Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Moving Bones

This is a confession.

For years, particularly after my beloved mentor's death in December of '06, I would remember with a certain amount of regret the pained look on his face at my rationale for not attending grad school.

I owe the writer I am today in no small part to Dr. Dan Leidig, a great bear of a man, a gentle poet, apparently a firebrand in younger years who could still summon frightening flames from his depths for deserving, callow youths like myself in his later years.

To say he was my faculty advisor is to give short shrift to his influence on my life. He was extraordinarily insightful, yet concise, two qualities often in conflict--and here I think of another professor I had who was very insightful, but preferred the longer road. Worth the trip, too.

As my friend and advisor, however, it was Dr. Leidig who took the boy nicknamed Trouble and instilled in him the worthiness of the writing life, the joy to be experienced in discussing and dissecting the higher ideas which are the terra firma any writer worth his or her weight touches upon during a career engulfed by something as ephemeral as the written word. The ideas are the weight our words, even in their most banal moments, are tasked to bear.

I don't recall ever referring to Dr. Leidig as "Dan." Unlike other professors, he never allowed his status as teacher to defer, guardian of the flame of higher learning that he was. He saw no greater calling than the life of the mind and teaching it, and to that end he constantly urged me toward graduate school and the life of a professor--how he adored the root of that word, one professing, evangelizing.

For a long time I've questioned my decision, and thought much about the words I chose to let him know. Having given a hard look at grad school, with its emphasis on the study of literary criticism in place of literature itself, I couldn't bring myself to acquiesce, or--as I so callously put it--"to move bones from one pile to another."

So, I link to this article in The Chronicle of Higher Education with reluctance, not simply because the articles phase out and can't be accessed without a subscription, but because I definitely do not want to sound as if I am, in any way, crowing. My decision to not pursue grad school was, in large part, made by my decision to travel and see a world that I had been isolated from for all my life.

In 1987, however, this is how I saw grad school:

"For decades the performative [critical] model obscured a situation that should have been recognized at the time: Vast areas of the humanities had reached a saturation point. Hundreds of literary works have undergone introduction, summation, and analysis many times over. Hamlet alone received 1,824 items of attention from 1950 to 1985, and then 2,406 from 1986 to 2008. What else was to be said? Defenders of the endeavor may claim that innovations in literary studies like ecocriticism and trauma theory have compelled reinterpretations of works, but while the advent of, say, queer theory opened the works to new insights, such developments don't come close to justifying the degree of productivity that followed."

The thrust of the article is that, in the face of this saturation, the importance of publishing yet another Marxofeministicodependentontological interpretation of The Purloined Letter has come at the cost of some very crucial interaction:

"Their [first-year students'] engagement with instructors outside of class is similarly tenuous. On the 2008 National Survey of Student Engagement, 38 percent of first-year students 'never' discussed ideas from readings or classes, and 39 percent did so only 'sometimes.'
[. . .]Asked about quality of relationships with faculty members, 78 percent of first-year students on the student-engagement survey graded their instructors 5 or higher on a scale of 1 to 7 (65 percent of respondents in the first-year survey answered "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with the amount of faculty-student contact). In other words, they liked their professors, they felt comfortable with them, but they didn't much care to spend time discussing books and ideas with them. They didn't realize that an essential part of higher education takes place in conversation, in face time with professors, in the give-and-take of one-on-one discussion."

See, I have no room for "I told you so." Along the way the way was lost, the center did not hold, the professor became the profession. As much as he loved language, Dr. Leidig loved his students more, and a world in which professors and students did not interact was not a world with which he was familiar. To his credit, and others at E&H, it was not a world with which I was familiar. It was in fact, and in spite of Dr. Leidig's demarcations, an alien thought. How could one teach with the office door perpetually closed, with the life of the mind supplanted by the life of the party?

To this day I have a scrap of paper he paperclipped to a term paper of mine he admired. Written in pencil in his neat cursive is this quote from E. B. White's Once and Future King: "Run, boy, run!" I've always thought of it as an encouragement. Crafty old man.

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