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I Teach at CCNY


ISSUE:  Summer 1983

The City College of New York (CCNY), now the City University of New York (CUNY), for decades has been put forward by proponents of free higher education in this country as a golden center of learning. “The poor man’s Harvard,” it was considered. The myth held that a distinguished, unappreciated, poorly paid faculty served a brilliant, impoverished, discriminated against undergraduate body, to the glory of all, and that a great decline took place in recent years with the introduction of an open admissions policy, the result of major demographic changes in the city.

As with all myths, some truth may be found in this one, but the larger fact is that the good old days were never all that intellectually golden, either for students or faculty. The decline, not sudden at all, has been steady and inevitable and perhaps the result only of the nature of public higher education itself anywhere. What any institution does with and for its students is determined ultimately in the classroom, by the teachers. City was never as good as its myth simply because its faculty was never as good as its student body.

Heavily subsidized public higher education can ultimately be supported only in terms of its results in relation to costs, on what kind of teaching and learning actually goes on. The example of CCNY during its legendary decades must be cautionary in any determination of continued support for public colleges and universities. I speak from some distance, with sadness and sobriety, on the basis of my time as a student there from 1938 to 1941, and, more to the point, as a member of its faculty from 1946 to 1953.

As a student at City, I found things bleak enough, but teaching there was worse. If I felt patronized, even neglected, as a student, I felt positively banished as a teacher. I recall with uncomfortable vividness the physical surroundings of my first and last assignments, which symbolized my faculty period all too neatly. The first was at night, in Haaren High School, a huge building on Manhattan’s far West Side, Hell’s Kitchen. The long walk from the subway through the area of midtown warehouses, factories, and slums was dispiriting, however I tried to vary the route. We were alone, the students and I, exiled, cut off, in that echoing, shabby, dimly lit outpost.

The last City classroom I taught in, before I left teaching for a time to work as a writer and editor, was in the third sub-basement of an ancient, disused, condemned orphanage on Amsterdam Avenue, diagonally across the street from Townsend Harris Hall on the main campus. From Amsterdam down to Broadway runs one of the few hills of the city, which accounted for the several layers of basement. The fire department had pronounced the brownstone Victorian building unsafe for overnight residents. Pigeons had occupied the room during the long period the building was abandoned before the college acquired it. Whitish droppings and stray feathers bedecked the floors and the walls. A naked light bulb on a wire hung from the ceiling. The scattered student chairs were of salvage character, geometric doodles and graffiti gouged into their splintered, rough arms. A new blackboard had been installed. One time I opened the top drawer of the scarred oak teacher’s desk in front of the room to look for a piece of chalk. Inside were three dried human turds.

The Hell’s Kitchen high school and the orphanage were extremes, of course. Most of the time I taught in more conventional surroundings, for a while at the main, uptown campus on Convent Avenue, where I had been a student, but most of the time downtown, at the business school, on Lexington and 23rd. It had been named after Bernard Baruch, the story went, in order to induce him into leaving it money.

I got the appointment casually, to fill a last minute opening that developed mid-year. I had been discharged from the Air Force just three months earlier, and I had not yet settled into a civilian routine. One of my undergraduate teachers called me. The job was assured for only that semester. I was flattered to be invited into the company of my former professors, however marginally, and I quickly accepted the offer.

College and university teaching remains remarkable in that the only preparation necessary to enter the profession is some knowledge of the subject to be taught, a knowledge that may be demonstrated in the most haphazard ways. At the time I got the job, I had only the B. A. In appointing faculty to teach undergraduates and even graduate students, the assumption seems to be simply that the art, skill, or instinct, whatever, of the teaching process has somehow been absorbed with content over the years the student has sat in the classroom or worked in the library or laboratory. The progress from in front of the teacher’s desk to behind it is taken as natural for professors in virtually all undergraduate subjects and in many graduate ones.

