Becoming socially acquainted with one of your former college professors must count as one of life’s rare and unexpected pleasures. I know this because I have had the fortune.
I studied eighteenth century English literature in college, and stuck to that as best I could, straying a century in either direction only occasionally. But as part of my program I had to take one semester of American literature, about which I knew almost nothing. I recall being nervous about it. “Early U.S. Novels” was the title of the course, and we covered works written up to around 1820. None of the titles we studied are famous today, and some never were famous.
The teacher of this course was a youngish fellow with a beard who always wore sweaters. His was the only college English course I took that didn’t require a long term paper or two. Instead, we had a traditional mid-term and final exam. While this might seem less intimidating, his exam was among the hardest I’d ever seen. If I recall correctly, it worked something like this:
We had to choose two of three or four possible questions to answer. In each answer we were required to compare several of the works we had read that semester. But we had to choose wisely, because the titles we compared in one question could not be brought up again in the second question.
I remember spending forty-five minutes just figuring out which novels to compare for each question, formulating an argument, before I set pen to paper. So it was hardly surprising when I ran out of time. I recall being the last person to leave the classroom, apologizing in advance for what I was sure was an awful exam response.
When that semester ended, I only occasionally ran into this professor around Turlington Hall. He’d always tell me he enjoyed hearing me on the radio. Then, once I was in grad school, I lost almost all contact with anyone in the English Department.
So it was a tremendous surprise when, last year sometime, I arrived late to a house warming party for a friend, and upon walking through the door I was greeted by my former professor. I was grateful that at that instant I did not experience one of my patented I-don’t-remember-you-or-where-I-know-you-from moments. I did remember him. He was with his wife, who was acquainted with my friend who was throwing the housewarming party. They made a charming couple, and we all had a nice time chatting over dinner.
Barely any time passed before I saw my former professor again – this time at a downtown festival. And later still, I saw him and his wife at a craft show, where she had a booth selling homemade soap. Finally, a month or so ago, Miriam and I were invited to dinner and a movie with our housewarming friend. We met up at Blue Highway Pizza in Micanopy. Once again, my former professor and his wife were there. It was cold outside, and we waited forever to get a seat, which was at an outside table. Then it took hilariously long for our food to arrive. But it was fine, because I had a chance to chat with my teacher about a number of things I had been curious about for some time.
I asked what he made of what was happening to the English Department at UF. From what I could see, the number of professors who taught traditional literature—poetry and prose from the Renaissance to the early twentieth century—was in decline. (Indeed, my main guy, who has since retired, once told me that when he arrived at UF in the early 1970s, he was one of several professors who taught eighteenth century English literature, and colleges were flying in recent Ph.D. grads to interview for jobs in English departments. Since his departure, I understand that no one teaches courses on Samuel Johnson, John Dryden, Alexander Pope, or the early novelists like Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, Fanny Burney, or Samuel Richardson. God knows who teaches advanced exposition.) My teacher-turned-friend expressed grave concerns about the future of reading itself. Most students, he lamented, simply do not read books any more. How English departments at colleges and universities adapt when students’ interests no longer include literature remains to be seen. My prediction is that the English major will cease to be associated with the study of literature at most universities, and move more toward the study of film, blogs and websites, and graphic novels and comics. The major will be renamed something like “Media Studies”. A select few schools will continue to have a strong focus on literature, and the dwindling ranks of students interested in novels, poetry, and plays (as literature rather than theater) will seek out those schools. But who knows. English departments like the one at UF may limp along for another generation, only offering the occasional literature course taught by a grad student.
But it wasn’t just school talk with my former professor: we also talked a lot about classical music. He seemed very interested in my thoughts about the recording industry, and asked my opinion on collecting recordings.
After we finished our dinner at Blue Highway, our plan was to head out to a star-gazing event hosted by the local astronomy club, then catch a movie at the Ocala Drive-in. But by the time we paid our check, the movie in Ocala was already well underway, so we scratched that off the list. The question was whether we’d still have time to make it to star-gazing. I was doubtful, but my professor’s wife was hopeful, and so we took off down County Road 234 until we reached a farm on the far eastern edge of Paines Prairie. It was extremely dark, and the number of stars visible so exceeded what one sees in a city, that I would have been happy even without the telescopes. But there were telescopes, and we took turns looking at Jupiter, the Pleiades, and this and that. I told my former professor about going star gazing with my father as a boy. It was such an affecting experience for me that even today, decades later, I still think about it any time I find myself looking up at a truly dark sky.
And as we walked back to the car and said goodnight, I knew that was the end of it. My former professor had already moved to New Orleans to begin teaching at a university there.
It was fun while it lasted.