Twenty years ago today, I received my first humiliating sign that I really didn’t belong in academia. Given that I now have two graduate degrees and an adjunct teaching position, I clearly have yet to follow that sign, alas.
I’d scampered quickly through my undergraduate degree at the University of Florida, attending over the summers to minimize how much I’d have to pay in room and board. So when I started graduate school (also at UF), I was the youngest person in my first class, an Emily Dickinson seminar: twenty-one.
(Nowadays, it is far more common for there to be people that young in grad school, hiding from life. I like to think I helped started that trend back in 1995.)
I felt that youth acutely because during our class introductions, the other students had been teaching abroad or publishing poetry or otherwise doing cool things, and I was a terrified introvert who’d spent his entire academic career avoiding other human beings in the library like a Lovecraft protagonist.
The class went well, though; I loved Emily Dickinson and I loved the old-school literary scholarship my professor encouraged, actually reading letters and researching biography and understanding origins and context. At the end of class, we had a presentation for our research, and I was terrified.
For good reason, it turned out. On April 21, 1995, I walked to the front of the classroom with a little packet of index cards, ready to discuss what I’d discovered. I was literally sick in the bathroom all that morning, and I’m pretty sure my hands were shaking.
A key to my discussion was the theory of Friedrich von Schiller that great art is an interplay between two drives, stofftrieb (the intuitive and emotional) and formtrieb (the structural and logical) resulting in spieltrieb, a kind of artistic play. So I walked up to the board and wrote:
There were a few chuckles from the class and my professor raised his hand. He pointed out that I’d transposed the E and the I in both words.
(In my defense, those are both words in the horrible language of German. Or as I like to call it, Klingon.)
Now, any normal person with social ability would have laughed and made a joke about being nervous while correcting the spelling. Not me. I doubled down, insisting that my sources spelled them that way. I know, I know.
I was flustered then, and the index cards got scrambled in my hands. I forgot the cogent argument I’d structured and was left to stammer and glance around the room like a cornered raccoon.
According to later reports, what happened next was that I set down the index cards and lurched out from behind the podium among the desks to pace around the room and deliver a comedy routine about Emily Dickinson scholarship. I don’t remember it at all, which is probably good. I drove home that afternoon thinking that my academic career was over.
The next day, I visited my professor in his office and asked if there was any way I could make up for the disaster.
“Disaster?” he said. “That was the best presentation I’ve ever seen! You shouldn’t be in academics. You should entertain people for a living.”
And I sort of followed his advice: that was my last semester at UF while I meandered through a teaching certification, followed by a whole host of other egregious errors in judgment both personal and professional. Plus I started writing stories more seriously.
I later went back (though to UNF) for my Master of Arts, and then I earned an MFA from Stonecoast. What can I say? I like taking classes.
Now I teach creative writing to undergraduates in a manner not much unlike that botched lecture long ago: I ramble a deranged comedy routine about some writing concept and then skulk away at the end.
I guess I still haven’t taken the signs.