I remain bemused by the seeming casualness, certainly the suddeness, of the progress from student to faculty in the profession, yet I don’t think I would have it otherwise. Men and women who truly dedicate their lives to the serious study of a subject develop an acute and accurate awareness of who teaches that subject more effectively and who teaches it less so, and what the critical differences are. My peers and I at CCNY knew who our good teachers were. They were few enough. In graduate school, we were less certain. We realized quickly that the charismatic entertainer was not necessarily good, either in his command of the subject or in his capacity to convey it with respect and care, although his classes might be filled with groupies. We also saw that if we made the effort to stay with some dry and methodical lecturer in some unglamorous field, we might become the fortunate participants in a rare learning enterprise. In short, it is normal if shocking to plunge into college teaching rather than to ease into it.

During my apprentice years in the Department of English at City, I might as well have been in three or four separate disciplines so varied were the contents of the courses I was assigned. Most were in the two-semester freshman composition sequence, which all students had to take except for an exempted handful. I was also regularly given either the first or the second of the two-semester survey of English literature. For varying short periods I taught creative writing classes at night, in the short story; business and technical writing; world literature when it was introduced as a substitute for surveys of English literature; and, in the extension program, elementary orientation courses to adults for whom English was at least a second language. I think I did well in all of these, although sometimes I was reading assigned material for the first time, and I was tense for a long period worrying whether I was doing right by the students and by the subject. For none of the courses did I ever receive any briefing or orientation. I was given a syllabus for my first composition course. It specified that Wooley and Scott, a widely used text at the time, was required, and then added “or any other book the instructor may wish to substitute.” The rest of the syllabus was similarly firm.

Like all new teachers of English at City then, I was given a heavy load, four classes per semester, three of freshman composition, the fourth of a literature survey, 15 hours in total. Freshman composition is one of the most difficult courses for anyone to teach at any time, and virtually impossible ever to do so to the satisfaction of anyone, of the students, their parents, their teachers in other disciplines, their other teachers in English, the college administration, the trustees, legislators, textbook publishers, editors, newspaper columnists, Admiral Rickover, and, of course, the very teachers themselves. Fortunately, it helped me somewhat to be ignorant of this immutable truth when I began teaching.

Except for the firmer assignment of textbooks (I remember the one edited by McCutcheon and Vann in particular, which I had used as an undergraduate), as little control was exercised over the teaching of literature as over composition. Uptown, students for a time took a common examination at the end of a semester in the surveys, and this imposed some patterns on the teaching. Perhaps because my earliest appointments were made on a semester-to-semester basis, I was left quite alone downtown, not even with departmental examinations to provide limits and emphases to coverage of the material. During my third and fourth years, however, my classes were visited by two senior faculty from uptown. The men offered quite contradictory observations, which, after reflection, I accepted as valid and useful but only incidentally directed to me. The first suggested that I spend more time in front of my desk, even occasionally sitting on it, so as to eliminate the “barrier,” as he put it, between my students and myself. He thought the teaching of literature should be a discussion, a controlled bull session, he said. The other, who dropped in unannounced on an animated class analysis of Lawrence’s The Fox, wondered whether it might not have been better for me to have set out from the lectern some of the standard ways of approaching the short novel using that particular work as an example. When I taught a creative writing class, the two faculty members senior to me checked my comments on student papers against their own epigrammatically pithy ones, more in a process of prideful sharing than of guidance. In effect, the men were simply letting me know how they themselves did certain things, which may be as good a way of helping a fledgling college teacher as any we have yet been able to devise.

The lack of supervision of new teachers was not the result of any conclusion that some of us were good teachers and didn’t need guidance. College teaching itself was accepted as not ever being subject anywhere to ready or confident direction or evaluation by anyone. (This happened also to be an especially convenient conclusion at City, for teaching of any character was more or less irrelevant to one’s career there.) Class visitations and other forms of review by senior persons, at any place and at any time, have unfortunately more often been ways of looking for and finding reasons to dismiss or not to promote rather than to assess and advise. The profession accepts, in a spirit of resignation deriving from long and frustrating experience, that while we may all readily recognize egregiously inadequate or extravagantly superior teaching, we cannot conclusively determine merely acceptable, or even “good,” teaching in the middle ranges. At times, in an excess of subtlety, some will argue that even the worst teaching may produce good results in some long run.

