(Article posted with the permission of Seven Days.)
Dec. 17-29, 2003
An aging alum books it back to school
by Paula Routly
MIDDLEBURY, Vt.-Four-thousand-eight-hundred-and-one pages. That’s how much I’ve read since September, when I had the brainy idea of taking a course at Middlebury College. “Politics and the Novel” appealed because its weekly Wednesday seminar fit into my schedule. Its themes - the reciprocal relationship between politics and literature - sounded relevant. And despite having a word-filled job, I wanted to spend more time reading. This was a book group on steroids. Over the course of three months, we knocked off seven works of fiction and a 769-page biography of Che Guevara. By the end, I was wearing stronger glasses and my couch had acquired a permanent dent.
Journalism is probably the closest thing to school that real life has to offer. You research a subject, triage the information and spend an unpleasant day cranking out a “paper” to prove you learned the stuff. Where students get grades, you get reader comments, letters to the editor and a paycheck. In place of tenure-talking professors, there are long-suffering editors. But instead of walking around campus feeling scholarly and wise, the general-assignment reporter trips through life painfully aware of all that she doesn’t know - or crash-learned last week and already forgot.
Not that I knew much to begin with. I graduated 20 years ago from Middlebury with a joint major in French and Italian. Getting up to speed in two languages left me feeling deficient in a number of subjects. I never got a chance to study Aristotle, who said, “Education is the best provision for old age.” Intellectually, I always felt half-cooked. In short, after two decades of meeting weekly deadlines, I had a serious case of ivy envy. One solution within driving distance was a course at my alma mater.
Everyone else had a legitimate reason to be in the cushy seminar space on the fourth floor of the renovated Old Chapel - a huge step up from the high-school-style desks and wooden folding chairs I remembered from the old days. The “intros” were revealing - and, to some degree, intimidating. “I’m an International Studies-Latin America major. I spent last spring in The Hague,” one student announced. Others had studied abroad in France, Chile and Niger.
My sophisticated classmates at Middlebury were born the year I was supposed to graduate: 1982. The professors, both tenured, were also younger than me. Poli sci prof Jeff Cason finished at Earlham in 1984. Alison Byerly - who teaches Victorian literature when she’s not fulfilling her duties as Middlebury’s vice president for academic affairs - is a 1983 Wellesley grad. They were team-teaching this international-studies class for the first time.
I watched with great interest as they made their way through the syllabus - Cason provided the political context for the books we were reading; Byerly was the literary guide. When you’re young, professors look infallible. But when you’re a little older, you notice the extent to which they are improvising, like jazz musicians. I eagerly observed the shared glances, the dropped notes and the occasional surprise jam. It sounded great to me.
That they were playing it by ear only increased my appreciation for the way Cason and Byerly ran the class, helping students articulate their ideas and steering the three-hour discussions in productive directions. Although normally outspoken, I tried to restrain myself so as not to dominate the discourse or look like too much of a brown-noser. Occasionally, they’d cut me in with a comment like, “Well, at least three of us in this room know what it’s like to be married.”
But mostly I felt like one of the crowd - of 16. After a few weeks, the profs stopped taking attendance because no one ever missed the class. There were no latecomers, either, after Cason made it clear that tardiness would not be tolerated. I learned my lesson the second week when I got stuck behind a slow milk truck on Route 7. By the time I reached the fourth floor, the door was locked. I stood outside for a humiliating five minutes before someone finally heard me knocking and opened it.
Thankfully, they’d saved my seat, next to an English-poli sci major. Until the last few weeks of the semester, she was getting up every morning at four to crew on Lake Dun-more. The executive editor of the school newspaper also showed up sleepy sometimes, just hours after putting the Middlebury Campus to bed. During class, he typically used a “house” phone in the room to do a press check. For me, it was a reality check. But there was one big difference between us: Despite the scheduling challenge, he always looked like he’d stepped out of a Kenneth Cole ad.
No doubt about it. The student body has cleaned up considerably since the first semester of my freshman year, when I dragged my sorry ass to “Russian Drill” every weekday morning at eight o’clock. They’re also much more polite and respectful - some would say politically correct. I was the one who brought up the question of possible sexual activity between two characters in Middlemarch. The class response was Victorian. When Byerly had us all over for dinner, they sent a group thank-you card. Outbursts and outrageousness at Middlebury have gone the way of fraternities and downtown drug dealing.
There’s no reason to leave the campus now that you can get espressos, smoothies and local microbrews at The Grille - the college’s user-friendly student complex. Its proximity to Old Chapel meant that someone always came back from the break with snacks to share. My route to class also took me by the science-center construction site, the latest manifestation of Middlebury’s ongoing edifice complex. What hasn’t changed on campus? The genetically impossible ratio of blondes to brunettes.
