Limbo

pk School Stories: Post-College Limbo
@K c. 1995

Professors
& pk the Good Bad Student

Before skipping through much of public school, college, the army, and the bulk of graduate school to reach the (anti-)climax of my orals, the parent file [Religious Indoctrination] to the above stated my early goal to be worthy of Jesus’ love. It also told how I’d been waiting for God to call on me to fill me in on details. In the meantime, I’d been working them out for myself. A note foreshadows a key moment that arrived in Whitehall Street Induction Station, where I, a helpless draftee was, not very willingly (though nevertheless very-well), helping to draft others. I here cast that shadow a bit further. My best army buddy, another English major and poet of some talent and production, came up to me, leaned over my desk, and said, “Why don’t you and I find some hip little college and spend the rest of our lives teaching there. Of course,” he added, “we’ll need that fucking union card.”

Did we respect graduate school? My friends wording represented us mutually. I insert a relevant quote learned far more recently in the book Complexity: Chris Langton, one of our contemporary geniuses, was being hindered in his innovative work on artificial life by his incomplete graduate work. His advisor said, “The only important thing you need to get out of graduate school is you.”

I’ve already told of Illich’s experience with the Yale faculty: his suggestion that the Ph.D. be abolished was met with the ovation of the doctors standing and applauding as a man.

I’ll now meld the first direct warning I was given personally. In my senior year at Columbia I registered for a “special reading” course given by the great James Zito. I knew it would be heavily into John Donne, then my favorite poet, and I wanted to experience more Zito, the one teacher whose Shakespeare classes other professors sat in on. My first semester paper was on Donne, an area I was already confident in: I could do it based on the reading I’d done before the class commenced. The second semester I decided to be a bit more “responsible”: I chose John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, in part as an act of contrition: this proud Protestant had never read either of Protestantism’s two most influential, secularly-generated appendices: what I’d read of Paradise Lost you could put in your eye; what I’d read of Bunyan you couldn’t put anywhere.

As the paper came due I procrastinated like never before, and that’s saying something. Oh, I’d read the book carefully enough: Part II as well as Part I. I’d even done a little “research.” I could have scribbled something I’d be sure to get away with, but it didn’t feel right. I wasn’t ready. This was heavy stuff.

Commencement arrived. My family gathered. Few of my friends would have bothered to attend — believing the ceremony to be bullshit — had our families not been arriving from far and wide. The College contained only six hundred and fifty-some seniors, but the University commenced all the colleges together. With so many begowned attendees, they didn’t bother to hand out the parchments individually. They wouldn’t have handed me mine anyway: my paper hadn’t been submitted. Six months later I was expelled. A month after that they were calling me up: they didn’t mean it: please, would I finish my paper; my extension was one year from the date it had been due.

I did more research. My notes were voluminous. Four days to the final deadline. I hadn’t written a line. Now I’d have to go without sleep for one hundred hours, getting unbearable headaches as my attention jerked between my notes, the keyboard which I pecked at after hunting, and the poor corrasible sheet coming up line by line. I couldn’t bear it. I had to learn touch typing first. (Word-processing, where were you then?) Twenty-four hours latter I had moderate speed and accuracy. Twelve hours of sleep, and I really began. With an hour or two to spare, I zipped into New York and put my tome in Zito’s box. My parchment came in the mail.

Some months later I was living back on Morningside Heights and sitting in on Zito’s Shakespeare seminar. There were nearly as many graduates there as matriculated undergraduates. One day Zito asked me if I didn’t want my paper back. I got his office hours and stopped by one afternoon. I looked at the paper. B. Oh well, I never thought it was my Donne paper.

Zito didn’t look like he minded if I hung around another minute.

“Do you plan to attend graduate school,” he asked me. “I believe I could be of some help.”
“No way,” I answered. Pause. “Er, what help?”
“Well, first, maybe I could help get you positioned. Then, you’d need a master’s thesis: I could show you what changes to make to this paper so you could submit it.”
“Changes? What changes? What’s wrong with it?”
“You see, Mr. Knatz, we teachers like to feel needed, like to feel that we’re doing something. I could show you the kind of errors that graduate teachers love to correct. You retype this paper so there are no marks on it. Then you type it again, introducing the errors I inform you of. You submit that latter paper. They correct it. You say, “Thank you, now I see,” go to the movies for a few days, and hand in the clean original. Presto: Master’s Degree.”
“You mean you think my paper was all right? How come I got a B?”
“My dear Mr. Knatz: that paper was a year late.”

