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MAY 2, 2012 8:45PM

Goodbye, Mr. Erlich (Thoughts on Retirement)

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For everything there is a season and a time for

every matter under heaven. (Eccl. 3.1)


            After thirty-five years teaching at Miami University in Oxford, OH, I retired in 2006. My retirement was my choice; colleagues had told me that when it was time to retire I'd know, and I knew.

            Part of that knowledge stemmed from straightforward economics built into the Ohio retirement system. The unsentimental number-crunchers responsible for such things wanted faculty to stick around for our thirtieth through thirty-fifth years of service; after that, they made it increasingly more attractive for us to retire and less attractive to keep working.

            Experienced professors in their late fifties and early sixties, Yes! Geezers with declining productivity and increasing medical costs, old farts with a lot of rank and seniority and significant salaries — uh, no.

            Still, part of the inducement to get faculty retired was the opportunity to get hired back and work half-years for (at that time and place) up to three years.

            I'd sold my house in 2006, at the top of the market, and was living in an apartment. Economic logic was for me to retire at sixty-two, live in the apartment, work part-time for three years, and then, and only then, fully retire and get my butt to the west coast for good weather, fewer attack trees — Oxford, OH, is in a major allergy area — and my last chance to sell my soul to the film industry.

            I didn't wait but retired immediately after thirty-five years, moving on and buying a condo in a California housing market I was well aware was about to collapse.

            It was no time to buy a house but time for me to retire.

            As a fairly typical professor at a public university, my job was divided into three parts: teaching, scholarship, and service; for purposes of rewards and punishments, those were weighted at Teaching: forty percent, Scholarship (research, publication): forty percent; service: twenty percent.

            Part of my service was a kind of journalism, which I enjoyed and — obviously — still do: I applied my publicly-financed training to writing newspaper guest columns on public issues. Much of the rest of my service was doing a job for the Miami University English Department most of my colleagues really didn't want to do, and which the Department Chair really needed done well. I was "Student Mediator" and handled student complaints against teachers.

            Mediation was interesting and rewarding work, but I didn't often mediate. What I did, mostly, was paperwork, guiding students and faculty through a bureaucratic process. And I listened to complaints; I'm a good listener. But I did similar work as a fraternity officer when I was nineteen and twenty, so year after year of sympathetic listening was a challenge to my patience, but that was pretty much all the challenge to it. I'd listen, and then — since it was usually way too late for mediation — the student, instructor, and I would go through the process of a complaint about a grade.

            My first scholarly essay appeared in 1967, and I had rounded off my career in 2000 with a big book on Ursula K. Le Guin (now available at a reasonable price from Borgo Press). I've published two scholarly essays since retiring, and a note — and I've edited for friends and delivered the keynote speech at a conference. Still, by 2006 I'd pretty much said what I had to say.

            And for much of my scholarly career, I'm not sure many people were listening to what I had to say. Mine was and is an old-fashioned kind of empirical "close-reading" literary and film criticism, with strong social, political, and ethical concerns. The newer fashion is what I see as philosophy, where the social, political, and ethical concerns can get highly abstract, and esthetic — "formal" — aspects of the works get less attention than I think they deserve.

            As a practical matter, though, service and scholarship weren't even half of my job; most of my effort went into my teaching.

            Teaching for me had always involved "intermittent reinforcement," as Behaviorist psychologists put it, but I'd really gotten off when my students taught me something I didn't know or when I saw a figurative light going on behind a pair of eyes not used to a whole lot of thoughts going past behind them.

            Toward the end of my career, the intermittent positive reinforcements became less frequent in my teaching undergraduates; the negative reinforcements — mildly unpleasant moments — became more frequent.

            Part of what was going on was simply natural: I got older; my students didn't. Undergrads tend to be eighteen to twenty-one; the gap between eighteen and twenty-six is already significant; the gap between eighteen and fifty-six is wide. There were increasing numbers of (collegiate-length) generations between me and my students, increasing differences in backgrounds.

            Part of my increasing discomfort stemmed from changes in the academic demographics of college students: more Business majors and, more to the point, an undergraduate culture that became increasingly stereotypical B-school. Or, for you older folk out there, more stereotypical "Gentleman 'C'" students: i.e., college as a kind of finishing school to be enjoyed by a gentleman who didn't have to worry about finding a job after getting (or not getting) a degree.

            There was no change in "The College Student" between 1966, when I started, and 2006, when I finished; there's no such animal. There were changes, though, in the percentages of students falling into different "typologies," changes in the campus "cultural dominant." As a couple of my students reshaped those pedantic phrases into essay titles, more undergrads were into "College: Half-Way House to Adulthood" and "College: The Four-Year Vacation."

            Alternatively, and/or additionally, there was just more honesty, and/or less sophistication and professionalism.

            In any event, in the view from the front of the class — my students were more obvious about being bored and more open about what they wanted from me: a good grade, efficiently achieved.

            This gets tricky. I could have gotten more boring in some absolute sense; my students may have become more easily bored. Well, etc. I think the major issue wasn't so much my becoming more boring or they're getting more bored, but that more students didn't bother to hide their boredom.

            A bit of indirect evidence here, something not related to my teaching.

            The Film Studies program had a brief series where we brought in alumni who did serious work in the movie industry. This included a friend of mine I'll call Mike, Mike-the-Movie-Producer.

            I introduced Mike-the-Producer to the Chair of my Department, who said, about one-eighth seriously, "Rich, tell your students in production to place their lips firmly on Mike's butt when he arrives, and keep them there until he leaves."

            A number of people did suck up to Mike while he was there, and they were wise to do so: if they got to Hollywood, he was someone who might someday be able to help them.

