John Silbur in Radical Evil about the Willkür and will leads to my memory of an audience with him in 1969 when he was Dean of Arts and Sciences at UT. Maybe he made it the Athens it was (Ameryca With a Y, Part II) for that decade. He wanted the best teachers. I had been fired as a TA in English for being in Linguistics, which masked the real reasons. Riding a wave of two years in North Carolina teaching at FSC and getting fired, ending up at Texas that fall, enthusiastically with wild assignments and classes, unchecked because there were after all 600 TAs, I took an interpretation of composition underlying everything expansive about the individual, if constraints and restraints were thrown off. At Bishop one college year, assigned remedial English, I began to generate a grammar on the board with the students from the way they spoke. The college reassigned me in a few weeks to another class, the difference between reassignment and reprimand being the new letters, Phd, after my name. I expressly said that all human beings are geniuses in the expression of their thought streams. You can see Blake cannot be tolerated and is a threat to every control. If it wasn’t clear who was going to win at Texas you can guess. At that time though I was only on my second firing, had more left, along with further natural disturbances to walk, the workman’s comp against the Clayton Foundation over radioactive zylene, the destruction of the drug garden. It took decades to purge these impulses.
Give credit to our masters though, they know what they’re doing. I never taught again after 1986, but those efforts from the The Balaclava Bakery, the pseudonymous fiction since 2005, along with Histopossum and Opiomes since 2011, were equally well adjusted. As one dissenting student said in an evaluation, “will they let just anybody teach?” Students used to leave me little tokens of their affection and encouragement all the time, cones of incense, notes, cards with phrases like, “keep on truckin.” It makes a big difference not to be bored out of your skull in English class.
These student comments were elicited from Fayetteville students immediately before arriving in Tejas:
–This letter’s sole purpose is to introduce you to one……and to inform you about his ability as an English instructor. Being in the same room with this man for four months has played a greater effect on my whole life than the 14 years of schooling which I have had previously. His wonderful ability to make you think is something only experience can tell. The method he uses is not a “do or else” but of a desire to learn as much as possible in a short time.
–The mere idea of a young man his age having the intellectual abilities which he possesses is almost frightening. his style and his ideas can only be compared to those of an intellectual genius. There isn’t any way to describe this man’s talents in a letter or a book, one would have to come in contact with this man in order to believe that person like this really exists.
–He is a teacher who will make the black student wonder about. He does not speak too highly of his own race, but seems to enjoy working with the blacks. Questions enter the student’s mind which take a long time to answer. I am still puzzled about his concern for the blacks.
–Being a white man in a black school, he shows no sign of prejudice towards the black student.
It is true that he is a white man, but what negro man or woman could you go to and tell him your problems and ask for help? Not one! The negro man will give some smart remarks and try to get fresh, whilr the negro woman doesn’t like you because you look better than she does.
–He is different from other instructors I have had in his grotesque ideas. His ideas are not really grotesque but they seem so different from any other instructors. He wanted to make us think and there is no better way than to look at happenings from a mixed up point of view.
I have retained these attitudes throughout, avoiding the admissions of weariness celebrated by Garrison Keillor and Billy Collins in their interview [31:00f] whose intellect must have also enturded their life of mind, as Ambrose Gordon says, “Supposedly correcting all these papers which tell me / of sin, and of Melville/ …I turn a blank page / to confront a still blanker mind.” Taking the view that literature is misery Keillor says “almost everyone I know who taught college English wound up exhausted, burnt out, bitter, tired of reading more term papers about Huck Finn. Collins, ambivalent and sardonic says, “That’s me. How did you know? Reading student writing is spiritually bad for you…reading bad writing is not good for your soul…has deeply damaging effects over the years.” It’s as if they have no being, no love in them. Try as I might however, I could not get a job in Phoenix after 1986. An interviewer of Grand Canyon decided I would leave after our residency was up, etc. But don’t be sad, if you missed out. I did single appearances in each of my children’s schools to rave reviews of the teachers. In this age of crowd wisdom any audacity of thinking and being astonishes more than it did then. I might be pushing double the number of firings.