It’s almost four decades since that happened. I used aspects of the story for at least a draft form of one of my sequels to The Model [See PaulKnatz Blog], but I don’t believe I’ve ever told it bald before now. What next followed with Mr. Zito I am certain I have never hinted at in any form. My favorite undergraduate teacher told me that my work was flawed. It was rough: “like an uncut diamond.” My fellow students, he went on, some of them, did flawless work. “You look at it,” he said: “it’s perfect. But it’s paste. There’s no substance. But you, no one can do anything with you. You’re too hard. Your work is rough, uncut; but it’s genuine: you’re real diamond.”

Is that why the medievalist was picking on me within the first minute of my orals? The zircons have to gang-up on the real? On the genuine gem? Protect their stolen territory from the rightful occupants? (I thought Mr. Zito was real. Then again he didn’t have his Ph.D. for the longest time. For all I know he may still not have it. God knows why the powers let him have the Shakespeare course: can it have been just because he was light years better than anybody else?) (I append another evaluation from that period.)

I had kept no secrets of my evaluations of the faculty of New York University’s Graduate School of Arts and Science. I tested. [See my Turing Test module:] When they failed, I revealed my analysis in scholarship intended to be artful.

My sojourn at NYU began the first semester following my friend’s suggestion that we get our union card. The Army (ho, ho, ho) believes in education. The Army reimbursed my tuition. The course I chose was another pennance: six points, one whole two-semester year, of Lord Byron. People who like one period or genre of art are too easily infected by their follow celebrants with a host of sub-visible prejudices about the competition. The one valuable thing I learned in graduate school was that all subjects are interesting. (Compulsion is bad; but discipline is good.) I’d responded to the Romantics in high school but had shunned them since like a plague. The course was offered by Leslie Marchand, author of the three volume biography of Lord Byron and on loan from Rutgers for the year.

I attended the first class in uniform, prepared to be bored, but also determined to be good. In view of what followed, my preparation was no preparation at all. The class seemed to be about neither Lord Byron nor his work except in the most stultified way. I’ll behave, but only if I can be Mark Twain about it. I performed my first semester’s paper as a play (half a dozen ringer-friends as the performers) which satirized the character of the class (while getting into some serious analysis of Lord Byron).

Allow me to interject another bit of wisdom, learned before graduate school, but proved there in trumps: the likelihood of the registrant for a course gaining any idea from that course why the teacher is famous is slim. I attended Mark van Doren’s and Lionel Trilling’s classes groaning. The reading list was good, but any one can copy one of those. It was only years later when I read Trilling’s work on Huckleberry Finn that I realized his true rank at the top of the field, senior peer to Leslie Fiedler. The first weeks of the class might have finished me, reading the works in chronological order as we were, had I not given myself a bit of a head start before opening day. Graduate schools, and to some degree colleges too, seem to assume that you already know some essentials about the subject, or at least have faith that their importance is justified in some way. Often, that assumption is justified; frequently it is not. Do you see a way to predict Don Juan from the juvenilia Bryon wrote at Harrow? I couldn’t. Could you predict him living in Count Guiccioli’s palace with the Count comfortable on the upper floor while Byron sported with the Countess on the lower floors, her brother, the meantime, assembling arms for revolution in the basement, from the first hundred pages of Marchand’s biography? Yet that’s where we started. (Do you see why I cut ahead and then cast back in this necessarily chronologically based narrative?)

I now respect Marchand’s scholarship; I know a bit of it. But for those first months of the course, he was a sere scarecrow, set up to frighten away the living. Friends, Romans, Countrymen: we come to bury Shakespeare, not to praise him. [McLuhan]

My next half dozen papers at NYU had satirized the pedagody of one of the doctors I was seated before at my orals. In later years I read some of his work on Shelly: masterful, first-rate; but why was he wasting everyone’s time standing in front of a classroom, fumbling for words as he surveyed the dry field, avoiding the actual, the vital subject: Blake. Those papers came back perused only by his reader who’d red penciled that he could make nothing of them. I guess that meant that the professor needn’t try his own hand. I read those papers to fellow students’ ooos, ahs, and open mouths. I still have them if anyone wants to explore.

A more basic example I [replace] in its own post.

The actual conclusion of this story is what I did as a result of all this: I founded FLEX! [See at my deschooling materials, regathering at my InfoAll Blog.]

