For various reasons that don’t necessarily need elucidating here, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about just how communal any successful individual’s professional trajectory, his or her career path, really is. Since I’m about to make clear that I’m referring to myself, let me stress that by “successful” I simply mean somebody who has found a satisfying and productive and meaningful job, a way to do something that he loves and feels as if he can do for the rest of his life happily and well. I certainly feel that way about—and feel very lucky and blessed to have—my gig, and again have been thinking recently about just how many people and contributions and steps have contributed to my path here. And so, for this tribute post, five such people and one specific, seemingly small but far from insignificant, moment in which each made such an impact for me:
1) Mr. Hickerson and Bruce: My 8th grade English teacher, Mr. Hickerson, runs a very close second to Mr. Heartwell as the most inspiring and impressive teacher of my pre-college years. The whole of that year with him was hugely meaningful for me, but if I had to highlight one moment, it’d be a couple classes when he had us bring in and analyze songs of our choosing. My choice was Bruce’s “The River,” then and now probably my favorite single song of Bruce’s, and the resulting discussion, and especially my attempt to articulate why I read the end of the song (and thus its whole arc and story and meaning) in the way that I did, was a transformative moment for me for sure.
2) Mrs. Perkins and Tutoring: In my senior year of high school, I was one of five students who were eligible for and chose to take a class in Multivariable Calculus. Because it was such a small cohort, our young and very enthusiastic and cool (in the best sense) teacher, Mrs. Perkins, made the class very much about our individual identities and perspectives, including a creative assignment for which I made a Choose Your Own Adventure math book that I still remember very fondly. But by far the most meaningful feature was a unit in which each of us worked with one student from a more remedial math class to help him or her pass a standardized test that they needed in order to move to their next year’s class; I know I had tutored before in one context or another, but I remember those couple of weeks, and even particular choices of mine (that did work, that didn’t) and exchanges between us, much more fully and specifically. My tutoree passed, and I don’t think I had a prouder or happier moment in high school.
3) Jay, John, and the Gauntlet: I’ll be the first to admit that I came into college in general, and into the History and Literature program there specifically (a program that usually started with sophomore year but that I had applied to begin as a freshman because I felt so damn ready for it), feeling like I knew what I was doing. Sure, I had things to learn, books to read, ideas to grapple with, but the skills? I was good to go. Well, my year of Hist and Lit Sophomore Tutorial, and specifically the incredibly challenging and rigorous and oh-so-necessary feedback I got from my two tutors, Jay Grossman and John McGreevy--now professors of American literature at Northwestern and history at Notre Dame, respectively—was exactly the corrective I needed. They fostered my ideas and interests and passion but made very clear how far I had to go as a thinker and reader and, especially, writer, and it’s difficult to overstate how much I’ve carried those lessons forward, both in my own work and as teaching models.
4) Dr. Caserio and the Red Pen: And lest it seem as if the lessons ended there, or in college at all, I take you forward about six years, to a graduate class in Narratology and Fiction that I took in Spring 2002 with Temple’s then-department chair and resident taskmaster, Professor Robert Caserio. Caserio believed in and practiced the Socratic method, meaning that every class was a palm-sweating experience in being pushed and prodded and challenged and strengthened. But even more meaningful, for me, were his incredibly detailed and thoroughly rigorous comments on my papers—I couldn’t believe how much red ink I saw when I got the first paper back, and almost none of those comments comprised simply grammatical or stylistic responses; they were challenges to my ideas and to my prose, to words or sentences that weren’t clear or specific or sufficiently analytical, that needed more and better. They were also, and most importantly, an investment of time and energy and intelligence to which I couldn’t help but respond in kind.
5) Dr. Crossley and a Chance: In the fall of 2004 I was teaching five sections of first-year writing as an adjunct at two local universities, Boston University (in the Writing Program there) and UMass Boston (in the English Department) while finishing my dissertation and going on the job market for the first time. My wife was working 100-hour weeks as a medical resident. And in mid-October our Boston apartment was broken into and my laptop (which included not-backed-up copies of my first dozen or so job letters and lots of other similarly difficult to replace or replicate materials) was one of the items stolen. All of which is just to say, by early November I was crazy busy and stretched thin and perhaps, to coin a phrase, on the edge of a nervous breakdown. And then the UMass Boston English Department Chair, Professor Robert Crossley, asked me if I would be interested in teaching a literature class (a survey entitled Six American Writers) in the coming spring. I’ll probably never know what led him—as busy and stretched himself as any department chair always is—to think of me for it, but I do know that that spring course remains one of my best semesters ever, and that I can trace literally double-digit specific influences and effects of my work in that class on my continuing efforts as a teacher, scholar, and AmericanStudier.
Each clause of that final sentence is really my point here. Who knows why opportunities come our way, and whether it’s ultimately anything other than luck that brings us to people and relationships and influences like these? Certainly we can and must take advantage of them once they’re there, be open to their inspirations and lessons and meanings, and carry them forward as fully and gratefully and successfully as we can. But it also seems to me that we—and I mean we as academics and scholars and teachers, but also we as Americans, we as humans—have to acknowledge just how significant a truth it is that, yes, it takes a village. More tomorrow, my next academic work in progress post!
PS. No links really needed here, but I will respectfully ask if everybody who reads this could perhaps comment on one such person and/or moment of yours? (Anonymous comments are fine, of course!) That’d both drive home my point and, y’know, help continue the creation of this particular village here. Thanks!
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