Mentorship and the Idea of Academic Bohemia
The year is 2005 but, from the looks of it, it could be earlier—1975, say. The palette runs predominantly brown: I have my knees planted in three inches of brown shag, which runs the length of the first floor and matches the corduroy living room set, all of it also brown. The lighting is, as you would expect, indirect and vaguely orange, cast by a collection of floor lamps, their once-white cloth shades gone all amber with the years.
Seated next to me on the carpet is my nemesis, who is actually a very nice, very smart girl who is also sometimes my friend. Were it not for her inclusion in this particular scene, I would have no reason to call her a nemesis or to regard her with any animosity. It’s just that she and I want the same things out of life and those things seem, for the moment, up for grabs and also tangled up in this sea of brown. I can’t decide if we’re competing for them or not, any more than I can name their specific contents.
I’m trying to pay attention to everything in this room, to record and absorb every detail of it, because I know that what is, for me, a first will also be a last. I’m twenty-two, and this is the only time I’ll ever be here, inside it: I’m convinced that the room’s trappings—not just the brown ones but also the stacks of books and periodicals, the record player in the corner, the cat fur, the absence of a television—conceal a code for meaningful living. And if there is a code, I have to crack it, and quick.
When my nemesis speaks, I don’t hear her. I’m busy trying to read the spines of the records (mostly classical) and the titles on the periodicals (mostly the New Yorker). I’m trying to itemize and name the components of a fragrance—whole grains, like the bulk aisle of a neighborhood food co-op; plus lilacs, coming through the open window; plus the leather of old bindings; plus desiccated paper—that moves and undulates throughout the space. If I can just get the recipe down, I think, then I’ll be able recreate it for myself, someday. It’s not that it’s a beautiful room per se, but a solid one that radiates confidence and surety. Is knows what it is, and even if that something is slightly out of step with both fashion and time, it does not aspire to be anything else. It is a safe room, a firm place to spend an hour or two, even with my nemesis nearby.
This is my professor’s house, and the only reason I’m in it is because I’m graduating. So is my nemesis. She and I have recently won prizes for the best senior thesis projects, awarded in two different categories, and that’s why we’re here. In doing so, we’re breaking the barrier that is so central to the dynamic between student and teacher and being promoted to something that is actually much more difficult to define, and, as I will learn, more difficult to maintain, too. My professor, whose name is Dr. Joanne S. Frye, is not my professor anymore and this, her living room, is a place that I will only ever return to in memory and thought from this point on. That the situation feels significant is probably the result of its rarity: this is one of only a handful of times that I’ve set foot inside the house of a senior mentor, someone I both admire and seek to learn from. Though I’ve enjoyed years’ worth of interactions occurring within the formal confines of classrooms and offices, this, I can’t help but feel, is something different—something worth paying attention to.
I’m bound for graduate school and for a life that resembles this one, I think. I’ve actually deferred my spot in a literary studies program in order to spend one more year digesting my own indecision about everything. I’ll spend it working in a bar in an out-of-the-way corner of the country, missing all of this. Except what is this? Do I really aspire to it? Do visions of my future really reside within this monochromatic landscape? And if so, why? I don’t know it yet, but I’ll remain stuck on this question for the next decade and a half, and on this memory of my professor’s living room.
Culture is supposed to teach us how to live, except that most of it rarely does so. At least, it doesn’t teach us how to live in the real world, though it offers plenty of advice regarding its inverse. I had this figured out by the time I was about eighteen—the time, that is, that I left for college in rural Ohio. As a disaffected teen, I had gravitated towards alternative “scenes” as a way of processing my dawning frustration with the insincerity of mainstream culture. I had taken refuge in hardcore’s leftovers from the eighties, then in the grunge and Riot Grrrl bands of the nineties, then in the indie bands of the early 2000s, and so on. At the same time, this guiding interest in aberrance led me to read the literature of any age and era, because the story of great literary works is, more often than not, the story of disaffected outsiders.
When I got to college, I discovered professors. Where mainstream culture had failed to furnish a reliable guide for living, these cultural purveyors provided something better: a guide for living with and through culture, albeit in tastefully dictated and critical terms. I’m not just talking about professors in arts and humanities disciplines, either. I recall, for instance, running into my math professor once at a protest in Washington, D.C.—miles from the Ohio college town that we both called home. She was wearing a Bikini Kill shirt, and she gave me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek, even though, at the time, I was barely pulling a C in her class. Rather, what these people, despite their disciplinary allegiances and specializations, first showed me was a method for meaningful living that begins in the mind. It follows, perhaps, that meaning itself ought to be sought in this way, but this is not what the likes of Martha Stewart Living would tell you: those living rooms are not our living rooms, I came to realize, even before I knew who “we” were. Rather, my feelings towards my professors were something akin to what the novelist Sheila Heti describes in her book How Should a Person Be? I saw them as “inhabit[ing] a different realm of species-hood entirely … carried on a sea of their own belonging.”
