Owning My Choice of a Career Path: Hamilton College (1969-72) to Saint Joseph’s University (1972-2016)

Those who have read my previous post about being a Catholic faculty member at Hamilton College, a secular institution despite its Christian foundations, may remember me writing that my practice of Catholicism briefly raised the possibility of my staying on at Hamilton even though it was understood at my hiring that I had no chance of tenure there. This possibility seemed to have been created by some Hamilton students who valued me, some for my teaching and some for the kinship they felt with me by reason of my Sunday appearances at Mass in the Hamilton College Chapel.

Hamilton has a tradition of listening respectfully to student opinions doubtless because of its longstanding mission of encouraging students to think and act on their developing convictions. When a group of them heard I was slated to leave Hamilton fairly soon, they must have told Winton Tolles, the revered and longtime dean of the faculty, that they thought I should stay, a request he must have turned over to the English Department. So the department had one of its senior members, a friend of mine known for his sound judgment, invite me to a round of golf (I was then and remain now a terrible golfer) and as we walked and talked he asked me about the book I was planning to write on the Romantic poet and philosopher, Samuel Taylor Coleridge–more specifically, how far it had advanced. I replied truthfully that, even though I had visited the library of Coleridge manuscripts at the University of Toronto and hoped the book would benefit somewhat from the material in my completed dissertation, my research was still in its initial stages. I added that achieving my purpose in the book, which was to pin down how Coleridge’s understanding of Christianity had changed throughout his career, was a formidable undertaking.

My Office for a time at Hamilton was here

Dean Tolles was apparently unconvinced that my painstaking progress on the Coleridge book kept me from hopping on Hamilton’s tenure track because he phoned me to ask directly whether I wanted to stay on at Hamilton or not. I had by this time spent a miserable Christmas holiday at the Modern Language Association Convention in New York City, where I was unable to find even an interview. I did soon find one at Bryn Mawr College, which the obviously unenthusiastic interviewer seemed compelled to schedule, and another at the new and experimental Livingston College of Rutgers University where my multiple interviewers insisted that I sit on a pillow rather than a chair. When this interview was blessedly over, the department member who had invited me and who agreed with my somewhat rigorously academic point of view, was kind enough to tell me candidly: “you could never be happy here, Ron.” And neither, I suspected, was he.

Meantime my Department chair at Hamilton was careful to tell me that I was welcome to stay there for as long as it took me to find another job. But I was lucky enough to have been offered a position at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and was inclined to accept it for several reasons. I had met my wife Mary in Philadelphia during a one year teaching stint at Saint Joseph’s, where the English department for the most part remembered and valued me. Mary wanted to leave nursing for teaching and, if we stayed at Hamilton, that would have meant back and forth on the New York State Thruway in the middle of winter for education courses at Syracuse University. But most of all, since Mary was from Philadelphia where her parents still lived, if we moved to Philadelphia our two daughters would grow up close to their grandparents. Besides, I didn’t want to be known for years to come at Hamilton as a faculty member who had won favorable treatment because of his religion. So I accepted the job at Saint Joseph’s.

The Barbelin Building at Saint Joseph’s University

One of the students who had advocated for me at Hamilton made it a point to visit my home in Philadelphia early in the fall semester after I had left there just to make sure, as he said, that I was alright! Another, whose marriage to a Kirkland College student in Hamilton’s celebrated “Root Glen” Mary and I attended, and who has since become a highly regarded playwright, briefly took a light administrative job at Saint Joseph’s after his graduation, which he left almost immediately without ever looking me up. I remain unclear about why he did that.

Richard Nelson, once my student at Hamilton, now a distinguished playwright

It would be foolish to say that I have never regretted my decision to leave Hamilton. Hamilton is where I discovered why I wanted to teach college English: because it meant I could encourage still impressionable minds to think independently and share their thoughts with me and each other through their writing and speaking. To this day I believe in this ideal. Educating for a vocation is important, but a liberal education lasts longer.

