I’m going to deviate from a chronological order and jump ahead about 15 years to the next teacher… particularly because I will be seeing this professor tonight at her annual holiday party, so why not?
I don’t think there is a single English teacher or professor I’ve had who instilled fear in me like my thesis director did. I don’t mean the sort of fear one has an uncaring, dictatorial academic brute–not by any means. Instead, I found myself paying more-than-due diligence to my preparation for class discussion, ensuring any and all email correspondence was thoroughly combed over for grammatical errors, and that my general communications were done with a careful attention to detail. This person made me sweat the small stuff.
I took one class with this professor because I love medieval literature and this is her field of expertise. No joke–she’s studied under some of the more well-known and established scholars in the field at one of the leading institutions for graduate programs in literature. When I introduced myself to her at the beginning of the semester and expressed my interest in having her work on my thesis, she said we would consider my Chaucer class as a sort of audition–if it looked good, she’d work with me. A 3-month long audition.
Suffice to say, I busted my butt off for her more than anyone else I have and I’d place my efforts in her class and on my thesis right alongside how hard I worked at the Field Artillery Officer Basic Course (NOT a happy time in my professional life). Hundreds of hours were spent reading primary, secondary, and tertiary sources as I winnowed my argument from a grand, overgeneralized inaccurate mess to a much more finely tuned, coherent observation spanning nearly 90 pages. Every submission of every chapter came back with numerous corrections–and not always couched in the softest of terms.
One time, in particular, I remember sitting down in her office while we were reviewing a particular set of passages. She clearly expressed her dissatisfaction with my writing style–cumbersome, wordy, and chock full of passive sentences (always a long-term struggle for me). Although she told me my ideas were very strong and compelling, she also made it clear to me in no uncertain terms that this was acceptable for a student aspiring to get his Ph.D. or publish. I remember feeling the blood drain from my face as I mumbled: “I’m going to have to start from scratch.” And I did. But I also thanked her for being so blunt and upfront. Too many times I recall teachers overlooking some of the technical weaknesses of my writing because of compelling ideas and illustrative language. Sure, no one likes getting taken to task or have their faults pointed out, but if I hadn’t had that wake up call, I might be walking around with a much more inflated notion of my abilities than I now know I should have. And frankly, it’s continued to be an invaluable lesson as I go back and proof, edit, and revise current works.
I would be remiss if I ended this post with an impression that I somehow labored under a taskmaster. I didn’t. As we prepared to finish my thesis paper, she had me over to her house from a little before 9:00am until well after 6:00pm where she sat at one end of her kitchen table making final suggestions and corrections while I sat on the other end making those revisions. She cooked me breakfast, made me lunch, and when we were done, she and her husband invited me to stay for dinner where talked a little about the project as well as the value of John Stewart and the Daily Show. It was never about ego–it was about serving as the “sharpening stone” to my oft-time dull blade. And sharpening a blade means grinding away slowly and surely to finally hone the blade. Many students chafed under her in the classroom–I grew significantly.
SO… if students wonder why I can be an exacting instructor at times, it’s the fingerprints of my professor who had a long-term vision in mind for her students.