A number of the newer faculty at City were fellow graduate students of mine at Columbia, and we conducted our own continuing, informal seminar on teaching, both in our large bullpen offices at City and in the Lion’s Den at Columbia, over coffee. But those of us concerned with the daily, recurring, practical details of teaching, and more largely and seriously with the profession as a whole, were a handful. Few of the older faculty, and not all of the new, were primarily concerned with professional issues, small or large. Teaching for them was simply a refuge stumbled into in the forbidding economic climates of the Depression and the post-World War II period, to be doggedly adapted to and safeguarded. I remember one permanent associate professor with an exaggerated Kansas twang, who typified a large number of senior persons. He liked to announce that he had long ago given up reading. He practiced a performance of coming into our faculty office around lunchtime, interrupting discussion and pointing a mock rifle at a ceiling light. He would raise his leg, pull the mock trigger, and emit an explosive fart.

What dominates my memory of teaching at City is the time and psychic energy spent in departmental politics by virtually everyone, except those who had deliberately become zombies, in gossip, in speculation about prospects for reappointment, for tenure, for promotion, in analysis of the many small and large elections. The whole CCNY faculty had been democratized so that virtually all personnel and policy determinations were made by ballot, and, as one result, ward politics, log-rolling, and the sharing of spoils, dominated day-to-day dealing. It is naive to be more idealistic about teaching than about other professions, and some of us, annoyed and disillusioned when we had to accept this truth, made some dramatic career changes. One man, after completing his doctorate and looking around, announced he was leaving at the end of the year to join an advertising agency as a messenger boy. “I may as well play politics for higher stakes,” he said. I met him some years later in front of the New York Public Library, and, of course, he had become an account executive.

A great many people passed through the faculties of CCNY and the other city colleges, Hunter, Brooklyn, Queens, in the years immediately before and especially after World War II. Many came from Eastern graduate schools unlike their old predecessors, most of whom were from the Midwest and the South. For many of the new faculty, teaching at City was a job to hold them while they looked around for careers on other campuses or in advertising, publishing, editing, or even in the garment industry. One man tried to get me somehow interested in his in-laws’ dress factory. Several colleagues were working their way up the New York Times hierarchy. Another was at CBS. Many of the appointments were part-time or temporary and for evening and night teaching and were held by persons who had long ago abandoned the pursuit of a doctorate. A few men stayed on at the city colleges, launching careers as impressive as those anywhere in the country. (The department was just beginning to consider women for appointment in my last years there. ) But a large number of the English faculty, as I remember it, invested their best efforts maneuvering into tenure or advancement, with as little significant professional output as one could get away with.

Actual, genuine academic activity could be risky at City and was commonly disdained. Publishing or presenting papers at conventions opened one to comment, which if it were based on substance might have been helpful. More often it was anonymous and spiteful, out of the side of the mouth, biliously flowing from defensive professional or personal jealousy. A learned article was sneered at as pedantry, when it wasn’t subjected to nit-picking, if it was read at all; publication in a general periodical of anything, a poem or short story or essay, was dismissed as dilettantism. “Journalism” was contemptible, virtually by definition. Discussion of plays or movies or current fiction was mocked as vulgar. I remember Olivier’s movie of Hamlet being jeered at by persons who hadn’t seen it and announced they had no intention of doing so. It was safest not to open up intellectually at all. Faculty aspiring to tenure and advancement spent time and thought in cultivating personal relationships and in self-promotion.

The department had a number of cliques during my time, some with as few as three or four persons, two factions with up to a dozen and capable of swinging an election for chairman or for members of important committees like that controlling appointments and promotions. I remember an associate professor who had published one novel as well as critical and scholarly works in a number of areas, noted also for his thoroughness and even brilliance in the classroom, being turned down for promotion by the then establishment. He was in competition with a weak, professionally inert man who was favored by the dominant faction. “How much does Professor A have to produce,” asked a senior man angrily during a secret session of the committee charged with making the recommendation, whose proceedings quickly became public through the department’s jungle of grapevines, “to equal in worth the unpublished and unproduced works of Professor B?” I was warned by friendly veteran faculty that it would probably be safer to use a pen name for all but my most neutral academic writing.

