Monday, November 13, 2017

Fluke life

“Of course, you know there are no jobs.”

That was the director of a doctoral program in 1980, talking to me, a prospective student. The odds of securing a tenure-track position in a college or university English department were then about fifty-fifty. The odds of securing a tenure-track position with a degree from a non-powerhouse (but excellent) doctoral program must have been much longer. That hadn’t occurred to me.

“Of course,” I replied. It was all very wink-wink, as if we both understood that it was necessary to say something about the job market, if only in the form of a lighthearted disclaimer. And I remember, even now, that I was thinking to myself, Somehow I’ll get a job.

And five years later, I did. In the fall of 1984 I applied for every suitable position advertised in the Modern Language Asssociation Job Information List and ended up with half a dozen interviews at the MLA’s December convention, the annual hub for hiring in English and foreign languages. Half a dozen interviews was a pretty respectable haul. Just one interview led to a campus visit, at a state school in New England. The young and energetic department chair was really trying hard, but everything felt just sad: buildings in need of repair, ancient and kindly but disengaged faculty, and a mascot-like hanger-on student who seemed soundly stoned. My presentation of my dissertation research — about E.D. Hirsch, Stanley Fish, J.L. Austin, and speech-act theory — elicited only vague politeness: What made you choose this topic?

At home the mail was a steady drip of bad news: We have now completed our on-campus interviews, with me now out of even hypothetical consideration. I remember lying on our bed one afternoon, crying and telling Elaine, “I’ll never get a job.” But something had happened at the MLA convention that was to greatly improve my chances.

Elaine and I had gone to the convention together. (Did she take off from work? I can’t recall.) We were in Washington, D.C., in late December, in spring-like weather on the first night of the convention, hungry and looking for a place to eat. We found a French restaurant, but it didn’t open for another half hour. Then we happened upon a Nepali restaurant and decided to try it. Wow: the dishes were like a cross between Chinese and Indian cuisine.

The restaurant was packed with MLA types, academics everywhere. But the table for two next to ours, literally next to ours, edge to edge, was empty, and a man and woman were seated there as we were finishing our meal. These people looked like the only non-MLA types in the place, and we somehow got to talking with them. I accounted for my presence at the convention: grad student, working on my dissertation, job interviews. And the man asked what it was about. And I said, “Well, the first chapter is about E.D. Hirsch.” And the woman said, “Oh, this is E.D. Hirsch.”

If you know Hirsch’s name, it’s probably from his work on behalf of the idea of cultural literacy. That came later. In 1984 Hirsch was best known in the context of “theory,” having written two books about hermeneutics, Validity in Interpretation and The Aims of Interpretation. In that pre-Internet world, knowing what he or any other academic looked like was not especially likely: no photographs on book covers, no photographs anywhere. It wasn’t until 1986 that The New York Times Magazine printed full-, or nearly full-page photographs of Harold Bloom, Jacques Derrida, Geoffrey Hartman, and J. Hillis Miller. Miller, I recall, was photographed in a New Haven pizza parlor.

But back to our Nepali restaurant. I couldn’t believe my dumb luck. Or awkward luck, as my chapter on Hirsch was devoted to exploring what I saw as problems with his ideas about meaning and intention. He asked me if I had seen his latest piece in Critical Inquiry. Huh? Back then the way to find out that something had come out was to go to the library and look through the periodical shelves. And here I was in Washington trying to get on-campus interviews, the next step to a job. “Uh, no, not yet,” said I.

We talked for a while, and I told Hirsch that I was looking forward to the panel at which he was reading a paper (along with David Bleich and Stanley Fish). Elaine and I probably started laughing giddily once we were out of the restaurant. Such a crazy turn of events.

But not that crazy: Elaine has a gift for running into people unexpectedly. We were waiting once for the subway in New York, and when the doors opened, the first person out was an old friend of hers. We were walking once on St. Mark’s Place and met an old friend of hers walking in the other direction. So it makes sense that Elaine ran into Hirsch the next day in a record store. She advised him on recordings, and he gave her an MLA name badge so that she could get into his panel (and everything else at the convention). As Elaine and I made our way through hotel corridors and lobbies, we noticed people noticing her badge: E D HIRSCH JR. And on our third and last day at the convention, we ran into the Hirsches at breakfast in a D.C. cafeteria.

When we got back to Boston, I went to the library and found Hirsch’s piece, and then found some things to say about it. I sent what I wrote to Critical Inquiry, where it was accepted for publication as a “critical response,” with another response to Hirsch and Hirsch’s response to both responses.

Now: Critical Inquiry is a journal of considerable renown in academia. I notified schools where I was still in the hypothetical running about the acceptance. And that spring I received calls from two schools with whom I hadn’t interviewed at the MLA, inviting me to on-campus interviews. A message from one school, on our answering machine: “This is a job offer.” (It was, in truth, an interview offer.) I opted for an interview at the other school and spent a long, exhilarating, sinus-ridden day talking with, it seemed, everyone in the department. “I hope you get it,” I remember one prof saying. And shortly thereafter, a letter came, telling me that an offer had gone to someone else. That someone else, I later learned, was an assistant professor with a book to her name, up for tenure elsewhere but sure that she wasn’t going to get it.

But she got tenure and turned down the job offer, which now went to me. I took it and promptly called the New England state school to take myself out of the running. So I owe my thirty years of teaching to much more than my own smarts: to the fortunes, good or bad, of other jobseekers at the MLA and in on-campus interviews, to the faculty and administrators who decided to grant someone tenure, to a theory-minded person who took note of my Critical Inquiry acceptance, to the vagaries of business hours and seating arrangements in D.C. restaurants. And to curiosity about Nepali cuisine.

[When teaching, I sometimes told a brief version of this story to illustrate the idea of contingency. I wrote out much of what’s here in a 2013 letter.]

comments: 8

Berit said...

I really enjoyed this "story time". The unfolding of the details along your path is a delight to read, and of course it's very well-written. Elaine stands out as a very special person.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for letting me know you liked it, Berit.

Re: Elaine: she certainly is.

The Crow said...

Well, Berit said what I thought far better than the "Way cool!" I intended to post here...but, way cool, Michael. I like the way you write stories. Every one I've read thus far (especially the Lassie-fan-fics) has pulled me in and carried me along, happily. I love good writing and am always a bit sad when it reachs the end.

(Seems you also lucked out - big time - when you allowed Elaine into your life!)

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks, Martha. This one doesn’t have the charm of a Lassie story, but then again it’s non-fiction.

About Elaine: yes, big time.

Frex said...

This is a great story, well told, so fun to read---thanks!
It's almost like E.D. Hirsch deserves a guest spot on Lassie...

Oh, hey--I see Hirsch still alive (89 y.o.)--did you ever tell him the outcome of the fluke?

Michael Leddy said...

I’m pretty sure that I did — we exchanged a couple of letters about a production of Endgame that ignored Beckett’s stage directions (author’s intention).

zzi said...

Prospects looked bad in 1980 but picked 4 years later. Many did good in the 80's. It's funny how those things just happened.

Michael Leddy said...

But in English studies, not a good time. Still, better than now.