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Looking Back at the 1960’s: Academic Portraits – Part 1, Arrival at UB

ARRIVAL AT UB: The Pressure Cooker

                    “…it is the generation which provides the fundamental

                    method for historical investigation. “

                              Ortega y Gasset, “The Method of the Generations in History,” Man and Crisis

I arrived at the “new” State University of New York at Buffalo in the fall of 1967 with a manual typewriter at a time when mimeograph and chalk were state of the art technologies. I upgraded quickly, with my first paycheck, to an electric machine, though I couldn’t afford   IBM’s futuristic “spinning ball.”

It took me a decade to catch up with the secretaries in the department who were whirring out manuscripts for senior faculty who, in those days, were called “eagles” at a time when the then energized English Department of The State University of New York at Buffalo had aspirations to build a nest on the upper cliffs of the Profession. On days when I felt insecure – there were many of them – I imagined that some of my upper tier colleagues had talons, not fingers.

The possibility of symbolic anatomical injury was even more threatening than having one’s eyes pecked out, so to speak. I recall, soon after my arrival in Buffalo, a department meeting when a candidate for appointment at a senior level was being considered. The candidate – who was reputed to be brilliant – had published several major articles in leading journals, articles which had realigned the vertebrae of his discipline.

This realignment had corrected a mild sciatica in his corner of the field, to the relief of those with back problems in that learned area, but, though forty years old, this person had yet to publish a printed book — which, in the pre-digital era, was the sine qua non for a tenure appointment in the Humanities. In those days of what now seem like “yore,” DIGITAL meant a visit to the proctologist.

Unlike the sciences, books are (were?) more important in literary fields than articles. The river of knowledge moves less swiftly in the Humanities whose flow more resembles glacial movement until every half century or so an ice-berg breaks off and is suddenly visible to everyone (Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent”).

Throughout the discussion of this candidate’s credentials, the former chair of the department, whom everyone regarded as the George Washington of UB’s “modern” English department, looked puzzled, even agitated, and began tapping the center of his forehead   — as if to locate the epicenter of his brain – as he often did when he had a major point to make.

Although he no longer was Chair and even was thought odd by some people, his word tended to carry the day because he typically knew more about any candidate than anyone else did (he actually had read their work!); and when the tapping on his forehead became audible, one knew that he was on the verge of making a   decisive judgment, one that would be likely to swing the vote.

The former Chair was recognized by the current Chair (there tends to be a lot of furniture in academic departments). He jumped up, turned slowly, taking us all in with the confidence that Churchill must have possessed when he addressed the Commons, and said, “Gentlemen, let me introduce a razor into this barber shop – the candidate doesn’t have One!” He then smiled broadly and plopped down (his lucid mind was counter-balanced by a bean-bag of a body).

Some colleagues seemed to get the point quickly. I was somewhat puzzled. Had I forgotten to wear a tie or, in a moment of pre-tenure panic, even forgotten to put on a pair of socks or to zipper my fly?

Or, since I still was deep into my Freudian period, it occurred to me that this might be an oblique reference to “castration anxiety.” One never was sure where the former Chair’s point might be leading.

I checked my clothing. Everything seemed to be in order, and then I understood: THE CANDIDATE DIDN’T HAVE A BOOK — a fate worse than castration anxiety. The candidate was doomed. If he was going to leave Idaho, it wouldn’t be to join the potato field of UB’s fertile English Department.

I was properly dressed, and that was reassuring, but I didn’t have a book at that time. I hoped that dressing well might convince a few senior faculty that I did have potential and would not be consigned to the pile of deadwood which the department burned from time to time.

Looking Back at the 1960’s: Academic Portraits is a weekly multi-part series by Howard R. Wolf. Please check back next week for part 2. Click here to view all the parts in the series, as they are added.

Howard R. Wolf is Emeritus Professor and Senior Fellow in The Department of English at SUNY-Buffalo. He is the author of The Education of a Teacher and Far-Away Places: Lessons in Exile. Some of his recent work has appeared in Colere, George Orwell Newsletter, Moment (online), Evening Street Review, Prosopisa (India)and The Buffalo News.