A lot of these observations were born from my experiences living in a small college town. I had grown up in a city, and by comparison, small town and small college life made intimacy seem bafflingly attainable and, well, real. My professors were people; I knew this because I’d seen them at the grocery store and the movie theater. But they were different from the people who, heretofore, I’d been taught to view as successful or as “making it.” They were not wealthy; they were not size 2 and blemish-free; they were not lavishly dressed and manicured. Instead of any of these things, they were intelligent and cultured, and this combination emitted a strange flavor of vibrancy. I don’t know if all of them were happy or not; I decided they were, based on a set of superficial criteria that I had invented after much study and observation. These professors of mine talked about Films (seemingly with a capital “F”), even if they didn’t own TVs; they’d been to foreign countries and spoke foreign languages, even though they lived in rural Ohio; their living rooms spoke of lifetimes of thoughtful decision making, even if the contents had come from a yard sale down the street.
Which is, more or less, where professor Frye had gotten hers. I learned this by reading her memoir, Biting the Moon, which was published by Syracuse University Press in 2012. In it, she describes what might be the most innocuous scene of any intellectual’s life: sitting in her chair in her “living room—furniture purchased from someone’s basement—reading, thinking, preparing classes,” or else “stak[ing] out long-term residency at the dining room table—adopted from a friend’s attic—with books and notecards and xeroxed pages stacked up or strewn around in front of me.” The pride bristles off the page in these descriptions. She is proud of the choices that led her cultivate these unexotic but earnest surroundings, and proud of the work that she performs inside of them.
I see them sometimes in movies and in television, these living rooms, but they’re not the same. Given popular culture’s obsession with the professoriate (recall, for instance, that Ross Geller on Friends is a professor at NYU), it follows that their living rooms would surface now and again, and they do, however superficially. Memorable examples include the one shared by actors Laura Dern and Mark Ruffalo in the 2004 film We Don’t Live Here Anymore—all quarter-sawn oak, stiff-backed craftsman furniture, oriental rugs, and velvet upholstery—and Michael Douglas’s character’s in the film Wonder Boys (2000), which is visible for only a second and looks like a less-varnished version of the former. These living rooms flatter audiences’ aesthetic assumptions about the lives that professors lead, but they do not appear substantive or useful or used. I don’t get an impression of the kind of work that might happen in these spaces. The set furniture lacks for the qualities described by my former professor in her memoir, which ought to be “threadbare, with naked foam peering through” and accompanied by “books … [and] papers on the floor … frayed threads crisscrossing irreconcilable needs and competing demands.” I’ll grant Laura Dern and Mark Ruffalo their vintage velvet couch (I have one of my own, after all), but only if it comes with holes and leaking stuffing and exposed springs.
Realist literature, meanwhile, skews somewhat closer to the truth—at least in the hands of those who have had firsthand experience with these kinds of living rooms. In Mary McCarthy’s satirical The Groves of Academe (1952), which some regard as the first “academic novel” (it isn’t, but people say this), Henry Mulcahy’s living room is less a locus of work and contemplation than a site of stress. His young children traipse through it in various states of disarray and an overwhelming “ammonia-smell of urine” emanates from down the hall. Mulcahy observes, with a bit of ironic pride, that “no vacuum cleaner or furniture wax had penetrated this area.” Similarly, in Randall Jarrell’s campus novel Pictures from an Institution, the narrator finds himself in his colleague’s living room seated on a “broken plywood” homemade chair upholstered in “vibrant, mutant lime” while his wife is seated on a piece of furniture that is so battered and shapeless it is referred to only as “a great something.” And, in John Williams’s beloved Stoner, perhaps the most famous representative of the genre, the protagonist begins his work as a professor living in a “second-floor apartment in an old barnlike house five blocks from the university,” where his wife diligently works to “sew curtains and hang them unevenly from the high windows, to repair and paint and repaint the used furniture they had begun to accumulate.” These surroundings aren’t glamorous; in fact, they’re a far cry from the sumptuous antique oak and velvet backdrops that appear in movies about professors. But there is an earnestness to be gleaned from all this dysfunction and wear, a vision of a world that might just be building towards progress and improvement, that does not suffer pretenses about have already achieved perfection.
