Though there was an 18 month gap after graduate school when I worked as a journalist, I have been a teacher from 1979 until four days ago. I resigned my 27 year professorship at Clarkson 18 months earlier than I had intended because of ill-health. It’s hard to generalize about such a long & varied period, but I think I can fairly say that I gave good value for the investments, intellectual & economic, students dedicated to my classes. There were plenty of days starting out that I didn’t know what I was doing, but that never stopped me from being . . . enthusiastic.
I was probably never the best teacher in my department–I never won a teaching award–but I always received among the highest teaching evaluation scores from students. (Maybe I was just “easy,” but I don’t think that’s the reason.) Early in my career, when colleagues made required visits to my classes from time to time, they always wrote me up in glowing terms. (And at Clarkson, where I spent 27 years, those visits were performed by teams of two in order to avoid eccentricity or bias.) I never worked particularly hard to make my students like me, though I think most of them who gave the matter any thought would have said I was personable & friendly. What I cared about was the subject of the day & trying to figure out ways to make undergraduates engage with it. Certainly, I failed more often than I succeeded, statistically; but in any given class on any given day, there must have been one or two who latched onto something I presented. (“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” –Beckett) One or two who took delight in a poem or an idea I introduced.
I started out as a graduate TA my second year in the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. This appointment was competitive & coveted & was given to me based, I was told later, on my generally enthusiastic approach to grad school, even in the IWW hothouse. I didn’t wilt because I was oblivious to all the politics going on around me–at least at first. My first big clue was figuring out how important it was to go to all the parties, but even there I mostly just got drunk & shouted about poetry.
I was probably hungover for some of those class sessions & I began my long battle with grading & returning papers on time. I was barely older than many of my students & I remember fending off a couple of women in the spring semester, though this was in the days before strict ethical guidelines regarding such things. I also remember having to lean against the chalk rail & hang on with both hands on the first day I walked into a classroom because my knees were trembling so, though I soon became comfortable in front of the classroom & developed what would become, with variations, my basic mode of instruction for the next forty years: 1. look at a chunk of text, then 2. asking the students questions about the selection while trying to demonstrate ways of reading. I usually had some idea of where I wanted to go & in the early days had some notes of things to work toward.
It didn’t take long for me to give up on notes except when the material was new to me, or particularly complex. I became an adept improviser around themes from the text. This had to turn into something more like ensemble playing in creative writing workshops, though I think I tended to solo too much in that configuration. I almost always felt pregnant befor a class, with a great desire to give birth. The metaphor is perhaps not quite right. I wanted to make the class pregnant with me so that we could all give birth together, each walking out of the room after an hour with our own squalling babe in arms. Ideally, the babe in arms would soon begin asking its own questions of the student–and of me.
After getting my MFA in Iowa I returned to Seattle, where I had been an undergraduate & where most of my friends were. I applied to the PhD program in Lit at the UW and was accepted, though without any financial support, but wound up not pursuing the degree. I worked for a while as a journalist on an alternative paper, then got an offer of an adjunct teaching gig at Western Washington University in Bellingham, which I accepted . . . enthusiastically & prepared to move north. Both before & after this job, I remember being broke all the time & the grinding effect that has on one’s life. I really began dealing with severe bouts of anxiety around this time.
Friends & my own writing pulled me through, usually, because I’d given up my old friend alcohol, even attending AA meetings. At Bellingham, I met two people who had a powerful effect on my life, one of them famous even then, the other obscure, even now. Annie Dillard was very encouraging about my writing & treated me like a colleague even when the regular department faculty (with a few exceptions) treated me like a serf. And the philosopher / writer Stan Hodson (along with his wife Victoria) taught me to juggle–literally & with ideas. We were in a comic play performance group together, but mostly they just invited me & my then girlfriend to hang out at their house & talk. We talked endlessly about literature & philosophy & teaching & since Stan had read everything, this was better than any PhD program could have been. And the food was better. Seems like we were always eating. Still suffering from anxiety attacks, what I remember most vividly from those two years is gales of laughter. I think I began to come into my own as a teacher near the end of this period, but the pay was so awful I began to look around for a better job.
I should say that it was during those two years in Bellingham that I began to consolidate my personality as a poet–this was, indeed, my post-graduate period of synthesis. A happy, nervous time–and also the time I met my partner Carole, who is out there in the kitchen right now, cleaning up after bringing her semi-invalid husband his morning coffee in bed. How far we have come. [To be continued . . . ]