It was weird coming into that closed community once a week from the outside. I’d find a place to park on College Street and walk into another world. My classmates would often be buzzing about some big campus news story - President McCardell’s resignation, for example. All fall a battle was raging over Middle-bury’s month-long January semester known as “J-term.” Ninety-seven percent of students want to maintain it, according to a Campus poll. Most professors think it’s a gut and favor replacing it with longer fall and spring semesters.
But even when I wasn’t on campus, I had an online connection. I was amazed to learn I could access and print out the reserved reading from my computer in Burlington, which cut down on my visits to the college library - they’re building a bigger, better one of those, too. Emailing professors and sending papers electronically were all new experiences for me. And although the IT guys never did manage to patch me into the electronic discussion, I could read everybody else’s comments. I learned that some of the students who rarely talked in class in fact had plenty to say.
We were required to do two postings a week, but nothing ever started showing up until about 48 hours before class. That’s because we were so busy reading the material - assignments ranged from 400 and 600 pages a week. The first two sessions were devoted to Middlemarch, but from then on it was a different book, and country, each week. I passed up parties, movies and dinners out to curl up at home with Nadine Gordimer, Mario Vargas Llosa, Milan Kundera, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Salman Rushdie. My eye-rolling friends were incredulous. “You’re doing it for credit? Omigod, why?”
Because scanning The Burlington Free Press on a daily basis is not the same as spending an evening with The Satanic Verses. Literature requires a level of concentration that the excessive stimuli of the modern world erode over time. I got back in reading shape - with a little help from my twentysomething friends. When you’re studying a book like Satanic Verses - most readers never get past the first page - it’s helpful to compare notes with other people, even if they are 35 miles away.
Keeping dread at bay was more of an issue. Anyone who has been in an undergraduate English class is apt to have experienced the cramming, procrastination and burn-out associated with academics - journalism encourages many of the same bad behaviors. Yet learning for the thrill of knowing something you didn’t before is a privilege. Like voting. I tried to keep that in mind when I was reading, writing or attending class.
I came to look forward to my six-hour at-home reading sessions - it was like yoga for the brain. When life and work got in the way, I stole literary moments at the office, waiting for the doctor, in the bathroom. The stories and characters filled my mind, including those parts I normally devote to errands, phone calls and worrying. All fall, I felt like I was floating. The weekly treks south on Route 7 became a soothing ritual by which I measured the passage of time.
Of course, there was never enough of it. On a number of occasions, I was wholly unprepared for class. And hiding in a seminar with 16 students isn’t easy, especially when you stand out like a sore thumb. But the question Should I skip it this week? never crossed my mind. Nor did I consider blowing off the papers. To the horror of my colleagues, I spent two long writing sessions this fall revisiting “compare and contrast.”
I’d like to say that the writing came easy to me. I’m a reporter, after all, and the process is not all that different from putting together an article. But it was tough juggling multiple books and making the audience adjustment from general public to professors. Not to mention citing all those page numbers. When we got our first assignment back at the end of class one day, I stuffed it into my briefcase and slipped quietly out of the room.
It wasn’t until much later that I took the paper out and pursued it, amazed that after all these years the “grade” still had so much power over me. As a measure of potential or achievement? Old-school versus new-school? My former and current selves? An A-minus was confirmation that the synapses are still firing. As a bonus, both professors attached insightful, page-long critiques.
The final 15-page paper was more grueling. I chose to compare two novels about returning émigrés with the latest from Milan Kundera, in which he makes a compelling case for not going home to the Czech Republic. He traces the nostalgic notion of “The Great Return” back to Ulysses. When I brought the topic to Byerly for approval, she pointed out the personal parallel.
So was it worth the trip? Definitely, even with road construction on Route 7. Do I feel any smarter? No, but I read eight books and got a midd-life look at my alma mater that convinced me it’s a much more “serious” place than it was when I was kicking around on campus. Now if only it had a serious program in continuing ed.
I don’t want to say school is wasted on the young. But why do we give up on learning so soon? Because of the way it’s delivered, in semester-long doses that leave you overstimulated and sleep-deprived? Because at some point in life, practicality outweighs passion and school becomes a means to some career goal?
“I think I’d feel frivolous taking something like literature that was not going to get me more money or a better job,” one of my friends said. “And it’s expensive.” No more than a weekly therapy session, I thought. And it ends.
During the last class, we gave short reports on our then-in-process papers. We also filled out teacher and course evaluations after Byerly bribed us with Bundt cake made from Milky Way bars. Later one of the students came up to me in the hall. We talked about the novelty of having two professors, and she said it was also cool there was yet another adult with life experience in the class. It never occurred to me that they might get something out of having me there.
There was still a little bit of light in the dark-blue sky when I walked back to my car. It was cold, and there was a thin layer of snow on the ground. Yellow lights started coming on in the gray stone buildings and the campus looked, well, classic. I thought of my classmates holed up in their dorm rooms, sweating it out for two more weeks, dreaming of a white. J-term. I kind of like the idea, too. Maybe a course on Aristotle.