Susan Gubar – who is retiring after a remarkable career as a teacher and writer in literature and women's studies -- was my teacher. At first glance, the claim might seem thin or self-aggrandizing, the evidence in support of it accurate but scant. I took just one class with Gubar, an undergraduate seminar at Indiana University in the fall of 1980. Three credits out of the 120 or so I earned for my bachelor’s degree. Fifteen weeks out of a student life that lasted nearly a quarter of a century.
So, no, I never took a graduate course with her, never experienced the peculiar intensity and intimacy of a dozen brilliant brats hammering away at big ideas and hoping to earn an approving "smart, very smart" from a demanding professor who delighted in the give-and-take of the seminar table. She did not chair my qualifying exam or direct my doctoral dissertation. She never tore my rough drafts to shreds, exhorting me to read more, think harder, or write more clearly. I never stayed up late grading papers for one of her lecture courses, never faced the terror of speaking in one of those big halls myself in front of one of the most dynamic lecturers in the history of teaching. I never ran to the library to track down a reference for an article she was writing, never house-sat for her, never sat through a mock interview with her in preparation for the job market. I did not teach her to quilt.
I took one class with her, and all I can say is that 30 years later I still give the class and the teacher credit for changing the course of my life. I don’t give Susan all the credit. At 21, I was ready to be inspired and transformed, to find the personal and professional paths I was meant to walk and take my first tentative steps on them, though that cheesy path metaphor makes me sound more like a Victorian heroine than the naïve and unkempt baby dyke I was at the time. In any case, I credit Susan with recognizing what was happening for me and doing everything she could to assure that the moment bore fruit.
What did that mean, in concrete terms? Well, for starters, it meant she didn’t toss me out of her office one autumn afternoon when I burst in without an appointment, pointed at her, and impetuously declared, "I want to do what you do." She sat me down, listened to me, talked to me about what realizing such an ambition would actually involve, and patiently guided me through the steps it would take to get into graduate school. She told me what schools to apply to, carefully read my personal statement, wrote in support of my application, and helped me make a decision when it came time to weigh admissions offers, including a fine one from her own department.
"Go East," she said, because she knew it would be professionally advantageous to have my advanced degrees from an institution other than my undergraduate one. I suspect she also thought it would be good for me to get out of my native state. I took her advice and landed at Rutgers in the fall of 1981, a golden moment when the English department was just beginning to recruit students to come work with the pioneering feminist critics who were there at the time, including Alicia Ostriker, Elaine Showalter, and Catharine Stimpson.
End of story, right? No big deal, eh? It’s the kind of thing we do for our students all the time. Maybe, maybe not.
This is partly a story about luck and good timing, but it is also a story about the structural conditions of public higher education, conditions that have changed significantly since my undergraduate days. I stumbled into Gubar’s class because I needed to pick up a senior seminar after deciding to add English as a second major at the end of my junior year. A friend recommended the course because she’d heard the co-author of a recently published book called The Madwoman in the Attic was a pretty good teacher. The seminar, with the rather dry-sounding title of "Feminist Expository Prose," didn’t necessarily lead one to expect life-altering encounters with radical texts and ideas. I had never even heard of Mary Wollstonecraft, and Three Guineas, the Virginia Woolf text on the syllabus, was the first Woolf I would ever read. I had never heard of Charlotte Perkins Gilman either, but her Women and Economics rocked my young world, while Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s autobiography Eighty Years and More so fascinated me that I hopped in my car over Thanksgiving break to go read the author’s letters in a library 700 miles away.
It was the excitement of that first research trip that propelled me into Susan’s office to announce that I had found my vocation. It’s not immodest to say that Susan took me seriously in part because I so obviously took her and the challenges of her course seriously. She paid attention to me in the office because I was paying attention to her in the classroom. Teaching and learning are all about such moments of recognition and exchange, the meshing of desires, intelligences, imaginations. What do you think about this passage? Lord, I don't know, but did you happen to notice this one?!?
Why write about this formative experience, though, beyond my desire to pay tribute to a great teacher and a valued friend as she steps away from the classroom? I write about it because I am concerned that the conditions of possibility for such encounters are threatened in the current economic climate of higher education. There will always be great teachers, but I fear that great teaching will be much less likely to occur as we reduce the opportunities for the kind of undergraduate learning experience I was so fortunate to have with Susan back in Bloomington all those years ago.
I note with sadness, for example, that the department from which I graduated – like the department in which I now teach – no longer requires a senior seminar of its majors. Such small-group, research-intensive learning is now mandatory only for students enrolled in the honors programs in large humanities departments in cash-strapped public universities. (Did IU's English department have an honors program back in the early 80s? I have no idea, but I probably wouldn't have been in it, since I transferred to the school as a junior and, as previously noted, only declared an English major at the end of that year.)
I have never been one to fetishize requirements, and tend to think we have ridiculously over-structured the lives of today's undergraduates, but the reality is that if I had not had to take a senior seminar I would in all likelihood not have enrolled in Susan Gubar's class in the fall of 1980. And if I hadn't taken that course, I doubt seriously I would have formulated the insane notion of pursuing a Ph.D. in English. Yes, my mother was a high school English teacher when I was young, and I definitely inherited her passions for reading and writing, but I was never encouraged to consider an academic career. My parents thought my facility with languages and the reporter's notebook stuck in my back pocket meant they were making a down payment on my career as a foreign correspondent, though I think my father secretly hoped I would become a Broadway belter.
My point is simply this: Thirty years after my fortunate fall into a class that changed the course of my life, we've made it much harder for kids like me -- middle class, publicly educated, from non-academic families -- to have such experiences. For the upcoming fall semester, my department has exactly one undergraduate seminar on the schedule. It has 20 seats, all reserved for students in the honors program. Ten years ago, the department had six such courses on the fall schedule, each with 18 seats, open to all majors. I understand the brutal economic and institutional conditions that have dictated that shift, but I still can't help worrying about the 88 lost opportunities for students to stumble unwittingly into the delights of concentrated research or to have a close encounter with a faculty member that flicks on a switch they didn't even know they had.
I am sure that if I had only had the opportunity to take one of Susan's large lecture courses I still would have had a thrilling intellectual experience, but it's hard to imagine it would have had the same transformative impact as that magical seminar with the dry-sounding title. It's hard to imagine that, under such circumstances, she would have known me well enough to take seriously my passionate yet inchoate desire to "do what you do." I grabbed the apple and ate hungrily from the tree of knowledge, but the English department made sure I walked into the bounteous, well-tended garden of its roster of seminars.
After attending the symposium held to honor Susan upon her retirement, I walked through the streets of Bloomington for the first time in many years, still trying to absorb the marvelous stories and reflections I had heard the day before of her decades of accomplishment both in and out of the classroom. I felt proud and grateful to be able to say, with so many others, that Susan Gubar was my teacher. She still is, of course, and in all the ways that matter she always will be. I can never repay what I feel I owe her, but, in honor of her and for the sake of the eager 21-year-old kid I will always be in her eyes, I promise I will never stop working to assure that today's and tomorrow's students have access to the same kinds of life-altering learning opportunities I happened upon thirty years ago. My teacher taught me too well for me to dream of anything less.
Thank you, Susan -- for everything.
Marilee Lindemann is associate professor of English and director of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies at the University of Maryland at College Park. A version of this essay first appeared on her blog, Roxie’s World.