sighted about the state of the field they were in, but that’s another kettle of worms.*

        *metaphor deliberately mixed.

  4. I’m with Veronica: I think being remembered as a good and beloved chair, especially at a small place where one can shape the institutional culture, is a far better and more meaningful legacy than publishing. (Now that I’m tenured, I’m going to say it straight out: My dissertation was a means to an end, and I haven’t the slightest interest in turning it into a book, even though I would have dutifully done so if I’d landed at a place that required a book for tenure. Such publishing as I’ve done has always been a means to an end. I accepted it as the price of getting a job and getting promoted, but I don’t find it inherently interesting or valuable, and I resent the time it takes away from the aspects of my job that I do value. For some reason, it’s socially acceptable to say this about service, but seldom about research; I feel lucky to have landed at a place — and yes, it’s an East Jesus sort of place — where the poles are flipped.)

  5. I think that there are far more people like Fretful than we admit. A fascinating study by the AHA found that most history Ph.Ds had published a couple of articles out of their dissertation, but not much more. People go to graduate school for many reasons, one of which is that they love their subject. If their professors haven’t killed that in grad school, what they want to do is share it and enjoy it.

    It’s possible (probable?) that what made Ambrose happy was sharing what he loved with students, and helping *each* of them discover their talents. After all, thirty years on Dame Eleanor remembers that voice, which is a great tribute to a teacher.

  6. What a nice tribute to the man and his voice. About publication: I knew academics from that generation who really did have the idea that inspiring teaching was the thing and that publication was a somehow lesser thing and indicative more of a big ego than of brains.

    It was like the old C. S. Lewis idea that publishing before you had spent 35 years on something was a very pushy, arriviste thing to do. It indicated that you were showy but not smart, and if you were in/of an Ivy, you would have been shunned because publishing showed you had no class. That attitude has so completely vanished that no one recalls it, but it did exist.

    1. Undine, that might have a lot to do with it. Ambrose Booker was only 15 years older than I, but it was a crucial 15 years during which there were seismic shifts in academic culture, and of course one’s advisors are almost always (and in this case, certainly were) of an even older generation. We all work under the influence of tradition.

      But it looks like I will write another post about voice and memory. None of my readers will ever hear Ambrose Booker’s voice, because he did not write. Or rather, he wrote proposals for his department, and memos, and comments on student papers, and syllabi. He wrote those, and they were useful, but such writing is like writing on sand.

      Of course teaching is valuable, but I would so gladly read an article of his, now, even though his field is not mine. I would like to see, in consultable form, what he had to say, and how he said it. I don’t remember his lectures, and (because?) I never took useful notes as an undergrad. I may well have assimilated something he said about poetry, but I can’t even attribute it, at this late date. All his scholarly knowledge died with him, and I see that as a loss to the field.

  7. For whatever reason, I can’t stop thinking about this post and the responses to it.

    I see a big difference between your initial post and your later comment. The later comment seems to be “I wish he’d written more, because he was so influential in my life,” which I have no problem with. The initial post seemed to lament that he pretty much wasted his life at East Jesus State because he didn’t publish.

    An analogy: My older sister is a tremendously gifted musician, despite the fact that she didn’t start studying music or playing her chosen instrument until late adolescence. As it is, she’s really, really good. I have often thought that if she had started at seven, instead of at seventeen, she would be absolutely world-class. But there is a big difference between saying “Wow, it would have been great if Margaret had started playing ten years earlier” and saying “Yes, the direction that her life took instead is of much less value.” Had she started earlier, she might have a global reputation. Now, nobody outside her city is likely to hear her play . . . but she has done other things that matter, and she has very real accomplishments in a career that she values.

    Unless you are Shakespeare, nearly all writing is writing on sand. Academic writing, in particular, usually has a small audience and a quick expiration date. You say that he was starting his career more than 30 years ago. If he had written three articles published in good journals between 1985 and 1990, how many people would have read them when they first came out? How many people would read them in an average year now? I can imagine someone writing a book who says “Huh, that article from 1990 is really very relevant to my topic. I’m glad I found it” but I find it much harder to imagine someone saying “My God! That article from 1990 changed my life!” I just don’t see that academic publishing can bear the weight of meaning that you seem to place on it.

    If I teach ten thousand students, few of them will remember me in fifty years. If I write a dozen academic books, they will be mostly forgotten in fifty years. If your professor left a legacy of students and colleagues who valued him while he was alive, and who remember him fondly after his death, I think that’s about as good as most people ever get..

    1. What I say is not necessarily what you hear: a truism in the classroom and elsewhere.

      As the introvert’s introvert, I don’t really understand wanting to be remembered fondly. I recognize that this is an oddity, especially in our current cultural climate, which seems to value feelings and warm fuzziness above all else.

      As a medievalist, I still regularly consult books and articles produced a century ago: those scholars are still contributing to the scholarly conversation. Their voices live.

    2. I haven’t published enough and I am becoming more and more aware that this means my best ideas, which do not get a very large audience in person, will die with me if I do not start publishing more.

      I am in modern literature but I regularly need to consult “old” work.

      This is not a criticism of the professor in question for not having published, or published more, etc. But it is a defense of the value of the written word.

    1. If I did that, I think I’d have to name names, and I’m reluctant to do so. Clearly there are things in this post that resonate very differently for other people, given my efforts to anonymize this man, and I’m sure it would make more sense and read more clearly if I wrote it about the real person, naming schools, advisors, and everything. But . . . reasons, which I will not go into. But you, Z, know the place, time, and even department, so you may understand some of the things I have muffled or left unsaid; you may have read into my silences already.

      If I shifted it around to be about the gaps between undergraduate and faculty perceptions, or about the difference 30 years make in academic culture, then . . . well, the first would be more about me, and the second would be more about the profession, and neither is really what I meant, though I did want to include elements of both.

      I am mourning a remarkable man. Though I had no contact with him for years, and though he died some time ago, I only found out last week. It’s a fresh loss after an autumn in which I wrote a lot of condolence notes. It’s funny, and in a weird way sort of appropriate, how this post turned out to be a sort of Rorschach test for readers. I wonder if people who recognized the title as a Donne quotation would find it easier to read as I intended.

      1. I don’t mean work it up for someplace like CHE. I mean work it up as a creative piece, where you would not have to reveal, or could explain in more detail but still not name names.

        I guess it is true, I recognized the title and I know the place, so although I did not try to figure out who it was I know the type and the situation and could read in, and I would have been *fascinated* to know this person, wish I knew him now.

        Still as a piece on him I think it would be great as a kind of short story or creative nonfiction piece.

        (Actually it reminds me of this LeGuin story I read in the NYer a few years ago, and that stuck with me: a mother whose daughter disappeared without a trace and for no apparent reason. It turns out she is alive and married and so on but the mother has to accept that the daughter for some reason needed to disappear like that and that it is or is not a reflection upon her, and has to mourn and in this case also mourn the fact that it may *not* be a reflection on her, i.e. that there is possibly nothing she could have done. Mourning, questions without answers, etc.; there is also the Borges story, “The Ethnographer,” about someone who refused to publish.)

  8. …and about East Jesus, etc., I suppose one could moderate expressions. I don’t know. I don’t find the discussion of where he ended up, what he did there, offensive.

    I don’t understand the people who are anti research or anti publication. I mean, I do: in my job, if I did not have this requirement, I could relax and put a lot more creativity into teaching and feel better. If I were that person. But if I were to give up scholarship and so on I could have just stayed home. One of my old TAs (a VAP equivalent) quit academia, stayed home, has a lucrative translation business and so on; she was a very good academic and making this decision was not a result of “failing” but of not wanting to play a certain game and move to “East Jesus” and so on.

