Tuesday, April 20, 2010

My Teacher, Susan Gubar

Or, You Know, To Her, With Love

My typist has something she wants to say, something that has been building up since her recent trip back to her native state to participate in a symposium honoring the retirement of someone who has mattered enormously to her professional and intellectual life. You know how Moose is. If there is something weighing on her heart/mind, she is just unbearable, so we might as well go ahead and let her say it. Consider this an invitation to offer up your own "My Favorite Teacher" stories or "Parables of Education Going to Hell in a Handbasket." Take your pick. My work is done. Take it away, Moose.

* * *

Susan Gubar was my teacher. At first glance, the claim might seem thin or self-aggrandizing, the evidence in support of it accurate but scant. I took just one class with Gubar, an undergraduate seminar at Indiana University in the fall of 1980. Three credits out of the 120 or so I earned for my bachelor’s degree. Fifteen weeks out of a student life that lasted nearly a quarter of a century.

So, no, I never took a graduate course with her, never experienced the peculiar intensity and intimacy of a dozen brilliant brats hammering away at big ideas and hoping to earn an approving “Smart, very smart” from a demanding professor who delighted in the give-and-take of the seminar table. She did not chair my qualifying exam or direct my doctoral dissertation. She never tore my rough drafts to shreds, exhorting me to read more, think harder, or write more clearly. I never stayed up late grading papers for one of her lecture courses, never faced the terror of speaking in one of those big halls myself in front of one of the most dynamic lecturers in the history of teaching. I never ran to the library to track down a reference for an article she was writing, never house-sat for her, never sat through a mock interview with her in preparation for the job market. I did not teach her to quilt.

I took one class with her, and all I can say is that thirty years later I still give the class and the teacher credit for changing the course of my life. I don’t give Susan all the credit. At twenty-one, I was ready to be inspired and transformed, to find the personal and professional paths I was meant to walk and take my first tentative steps on them, though that cheesy path metaphor makes me sound more like a Victorian heroine than the na├»ve and unkempt baby dyke I was at the time. In any case, I credit Susan with recognizing what was happening for me and doing everything she could to assure that the moment bore fruit.

What did that mean, in concrete terms? Well, for starters, it meant she didn’t toss me out of her office one autumn afternoon when I burst in without an appointment, pointed at her, and impetuously declared, “I want to do what you do.” She sat me down, listened to me, talked to me about what realizing such an ambition would actually involve, and patiently guided me through the steps it would take to get into graduate school. She told me what schools to apply to, carefully read my personal statement, wrote in support of my application, and helped me make a decision when it came time to weigh admissions offers, including a fine one from her own department. “Go East,” she said, because she knew it would be professionally advantageous to have my advanced degrees from an institution other than my undergraduate one. I suspect she also thought it would be good for me to get out of my native state. I took her advice and landed at Rutgers in the fall of 1981, a golden moment when the English department was just beginning to recruit students to come work with the pioneering feminist critics who were there at the time, including Alicia Ostriker, Elaine Showalter, and Catharine Stimpson.

End of story, right? No big deal, eh? It’s the kind of thing we do for our students all the time. Maybe, maybe not.

This is partly a story about luck and good timing, but it is also a story about the structural conditions of American public higher education, conditions that have changed significantly since my undergraduate days. I stumbled into Gubar’s class because I needed to pick up a senior seminar after deciding to add English as a second major at the end of my junior year. A friend recommended the course because she’d heard the co-author of a recently published book called The Madwoman in the Attic was a pretty good teacher. The seminar, with the rather dry-sounding title of “Feminist Expository Prose,” didn’t necessarily lead one to expect life-altering encounters with radical texts and ideas. I had never even heard of Mary Wollstonecraft, and Three Guineas, the Virginia Woolf text on the syllabus, was the first Woolf I would ever read. I had never heard of Charlotte Perkins Gilman either, but her Women and Economics rocked my young world, while Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s autobiography Eighty Years and More so fascinated me that I hopped in my car over Thanksgiving break to go read the author’s letters in a library 700 miles away. It was the excitement of that first research trip that propelled me into Susan’s office to announce that I had found my vocation. It’s not immodest to say that Susan took me seriously in part because I so obviously took her and the challenges of her course seriously. She paid attention to me in the office because I was paying attention to her in the classroom. Teaching and learning are all about such moments of recognition and exchange, the meshing of desires, intelligences, imaginations. What do you think about this passage? Lord, I don't know, but did you happen to notice this one?!?

Why write about this formative experience, though, beyond my desire to pay tribute to a great teacher and a valued friend as she steps away from the classroom? I write about it because I am concerned that the conditions of possibility for such encounters are threatened in the current economic climate of higher education. There will always be great teachers, but I fear that great teaching will be much less likely to occur as we reduce the opportunities for the kind of undergraduate learning experience I was so fortunate to have with Susan back in Bloomington all those years ago.

