Thursday, April 29, 2010

Farewell to College Station

Earlier today, after twenty years on campus, I taught my last two classes at Texas A&M University. My emotions are mixed. Much of the bad feeling that I am left with is the inevitable residuum of having served a long stretch in a state institution. And there have been the usual disappointments that accompany any academic career, to say nothing of the special challenges faced by an eclectic humanist (who respects authors, intention, and value) in an academic discipline that prefers to read literature—all of human experience—through the prism of race, class, and gender.

But this evening I am thinking of the human relationships that will be lost. When a colleague who daily gave him the cut direct decided to leave North­western, Joseph Epstein said to me, “I shall miss not talking to him.” I too have had such colleagues, including those who will not even return a greeting when I am walking with students. Unlike Epstein, though, I never learned to enjoy the collegial chill, especially since there was no obvious reason for it besides political differences.

Although I will be escaping out from under the history of my relations with certain colleagues, I will also leave behind friends with whom I have shared many hours of intense discussion or relaxed conversation. There are a few men and women in the English department, most of whom are religious in one way or another, who seek out the expression of the past and practice what Pnin called “disinterested, devoted scholarship.” We sometimes felt ourselves under siege in College Station—a humanistic rump in an old technical college that has largely become a vocational school, where students know you by your grading standards, and pressed on the other side by the eager young colleague who is convinced that the novelties to which he subscribes will reign forever—our “bright replace­ment, present-minded,” in Nemerov’s words, who never

                                                              grieves
For the silly old scholar of the bad old days,
Who’d burn the papers and correct the leaves.
I won’t miss the hour-and-a-half drive from Houston to College Station, except in spring when Texas becomes the most beautiful place in the world, temperate and sunny, and garlanded with wildflowers. As the bluebonnets and Mexican hat begin to yield to the prickly poppies and the small white sweet-smelling blossoms of the ligustrum, spring is nearly ready to give way to summer. And Lord knows that I will not miss the Texas summers.

But what I will miss, far more than anything else, are the Aggies. They endure many jokes at their expense as if they were the Polacks of the academic world. Even Larry McMurtry, in Moving On, could not resist a crack about an Aggie and his tractor. Aggies are badly misunderstood, however. It is true they are not sophisticated, and it is true they are overwhelmingly Evangelical Christian and politically conservative, although the administration has done everything in its power to alter the makeup of the student body and bring A&M into conformity with every other unexceptionally Leftist university in the country. Aggies remain unique, proudly different.

My favorite story, to demonstrate what the Aggies are really like under their traditions of school spirit (“Gig ’em, Ags!”), concerns a student in a course on the history of criticism. He was an agriculture major, finishing off his humanities requirement with a class that fit his schedule. He wore a faded and oil-stained A&M cap to class—it was brown that once had been maroon—and always appeared with a toothpick in his mouth, as if daring you to see him otherwise than as a hick. He spoke with a drawl, of course, and one day in class I asked why Sir Philip Sidney advances two different and contradictory apologies for poetry in the Apologie for Poetry—on the one hand, that “the right describing note to know a poet by” is “that feigning notable images of virtues, vices, or what else, with that delightful teaching”; on the other hand, that the poet “nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth.” (He does not affirm the virtues that he teaches?)

I asked the class how this apparent contradiction was to be reconciled. The Ag raised his hand lazily, took the tooth­pick out of his mouth, and said, “Well, he is really talking to two different audiences, who expect two different answers.” “That is exactly right,” I said; “brilliant!” And instead of pride, a look of horror spread across the Ag’s face as if suddenly the safe future he had planned for himself, as a West Texas rancher, had been called into question by the realization that he was intellectually equipped to handle old and sophisticated literary ideas. Although he never forgave me, he became the leader of class discussions from that point on.

Again and again I have had such experiences in A&M classrooms—a Cadet who refutes my lecture by citing evidence from the text that contradicts me, a student who undertakes, all on her own, without expecting to receive a grade for it, independent research into the historical background to Lolita, the NFL player who returns to school after his pro career is over, because he realizes that he was cheated out of an education while he played football for the university; or the young woman who ended my last class at A&M by asking, if an Orthodox Jew could not touch a woman who is not his wife, how she was supposed to hug me in thanks for our course together. I was more deeply moved by her respect for my religious prohibitions than by her misplaced esteem. Only an Aggie would think to say such a thing.