The one effort Tejas made at governance upon my fellow TA participants and myself disbanded, facetiously blamed upon my wild assignments. Assignments were shared by TAs around a table, but after three meetings Maureen McElroy the thing ended. That was Fall ’68. By Spring ’69 things had progressed well beyond. I held all night evening classes along the Colorado River, began that semester with each member of a traveling trio of actors I was associated with coming in and introducing themselves as the teacher. This went so far that a local radio station in 1970 called the English department for permission to attend one of these classes.
One stormy eight o’clock morning where, while I was reading Blake on thunder and lightning, just at the appearance of those words there was intense thunder and lightning. There were other weather effects too so that one student had called upon the Ultimate Authority, the Radio. We all know what that will lead to. Good teachers get fired. So instead of a reporter the department next day sent the assistant head of Freshman English, a retired Baptist minister, to listen (surreptitiously) outside the door. The theme of the class being psychological games, according to the syllabus, Youth and Identity in Crisis by Erikson etc., we had done transactional analysis with Eric Berne and so on. But the night before this class my wife and I had accepted an invite by a fellow grad student and his wife for dinner at their place, which I accepted because the guy had a lion in Phlugerville that I had visited. As the evening progressed they asked if we wanted to play a game. They called it the marriage game. It had a board and dice and places to land. Maybe they made it themselves. Maybe such things are marketed. As the game progressed with little touchie feelie things, gently escalating toward its main intent, they suggested bringing out the hookah, or maybe that too was a board move, which they did and passed around. As the game progressed I started saying no. Of course my wife was also saying no. You can be sure of one thing, those who want to seduce you do not attract but repel. Saying no went further until they said the game didn’t like us anymore, as if that hurt! After a decent interval we left. Some hours later, I realized the hookah was spiked with meth. That morning in that class I had put this game up on the board, except instead of calling it a marriage game I called it what it was, a fuck game, and was analyzing with the class its techniques of seduction, all to the unseen audience of the assistant chairman outside the door. I had an audience with him myself after that where he told me about the radio station and etc. I didn’t think too much of it until I got the letter from the English Department at the end of the semester saying that since I was in linguistics that was intolerable and I had to be let go. This happened before semester’s end so I got myself evaluated by the students according to due process and took the evaluations to the Dean of Arts and Sciences John Silbur on appeal, since I both wanted and needed a job. He sized me up quick. I didn’t realize then how much I had in common with him, except I was a poet and he a philosopher, but he must have seen it. German Presbyterian educators of the underdog, let us say. I could have deliberated with him about Donald Barnhouse. He did ask about the difference between the two sections. I replied that every class is different, such a normal response he passed it. The evaluations themselves were so far off the charts that you’d think they were reviewing a standup night club act. Maybe part tent meeting, part…. I’m embarrassed by it now, (see Ameryca With a Y, IV.1) but at that time was compelled. Silbur wrote to Mr. English and said that while it was theirs to decide he wanted the best people on the job. If you knew the Dean and the department, that was an ultimatum which English post haste obeyed and rehired me. I then decided that I didn’t belong in linguistics anyway and transferred to English, which Dr. Lehmann regretted, since he was recruiting me for an NDEA grant. Imagine. In all fairness I was also thought to have been involved in an attempt to unionize the 600 English TAs at that time, which did not happen. The department started its own AGSE and I was elected to its board as co-chair (briefly). So when I think of John Silbur and Willkür and will, his best work, although interested in Architecture of the Absurd obviously, and his 15 million foot build out at Boston U, failing to be elected gov of Mass by a last second interview in which he would not say what his bad points were, his 41 year old son dying at home, his childhood in SA having to fight for respect because of his arm, not being told his aunt died in Auschwitz, or even that his father’s family were Jews, I recognize his full fledged humanity, but, as with us all, it is a vanity of our time to know this when it matters. Only afterward do we know. It didn’t matter, he wasn’t elected governor, but he saved BU. That doesn’t matter either. What matters is that he was a philosopher who ruled his Republic. In the end what lasts is the example.