The three most readily identifiable groups in the department during my time were the non-Easterners; the political activists; and, for want of a better word, the esthetes, les précieux. A number of persons floated freely, unaffiliated, rarely voting, occasionally joining one faction or another on a particular matter, but most of the time having nothing to do with anyone or anything: the zombies. The department, one of the largest on campus, had the largest constituency of card-carrying Communists. Almost every one of these was let go or left by the late forties, during and after the Rapp-Coudert state legislative hearings. Nothing comparable of course could dislodge the others, although the non-Easterners were being fragmented and reduced in power with the hiring of so many New Yorkers and other Easterners and by new and shifting coalitions.

I was most distressed by the esthetes, perhaps because their values seemed at first so attractive, and their parochialism, expressed in their snobbish assumption that the CCNY English department as they thrived in it was the best of all possible worlds, justified and dignified my own place in the school in spite of nagging inner doubts. I envied them at first, as the lower classes in Jane Austen or Emily Bronte might have envied their betters; later, perhaps like HeathclifF, I hoped to fulfill some fantasy of rising to their level and telling them off. They were unceasingly articulate in their contempt for the grubbiness of taste and manners of most of their students and of the colleagues not in their circle. They disdained routine academic activity, the details of teaching, academic or popular publication, departmental meetings, raising families. They celebrated the delights of moneyed leisure, which tenure at CCNY allowed them, amateur painting, the collecting of etchings, opera going, playing on Steinway grands, and sipping absinthe on the Left Bank, to cite the frequently announced main pastime of one Proust-inspired dandy who had a drooping moustache, affected a British accent, and wore white cotton gloves to class to keep chalk dust off his hands. These harmless, even charming peccadilloes were combined with an active, predatory political instinct. At election time, the esthetes voted as a block, supporting for chairman the person who would allow them to continue in the cultivation of their pleasures and the enlargement of their number.

New young teachers, unless they were received into one of the established social circles, were as separated from senior faculty as students were. The realities of metropolitan living scattered all of us when we left campus, as happens at any large urban school. Only a handful of faculty and students lived within walking distance of the campus. Younger faculty did get together rather often, at Columbia or around the New York Public Library, or over weekends with our families when we could, traveling quite long distances. The off-campus isolation of senior faculty from students and new instructors was more a symptom, I think, of the professional shallowness and timidity of the department. It was not comfortable for most faculty to join in serious intellectual, cultural, political, or pedagogic talk with colleagues, seniors or juniors, as one normally does over drinks or dinner. More to the point, I suppose, is that the lack of opportunity to get to know one another as persons, to feel one another out on anything, at lunch, at cocktail time, over coffee, kept us from ever comfortably relaxing, revealing inclinations or convictions, in any dialogue on campus. David Riesman once remarked that in his experience faculties anywhere in the country tend to comment on their gardening, carpentry, car problems, infant raising, when they meet socially. Perhaps, but such talk provides a way into professional concerns. It may temper youthful arrogance born of unfamiliarity. It may make the mature person more patient with naïveté. Even social gossip, polite and strained as it may have to be, offers a means to become aware of a colleague’s style of thought and analysis, his system of values, his idiom. It is easy, of course, to settle into the parochial closeness that dominates the lives of faculty in isolated communities; we have academic novels that testify to the meanness fostered by such oppressive atmospheres. But without any practice in any sort of exchange, it is uncomfortable ever for the young and old to get beneath surface, to be open, to explore, to be tentative or positive, to make mistakes and apologies, to express regrets, to develop a vocabulary and grammar of discourse. Each encounter is a new start. One could at City readily enough establish conversations with this professor or that, which might indeed branch out, but that fruitful argument that, say, committees at their best regularly engage in, from which substantive and dynamic agreements emerge, requires a continuing community intimacy and ease. Neither students nor new faculty in English nor alumni were ordinarily made to feel they were part of a community at City, enriching it, sustaining it, let alone being made welcome to it.