I will miss her, and all of them. God bless you, Ags! Gig ’em!

15 comments:

Jonathan said...

Dr. Meyers,

Congratulations!

The very best wishes for what lies ahead.

Sincerely,

Lee said...

Wherever you are going from here, I'm certain it will include reading and writing. May there be as much satisfaction in this next stage for you as there is sure to be for us, your readers.

Thank you for blogging.

Steven Riddle said...

Dear Mr. Myers,

Beautiful, thank you for sharing from the wealth of experiences you have had.

And, if they are in order, congratulations on a well-earned respite before the next phase of your career.

shalom,

Steven

R. T. said...

Ah, to leave behind the difficulties of life within the tensions of a university's English department is one thing (often dreamed of), but to leave the students is quite another thing (a painful parting, to be sure).

I think I understand some of your feelings. As for myself, I cannot yet tear myself away from the experience with the students though I chafe at the bit within the university structure during every semester, swearing each will be my last.

Finally, David, I hope your students read your posting. They will then realize something important about having encountered a great and sensitive teacher.

In my earlier career as a naval officer, the Navy had a wish for departing/retiring shipmates:

May you have nothing but fair winds and following seas. God bless you.

Please, keep in touch. You have my email.

D. G. Myers said...

Tim,

I am not leaving teaching, just A&M. And besides, A Commonplace Blog is not going anywhere.

Kevin said...

Congratulations!

I hope this means you now have time to lead a close reading of Sabbath's Theater, or some other choice, here at Commonplace.

Best,

panavia999 said...

These days, is there anywhere else but academia -that so called bastion of tolerance and diversity - where a person will receive the "cut direct"? (Maybe a strict church congregation, but conformity is expected there.)
Oh, the irony!
Best of luck in your next venture.
PS: Much as I enjoy an affectionate hug, there is too much casual hugging these days. Whatever happened to a nice old fashioned handshake? I always shake hands when introduced to someone. Not a problem with men, but I find other women are baffled. It used to be that everyone shook hands, it's becoming a lost art.
As for the female student: it's not the hug, but the kind words that count.

Jonathan said...

Aren't you going to give us a hint so we can prepare as well?

Rose City Reader said...

Best wishes to you. I am glad to see that the blog will remain.

Blaiser said...

DG,

Thank you for shedding light on the sensitive side of the Aggie. I spent a whirlwind 2 days at A&M in the winter of '92-'93, on tour with a dance company, and it (they) scared the crap out of me. The Cadet presenting flowers during our curtain call got more applause than the International Ballet Superstar we were trouping....

Congratulations on your retirement (my folks are both retired English Profs. from a state school. I'm jealous of the lifestyle!) and I will certainly be reading your blog more.

D. G. Myers said...

Just to be clear: I am not retiring.

Hallie said...

you are the best professor I ever had, and the only one i ever took twice. THANK YOU deeply and gig 'em.
Hallie Easley, class of '05

Leslie Janac said...

Dr. Meyers,

I doubt you will remember me (my name was Leslie Pourteau when I was a grad student), but you taught me to be a better teacher. I learned to listen to my students and to encourage them to develop their own ideas, as you encouraged me. You taught me that it was okay to disagree with my professors, or at least with certain professors, and that it was a teacher's job to push a student beyond the obvious answers. You taught me to step out from behind the podium and to connect with my students.

I mourn for the A&M graduate students who will not have the chance to learn the lessons I learned from you. But, as is written in Ecclesiastes 3, "There is a time for everything,... a time to plant and a time to uproot."

Best wishes!

Barbara Lee said...

Dear Dr. Myers,

Oh how I wish I could have been your pupil. With that privilege denied me, this blog is second best. Thank you.

And all good wishes for even greater success and satisfaction in your future.

Kyle Owens said...

Your 20th century American novel class was the best class i have ever taken regardless of subject. You were definitely the type of professor i had always wanted, someone who encouraged thought rather than memorization/regurgitation. I was so dissapointed when i couldn't take your Nabokov class, the last two semesters i have made a point to see what you were teaching.
Before i took your class i had become bored with what i was reading, but you reinvigorated my interest in literature.

thank you!