What I learned from my professor’s living rooms—and there have since been more of them—is the pride that comes from a polite but still hard-won iconoclasm, from making decisions that run just slightly adrift of most people’s visions of success or quality. My feeling for these remembered spaces verges on the feelings I once had for punk and hardcore music. The critic Mark Greif, for instance, reflects on a similar idea when he writes, “Now, as an adult, I don’t even have even have a plausible way to talk about the force that then disclosed everything worthwhile and unacknowledged.” He’s talking about punk; I’m talking about living rooms … and also literature, and also maybe punk. These are the things—spaces, texts, aesthetic experiences—that taught me not just what to care about but how to go about caring at all.
Now, as an educator, I count my contributions to my students as small pieces of a process that extends beyond showing them what to care about or invest in. We will, after all, always disagree on matters of taste. Rather, I’m interested in showing them how and why caring might be worth their time and energy in the first place by modeling standards for it. Caring comes with vulnerability, yes; here’s why you should give it a shot anyway, is the lesson I try to impart.
Today, my living room is not Professor Frye’s living room, though the two have certain things in common (including the furniture—also second-hand, in my case—and the carpet, which isn’t a choice I’ve made and which I’ve been meaning to rip up). But my life and career, my values and priorities, mirror hers in one way or another. And, to a certain extent, I think it is possible for one to read the space of my living room as an extension of those priorities. I have worked hard to make it so, not only because my living room is—as hers was for her—the place where I read, but also because, in shaping it, I have sought to exert some control over my own psychic surroundings. In this way, the space of my living room appears superimposed with the glimpses I have had into my mentors’ lives and living rooms.
At twenty-two, I didn’t know how to stop being in college—to stop living this life of stimulation and discovery and exposure—and I didn’t want to. I cried throughout my last undergraduate thesis meeting, which took place in Professor Frye’s office, and then cried when I had to turn it in, though it had been done for weeks. This feeling translated, in very obvious terms, into my decision to pursue a career in higher education which, if not a sure path to a stable career, looked like a sure path to iconoclasm, at least. I consider it a magnificent stroke of luck that, for me, it turned out to be both.
“Luck” plays a significant role in this case because, for many of those who, like me, struck off down the path towards the fabled living rooms of the professoriate, hard work was never going to be enough, and it too many cases, it hasn’t been. I probably don’t need to tell anyone reading this that anywhere from 60% to 75% of college instruction is now done by adjunct or temporary instructors instead of tenure-track faculty, and that those jobs offer absolutely nothing in the way of stability and little more in the way of compensation. If the living rooms of my professors were once marked by the sort of ease and disarray that can only come from the experience of having “settled in” and assumed the posture of an iconoclastic existence, then the living rooms of today’s higher education professionals are more likely to be marked by IKEA-style impermanence. Instead of bulky yard-sale finds, think particleboard shelving and lightweight futons. And books and records, as anyone who has done so can tell you, are a bitch to move, so you can nix most of them from the equation, too.
Does anyone look at or “read” my living room in North Dakota today as I once did Professor Frye’s? I fear not, but that fear is born less from a desire to see myself filling her specific role in that old scenario than from an unavoidable knowledge of the conditions of precariousness that now define and characterize the lives and the work of all thinking people. My own colleagues—at least the majority of the ones who belong to my generation—probably don’t have living rooms to be read and deconstructed with regards to recipes for living, if they have living rooms at all. Their domiciles are more likely to read as cautionary tales, “as a reminder of the end that awaits them all,” as Williams puts in Stoner. For so many of these people, the life of the mind means constantly finding themselves on the move, shifting from college town to college town in an effort to secure long-term, meaningful employment. In this way, my former professors’ living rooms constitute something of a lost world, with my memories of them fated to gently bleed together, years and years hence. Already, Professor Frye’s has started to look like the ones I came to know in graduate school: my dissertation adviser’s teal-upholstered, midcentury couch has popped up amidst the sea of brown. What all of these living rooms collectively spell, though, is contrast. There was one way of being in the world, and there was one specimen of it; here is another—ours.
I don’t know what happened to my nemesis, who wasn’t really a nemesis, only someone I had difficulty seeing outside of the lens of competition. I’m afraid of what this means, because I recall that she also had plans to attend graduate school in English. Wherever she is, I hope she got the living room that she wanted, and I don’t care what that even looks like. The exact ingredients are not the point. Rather, the point is to see it infused it with as much purpose and conviction as the one that we occupied together on that afternoon in May, so many years ago.