I was lucky in not running afoul of any faction, although I had problems with one or another individual and lived with an accumulating bitterness, seeing some of my better former teachers abused and young colleagues victimized. But nothing much could be done, no words spoken or action taken, at least by myself, and I was slowly realizing how much the profession of college teaching, certainly in a public institution, ultimately requires that you learn to work alone. You come to your own private devices of coping with a range of colleagues, of accommodating the thrust of your career both to your inner urgings and insights as well as to external pressures, contingencies, constraints, pitfalls, and opportunities, the narrowest ones of the classroom or library, the broader ones of the profession.

Rank for rank, salaries at the city colleges were among the better in the country, temptingly higher than those in the private colleges and universities in New York City and public institutions elsewhere, except for endowed super-professorships. Paradoxically, salaries became and were kept comparably high precisely because of the general mediocrity of the faculty. The chutzpedik complaint, shamelessly repeated year after year, was that City could only attract or keep good faculty by competing with or exceeding pay scales of the best institutions in the country. Year after year, moneys were made available and simply piled onto the already good salaries of the immovable tenured staff who could not have got jobs at better institutions in the first place, whatever their salaries. Demonstrably superior faculty kept leaving regularly, sometimes for posts paying less, and this phenomenon, instead of being interpreted plainly, was cited as evidence to support higher salaries. It still continues to astonish me that one of the finest English departments in the world could be constituted from persons who did not stay at City, either choosing to go somewhere else, or having to do so because they were not granted tenure.

At one professional convention, someone expressed envy at the high salaries routinely paid at the New York city colleges, “Yes, but look what you have to do to get them,” was the quick comment. “You have to be there.”

For years, the department was guided by the fear of “inbreeding,” the appointment or advancement of its own graduates. This really came down to a variation of Groucho Marx’ Country Club Syndrome: “You really can’t be much good if you want to be one of us.” Marxian logic creeps into any reminiscence of the City English faculty. I once remarked to a colleague who had stayed on at City about the celebrated persons in our field who had taken their degrees in the department or held brief appointments in it and then gone elsewhere to make their careers. His totally unself-conscious, deadpan response was that these persons no doubt would not have become distinguished if they had remained at City.

A regular path was worn by professors leaving for Columbia and its traditionally lower pay (although a few made the reverse trek). Even the great American philosopher, Morris Raphael Cohen, whose name is indissolubly linked with CCNY, longed for years to be at Columbia.

The salary schedule and the sustained litany of tenured faculty griping about it were galling to transient teachers in the lowest ranks and to students, especially to the latter who were always invoked as needing and justifying the “free” city colleges. I once worked out the funds necessary to keep CCNY going in relation to the number of students who graduated. My rough calculation concluded that if every graduate had been given the most lavish four year scholarship to any private college of his choice which accepted him, it would have cost the taxpayers much less than maintaining CCNY. Some of the original purposes which had impelled the establishment of a municipal college in the city, to provide higher education for qualified students barred by poverty and their immigrant and ethnic identity from private campuses, had by the forties and fifties been well satisfied. I don’t know how the current influx of black and Hispanic students into City affects current financial and philosophical considerations, but I am convinced that arguments attributing the decline of the city colleges to a policy of open admissions may be as factitious as the arguments of years ago that “low” faculty salaries were keeping City from comparability with other schools.

Although scarcely five years had elapsed between the time I took my bachelor’s degree and the time that I stood as a teacher before a class at City, the metamorphoses in values, ambitions, ideals, attitudes, beliefs, sheer moral tone among students were so great that they might better be accounted for by the passage of at least a decade or a generation. A war had intervened. Orthodox Communist faculty and students, who had affected the campus atmosphere beyond their numbers, were almost all gone. All of the national and international causes that used to be supported so passionately, all those activities fueled and sparked by political idealism or a vaguer general altruism, were replaced by the pressures of less generous but more urgent private needs: to find jobs, launch careers, start families. I don’t know what spirit I expected to find among students. I did not expect to see an openly expressed, crass practicalism.

