Measures of Success
I only saw her out of the corner of my eye as I rushed into the book exhibit at the conference, but I was sure I knew her. Her face registered as out of context, somehow, but familiar. A second later, I realized it was one of my students, a recent English-major graduate of the liberal arts college at which I teach. I stopped, turned around and called to her.
She was pleased to see me. She’s a marketing assistant for a major academic publishing house, it turns out. I could tell she was proud of her job, pushing English composition and literature texts to English professors like me. We arranged to meet for dinner the next day, two professionals on a business trip.
I stopped by the marketing assistant’s exhibit while she was out at lunch, and her colleagues were anxious to find out how she had been in my classes. "She must have been a great student, huh?" one of her colleagues prompted me. Hmm. She had been solid, reliable, a good writer, and she always had something interesting to say in class, but the marketing assistant had not been one of our stars. Still, none of our stars of recent years had jobs like hers, working with literature.
Clearly her co-workers loved her. They spoke very fondly of her, and, indeed, she seemed to be very good at her job. What I hadn’t noticed in the classroom was the key quality that was working for the marketing assistant in the world after college: not her knowledge of literature but her skills with people. This I discovered very quickly the next evening at dinner.
I had already had a date for dinner that night with a friend of mine, a fiction writer, so I asked the marketing assistant if I could bring him along. "Sure," she said. "I can expense it. I’m just taking two English professors out." A new verb for me: to expense. I liked it.
She quickly took charge of the expedition, finding good restaurants and putting her name on the waiting list of one while we searched for another (Why had I never thought of that? I guess it’s not really cheating).
The marketing assistant had always been ready with an answer in class, but we’d never actually talked much about anything other than Victorian literature. Turns out she’s pretty funny, and very professional. She told great stories, often at the expense of some poor academic schmuck who stopped by her booth, intent on pitching his or her latest project. I felt sorry for the folks she described, but not because she mocked them -- she didn’t; she described them quite affectionately, as if she knew they couldn’t help themselves. The fiction writer and I shook our heads with her when she described the guy whose project was so impossibly narrow that no academic press would ever publish it. We chuckled along, though less heartily, when she wondered aloud at the fashion sense of the professoriate.
"When you look around the gate at the airport, you can always tell who’s going to the same conference you are," the marketing assistant said. Of course, we could, too, and the fiction writer and I had already had that obligatory conversation, this being his first professional conference. But it was different hearing it from the perspective of the marketing assistant. After all, as a friend of mine said ruefully, gazing around the lobby of one of the convention hotels a few years ago, “These are my people.”
When the marketing assistant got to the social skills of professors, we felt ourselves on relatively safe ground. Fiction writer has a fabulous, wry sense of humor and is good to have at parties, and I have always prided myself on being able to talk to anybody. We are not nerdy bookworms -- we both went to our proms. I snickered at her description of awkward social interactions she’d observed between academics. “It’s amazing you guys found people to get hooked up with,” she declared good-naturedly -- in her eyes we were no different from the guy we had just seen mumbling to himself as he wandered through the book exhibit. Maybe we weren’t. Maybe these really were our people.
They weren’t her people; that’s for sure. The marketing assistant had perspective on our folk that we clearly didn’t have. And that made it really fun to talk to her. I enjoyed seeing her in her professional persona. I was proud of her, glad one of our grads seemed to be heading for a successful career in publishing. But seeing her made me realize that I may not be the best assessor of my students’ skills.
Although the marketing assistant is great at her job, I would not have been able to predict that. When I look at my students, I realize, I have always concentrated on particular skills that are not necessarily the ones that will serve them best after college. Who writes the best? Whose research is most thorough? Whose reading of the novel is the most subtle? Not the most marketable skills, though they will get you into graduate school.
The marketing assistant is the same young woman she was when she was in my classroom. But much of her incisive observation, her wit, her distanced assessment and clever summing-up had passed me by when she was in college. What a letter of recommendation I could write for her now. Of course, she doesn’t need it now. She’s already moved on.
Paula Krebs is professor of English at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts.