Today I had lunch and a long walk with my best friend from graduate school, after twelve years of not being in touch.
I met Sara when I visited Michigan for the first time. The University of Michigan English department offered an expenses-paid welcome week for students who had been accepted into the PhD program. It was a long way to travel during the middle of the semester (I was a senior at Berkeley), but my roommates and I were in a giant, blowout fight and I was looking for any reason to get out of the apartment. So I went. It was good I did, because that trip convinced me to go to Michigan.
One thing that happened on the trip was I met Sara, and we hit it off instantly. We were were in very different areas of study (she was in early modern, i.e. Renaissance, while I was in twentieth century and literary theory), but we had so much in common. Both of us were nerds who hung out with partiers, the kind of students who might go out drinking all night with their friends on Friday but skip the next night, because we had to finish all our reading for Monday. We were both sweet, good-girl types who also had some pretty serious authority issues.
We used to get together and study after our classes. I remember she was such a fast reader, while I read slowly; it used to make me crazy jealous. We would drink pots of coffee and she would smoke cigarettes and we would complain about the system. The system of graduate school. It was a hierarchy, a patriarchal hierarchy, and they couldn’t even see it, man. How could they be so oblivious to the irony, all this critique of convention and arbitrary systems of value, and yet, look around. Didn’t they notice that if you wanted to write about James Joyce, you had to hang out with that one young, hip professor who was the Joycean, and that you also had to be young, hip, male? Didn’t they hear how dismissive they sounded when they talked about undergraduates? How could these Marxists not notice the way they told you not to write about what interested you, but what was the most marketable? Wasn’t their hypocrisy so, so, so obvious?
We both ended up dropping out in different ways. She left with her Master’s and got a teaching degree, ending up as a high-school principal. I finished my PhD but then got into community college teaching (which the layperson might not realize is not an acceptable job for someone with a PhD from a research university). Once she left my department, our schedules became really different, and it was hard to get together as much, and then we both moved away. We haven’t really been in touch until a few months ago.
Today we met up in San Francisco, where she was visiting for her job. We had tea and lunch, took a long walk down Market Street to the water, talked about our lives and our jobs and education. She told me how she is spearheading a new, more creative curriculum for her school, and I told her about the conference I’ll be presenting at next week on how my department accelerated our low-placing students into a higher-level class. She told me about a book that supports my presentation.
I always love talking to educators. That’s one reason I became a teacher (and why I call myself a teacher or instructor rather than a professor): because I love teachers, and I wanted to really like the people I worked with. And I do. I currently teach in a department that is more like a family than a workplace, with colleagues who are pretty much geniuses at instructing and inspiring budding writers. They never act like we are above our students, a few notches higher in a hierarchal system. All they care about is giving those students the best possible learning experience, so they can become our doctors and accountants and firefighters and car mechanics some day.
I think Sara and I both know we were spoiled to get a free education, funded by fellowships and teaching positions, and to have access to the brilliant scholars who were our professors. But we also both knew, when we left, that there was no point sticking around research universities being annoyed and talking shit. Still, we did do a little shit-talking today, just a little, about how glad we are to be out of a profession that, for us, just didn’t get it, and into a profession that really, really does.