It was during my period of teaching that City developed one of the best basketball teams in the country. The team won one important game or tournament after another, demonstrating that CCNY could excel in athletics as well as in intellectual efforts. It was dominated by graduates of the city’s high schools, Jews and blacks. So skilled, so adept in controlling a contest were the players that they were actually thought to be able to determine by what score they would win. Which is exactly what professional gamblers paid several of the players to do, to win by specified scores. When the scandal finally broke, and the players were found guilty after much publicity, the most common response of the student body was puzzled resentment; all the players had done wrong, it was said, was to shave points, in gamblers’ jargon; they didn’t deliberately throw games, they did try to win: to whom did it matter that they were paid a few dollars for their ability to win by particular scores? Everybody was doing it (which was, more or less, true). The real damage, it was felt, was to the image of CCNY as a basketball power and the help that image might be to students seeking jobs after graduation.

The administration, too, at the time seemed to be having trouble making ethical distinctions. During this same period, one of the succession of acting top administrators expressed dismay that fire marshals had cited the college for keeping vending machines in public corridors, thus making the passageways unsafely narrow in case of fire. The administrator, I recall, said that he could not understand why anyone should want to bring up picayune legalities when the profits of the machines were being turned over to student organizations.

Perhaps I was more conscious of the disappearance of the idealism I had known as a student because I was now in an office building, at the business school, downtown, in the heart of the commercial section of the city. Business students were never as involved in the prewar demonstrations as those in the humanities and social sciences uptown. Perhaps the larger and general postwar adjustments made idealism for that time irrelevant or even risky, an early sign that the soil was becoming fertile for the flourishing of Joe McCarthyism. Certainly I know I myself was much preoccupied with beginning a family. I found myself uncharacteristically amused rather than annoyed by a senior colleague who one day angrily announced that he was finally going upstairs to the dean’s office to complain about some longstanding injustice. He returned calmly in a few minutes with a slice of pie from the cafeteria, through which he had to pass on the way to the dean’s office. He had quite forgotten his original mission.

The prevailing emphasis in those days on narrow personal concerns affected the way some new teachers integrated the demands of their teaching with those of the profession. Teaching can readily, almost temptingly, become a full-time occupation, excluding all other activity, as, for that matter, can library work. Indeed, both have so become all too often: many teachers never publish or trouble to read current matter in their fields; some scholars scant their teaching to the point where it requires minimal gesture only. Ideally and classically, however, teaching and research are quite totally integrated. Books and articles develop out of lectures and seminars and in turn enrich teaching.

The sometimes contending demands of teaching and publishing arise most intensely at the worst possible time in a professor’s career, very early, when his teaching is least likely to have anything to do with his writing or research. The problem is to maintain simple good sense. I’ve known young faculty at City who kept their freshmen and sophomores on Beowulf, say, or on Spenser long past any sane justification. Others have taught classical or medieval rhetoric to semiliterate, captive freshmen. The teachers were doing research or preparing for examinations. No one told them to do otherwise. Older and callously indifferent faculty also ride hobbyhorses in class, but at least advanced students have some forewarning and some choice and can avoid such professors. Yet this very tension, between one’s own highly specialized professional interests and demands and the basic needs of students, provides a ready opportunity and even a pressure to develop balance, to avoid narrowness and shallowness, to cultivate perspective, shading, depth. It really makes more sense, at any stage in an academic career, to integrate what one is learning oneself with what one is teaching. My great teacher at City, Ralph Gordon, dedicated his book on metrics to one of his teachers, Earle Fenton Palmer, “who never knew the world’s need to separate teaching from scholarship, or scholarship from art.”