A few important contacts I had with Hamilton after I left the school, which I shall mention in my next post, allowed me to own the choice of an alternate career path that I have described here.

On Being A Catholic Academic at A Secular Campus: Hamilton College,1969-1972

I was fortunate to have reached my late teens at a time when the Roman Catholic Church in which I grew up climbed out of its protective shell, looked around at American higher education (including graduate schools), and decided it was not that much of a danger to faith after all. Many of my teachers when I was a Jesuit seminarian (1956-65) had their doctoral degrees from Ivy League schools, and Roman Catholics with graduate degrees, laypeople as well as priests, were being hired by secular colleges and universities. But by 1969 a Catholic teaching on a non-Catholic campus, especially a small one like Hamilton College with a long history of choosing only white male Protestants as faculty, was still something of an anomaly.

A Jesuit priest I knew, faced with an oral examination on 18th century literature at Harvard, was asked questions only about Catholic authors until he had to beg the examiners to question him as they would any other Ph.D. candidate. At Hamilton, where I taught from 1969-1972, I faced nothing quite so awkward. The chair of the philosophy department, referring to the common joke about Thomas Aquinas’ questioning how many angels could stand on the head of a pin, graciously complimented the tradition I came from by pointing out that the passage in question in fact dealt with the philosophical problem of the nature of space. So Aquinas was hardly the fool it was so easy to make of him. Similarly endearing, though disparaging of the popular culture of the time, was the remark made to me by the most senior member of English department, who said he could not understand how a religion as historically rich in great music as mine could be assaulting the ears of 1960s congregations with guitar tunes like “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

Despite this graciousness I did notice some discomfort about my religion among my new colleagues. An historian, born Catholic, referred to me and my wife Mary who had registered in the local Catholic parish, as the “practicing Catholics”, as though the “practicing” part was a bit much. No such point was made about the faculty who attended the Presbyterian church in the heart of town or the Episcopalian who dutifully went to church with his family every Sunday right across from our apartment on Williams Street.

The Hamilton College Chapel

There came a time in my stay at Hamilton, however, when my Catholicism became a more important issue than I ever wanted it to be. At the invitation of some Catholic students who attended Mass celebrated by a Catholic chaplain in the Hamilton College Chapel, Mary and I began going to church there some Sundays and on others at our parish in town. I had taught a few of these students in my courses, but I think they all felt an affinity for practically the only Catholic faculty member on campus who made no bones either about his Catholicism or about “practicing” his religion, though without any fanfare.

I had been at Hamilton roughly two years by this time, having finished my dissertation, successfully defended it, and risen in rank from Instructor to Assistant Professor. My department chair, who knew I loved Chaucer, had also temporarily surrendered his claim to that course and handed it over to me. But according to the unwritten terms of my original appointment I had no chance whatever of becoming a permanent tenured member of the Hamilton faculty. That restriction, which applied not just to me but to other young teacher/scholars hired on similar terms, was based on the assumption that we were teaching at so prestigious a school that we were likely to find good jobs elsewhere merely by the fact of having taught for a time at Hamilton. But in the early nineteen seventies the job market for all aspiring faculty members was vastly diminished, a fact that gave rise to the pleasantry that most Ph.D’s were currently driving taxicabs.

How my Catholicism could have resulted in the lifting of my status as a strictly temporary member of the Hamilton faculty will be the subject of my next post.

Honesty in Professional Approval Post 3: Dwight N. Lindley, Hamilton College

By the fall of 1968 I had finished all my work toward a Ph.D in English except for my dissertation, which was still a work in progress. My three year U.S. Steel Fellowship at Case Western Reserve University left me free to take courses and study for two years but in the third required me to teach a basic course in English and to assist a Professor in grading, the latter a dreary task if there ever was one. In November of that third year a faculty member at CWRU who and had been an undergraduate at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York told me of a position just opened there to replace temporarily a senior professor going on sabbatical. He recommended me for the job, which was to begin in January of 1969 and, knowing that Hamilton took a liberal arts education seriously (and still does) I accepted the invitation to interview.

