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.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Gangster Car

Mike, the excellent self-taught trumpet player in our high school dance band, loved my 1946 Dodge. He called it our gangster car because, with the humped trunk and the bug-like profile, it resembled those mobster vehicles in the movies. Mike called it “our” car, that is, the band’s, and I didn’t mind. In fact, I felt some pride in being not only the bassist for the group, but the transporter as well.

One summer night in 1957 the Hi Fi’s, as we called ourselves, had a gig in a town about 12 miles from our home. We loaded the drum set into the trunk along with the guitars and amps The other instruments, including my old fashioned bass fiddle, we arranged inside the passenger section. The bass took up a lot of space, almost the entire car, with the body center rear and the neck stretching to the dash. All five Hi Fi’s bunched around and under it like well-dressed contortionists. It was Mike’s idea that we all dress alike--black slacks, white jackets, pink shirts-- and comb our hair like James Dean.

There was a great turnout for the dance, over a hundred people as I recall. We were thrilled to see so many there since we got a good percentage of the house. Our group played such popular tunes as “When my Baby Walks Down the Street (all the birdies go tweet tweet tweet),” “Sugar Blues” (Mike blew that one just like Clyde McCoy), “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” and our theme song, “Blue Moon.” The refreshments were great, the girls were pretty and friendly and the money was right.

After the event, Mike wanted to drive the gangster car back home and, being pretty tired from thumping the bass, I agreed. Mike was giddy from the successful evening and excited about driving like James Cagney, to whom he bore a striking resemblance. I never pushed the old vehicle over 50, since it started vibrating and making threatening noises above that speed. But that night when I looked across the neck of the old bass at the speedometer, it registered 65. Mike ignored the pinging, popping and vibrating, keeping the old Dodge floored, probably pretending to be running from the cops. About six miles down the road, the engine had had enough. It wheezed like a laryngitic banshee, coughed up a rod and threw pieces of blackened camshaft out like candy at a parade.

The mood changed instantly in the Dodge from joy to gloom. Mike was full of chagrin and remorse. All he could say was, “I’ll make this right, Dan.” We caught a ride on in to El Dorado in a pickup truck that smelled like pigs and the next day Mike and I towed the poor old Dodge to my side yard. I ordered and installed a rebuilt engine from Sears with music money. The abused but refreshed gangster car ran fine for another year before the rear end fell out. Mike wasn’t driving then. I sold the noble old vehicle for parts. I lost money but had already garnered many great memories.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Steady Study

My step-father had interesting ways of saying things and he mispronounced many words. Soon after he married Mother when I was about six, I noticed that he referred to coffee dregs as drugs, as in, “Ain’t nothing left of this coffee but the drugs.” A slice was a slaish, concrete was con-creek and a plumb bob was a plumb barb. I enjoyed the linguistic variety, but Mother didn’t. She spent 40 years “correcting” him to no avail.

Pop pronounced the word “steady” as if it were “study.” I first noticed it when we were out quail hunting together when I was about eight. Pop was training a bird dog puppy named Bess and when she went into point, he would say, “Study, girl, study.” I actually thought for awhile that Pop was telling the dog to study the situation until it dawned on me that he was trying to keep the dog at steady point so she wouldn‘t flush the covey.

Of further interest was the fact that the reverse pronunciation was true: Pop said “steady” when he meant “study,” as in, “Boy, go to your room and steady.” (I would only partially obey--I would go to my room and draw or daydream, but I would seldom study.)

And my grades reflected this academic neglect all the way through school. So much so that near the end of my senior year in high school, my acid-tongued history teacher called Mother and told her that if I didn’t make at least a “B” on the history final, I would not graduate. When Mother marched me to the teacher’s room after school the next day, the teacher gave me an outline with page references to passages in the text book (which I had never bothered to open), so I stayed up the next night or two steadily studying. To my amazement, what I studied was interesting and even pleasant. I made a “B” and proudly received my high school diploma later in the week.

But I didn’t learn how much easier life would be with just a little steady studying until after Uncle Sam got through with me and I started to college. I think the military matured me a bit because I found that if I treated school like an 8-5 job, studying before, between and after classes, I made good grades, and had some free time at night and on weekends. What really surprised me was that I could actually learn and enjoy things like math and physics if I took the time to puzzle the problems out on my own directly after class.

So, Pop may have had something. Steady study makes for success. I eventually earned a Ph. D. degree in English and became a professor and dean. My half-century of involvement in the teaching-learning enterprise has convinced me that perseverance is much more important than intelligence. My advice to struggling students is always this: develop a schedule for concentrated steady study and stay with it. Steady study equals success.