Essay on returning to teach at one's alma mater
Toward the end of one summer — 1994, to be precise — I arrived at St. Lawrence University as an 18-year-old freshman, excited yet nervous to begin my college career. I had a vague notion that I wanted to be a writer someday, though I didn’t really have an idea of what that would entail or how difficult it would be. I wasn’t particularly anxious about the classes I would be taking — though in hindsight, judging by my grades that first semester, I probably should have been.
No, my concerns were more social in nature. Would I like my roommate? Who would become my friends? Would the people who promised in my high school yearbook that we would be "friends forever" still matter to me, and I to them, by the time we saw each other again at Thanksgiving? Would I finally have sex? The answer to these questions were: Not particularly, a bunch of people, some, and no.
The last answer was the most devastating, to the freshman me, but all in all, that first year of college was a good experience. I read King Lear. I learned from my new female friends that feminists were not, as I had been led to believe, castrating man-haters. I saw my first Kurosawa film. I attended several meetings of the Black Student Union — for the first time, I experienced what it’s like to be the only white person in a room. I was in a play. I perfected my impressions of both R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe and the B-52’s Fred Schneider, in order to entertain my friends on Friday nights fueled by cheap beer and Boone’s Farm "wine products." I read memoirs and essays by the likes of Tobias Wolff, Piri Thomas, and Maxine Hong Kingston that created and nourished my interest in creative nonfiction forms.
As that first year came to a close, I was a little stressed by final exams and papers, and somewhat concerned that I’d never get a girlfriend. Mostly, though, I thought college was an exciting, intellectually challenging, and fun place to be, and I knew I didn’t ever want to leave. So, with the exception of a short break due to some health issues, I really didn’t — I went to grad school, eventually earned a Ph.D., and have been employed on college campuses ever since.
I’ve recently returned to my beloved alma mater — which I’ve written about for Inside Higher Ed before — in order to teach creative writing and literature. This one-year visiting position came along at a time when, to be honest, I had been thinking about getting out of the academy altogether. Although I still loved teaching and writing and developing as a scholar and thinker, I had begun to feel, at the very least, like I did not belong — and could not stay — at the college where I had been working since 2008. There were many reasons for this feeling, but the important point is that I realized that I was unhappy where I was — that this was not the job I thought it would be. Worse still, I began to fear that the problem wasn’t that specific location, but rather that I’m not cut out for this line of work. So I returned to the scene of the crime, the place where I first learned to love literature, writing, and the academic life.
In "Once More to the Lake," E.B. White talks of returning to the lake where his father used to take the family on vacations, this time as a grown man with a son of his own. The essay is noteworthy for a variety of reasons, but kind of funny for his insistence that this place is just as he remembered it, even though he gives a list of things that have changed. "I could tell," he notes after observing the fact that the road leading to the camp was now paved, "that it was going to be pretty much the same as it had been before....” Or when talking about the nearby store: "Inside, all was as it had been, except...." Or the waitresses who serve them their pie, who were "the same country girls, there having been no passage of time, only the illusion of it as in a dropped curtain — the waitresses were still fifteen; their hair had been washed, that was the only difference — they had been to the movies and seen the pretty girls with the clean hair."
Different, but the same. Timeless, yet pushed forward in time. I didn’t really understand White’s disorientation until I returned to St. Lawrence. As White returns to the lake as a father, I’ve returned to St. Lawrence as a professor. He feels, at times, his own father next to him — or perhaps within him, as if he has become his father by bringing his son to this place. I teach in "The Shakespeare Room" in Richardson Hall, dedicated to Emeritus Professor of English Thomas L. Berger, my own Shakespeare professor from 15 years ago, whose blown-up photograph hangs on the wall to my left as I do my best to lead a discussion on Emily Dickinson.
Professor Berger isn’t really beside me, just as White’s father is not with him, yet his presence on that wall reminds me of what type of professor I want to be — erudite, funny, and maybe a little bit intimidating to students who haven’t done the reading.