Landing from Cleveland at Oneida County Airport I was greeted by the Chair of Hamilton’s English Department, Dwight N. Lindley. Dwight was a co-editor with Cornell’s Francis Mineka of the later letters of John Stuart Mill and, to make conversation while we drove, he mentioned that his own role in that project was strictly minor. As I was to discover later, the only time Dwight’s honesty was questionable was when he spoke too modestly of his own accomplishments,

Mineka/Lindley Letters of Mill

My interview was at Dwight’s home on Fountain Street in Clinton. With only two or three other English Department members present, I sensed that the job was mine if I chose to take it. Dwight was the last one to put up the pretense of a formal “meeting” when the outcome had effectively been decided already. I took the job then and there and what followed was a couple rounds of Dwight’s s best Scotch, then a delicious dinner artfully prepared by his wife, Janie.

Dwight and Janie were generous people. Shortly after my return to Cleveland I had a letter from Dwight asking me what books were absolutely necessary to continue my work on my dissertation and promising to have them purchased by the library if they weren’t already there. They were to be available to me for as long as I needed them once I arrived at Hamilton in January. They were.

When my wife Mary and I did arrive from Cleveland in our Volkswagen bug, we discovered that Allied Van Lines had placed our student sized load of furniture in the back of the truck and could not deliver it until several days after the promised date. Dwight and Janie immediately put us up, told us not to fret about the length of our stay, and fed us for over a week as though we were part of the family.

Hamilton College, though considerably changed in the nearly 50 years since I taught there, remains centered on teaching students to speak and write effectively and to think independently while learning from each other. These goals accorded well with Dwight Lindley’s scholarly focus on John Stuart Mill, whose best known essay is “On Liberty.” Dwight’s desk at home was generally piled with papers from the Freshman English course he considered to be the core of all his teaching. He spent more of his time making his honest and careful way through these papers than on any of his many professorial tasks. More than any college English teacher I have ever known, Dwight fully understood that students, by sharing their ideas through writing, can discover what they as individuals actually think as opposed to the tired views they pick up from the social majority. Slighting student opportunities to do that will not produce the genuine liberty of differing individual thought on which, Mill argues, a democracy depends for its continued existence. All that gets students is the lingo that happens to be the intellectual currency of the times they live in. (For that reason I was never happy about papers ending with the certainty that their proposed thesis would “make the world a better place.”)

I was about to turn 30 when I met Dwight Lindley; he was 50. He had been an army sergeant major in World War II, blowing up bridges as he once told me. He had high blood pressure, or so I suspected, and was easily “irritated,” especially by sloppy thinkers set on overthrowing the existing order of things, of which there were a great many in the later 1960’s and early 1970’s. He once pushed his insistence on common sense, straightforwardness and forcefulness of opinion so far as to shout uncivilly at colleague during a faculty meeting: “that’s ridiculous!”

Kirkland, an experimental college then attached to Hamilton, once advanced an argument for substituting final grades with written faculty evaluations of each student. Dwight was “irritated,” just as he would have been by letters evaluating faculty members that slid over their possible limitations. I think this rigorous honesty was due to his fear of losing a hold on reality. If you are about to blow up a bridge, you had better not miss a person on your side of the war being on it. Dwight religiously picked up the daily paper before he drove from his home in Clinton up the hill to his Hamilton office. And when much later he was close to dying, he religiously called down from his room to the desk attendant to make sure he had the day, the hour and the minute entirely correct. Though I never laid eyes on a letter he wrote evaluating me, I was always confident that he would be fair while avoiding overstatements of my worth. When exaggerated approval seems to be the order of the day, as it does now, our professions may be in for some trouble.

