Teaching in the Rhetoric Department


After a couple of years in graduate school, and after earning a masters’ degree, I was looking around for a possible teaching position at the U of M.  I heard they were hiring in the Rhetoric Department at the Institute of Agriculture on the St. Paul campus.  I taught my first college class there in the fall of 1962.  It was Beginning Speech, and I was supposed to give an introductory lecture to four assembled sections in front of the head of that department.  It was a disaster.  I tried to do way too much.  In a 50-minute lecture, at 8 o’clock in the morning, for their first college class in their first quarter of their freshman year, I tried to teach farm kids fresh from the country in one short lecture the scope and breadth of literature from Ancient Greece up to the moderns.  Looking back, I’m amazed they didn’t throw things at me.
But I loved teaching and I soon got the hang of it.  I taught a couple of speech classes and some freshman English classes.  In my first freshman English class I had a cowboy who wrote about shoeing horses and riding in rodeos.  I thought I was in heaven.  Helping him with small things but encouraging him to write made me believe I was doing something useful.
A few years later I was grading papers.  The assignment was to analyze a poem. An older student had written about an audience “listening to their wireless, sipping their cowslip tea.”  There were no quotation marks and no context for the paragraph.  Obviously the student had plagiarized a critical essay of the poem written 50 years before.  I gave the student an F and wrote that he was seriously in jeopardy of being thrown out of college.  A younger student that I liked came in to see me.  He explained that the older student was a driving instructor at his old high school, and he had been told that he had to take some college classes to keep his job.  I talked to the older student, explained what plagiarism was, told him about quotation marks and citing sources, and gave him a C for the course.  Inflexible standards of scholarship were not as significant, I found out, as a man keeping his job.
I enjoyed the lunches at the faculty club.  I loved the banter, the discussions about the war in Vietnam, but I was naïve about the politics of the department.  I believed academic freedom meant you should think and consider all possibilities of everything.  I had discovered marijuana, and like every other idiot who wants to share his joy with the world I told some of my friends in the department.  Eventually, the head of the department called me in and told me that this academic year would be my last.  It was being done in a nice way, very friendly, but it was clear I was being fired.  There was nothing wrong with my teaching.  I had completed my Ph.D. by this time, but I just didn’t measure up to the Institute of Agriculture Department of Rhetoric’s notion of what it meant to be an academic.  I didn’t fit in.  I wasn’t collegial.
I had been looking for a full-time position for the past year, and this development added urgency to the search.  I went to a speech teacher’s convention in Chicago that winter and interviewed for jobs. I make a good first impression.  It’s only after someone gets to know me for a while that they realize how much trouble I can be.  I was offered two jobs—an assistant professorship at Smith College or an assistant professorship at the University of Houston.  I did a quick calculation and decided that I’d probably get killed teaching in Texas and it would be safer and more fun to teach the ruling class under glass at Smith.

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