I note with sadness, for example, that the department from which I graduatedlike the department in which I now teach – no longer requires a senior seminar of its majors. Such small-group, research-intensive learning is now mandatory only for students enrolled in the honors programs in large humanities departments in cash-strapped public universities. (Did IU's English department have an honors program back in the early 80s? I have no idea, but I probably wouldn't have been in it, since I transferred to the school as a junior and, as previously noted, only declared an English major at the end of that year.)

I have never been one to fetishize requirements and tend to think we have ridiculously over-structured the lives of today's undergraduates, but the reality is that if I had not had to take a senior seminar I would in all likelihood not have enrolled in Susan Gubar's class in the fall of 1980. And if I hadn't taken that course, I doubt seriously I would have formulated the insane notion of pursuing a PhD in English. Yes, my mother was a high school English teacher when I was young, and I definitely inherited her passions for reading and writing, but I was never encouraged to consider an academic career. My parents thought my facility with languages and the reporter's notebook stuck in my back pocket meant they were making a down payment on my career as a foreign correspondent, though I think my father secretly hoped I would become a Broadway belter.

My point is simply this: Thirty years after my fortunate fall into a class that changed the course of my life, we've made it much harder for kids like me -- middle class, publicly educated, from non-academic families -- to have such experiences. For the upcoming fall semester, my department has exactly one undergraduate seminar on the schedule. It has 20 seats, all reserved for students in the honors program. Ten years ago, the department had six such courses on the fall schedule, each with 18 seats, open to all majors. I understand the brutal economic and institutional conditions that have dictated that shift, but I still can't help worrying about the 88 lost opportunities for students to stumble unwittingly into the delights of concentrated research or to have a close encounter with a faculty member that flicks on a switch they didn't even know they had. I am sure that if I had only had the opportunity to take one of Susan's large lecture courses I still would have had a thrilling intellectual experience, but it's hard to imagine it would have had the same transformative impact as that magical seminar with the dry-sounding title. It's hard to imagine that, under such circumstances, she would have known me well enough to take seriously my passionate yet inchoate desire to "do what you do." I grabbed the apple and ate hungrily from the tree of knowledge, but the English department made sure I walked into the bounteous, well-tended garden of its roster of seminars.

Walking through the streets of Bloomington last Saturday morning for the first time in many years, still trying to absorb the marvelous stories and reflections I had heard the day before of Susan's decades of accomplishment both in and out of the classroom, I felt proud and grateful to be able to say, with so many others, that Susan Gubar was my teacher. She still is, of course, and in all the ways that matter she always will be. I can never repay what I feel I owe her, but, in honor of her and for the sake of the eager 21-year-old kid I will always be in her eyes, I promise I will never stop working to assure that today's and tomorrow's students have access to the same kinds of life-altering learning opportunities I happened upon thirty years ago. My teacher taught me too well for me to dream of anything less.

Thank you, Susan -- for everything.


  1. That's the most beautiful, moving, and inspiring piece - thank you! It's everything that a good essay should be (so that expository prose class paid off) - both personal and then rolling this out into the general. Why don't you send it to the CHE? For every good reason, it deserves a huge audience.

    Ah: class size, class size... I'll be blogging about cuts tonight: the camera came with me into the gloomy presentation that I attended about Next Year's Budget.

  2. "Go East" -- and Goose is so damned glad that you did, and owes Susan Gubar and big THANK YOU. Time by the banks of the ole Raritan changed both of our lives, not so much because Tramps Like Us are Born to Run but because of those amazing feminist teachers. Mine was Alicia Ostriker who truly teaches that Everywoman must have Her Own Theology.

    I'm due downstairs in a lecture hall in a few minutes, so I must make this much more brief than I would like, but I agree with Kate--send it to the Chronicle. It deserves a huge, HUGE audience.

    Always yours,

  3. What a gorgeous, gorgeous post. What's funny is that one of *my* formative experiences as a student was a freshmen honors seminar, and it was in that course that I first read portions of Madwoman in the Attic, and then later, it was in a poetry class in my senior year where I was assigned Gilbert and Gubar's *No Man's Land*. So while I've never met Susan Gubar, and while I've never seen her speak, a generation after you, in very important ways, she was my teacher, too, through her books with Sandra Gilbert. But also, two of the teachers who had the most to do with me going on to graduate school (although I only changed to an English major after my first two years, having started out as a journalism major) are the ones who assigned me those books.

    Again, just an amazing, wonderful post.