Honesty in Professional Approval: Post 2 Florence G. Marsh

Florence G. Marsh was my teacher and thesis adviser at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Florence’s Ph.D was from Yale and she was the departmental specialist in Romantic Literature. I had no intention of specializing in Romanticism when I signed up to take her course on that subject. I wanted to become a Medievalist, but the only teacher of medieval literature on the faculty was on sabbatical in 1966, my first year of courses toward the Ph.D, so I was just hunting around for a specialty and accidentally lighted on Florence’s Romanticism course.

The English Department at CWRU surely knew I had just recently left the Catholic religious order known as the Jesuits because it would have had to select me if I was to receive one of two United States Steel Fellowships in English available in the USA (the other was at Yale), and not only was I proud of my Jesuit education but I made a good deal of it in my application for that fellowship. Florence Marsh was never overly impressed by a student’s background, however, though she had some appreciation for mine. She immediately spotted in a paper I wrote for her on the Romantic poet and religious philosopher, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the familiarity with pre-modern philosophy that I had picked up from the Jesuits and that was also familiar to Coleridge. But only the best Coleridge scholars had that advantage then, and Florence encouraged my interest in Coleridge for that reason. The encouragement paid off for me in an essay I published in the prestigious scholarly journal, Studies in Romanticism, which originated in the paper I wrote for Florence.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge as a Young Man

But as my thesis adviser Florence also headed up the faculty committee that administered the oral examination I had to take to verify my knowledge of British writers other than Coleridge. Florence examined me very closely on Edmund Spenser, the major non-dramatic poet of the Renaissance, and on Lord Byron, a Romantic poet in the generation after Coleridge. I think she selected those two because she suspected that Spenser’s anti-Roman Catholicism and Byron’s notorious sexual affairs, especially with other men’s wives, would not be high on the list of authors taught by the Jesuits, and she was dead right about that. So she gave me three weeks from the date of my oral exam to familiarize myself with Spenser and Byron and told me to come back and see the committee then. Nowadays I suppose I could have accused her of discrimination against Catholics but instead I did what she told me.

Edmund Spenser

And was I ever glad! I owe to the part of those three weeks I devoted to Spenser an idea of Christian humanism in the Renaissance that I used in my courses for years afterwards. And to the part I devoted to Byron I owe my continuing fondness (not for his sexual behavior) but for his world view, not so much in his early career as in the Byron of Don Juan, who insisted on the fraudulence of living as though we were all spirit and no body. My attachment to Byron rather surprised students in the courses in second generation Romanticism I taught at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. Had it not been for Florence Marsh those students, most of them Catholic, would probably never have grown acquainted with two of the greatest (and in Byron’s case the most enjoyable) poets in the history of British literature.

Florence was not what you would call a popular teacher. Neither did she have a winning personality. But she was a careful scholar-teacher and an honest woman who did not coddle her students with unearned A’s and B’s. I, my students, and I believe the vast majority of her students, were all in the long run better off for having met up with her. I sent her a copy of my own book on Coleridge (Coleridge’s Progress to Christianity), but that was ten years after she retired from Case Western Reserve, and I I’m not sure the book ever found its way to her doorstep. I do know that her online obituary still exists, and in the place reserved for leaving memories of her there simply are none. Maybe this post will get there, but even if it doesn’t, for me her life demonstrates a Scriptural truth she would not have believed in: that God’s ways are not our ways.

Honesty in Professional Approval: Reflections on my Experience as an Academic

Every time I fill out a profile of myself on a social media account I mention that I went to graduate school at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio and subsequently taught English for three and a half years at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. It is only recently that I have reflected on the individuals in those two schools who helped move me along toward my 40 some year career teaching English at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, and my next several posts will be about them.

While reflecting I have found myself amazed at the honesty of these people. For a long time now professional “approval,” whether of students, teachers or any other job seeker, seems to me to have become almost automatic. A teacher who assigns a student a final grade of less than a B is generally not considered to have given the student an “honest” grade. It is assumed, certainly by the student, that any lower grade must have originated in some petty grudge or another. If I had a doubt about voting to advance a colleague, I was expected to ignore it and write a letter singing that colleague’s praises for fear that suggesting even the slightest criticism would be pounced on by some administrator in the business of saving money by jeopardizing, or at least slowing down, career advancement.