If you read around a bit in the teaching, writing, or biographical sections, you will see the ambition of this site and perhaps imagine the difficulties involved in realizing that ambition. Frequently, the more important a file or section, the more diligently I work on it, the more (temporarily, I trust) discombobulated it becomes. I can’t afford to take such sections down till I perfect them. This isn’t art; this is survival. Not for me (I’ve already sacrificed my life); for you.

1999 11 21

It wasn’t till this past week that I tried to contact James Zito for the first time since the early 1960s. The last I’d heard he’d been teaching at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, just north of the city. Sadly, the English Chairman there told me that Zito had died in the early 1980s: indeed, he, that chairman, had been originally hired to fill Zito’s place. James Zito had been a legend at Columbia. Apparently he had been a legend at Sarah Lawrence as well.

2000 06 24

The parent file to this section constrasts school with Sunday School: the latter, at lest in my Protestant case, tried to sell Christianity, to dress it, to make it appetizing; school just shovels the stuff at you dry, with no beverage. As I said, they don’t have to sell it to you because they own your ass. You have to be there. You have to take it. Even professional scholarship suffers from too much power inherited too lazily. But there’s another explanation. In the midst of Beetles mania, articles on the Beetles were written to fans already saturated with love and trivia. I’m just rereading some papers on the Victorians by G. M. Young. They’re written by someone familiar with the subject addressing an audience likewise familiar with the subject. That’s OK in a mono-culture: Young was speaking at Oxford in 1936 to Englishmen who knew and cared about the Victorians. Everyone already knew everything about Oedipus before Sophocles scripted his tragedies. But how is someone not saturated with Tennyson or Gladstone’s biography to read them? Outside Oxford, outside 1936, it’s rude: like telling stories about your friends to a group of strangers at a party and calling them by their nicknames without having introduced them. If a novelist tried that, he’d better have some pretty good other trick going on at the same time or lose 100% of his readers. Marchand assumed that his readers knew Byron: could probably chant “She walks in beauty like the night.” In a pluralist culture, scholarship should assume no captive, no pretrained audience. It should learn gourmet cooking and come with a nice wine.


Notes

Ceremony: The Pageant of Commencement

Boy, were we wrong: not about it’s being bullshit; about it’s being worthwhile attending. I’ve never experienced more wonderful bullshit.

First, as I already knew from past Junes, on the day of commencement, the Columbia campus is filled with Handel’s Water Music.
Handel really knew how to make the spirit, groups of spirits, dance. I wasn’t the only one gliding to the Air,
skipping and cavorting to the Bouree.
The space from Low Memorial Library to Butler Library was filled with people. The graduating colleges were grouped to the side, all dressed in black medieval wizard gowns, the black tassels hanging from the not-yet-alchemically-transmuted-from-dross-to-gold side of the mortar board. As the college was named, we stepped forward, into the sunlight. Those officiating wore their doctoral robes, presenting the colors of hundreds of different universities, though by far the majority wore the series of baby blues of Columbia. The great Eric Bently presided (looking like he could barely stand let alone speak). At the magic moment, we swept our tassels to the mature side, our secular original sin swept away by the action.

I’d submitted, determined to endure it. In fact, I loved it. I recommend mass participation in mass outdoor pageant. A football game is a poor substitute. Don’t watch the Olympics; enter them: if only for the walk in.

(Another story from that day goes to another note.)


Elsewhere I’ve mentioned the power of crowds, how Indians of the subcontinent would gather en mass just to feel that power. That god isn’t on Olympus; it isn’t in the priest; it isn’t in the ritual —
it’s in the occasion:
it’s in the crowd!

Expelled: Divine Visitation
It was precisely in that period that I received the first of my already reported divine visitations.

Shunned: Lord Byron
My prejudice against Byron was first breached somewhere between college and the army. Columbia offered a series of poetry readings. Zito did Donne, so of course I went. I was in the neighborhood, so I caught others. Andrew Chiappe did Yeats with tears streaming down his face. No surprises so far.

That came with the Byron guy. All I’d known where the few poems offered in high school, the ones Byron wrote while conning his doomed fiancée: “She walks in beauty …” This Romanticist read from Don Juan! He sprinkled in a few of the jeux d’esprit. Everyone in the room was laughing his ass off. I’d had no idea.

Lord Byron became the first popular English “modern” I’d met outside the Fabians who didn’t seem to have his head under a hood.

Another Evaluation:
After the commencement ceremony I was standing by Butler Library with my family. I’d loved the pageant, but felt like a jerk. And what was my family smiling about? I hadn’t actually graduated. (Neither, if you haven’t noticed, did I give a damn about graduating: it was the pursuit which had become important to me; not a certificate, even if it was in Latin on real sheepskin. Going to college in the first place had never been my idea.)

