December 7th, 2015 I have been doing a lot of thinking over the last couple months about academia, as I prepare applications for the next step of my education. The whole process has been tinged with nostalgia–a Ph.D. in German Literature in the US is a wonderful thing, but it will mean leaving Germany, leaving a particular place and the particular people who have worked their way into the deepest part of my existence.
But the only way to live is to move forward. And so I have been writing applications like a crazy person and thinking about academia. There are many things I have learned to love about the German university–the freedom, the flexibility, the time and space. At the same time, I miss the the raw intensity of my education in the US, the unabashed willingness of the professors to make it personal, the passion of everyone involved.
While looking through various old documents, I came across something I wrote about the Writing Center at my undergraduate institution, a tiny liberal arts college in the Midwest. I had almost forgotten I had written it, squeezed in somewhere between my own frantic paper-writing and stacks of German flashcards.
I read it now, and I think, I want this again, this crazy fervor and passion-on-the-edge and raw love of learning. We were a community, not unproblematic and certainly not peaceful, but in the end all pulling together for beauty and for some sort of Truth. This this is why I am going back to America for my PhD; I want to fight for the existence of this environment for the rest of my career. There are very few things worse than apathy and cynicism, in my book.
So, here’s the Writing Center of small-town American academia. It’s not the sort of thing I usually post. But nostalgia is a part of abroad, too.
You work in the Writing Center, and you love it.
The place is a little sanctuary in the ancient basement of the Old Student Union, full of MLA handbooks and half-drunk mugs of coffee and tea. The entire side wall is a blackboard, scrawled with thesis diagrams, pictures of phoenixes, and the usual quotes from Eliot and Shakespeare. Words, words, words. And the Fire and the Rose are one. During Finals’ Week some witty Latinist replaced the diagrams with a line from Virgil’s Aenead: Forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit. And perhaps someday you will rejoice to remember even this.
You and the other tutors play at being half-psychologist-half-Socrates. You are only allowed to ask questions, absolutely no being “directive,” as the crazy bearded English professor who runs the place informs you. If the students cry on your watch, well then, that is their own fault and not yours. They should have started their papers earlier. He has no pity for criers, nor did he when he himself was an undergrad Writer Center tutor. Things were tough, back in the day.
When it comes to the tutoring sessions, you are quite run-of-the-mill. Tell me what you think about Odysseus, give me a thesis, what do you know about commas, have you considered that your textual evidence is worse than non-existent? Contrary to the bearded English Professor’s creed, you can’t help but feel sorry for the sniffling freshmen on their third all-nighter, twelve hours to go before class and only a half-cocked thesis to go on. You give them tissues, and remind them that they are here to engage in the lofty pursuit of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, not to lose their sanity over a looming C- on a lit paper. Such a line of argument, however, is rarely successful.
Some of your fellow tutors are more, well, novel in their methods. Isaac* manages to terrify every student who signs up for him, even the Honors’ kids, by conducting his sessions perched on the back of a chair while bouncing a tennis ball maniacally off the edge of the table–already balding at the age of 23, bow-tie disheveled, a bit wild-eyed, always smelling a little of pipe smoke and whiskey. Somehow he is able to turn each 20-minute session into a monologue on Eucharistic imagery in Hamlet (the topic of his honors thesis), whether the paper at hand is on Homer or Dante or twentieth-century aestheticism. You and the other tutors are awed and a bit frightened by his ability to do this.
When there are no students, you talk. Professors, grad school, Shakespeare Shakespeare Shakespeare. And Eucharistic imagery in Hamlet, of course. Lots of that. You know to stay away from the topic of women in academia, because you don’t want to hear again that your only options are getting married and raising a family. There is always someone being converted to Catholicism outside in the hall, or in the study rooms in the back. There are always debates on the validity of Cormac McCarthy, or Camus, or whoever happens to be the topic of the semester’s honors seminar. One night before Finals’ Week, someone reads the Ghost scene from Hamlet aloud. The time is out of joint….oh, that ever I was born to set it right. Each of you, this room full of ambitious, angsty literature students in love with the heady worlds of art or religion, feels like Shakespeare was talking to you when he wrote that.
For an entire month at the end of every semester, the senior Honors students write their theses. They take up the four “cells” at the end of the center, the normally tidy blue rooms with just space to set a laptop. Now they are full of old pizza boxes, pipe tobacco, icons, prayer books, crucifixes, stacks and stacks of books–Elizabethan England, Aesthetics, Bonhoeffer, T.S. Eliot, The Sublime. Someone took the whiteboard markers and drew a hundred pictures of fat cats all over the glass windows. It was probably Jacob, who is rather obsessed with cats. The college-aged mind’s innate surrealism never ceases to amaze you.
During senior year, Mark has the most orderly cell. He, double major in Classics and History, buzzed up on gallons of bad free coffee from the Career Center across the hall, is having a FANTASTIC thesis writing experience. He informs everyone of this fact at least six times each evening. He is writing on Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer is AMAZING, EVERYONE should LOVE him, he CAN’T BELIEVE how brilliant he is, isn’t it WONDERFUL to be able to write such a thing as a thesis?? He finishes his final draft a week early. This is hard for the rest of the thesis-writers to stomach.
Isaac, the maniacal ball-bouncer, takes it particularly hard. Fifty pages behind, in disagreement with his adviser, he has started sitting under his desk because the lowness of the position matches the increasingly-penitential nature of the whole undertaking. He is desperately regretting giving up both cigarettes and beer for Lent. His various mutterings are becoming ever more incoherent.
“Chaos…chaos…why is my brain full of chaos? Why is every paper I write on Hamlet? Chaos, I tell you……”
Emma, the kindest of the tutors who bakes cookies for the weeping freshmen, is concerned. “Do you want consolation, or an answer? Or tea? How about some tea?” But there aren’t any clean mugs left.
He caves the night before his defense and smokes a cigarette, Lent be damned. This prompts an existential crisis the following morning, and a hasty trip to confession. But his defense is brilliant, and you tell him you think he is going to be fine. You are all going to be fine, actually, you say, after you have your last tutoring session of the year, and when you meet in the Center one last time after everything is over, to clean the blackboard and wash a semesters’ worth of stale coffee out of the mugs. You are all a bit haggard, from lent or theses or the looming prospect of finals.
But you will rejoice at even this. You know because you are already rejoicing.
*Names changed, personalities left as-is.