“Yale Called Me On the Phone”

Dan Green pointed me to William Chace’s recent article on “The Decline of the English Department” (on which more eventually), which in turn led me to look up Chace’s memoir, 100 Semesters, which turns out to be quite interesting reading, not least for its matter-of-fact portrayal of what must seem, to anyone who graduated with a Ph.D. in the last 20 years, like a complete fantasy of the academic job search. Here’s Chace’s experience as an ‘ABD’ at Berkeley in 1968:

But before I did [finish my dissertation], I knew that I had to find a job teaching English at a college or university. In those halcyon days, a few years before the iron gates clanged shut and the job market for the humanities became the hugely depressing spectacle it is today, many departments were looking to enlarge their rosters of assistant professors. Colleges and universities had money, and the arts and humanities still enjoyed the considerable prestige that today they have seen ebb away. The reasons for this good news had to do with large national patterns. In the 1960s alone college and university enrollments more than doubled, from more than three million to eight million. Those getting Ph.D.s each year tripled; and more faculty were appointed than had been appointed in the earlier three centuries of American higher education. Places like the State University of New York at Buffalo, Indiana University, and even exclusive and insular Yale, were hiring. I wrote to them all and was happy to receive the warm encouragement of the professors— Tom Flanagan, Ralph Rader, Alex Zwerdling, and John Traugott—who had taught me. They wrote recommendations for me and thought my prospects good. Owing to such support and to the fact that many jobs seemed available in those days, my return mail brought happy tidings. One institution—the University of Virginia—used a string of Edgar Allan Poe stamps on the envelope mailed to me, hoping that I would make the connection between his one-time presence there and the university’s devotion to poetry. Yale, in the person of the illustrious scholar and Sterling Professor Maynard Mack, called me on the phone. Few people at the time had a greater reputation in English literary scholarship than Mack. He was an expert on Shakespeare, and had overseen the Twickenham edition of the poems of Alexander Pope. From New Haven, he announced that a job awaited me at Yale. This appeared to be great news indeed, but I was bold enough to ask, given what I already knew of Yale’s pattern of only rarely giving tenure to assistant professors, what my chances of a permanent position there would be. With practiced disingenuousness, he quickly replied: “Oh, Bill, we will always have a place for you.” I thanked him but knew better than to believe him. Many years later, Yale would approach me with another kind of job in mind.

Two institutions with offers for me—MIT and Stanford—seemed more attractive than the others. The first had the advantage of being in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had established a wide-ranging department of the “Humanities” rather than just an English department, and had powerful intellectuals like Noam Chomsky on the faculty. The second had a singularly attractive attribute in its favor: it was in the Bay Area, where JoAn and I wanted to remain. But I knew little about the place and, almost to a person, my Berkeley teachers spoke of it with enormous condescension. It was, they said, “the Farm,” a school for rich and lazy Californians, a place where nothing political ever happened, an “unreal” university. But I turned aside all this advice and chose Stanford. The person who interviewed me there, Ian Watt, the distinguished scholar of the novel, the eighteenth century, and Joseph Conrad, had earlier taught at Berkeley. JoAn had been one of his students, and he thought highly of her. He told us that we would be happy at Stanford. He was right. Stanford turned out, over the years, to be good to me and to JoAn. It had no nepotism rule, and she also was given a position as a lecturer in the English department.

I think we all have heard stories about “those halcyon days,” but it’s still astonishing to contemplate someone who has not yet even finished writing his dissertation fielding calls from Yale, Stanford, and MIT.

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