Professor Bert Leefmans walked by. My final paper for him had also been late. I greeted him. My family turned aside.

“I trust you got my paper,” I said. He nodded. “Then I suppose you’ve read it.”
“I did. It was brilliant. And I gave you an F.”
“Huh?”
“Because I hate your guts, Knatz.” He paused, then asked if I knew someone whose name was a complete blank to me. “I think you and he are the two most intelligent people in the class. You should be horsewhipped.”
I think the latter applied to me alone. (I wish I’d noted the other guy’s name: I’d look him up.)
I repeat what he said: I don’t know what he really believed. (His invective resembled something repeated by a roommate who’d had him as an advisor: “You’re a real fuck-up, aren’t you, DeJong?”) It can’t all have been literally true, because when I got my paper back, he’d given me something like a B+. (Perhaps that too was penalized.)

Now: what do I think of this little contratemps? Well, I don’t think anything literally. Two most intelligent people in the Columbia College Class of 1960? How could you tell? He can’t have meant grades: I doubt that I was in the top half of the class. He can’t have meant IQ: you just look those up, arranged numerically: no opinion involved. (But why would one? Does anyone really trust those tests? I don’t. I trust neither the theory of intelligence of the testers nor their ability to measure by their theory. (I’ve never taken an ETS test where I didn’t want to review the test against their supposed answers. I know I’d challenge some percentage of them. (Arthur C. Clarke tells the story of a young girl finally proving to her parents that the reason she failed to get an 800 on the math part of the college boards was because ETS had the answer flat out wrong. (They’d followed a formula, inappropriate in the case of their specific example; she’d build a model in her head and looked at it.) She sued and won.)))

So I guess he thought I was smart, was a fuck-up, and wanted to pull my tail.

What I don’t understand is why he thought so. I don’t recall doing any good work in his classes. I contributed little (mostly because I’m always so far behind in the assignments). I do though recall his marginal note to something I’d scribbled during an in-class assignment. Were it not for his comment I don’t believe I’d ever have remembered writing it: I’d discussed the reordering of the Pequod in Moby Dick after the chaos of chasing the whales, butchering and hauling them aboard, and boiling their blubber. Order. Yes. That’s a deep theme.

So. I know I’m a fuck-up (by standards that don’t matter to me). I too think I’m smart. But I don’t think it’s intelligence that’s exceptional about me. My candidate for my special gift is intelligence-combined-with-h o n e s t y.
Intellectual, spiritual honesty, at least. (I’m relatively impervious to bullshit. Even when it’s dressed for the White House or the Vatican.)

Honesty:
I emphasize intellectual and spiritual honesty. As to the other kind, I’ve had my share of lapses. If I ever get my teaching modules accomplished well enough to leave me time for mere biographical chit chat, I’ll tell plenty of stories against myself as well as others when it comes to standard morality.

2010 July 30 It’s around fifteen years since I added this module to Knatz.com and today try to salvage it here: but I notice a series of notes I never got to in all this time: 1: develop a parallel between school ritual and the rituals of fraternity initiations; 2: report a few of Desmond Morris’ points about the human super zoo and its rituals; 3: point out Faulkner’s calendric details in The Sound and the Fury: parallels between the religious calendar and the academic calendar: Christians graduate from mortality at Easter; Harvard men become alpha kleptocrats at the end of May. (As a forthcoming post will tell, my grad school professor got very upset when I tried to show the class that parallel! Note especially that that was after I’d founded The Free Learning Exchange, Inc. in NYC.) Once of this days, if I continue to live, I may flesh those out, make them readable, comprehensible. Meantime, men would do well to learn to understand essential messages no matter how they’re delivered. When men reject angels, it ain’t the angels who suffer the most.

Oh, and I should update other details: A half-dozen years after this module was added to Knatz.com I got an email from Mr. Zito’s son! A friend had alerted him and his mother to my mention of James Zito. Just around that time I myself had contacted the Chairman of the English Department at Sarah Lawrence College, Zito’s last known venue. I wanted to run my thesis on Shakespeare’s Sonnets by Zito: see what he thought. He died, I was told.

Anyway, then I get emails from Zito’s widow. We became great email friends! Then the union turned sour. I may tell that elsewhere. I still don’t even know what his widow thought of my thesis: if it made any sense to her. I can’t even guess if Zito would have gotten it: no one else has.

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About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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