This is not the way I was moved along, and I am extraordinarily grateful for the honesty of those who evaluated me, whatever disappointment I may have felt at the time. My teaching was never flawless, my scholarly production took a long developing, and I made my impatience with most committee meetings clearer than I should have. Nevertheless I did advance, though more slowly than many, and that advancement, unspectacular though it was, is something I am now proud of.

My first example of a person who evaluated me honestly is Professor Florence Marsh, now deceased, who was my thesis adviser. Explaining just how honest she was in managing me, however, is something I will save to my next post.

Later in my Career

Post 4: Business, Religion and the American Fear of Leisure:

In my earlier posts on the subject of Business and Religion I have written about the high value we Americans place on success, especially in business. The rags to riches story is popular in our fiction and we like to say that there is no goal our kids cannot achieve if they are willing to work hard for it. The early American belief that the accumulation of wealth and influence is a sign of God’s favor gave religious sanction to these ideas. But even now the words and recommendations of the rich and powerful remain exaggeratedly important to us. There may be Americans who would be unimpressed by an invitation to party with Bill and Melinda Gates or a well-off campaigner for the presidency, but I doubt those Americans are typical. Most of us still adore success on display.

This reverence goes back to the days when those who succeeded big sincerely believed that their judgments and their wills reflected the judgment and will of God. (See William of Albany in my two previous posts.) But we are now confronted with soaring external success which takes no such religious conviction seriously. Outwardly, President Trump is invariably right in every opinion he holds and every decision he makes. He never admits he made a mistake and never apologizes to anyone because that would make him no different from people like you and me who struggle through each day hoping we thought, talked and acted well. Being mistaken or apologizing would make the President human, and to him being human in that way is for losers. He likes being a god and needs always to appear a winner. I think that is a cover, though, for his inward fear that at any time he could become a loser–that his ratings will go down, that he will be replaced, or that his show of greatness will, like The Apprentice, sooner or later be canceled. There’s desperation under all the President’s bullying–the fear of a world out of his control, beyond his manipulation, a world that could do him in: a slumping economy, a declining stock market, Republican senators who, if there were a serious dent in his popularity with voters, would desert him in a millisecond.

America, indeed the entire world, has to become for our President what he has decided it should be. Dissenters from his views are to be ignored or mocked. Only yes-men and yes-women are to be listened to. How monotonous it must be to live in a world that consists of no one who really counts except oneself: a world empty of independent thought and a multiplicity of views: one that is, I should add, remarkably un-American. Words for President Trump are not to be used to represent realities or describe accurately what’s happening. They exist only to serve his ends. What does it matter if we call it a wall or a fence, or a barrier: those are, as he said “only words.” He can tell us the Russians helped to elect him and a few hours later that they did not. The truth does not matter because it does not exist except for fools, losers, and weaklings. What matters is that his supporters keep bending to his illusions of omniscience and omnipotence, and when they don’t they must be fired. And since there is no truth other than his truth, there can be no such thing as lying.

But we have a law written in our hearts, or so says Scripture and so I believe, a voice that speaks to us inwardly when we have lied or acted immorally. It quietly tells us so, and we have for centuries called that voice conscience. Forever drowning it out must make for a very troubled life.

I admire our work ethic which, along with our focus on success, has helped make America the energetic and innovative country it remains. But when we have half an hour to spare and are so afraid to use it to reflect, or breathe, or take a short walk that we feel compelled to re-check our smartphones, we are overdoing that ethic. It is becoming an addiction, not a choice. At such times I try to remind myself that if I look out the window or step outside for a bit, I will find a world out there that can never again be exactly the same as it is right at that moment. It’s a precious world well worth taking a half hour to look at.