    I did the whole PhD thing because I liked research and writing and a certain kind of teaching. There appears to exist a whole different kind of academic — the ones who like the kind of teaching I would only do if I decided to stay at home (in my home towns or state) and did not find something more exciting / more creative / more lucrative to do there. It seems that the academics like me and the differently teaching oriented academics really do not relate to each other at all.

    1. Indeed. I can believe that for some people, these things change, that someone really might discover (perhaps because of life changes, or just not having had much teaching experience in a top grad program) that they found teaching far more fulfilling than they had expected. I like teaching, but it is a job, and research and writing are what I love and why I went into this. I probably would have taken any job, when I was on the market, but I also think that when I was 30ish I had a much more optimistic view of my abilities to adapt to different places and conditions. As I age, I have recognized my limitations, and I hope I would have left the profession if I had had to take a job less congenial than I have found LRU, or in a place that I found more difficult to live than I find my current area. And I know you’d like to be here. But this is sort of what I mean: this is the sort of place people warned us against, when it’s fine, but they really couldn’t imagine anything like where you wound up.

  9. I would be curious to know whether that guy really were one of those who do not want to write. But I have now understood the profile of the non writer: they want to do different kinds of professional development and develop a super broad range of courses, etc., and do this in a 4-year venue, I get it.

    My illumination is that it is not a problem with the professors but with the institutions and the situation: in current market it is hard to get matched up with the kind of place you want, and institutions themselves keep changing so unless one is in someplace so established it doesn’t, the ground keeps shifting. So I take my comment about going CC back. If I were a non writer type and were here and the institution had not shifted to want writer types, then I and the institution would be happy. But as it is, the reality they have to offer is for non writer types, yet the desires they have are for writer types and that is who they hire, as well. Thence the malaise.

    Then there is my friend who should be at a SLAC but does not know it, because is indoctrinated to feel shame at anything but an R1, and also does not want SLAC teaching assignment, and really does like research and intellectual activity but is not writer type. This is the argument for those clinical TT lines, one such would have been very desirable.

    Then there is the problem of the dissertation directors and so on saying one should go anywhere (or, alternatively, only go to R1s) when they do not know what they are talking about, really, in terms of material reality. It comes down I think to a lot of blindness and also a lot of pressure on both people and institutions to be in certain ways. But my insight for the evening is now the demands on institutions translate to demands on individuals that make it such that few fit where they can get.

    1. I think you’re right about the various pressures, contradictions, and cognitive dissonances that go on, now. I’m still wondering about the past, and my professor. He was capable of very abstract, theoretical, exploratory writing (ex. the dissertation), and it seems odd to me (a very concrete thinker, admittedly) that if you could do that, you would not want to do that. I mean, I tend to assume that the ability to do that kind of work is both so rare and so prized in his field that it would go with an enjoyment of that work. But maybe not. Maybe he was so extroverted that he preferred the energy he got from the classroom and service. Maybe he looked at the Big Guns and for whatever reason, didn’t want to be like them. I can imagine him trying to turn that weird diss into articles, getting rejected, getting discouraged; but I can also imagine him simply wanting to live the intellectual life, with sparkling dinner parties conducted in French or Italian, and never mind the daily slog of wrestling with writing. I think I have written somewhere about finding that the much-admired professor-parents of friends of mine had published far less than I have; they put their energies into the life (including child-rearing, of course), not the work. But the times were definitely different then. Life over work could be a viable choice. I guess part of what surprises me is that, apparently, it is still (or was, for Ambrose) a viable choice. I didn’t think there was anywhere left that would give you tenure without some publication.