            None of those people, however, were Miami University undergrads; they were mostly twenty-something and older folk who'd driven in for Mike's presentation.

            I'm not sure it's that clichéd complaint of a sense of entitlement, but many of my students had a sense of self-worth and comfort in the universe that was mostly admirable but also sometimes self-defeating and, now and then, delusional.

            Increasing numbers of my students were going for a gentleman's "C" — now the gender-inclusive and grade-inflated genteel "B+" — without being genteel. Their parents had high incomes (Miami University is the most expensive public university in the country), but few had landed wealth or a family-owned company to inherit. For the most part, my students would have to work for a living, and they needed high-paying jobs to live the lives to which they had grown accustomed.

            Which means they needed to know how to cultivate people who could help them.

            Or at least not offend unnecessarily those in positions to do them good or do them harm.

            I was the Student Meditator. I dealt professionally with issues of professional ethics. I had graded "blind" my entire career, making sure I didn't know the name of the student whose written work I was grading. Still, I started quoting to my students the Haitian proverb, "Do not insult the mother alligator until after you have crossed the river." On one occasion, I put two chairs together, sat in one, put my feet up on the other, pulled my cap down over my face, crossed my arms, and asked my class what they thought that body language was saying to a professor teaching a class.

            My reading of the body language as "F*ck you, a**hole; you're boring me!" was stronger than they would put it, but we agreed that the tenor of the message was something like that. "I can see you from up here!" was my final comment.

            On another occasion, in a film-studies class, I put on the theme of The Godfather and said in my best Don Corleone voice, "Someday — and this day may never come, but some day — you may want a favor from me: entrée with Michael, some punk from Tattaglia rubbed out, an extension on a paper, a letter of recommendation …. Some day you may want a favor, and I'll ask 'Has this student shown respect …?'"

            It was funny; I got a laugh. But earlier in my career I wouldn't have had to explain about showing — not necessarily feeling, but showing — respect.

            Or needed to explain about professionalism.

            Shortly before I retired, I found myself reminding my students of the folklore on "the oldest profession" and suggesting that the heart of professionalism remained a crucial skill of that oldest profession: showing an enthusiasm one might not feel, "And believe me," I said, "after thirty-some years of teaching, a lot of the time I am faking it. If I can do it; you can."

            Now if you, dear reader, have made it this far through this essay, another problem for me will be obvious to you: I was a masculine-style, informal or crude — depending how one looked at it — instructor, in the manner of "radic-libs" of the late 1960s. I had an ideological commitment to "dialectic": to teaching through challenge and argument; and fewer and fewer of my students wanted to argue.

            An example: One day a student came in for a conference, and I greeted her with, "Before we get started, let me thank you for your comment in class today; it was really beautiful." She said, "Then you're not angry?" And I said, "Why would I be angry?"

            "I thought you disagreed with me."

            "In theory," I said, "if my courage held — I'd die in defense of that position."

            "I thought you were angry with me; you argued."

            "They pay me to do that," I said. "In all my classes, but especially writing classes. Not all the time — but we need to get at where you're coming from, how you'll support your argument, where you can take it …."

            "You should have told us," she said. And after a moment I responded, "Yes, you're right; I should have told you." And next class meeting I told that class — and told all my other classes — that I'd argue with them.

            As a freshman at eighteen, I assumed my teachers would argue with me; I just assumed that's what one did in college.

            I'm not sure how the changing gender demographics of American universities worked here, and I'm not convinced it is crucial that women started outnumbering men, at Miami at Oxford, upper-middle-class women.

            More important, I think, is that idea from a male student of "College: Half-Way House to Adulthood," which opposed my slogan of "College Is For Grownups."

            I had always said that my teaching was inappropriate for children, and I think I was getting in my classes increasing numbers of children — and children can't be expected (or desired) to be sophisticated; and children are entitled to nurturing.

            I try to give people sympathy, empathy, mercy, and such — we all deserve that — but I wouldn't give college student the sort of nurturing, absolute affection, and reinforcement of self-worth owed to children.

            Not to large people who could vote and be drafted.

            Not when doing so would contribute to arrested development.

            So especially with teaching, it was time for me to leave. The State of Ohio wanted me gone, and I'd had a good run for most of forty years.

            It was time. 

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Really fascinating. I would like to read more of your writing.
I can confirm that *some* undergraduates see College! as a four-year vacation. As a ResNet technician for Miami IT Services, I frequently went to student dorm rooms when students were having trouble connecting to the network, accessing their email, etc. (this was back in Ye Olde Tymes before Windows XP and its progeny really shored up the TCP/IP stack) Freshmen males had disproportionate numbers of video game consoles in their dorm rooms, sometimes multiple video game consoles. And big TVs. And majors that seemed designed to maximize time spent outside of class using those video game consoles and big TVs.

Then again, living in the nerd dorm for my tenure at Miami, I also saw the opposite side: people who really enjoyed learning things and came to university to learn things and also to argue and be argued with. Of course, the universe is hardly fair: the same gentlemen scholars who lectured me on the virtues of *single-malt* scotch and majored in Classics aren't making big bucks at P&G. That's reserved for the kids who played video games.

Really nice piece about the age as a teacher. Cultural references, that get's harder over time, as its really not normal to completely understand what people farther and farther in time are really thinking, although, they also need to know what people of times and places are like too. Ditto Kathy Knechtges.
It sounds to me like you were burned out, which happens. I also think the students can sense that. Some students are harder to reach than others, no question. But age does not have to be a factor. If the enthusiasm is there, even an old professor can ignite young students.