It's funny that I should be asked to write a column from a professor's point of view after having taught University Writing for exactly one semester. Far from having tenure or an office or a picture on a department home page, I'm a graduate student with a two-year fellowship. Committed as I am to teaching students how to write, and proud as I am of that work, I don't have to attend department meetings, take part in search committees, or any of the other things that I seem to believe professors are meant to do based on "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and other equally dated literary sources. (Professors in books seem to be forever hosting students at their houses. Ever noticed that? How come nobody ever invites me over? In my long years as a student, graduate and otherwise, I have been asked to an instructor's home only once, during my first semester at Columbia, to a painfully cute, detached house in Lefferts Gardens. The whole event seemed designed to remind all of us as-yet-undiscovered writers how much better it is to have been discovered.) But asked I was, and since I can't possibly imagine Columbia from a professor's point of view, I will, instead, remark on the vista from where I myself stand, in the in-between. As my students and I discovered in the essays we read together last semester, inhabiting the in-between can be as thrilling as it is uneasy. Think of your own recent adolescence and I'm sure you'll remember the feeling of zigzagging across the line between childhood and adulthood, how exciting it could be to cross the boundary, and how frustrating and insecure it could make you feel. This is what sociologist David Sibley describes as "the liminal zone": the moment in which one is not one thing or another; she is neither and both. I am a student, and I know that life as such can feel frantic and disjointed. I know that every professor believes his class to be the most important and that there isn't time or energy or wakefulness enough to apply oneself equally to all classes, so it is imperative to make choices about the distribution of effort. I am a professor, and I know that my class is actually the most important class. Want to be successful? At what? You want to be an economist? A philosopher? A biologist? A mathematician? An advertising executive? A lawyer? Your ability to write convincingly is the difference between being good at what you do and being a star, no matter what your chosen field. Write a beautiful sentence. Place it well in a glorious paragraph that moves me to agree with your argument, and try to do badly at life. I am a student, and I feel the impermanence of my position. I want to maximize my short time at Columbia by meeting fascinating people and having stimulating conversations about smart topics like the irrelevance of Henry James, postwar American literature, and who killed postmodernism. I am anxious that I am not meeting the right kind of fascinating people and that the conversations I have are, more often than not, about lunch or how tired I am. I am a professor, and I know how much there is to life outside of campus. I know, for example, that as long as you're not in your jammies, you can sit in the lobby of the Ritz and work or read for as long as you like. A person might even bring you nuts and olives if you order something, and they'll do it real politely because for all they know, you're a big shot. I know that there are live microphones on right now all over town, waiting for some schmuck like you to step right up and try to make a joke or play a song or read a poem. I know that deep within Chinatown there's another, better Chinatown, and that there's an even better one in Flushing. I know that there is no body of water as magnificent as the Hudson when you're biking up from Brooklyn and you pull out from under the tunnel in the mid-70s where there's a marina and it's all very New England suddenly and the song that one should listen to right at that moment is Nina Simone's version of "Suzanne" by Leonard Cohen. I am a student, and so I know what it's like to lose sleep over some dumb thing that I said but shouldn't have. I am a professor, and so I know how wonderful it is to have vocal students who are willing to take risks in class, students who listen well and are generous. I am a student, and so I feel very often like I know everything and other times like I don't know anything. I am a professor, so, ditto. The author is University Writing instructor and a MFA candidate in fiction.
Columbia Spectator Staff