Thursday, June 30, 2011

Irony

In 1967, I started teaching freshman English and attending graduate school at a major Southern land grand university. Apparently, I wasn’t doing as well as I thought discussing literary irony in Eudora Welty stories early in my first quarter there. I noticed that the freshmen didn’t seem to be with me. So I asked flat out, “What is irony?” After a long silence, one fellow blurted out, “Irony is how your well water tastes out in the country.” No one laughed, even though I wanted to. I presented the explanation that irony is incongruity between what is expected and what actually occurs, such as a teacher expecting a good definition from students and getting a lame one.

Ironically, most of my graduate English professors there were not at all like their left-leaning counterparts in many universities during that volatile period of protests, sit-ins and occupations of administration buildings. On the contrary, these professors considered themselves guardians and perpetuators of the sacred tradition of English letters.

Also ironically, in the first meeting of the first graduate course I had there, the English Renaissance professor violated a federal court order by requiring men to wear ties and jackets to the un-air-conditioned seminar. This was the summer quarter in the deep South and it was hot. We all grumbled among ourselves about the dress code then, but, I had to admit that the formal ambience of the class enhanced polite discourse and encouraged learning.

My other class that first summer quarter, however, was quite different. The Twentieth-Century Literature professor was about as eccentric as they come. Ironically, he sometimes parked in the president’s designated parking space because he “had a class to get to and the president didn’t.” Also, he squatted in the middle of his desk to lecture, filling his pipe with tobacco from a white mailing envelope and calling on people by name to respond to esoteric questions.

His methodology seemed strange, but, ironically, we all learned to think on our feet and to ask questions to clarify questions. We also admired his eloquence as he directed the three-hour seminar without a single note before him. His modus operandi was to read a passage from Conrad, Faulkner or Lawrence and then ask questions, refining our responses with his own insights and those of the literary critics.

As my graduate career went on, I had a number of other unusual professors there, none as skilled at drawing the best from students as the six-foot-five ex-pugilist Victorian professor. Once in his small seminar room, the 12 of us sat around a big table. He sat at one end, always smoking a corncob pipe and drinking from a huge mug of hot chocolate, tipping his chair back with his sandal-clad feet on the table. Once, when he made a significant point in his lecture, he tipped too far and all 280 pounds of him sprawled on the floor with a thud. Hot chocolate and live pipe ash sprayed all over him. The class members were dumbfounded until he said, ironically as he got up, “Laugh, people.” We did . . .ironically.

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