I liked my students, not least because I could see so many varied replicas of myself, and I did want to do right by them. But the fashionable stance at CCNY was to hold students in contempt. They were “the white man’s burden.” Much of the faculty talk about students had to do with their comical ignorance. We mischievously circulated what we considered their hilarious lapses: “Allergy in a Country Churchyard,” “Byron’s Don Juan is a Satyr,” “D’Arcy came and cast scorn at the townspeople’s balls,” “He should be taken with a grain in salt,” come off the top of the head. We spoke most of the time with casual derision, rarely with sympathy or good humor, let alone respect for the occasional inventiveness of students or awe at their unconscious instinct for the apt if surrealistic phrase. It was simpler and safer to join in the reflexive put-down of New York peasantry, even though the snobbishness was often tainted by traces of ethnic arrogance and, ultimately, of self-contempt. It would have required thought, perhaps some patience, certainly sensitivity to absorb productively, or simply ignore, the lapses from grace of students trying to assimilate something of the substance and style of the dominant culture.

I would have found it useful then to have understood what is now a commonplace, that hostility and contempt are often signs of insecurity, gestures of self-hatred and self-defense, forms of anger. Academics generally, especially in departments of English, enjoy exercising a wicked wit against potential challengers, students, colleagues, and administrators. The barbed insults of Restoration comedy, of Wilde, of Alexander Woollcott (or Sheridan Whiteside), of W. C. Fields, and, lately, of Woody Allen are our models. We eschew softer, more modulated rhetoric. Professors delight in the vicious epigram, the brutal and pithy insult, even when they are sometimes only plagiarizing their betters. Cruelty, aggressive dismissal, petty harassment of students at CCNY were rooted in deep professional self-doubt. The process was quite institutionalized at that time, in that place.

Physical facilities, for instance, classroom assignments, and office space, were parceled out in descending order of decency, from administrators and favored professors down to the lowliest of students, entering freshmen. Centrally located, well-lighted classroom space was taken over, step by step, by assistant deans and registrars. (I saw the rooms in which I had sat as a student become repositories for files. ) Office space for ordinary faculty became more and more cramped, cubicles the size of closets assigned to be shared by persons using them on different days or during different hours on the same day; students were allotted cellar facilities near mass toilets for their lunch and extracurricular activities. That remote colonial outpost in Hell’s Kitchen and the pigeon roost in the orphanage, the first and last classrooms of my teaching career at City, were normal instances of this relentless downgrading of the actual teaching process.

City was not unique in this systematic pollution of faculty and student environment. Administrators who exercise petty authority anywhere, especially in state sponsored civil service protected bureaucracies, like guards in the Nazi concentration camps or in prisons anywhere, can assume a frightening grandiosity and independence of action. They megalomanically begin believing that the institution exists for their identity. At City, deans and clerks regarded themselves as a higher social order, but all faculty and academic units that live with an uncertain self-esteem begin to behave much the same. Students become field hands. It was not inaccurate during the country-wide campus upheavals of the early seventies for students to be described as “niggers” in a famous angry essay (although I think the characterization was excessive). I confess I was caught up in one or another expression of faculty superiority, not least since so many of my former teachers, toward whom I had already established habits of deference, were now colleagues who would additionally have to be pleased to support me for advancement.

I wanted to remain at City. I wanted to remain in teaching. After growing up in the Bronx during the Depression of the thirties, living on welfare for a while, working for a period with my father and brother selling ice cream and pumpkin seeds in Crotona Park, working hard as a student at City, surviving the war, I wanted the security offered by a civil service job, by tenure. Especially did I want to root in a job my impulses to read and to write seriously. In every apparent way, teaching at City would have neatly combined my needs, capacities, and ambitions, and I knew I could contribute valuably to the college, but it was becoming clearer and clearer, particularly during the time when the pressures of graduate school were easing, and I began to look around me more attentively, that I could not live comfortably or for very long in that department. One man, in a moment of kindly confidence, suggested, that, like him, I was not suitably “clubbable” for our colleagues. He was one of the several reclusive, sometimes peculiar old-timers subsisting on tenure. I also concluded that I probably would finally not delight the faction of the faculty that would be in power when I approached the tenure threshold. As soon as I formally received the Ph. D., I left to join the staff of Commentary.

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DALLAS MATULA · 4 years ago

Helpful blog post ! I was enlightened by the points . Does anyone know where my assistant might get ahold of a fillable a form document to work with ?

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