      1. Oh, there are all kinds of places in fourth tier. He worked somewhere where just having a genuine PhD from a good place was like having a good publication record. Life over work was definitely a possibility then at that kind of place, and now, or, the world looks so different that research seems not real. My research does not seem real here and it is why I want to go into another field so research can seem real. (Not so much now because I have a student working on a project and I am in touch with research colleagues, but during certain long periods…!) Also really, really obscure publications, publications not indexed by MLA and so on, can count at these places. Even here, I remember the peer review committee not understanding why I thought someone’s piece in MLN or Romance Quarterly deserved more points than something in a little regional journal or something in a textbook. We seemed to have *just* arrived at the importance of peer review and the non viability of self publishing, from the way people talked.

  10. I am old enough to have been trained by people whose world was just shifting from “letters from X will get you a job”. My first job was at a place where a colleague told me that you got tenure and a hobby, but while I was there, it shifted to a place where the hobby couldn’t come till you made full professor. (There were a lot of unhappy associates there.). So the whole question of time and generation is really important.

    As I read Dame Eleanor’s comment that maybe he wanted to just live the intellectual life, I was reminded of one of my most brilliant colleagues at my previous institution – I don’t think she ever wrote for publication, but she read, and read, and made her students really think. Knowing her reminded me that all the time I’m writing is time I’m not reading…. And while I think trying to do your own writing helps in teaching, she made me realize it’s not necessary. I’ve also known people who found that the writing they did for the PhD was an elegant game, which they could do well, but it disconnected them from what they loved about their subject. So I can certainly imagine that Ambrose chose his life.

    1. Yes, this is especially true about reading. If you want to be a generalist, or want to be an intellectual and not a mere technician, and you have a high teaching load, I can certainly see choosing reading over writing. (It is effectively what I do many semesters, although I do not like it, I try to write and try to suppress reading and nothing works well. Choosing reading actively is a valuable strategy. I also think it might be true, contra what writing advice says, that if you are teaching 3 or 4 courses you should not try to write, just try to read and take notes and not get too exhausted or discouraged, so you can do writing blitzes at Christmas and in summer. I am not sure.

      1. Long ago, I think before she moved to the Chron, Tenured Radical had a post called “What would Paul Fussell do?” and his strategy, apparently, was exactly that: read and take notes during the school year, and write all summer. It makes sense. The reading supports the teaching (at least ideally), and you have time to think and assimilate (hopefully), and then you focus on writing all the time when the decks are clear. I do think history and literature are so different from psychology (where much of the academic advice about writing comes from) that the successful techniques can also be very different.

  11. On writing, I don’t know if you follow Tanya Golash-Boza at all (blogs as an advisor at Getalife PhD but is also someone I know from professional venues and not just as a blogger). She is in sociology and is one of those write daily advocates, but she counts all writing as writing. Like grant proposals, and I want to say letters of recommendation although I don’t know whether she really goes that far. Before I got caught in the writing advice neurosis (and when I really got a lot of writing done), I did not think in terms of writing time, I thought in terms of research time, which included writing. I militantly protected and used research time, and writing came naturally from that. And then of course, if I was writing up a document, I did have my one page a day rule.

    Apparently the old Harvard plan was a book review a week, an article a month, and a book a year. Book reviews fed into articles that fed into books. I am trying to remember — I think I used to read an article a night, 4 nights a week, and spend part of Saturday looking for books, and most of Sunday reading the books and writing a page or two. This would get me quite a bit, it added up fast, I guess because some weekends I got more than a page or two written. But it all has to do with having some sort of continuity; what the exact form of the continuity is appears to matter less.

    1. Oh, I’ll have to ask Tanya (a colleague) about this… But like you I find it more useful to think about staying connected than necessarily writing every day. I write emails, memos, etc all the time. It’s thinking about the research project that needs continuity.

      When I was a grad student in the late 70s, most faculty did serious writing in vacations – in term time you could write reviews, or polish drafts, but not think well. Or so I was told.

      1. Yes. And I think it is actually a better idea. Although I have been known to do serious writing in term time, and although many swear by it.

  12. P.S. meant to say: I think the taking notes on reading is something that would count as writing, or writing drafts, on the Golash-Boza theory. So reading and taking notes would not be not writing.

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