Thomas Wolfe tells us you can’t go home again, but if you’ve read the novel, you know that he’s talking about trying to go back and live in the place you come from. He doesn’t say anything about visiting.
By my nature, I am not nostalgic. When reunions for this or that come around, I wonder why anyone would be interested in getting together to booze up with people you didn’t really have any relationship with in the first place. Reminiscing about the good old days has its place, but that place is generally small, and quickly filled. I hold no particular animus towards my own past – it’s been better than good over all -- it’s just that I’ve never seen it as particularly relevant, given that the present is here, and the future just around the corner.
My status as a non-nostalgic was recently tested when I was invited to read on the campus my most recent former employer, Clemson University, as part of their 5th Annual Literary Festival .
I worked for Clemson longer than anywhere else, six years. In most ways they were very good years. I was privileged to teach 300, 400, and even 600-level courses, the kinds of courses usually reserved for tenure-line faculty. Bolstered by support within my department, I received a grant to teach a sequence of courses on humor writing that resulted in the establishment of a new student-run publication. I had tremendous pedagogical freedom within my courses – earned, I hope, by my effort and results - but nonetheless, unusual for non-tenure-track faculty. I published two books while there, had two others accepted for publication, one of which was torpedoed by a threatened lawsuit (long story), the other of which was my novel that came out after I left.
I had numerous talented, supportive, and just plain cool colleagues, both on and off the tenure-track. The number of positive moments with students outnumbered the negative by a factor of 20 to 1 or better. The work itself reached close to an ideal. If there was something more that teaching had to give, it was sprinkles on the already super-delicious sundae.
My salary the year I started (2005) was $26,250 to teach four classes per semester, 24 credit hours per year, just under $1100/credit hour.
My salary the year I left (2011) was $26,250 for the same course load. I, of course, wasn’t alone in not getting a raise during the great financial meltdown which led to steadily declining state support, which led to some serious belt-tightening , including one year that included 5-day furloughs for everyone. Somewhere around year four or five, the department took a run at securing something better for me, but it was quickly and thoroughly nixed at some higher level. The money just wasn’t there. Even my grant money that I was hoarding to cover printing and production costs for a special issue of the student humor publication was absorbed back into the English Department budget to pay for the copier, or pens or something.
During my final Fall semester, lecturers were told that if budgeting expectations came to reality, somewhere around three-fourths of us would be without work for the next year. The hope was that attrition could achieve the goal, that we would see the writing on the wall and quit before they had to not renew us. Given my portfolio of courses outside of the general education requirements, I felt safer than most, but that news was enough to initiate the launch sequence to somewhere else.
I was sad to leave Clemson, not from nostalgia, but from a mounting bitterness. I didn’t know what else I could have done to provide value and make a place for myself, and I think I felt betrayed, but by what? The system? The world?
Join the club, right?
So when I received an invitation to return to campus as part of the literary festival, I said “yes” immediately, and then started worrying about how I’d come to feel about the whole thing. If I wasn’t going to experience the pleasures of nostalgia, maybe I was signing up for a 48-hour ride on the Bitterness Express, destination Free-Floating Angerville.
As it turns out, you can go home again, and have a great time, provided there’s an open bar.
Thomas Wolfe’s protagonist, George Webber, can’t go home because he’s written a widely acclaimed novel that depicts his hometown of Libya Hill in an unflattering light. The townspeople, feeling unjustly tarred, return the favor with death threats. The novel is seen as anti-nostalgia, that the good old days were never good, and that once you leave the backwater behind for a more sophisticated and enlightened life, there’s no going back.
What I discovered with my return to Clemson, though is that there’s a pleasure other than nostalgia to be had when returning to a place you’d once called home. This discovery is rooted in something that I think nostalgia often misses, which is that while you may change when you leave the place you once called home, so too are the place and the people changing in your absence.
When I left Clemson, I had a fleeting, ego-driven thought: Who are they going to get to teach MY classes? I think I imagined panic in the hallways as they wondered who could possibly step in and do the job. Of course, Englishes 345 and 312 weren’t canceled, and while I like to think I’m good at my job, I’m sure whomever stepped in is also and the students are being well-served. Clemson has managed to march on without me.
The Literary Festival itself was new and improved. After a splashy start in year one where I’d helped secure a significant headliner through a personal connection, the festival had scraped by on the extraordinary efforts of a few individuals, cobbling together enough money and calling in enough favors to keep it alive to reach year five where significant enough grant money to secure Richard Ford as the headliner (and provide for the aforementioned open bar) arrived, along with future promises of more support.
By walking away from the place, my relationships with my former colleagues changed as well. I was always treated with respect during my time at Clemson, but I think in hindsight, there also was some amount of guilt being carried by the tenured faculty, guilt over what they all believed was substandard treatment of the lecturers, even though they felt powerless to change things. We weren’t on equal footing. Zero percent of them had to worry about their contracts not being renewed.
(Whether or not tenured faculty are actually powerless in that equation is a topic for another post.)
With that dimension removed, talk was freer, frustrations could be shared, triumphs too. Being outside the place reminded me of its virtues, not the least of which was Richard Ford could draw several hundred people for a reading on a campus most known for its football team. Clemson didn’t solve its problems in the one and a half semesters since I’d left, but those problems weren’t mine anymore.
A couple of people expressed sincere regret over me leaving, but underneath that was an understanding that it was for the best. We all wished each other well.
But most important was seeing some of my former students, particularly those on the cusp of graduation. They’ve been busy changing more than anyone, and to see those changes obliterated any need for the pleasures of nostalgia, or concerns over bitterness. What was most exciting is to see who they are now, so different from the person from my classroom. They are concerned for their futures, but they are also hopeful. They are enthusiastic about the right things. They’re eager, not fearful, even when there’s good reason.
Our talk was that of colleagues, fellow strugglers against the stubbornness of words, rather than teacher/student. Some asked why I’d left and I told them, but it wasn’t a tale of woe, as I hope this isn’t either.
Talking to them made me realize that I wasn’t in charge of anything anymore, they were. I told them to be in touch if they needed help, and meant it, but those calls and contacts come rarely.
By having done the best job I could for them when I was their teacher, I’d made myself less relevant to their futures, and that felt really good.
In ten more years I hope I we can gather together around another open bar, not to reminisce about the good old days, but to see who we’ve become.
@biblioracle is the Twitter home of John Warner.