Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Getting to Where You Are, Part 2: The Career

This story continues from the previous blog, and this part concerns graduate school.

After graduating from Carnegie-Mellon with my undergraduate BS (not a BA) in Physics and English, I knew I would need to go to graduate school for study in English. So, in some ways, any career/work/day-job decision was nicely delayed. Indeed, I believe many people then went to graduate school for, at least one reason, to delay the really big concern of “what am I going to do?” I attended the University of Pittsburgh, where I got a position as Teaching Assistant and then later as Teaching Fellow—so my tuition was covered, and I even made a little money.

I gained tremendous experience from teaching (two sections each term) and the many papers a graduate student writes. But I wasn’t enjoying literature as much as I did as an undergraduate. This phenomenon might be inevitable, because when you become a graduate student, your study of books grows more regimented, demanding, competitive. An uncomfortable self-justification creeps in, making the once wide-open excitement almost embarrassing, a feeling of “I have to leave that behind now.” I’m not criticizing graduate school, but the new professionalism automatically brings a self-conscious perfectionism that colors what you do.

And maybe because of that, to this day I still feel that my major role as a teacher is to instill the excitement of learning into my students—that great thrill I had when an undergraduate myself. And I’m so happy that the one positive evaluation comment I most often get is, “He was excited by what he taught.” Long do I hope to be!

And maybe also because of this frustration, I turned again to my original interests of art, science, and popular fiction, even comic books, and especially science fiction. Though I had kept reading my favorite authors (Norton, Clarke, Heinlein, Anderson), I found new and fascinating developments in the genre (the New Wave had left its influence, authors like LeGuin, Delany, Aldiss, and Ballard were doing their best work, and for the first time I encountered Stanislaw Lem). And suddenly, because the genre was spawning new interest, writing literary criticism about science fiction didn’t seem so ludicrous anumore. Maybe I could get grad-school mileage even out of my old interest too.

When it came time for me to propose my dissertation topic, I took the plunge and said, science fiction. Very luckily, some faculty were interested and I got the topic approved. I thus managed to write one of the earliest critical works on science fiction, and it was eventually published by UMI Research Press, which specialized in bringing selected dissertations to print (I was published in a series that included Kim Stanley Robinson’s groundbreaking work on Philip K. Dick).

I perhaps aimed too high in what I tried to do, setting up a huge theory of SF that dealt with “experimental” and “conventional” modes. But the second half of the study, on the scientific and stylistic means of “alien-creation,” held up well, and I’ve returned to the ideas there in later works. Some of it will be elaborated, from the writer’s point of view, in a future study I hope to do on Description in Popular Fiction, much of which will probably appear first in this blog.

But back to my story, and an interesting “fated” occurrence—that wasn’t fate at all.

Seton Hill (it was a college then), in Greensburg, PA, not far from Pittsburgh, was looking for an English hire, and a member of their hiring committee asked a professor she knew at Pitt if he was aware of any possible candidates. He wasn’t, but—very luckily—the first person he asked was the head of my dissertation committee, and I had just received my Ph.D. She passed the information on to me immediately.

I called the college. But I learned that, as well as teaching literature, the person needed a background in Secondary Certification for English to create and teach a Teaching of English course for potential secondary teachers. I didn’t have that background.

But I felt the interview would still be good experience, so I asked if I could come anyway.

Maybe assuming that I’d never be hired made me very relaxed and confident (my presentation was on the use of science fiction in teaching writing), for they told me, a week or two later, that I was their first choice.

I was totally unprepared. I had been certain I wouldn’t get it. I even reminded them about my lacking secondary certification. But they felt I could learn enough to design a course on the Teaching of English. I certainly knew about the subject, but I was nervous about high school expectations. And so, because of that (and for several other personal reasons—I was reluctant, for example, to stay in my home territory), I said no to the offer.

There was one big problem. The minute I hung up the phone I knew—I knew!—I had made the wrong choice.

I agonized for days. Finally, after about a week and feeling I had to face my shame, I called back and asked if I still could be considered.

Very luckily, the search was still open, and eventually, after more visits and interviews, I was accepted into the English faculty of Seton Hill.

I’ve never regretted it.

This entry, like the last one, has gone on long enough. I’ll stop here and pick up the next segment (which will be the last, I promise!) in the next blog.

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