  4. What a fabulous post and tribute to Susan Gubar. My own experiences at a large Midwestern public university were less auspicious. When I confessed to my senior seminar professor that I wanted to get a PhD and study contemporary lesbian poetry, she suggested I would be more marketable studying the Renaissance or Blake, and there was no such thing as lesbian poetry only contemporary American poetry. It was a moment of colossal mis(sed) communication. Still I'm glad for the other opportunities life gave me. Two people made a huge difference for me though. A lecturer, Helen Maxson, who taught a summer class (now looking back I realize for the money while she waded through a horrific job market) in which we read all of the novels of Virginia Woolf. I think those eight weeks were among the best of my life. She was and is an amazing professor. Then of course your own Goose, who I realized that had I come to Maryland a year earlier she would have been on that super-sabbatical and I would have missed the opportunity to study with her. The vagaries of life. Happenstances that alter our paths. And all of our good fortune to be with feminist professors, changing lives one by one by one by one.

  5. Thanks for the kind words and stories, all. We'll see about getting a broader audience for this post -- Stay tuned! ;-)

    One of the wonderful things about academic life is that we can be taught by those we never met -- through the books we read or the teachers who have been taught by others -- as Dr. Crazy's story suggests.

    The vagaries of life, indeed, Julie, and of the life of words and the mind in particular . . . .

  6. Anne McClintock at NYU opened my eyes to the gorgeous combination of archives, New Historicism and feminist studies. Homi Bhaba came at me like a gun but Anne took the time and had the inclination to show us everything, everything about her book and the 19th Century. Then, last year, Sandra Gilbert came to teach as the guest poet in our Department. I was dumbfounded and sat in the first class. It was all I could do to contain myself; in fact, I know that I was totally taking time away from the undergraduates in the room who struggled with some of the readings but were engaged and enthralled. Today, I taught Judith Butler and showed them "Paris is Burning." Then we debated performativity and masculine/feminine as synchronous. Wish every class session could be about these topics. We too are being squeezed for seminars; the honors seminar is the only one and next year it's mine to slather with Digital Humanities. Oh, the days of being back in the classroom as the student. I miss those days.

    Thank you for such a wonderful and moving relived experience. Also know that you too are like that for me as well.

  7. Perhaps I've merely been lucky, but experiences such as yours have thankfully defined my own experience as an undergrad. At both the community college from which I transferred (Harford Community College) and UMD, I've been continuously helped along by professors who've inspired me and had an unforgettable impact on my life. Most importantly, all of them took a personal interest in me, as you described happening in your own experience. They praised me or offered criticism depending on what I needed and when. They were willing to talk with me just to talk, when my excitement over material was too great to be addressed within the limited in-class time available to us. And, at both schools, they've supported me through some of the most difficult times of my life, offering me a kind of support that extends far beyond the range of their positions' 'official' obligations. Only through the recommendations of such Professors at HCC could I have gotten the scholarships that allowed me to attend UMD (for the most part, I've had to pay my own way through college). Then, at UMD, I met professors whose impact on my life has been no less substantial. I often think about these professors when I consider my own potential career in teaching, and the overwhelmingly positive impact that they've had on me is indeed a great incentive to try and pass on the kind of gift they've given to me to others.

    Take, for example, a certain lady who was crazy enough to advise my thesis on Naked Lunch... ;)

    I would give personal shout-outs, but there's not enough room... =(
    However, I hope this alleviates your worries just a bit. There are at least some students lucky enough to be getting the kind of experience you feel academia is ceasing to offer its students. (Although, I do worry that many other students haven't been so fortunate as I have... your blog post is still very timely for that reason.)

  8. Very nice post. I, too, attended one of those large midwest universities where I was introduced to feminism and feminist criticism & theory. My first women & lit course was a seminar course that met in Lincoln Hall on the U of I campus and was taught by a male graduate student. The reading list was long on books about women (Moll Flanders, Daisy Miller, and a D.H. Lawrence poem on eating figs) and short on texts by women. But we did have to attend a guest lecture by the authors of Madwoman in the Attic--so I came away with my first glimpse of the possibilities of turning a feminist lens onto texts and the world.

    In hopes of saving some of the precious things you write about--but most notably small classes where students have the opportunity to see & experience the transformative potential of connecting intellectual passion and engagement with their own lives and passions--I have just made my first contribution to the Illinois annual fund. (Well, this and because I spent hours reading the blogs at Illinois on furloughs and organizing that you directed me to).

    Does this mean you, too, could count as one of my teachers . . . ? (and yes, that would make you one of America's 20 most powerful lesbians).

  9. Just remember, dear Moose, that, like Prof. Gubar and that crazy woman with whom you reside, you have rocked many of your students' worlds.

  10. Great post, not only for what you say about Gubar (whose work I've read, but whom I don't know) but about the loss of opportunity for similar experiences given the current economic downturn.


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