On days when it’s not too cold — and here in New York’s North Country, those days can be few and far between this time of year — I like to walk around campus. I made a point of showing my wife the dorm I lived in freshman year, where I met the friend who would later ask me to be the godfather to her son. I walked through the building that now houses the theater and fine arts department, but that used to be the student union, where we would occasionally get pizza or burgers at the Northstar Pub, which stopped selling beer after my freshman year but was still called "The Pub" when I graduated. The new student union — located in a more centralized area of campus — houses the Northstar Café, but the students still call it "The Pub" for reasons that are probably a complete mystery to them.
As I was walking home from a poetry reading on campus one night last semester, a student smoking in front of his dorm called out "Dr. Bradley!" and walked toward me in order to talk about class. I haven’t had a cigarette in years, but I almost asked him for one. It seemed like the thing to do. Smoke a cigarette, talk about what you’d been reading. How many times did I do just that with my friends? Those actors and singers and painters and writers who were all so into this world they were just discovering. How many cigarettes did I smoke, talking about Uta Hagen, or Annie Dillard, or Quentin Tarantino? Of course, we smoked inside, back then. It was the '90s. A different era.
White notes that the souvenir counters at the store offer "postcards that showed things looking a little better than they looked," which is sometimes how the past seems when we reflect. If I talk of loving college, I should also tell you that I frequently drove myself crazy, putting the finishing touches on a paper at 4:30 when it was due at 5:00, then running around campus with a disk in hand, trying to find an available printer (again, it was the '90s). There were those times, towards the end of the semester, when — out of money on my meal card — I had to eat sandwiches made of generic white bread and processed cheese slices for every meal. And there were the romantic relationships. They all started out fun, but frequently ended with someone crying.
Still, if the experience was sometimes painful, it was also always educational. I wouldn’t want to trade those experiences or forget those lessons — they’ve shaped the writer, teacher, friend, and husband I am today. And something about this experience of being back on this campus has reminded me — and I’m shocked that I needed to be reminded — that my students are having those very same experiences right now. They’re reading something that’s going to change their lives. They’re falling in love. They’re learning not to send e-mails drunk. They’re listening to the Velvet Underground for the very first time. They’re figuring out who they’re going to be as they begin their adult lives.
So much is different. Everything’s the same.
In my previous Inside Higher Ed column, I talked about remembering my own youthful mistakes when I find myself frustrated with my students. I’m glad to have such perspective — it sometimes saves my sanity — but I’m also glad to remember how awesome it was to be young, to be humbled by the realization that there was so much out there to learn. I had lost some of that enthusiasm in the years since my own undergrad days, but being here, seeing and identifying with these students, has caused me to remember. As a 21st-century academic, it’s awfully easy to get nervous and jaded — it seems like every day, someone from outside of the academy is throwing around words and phrases like "strategic dynamism," "innovative disruption" or "paradigm shift" that don’t really mean anything to me except that the speaker or author doesn’t think very highly of the work we do in the academy, or at least the way we do it. I frequently feel embattled or unappreciated, but this year at my old school has reminded me that I didn’t go to grad school to make politicians or business leaders like me. I went because I wanted to help young people have the same life-changing experience I had.
It’s cold here in Canton right now — one day this week, it didn’t even get above zero — but you wouldn’t know it from all the activity happening on campus. There are informational meetings for students interested in studying abroad in the Czech Republic and Thailand. There’s a screening of the film "Argo." The student organization dedicated to environmental activism is having a vegetarian dinner, open to all interested students. There are athletic events. And, of course, there are classes. I’m not saying that these are activities special to St. Lawrence — I’m sure if you work on a college campus, similar stuff is happening around you. But sometimes, I think, the stress of our jobs causes us to forget what an awesome place a vibrant campus can be.
At the end of White’s essay, he talks of feeling "the chill of death" as he watches his son prepare to swim in the rain, but my recent experience with students at my alma mater has reminded me of how powerful it can be, to be surrounded by the warmth of lives that are really just beginning. I don’t know where I’ll be in a few months, but I’m glad for having learned this lesson this year.
William Bradley is visiting assistant professor of English at St. Lawrence University.