When I went to graduate school to study philosophy, my intention was to hide out from the “real world” for a few more years doing what I loved before going to law school. I had fallen in love with philosophy in college, but I knew that no one makes a living as a “philosopher,” so I would eventually have to be practical and look toward developing some skills that would make me employable.
Three of my older siblings had done what smart college students who aren’t good in math or science do—they went to law school. Like them, I was smart and got good grades in everything not related to math or science. I felt certain that law school was my eventual destination, followed by a well-paying job and a life. The fact that just the words “law school” made my throat close up didn’t seem pertinent next to brute facts like my need for food, rent money and maybe even health insurance.
That throat-closing thing did convince me, however, to buy myself some time; I applied for and received a scholarship and fellowship from Marquette University to study philosophy. I was accepted into the Ph.D. program, which required three years of coursework, reading knowledge of French and German, oral and written comprehensive exams, and a dissertation. I wasn’t worried about all that, however, because my “secret plan” was to take the Master’s Degree option offered at the end of the second year. The Master’s Degree did not require both languages; I could, in fact, use Latin as my language. (I studied Latin for four years in high school and two in college.) Nor did the Master’s Degree require those scary-sounding comprehensive exams and dissertation. My plan was to love philosophy for two more precious years, opt out with a Master’s Degree, go to law school, and start my real life as a practical person.
At the end of my first year, the Director of Graduate Students summoned me to his office. I had done well in my classes, and the professors for whom I did research were pleased with my work. As a reward, Dr. Coffey informed me, I would be awarded a Teaching Fellowship after just one year in the program instead of the usual two. I expressed my profound gratitude for this offer, and firmly rejected it. I had no desire to teach anything to anyone, ever. I just wanted to study philosophy for one more year, and……you guessed it. Onward to law school.
Dr. Coffey chuckled at my polite refusal and said, “Maybe I don’t make myself clear. We are offering you a Teaching Fellowship. We have decided that you are going to teach. The Research Assistantship is off the table. You’re a Teaching Fellow now.” Oh. I swallowed hard and said, “Thank you. In that case, I accept.”
I spent the summer of that first year preparing to teach Logic. Unlike Teaching Assistants in other programs, Teaching Fellows in the philosophy department taught our own independent classes, unsupervised by a lead professor. I was on my own, in a job I had never asked for and was pretty sure I would not be good at.
Thus it was that in the autumn of 1981 I walked into Room 100 of Marquette Hall and faced thirty college freshman who looked even more frightened than I. Fortified with my Graduate School Breakfast of a Tab, two pieces of Bazooka bubble gum and four aspirin, I called my first class to order.Before the hour was over, I knew that I had stumbled, backwards and complaining, directly into the center of my life. I never wanted to walk out of a classroom again after those first thirty minutes.
In the course of that year, I made a few half-hearted attempts to talk myself out of teaching, but I knew I was done for. I loved every moment I spent with my classes, and by December I could not imagine walking away. My family knew I was loving the teaching thing, and my mother interpreted this as a good sign for my future brilliant career in the law. I would do well in court.
By the Spring semester, I knew that I was never going to see the inside of a law school. I was going to stay, and get a Ph.D. in philosophy. And that meant I had to face the brute facts of the Ph.D. requirements. I had blithely disregarded those requirements when I entered the program, because I had an Exit Strategy. With my Exit Strategy gone, I had to face the horrors that stood in front of me. First, I had to pass those language exams. Only after passing them could I even register for Comps. Only after passing Comps could I assemble a dissertation board and write my dissertation. Job #1, then had to be languages.
My Latin background was a big help when I decided to teach myself French. In the summer of that second year, I worked my way through a “Reading French” textbook and in the Fall of 1982, I took the Reading Exam in French. I translated the page of Jean-Paul Sartre’s L’imagination they handed me well enough to pass, and it was on to Step #2: German. I had studied German briefly in the third grade, but Frau Mittmann didn’t really teach us much beyond the German words for the weather and Easter. (see My Failure to Avoid German Class ) I didn’t hold out much hope that any of my previous German was going to be useful.
I signed up for a class that was offered to all graduate students who needed to pass a German exam, taught in the late afternoon by a beleaguered young German professor who didn’t have tenure. I took an instant dislike to German and he took an instant dislike to me. That might have had something to do with the fact that, on the first day, when he asked us what German might be good for in our lives, I had volunteered, “Barking orders at people?” In any event, he wasn’t teaching very much and I wasn’t learning very much, and I stopped attending the class after a few weeks.
Nonetheless, I had to solve my German Problem. After that first year of teaching Logic, I had been promoted and was now teaching Philosophy of Man, and I loved teaching that class even more. I felt in my bones that I was meant to be a philosophy professor, and yet there was German standing squarely in my path.I asked one of my philosophy professors who was fluent in German, Roland Teske, S. J., if he would tutor me.
He said that he would, and two other graduate students joined us. Fr. Teske, bless his heart, gave us his time and his energy, but we were all simply terrible at German. One of the other students in the class, a fellow named Dave, would read his translations out loud; they sounded like haiku written by a drunk man. After spewing out a mess of disconnected words in no particular order, he would invariably say, “My syntax might be a bit off.” I remember thinking, “What would it be like to have that much self-confidence?”
As the weeks went by and the exam loomed ever closer, I worked harder and harder on my German. I still remember sitting in one session when it was my turn to read my translation. I struggled along bravely, ending with the words, “And then he vaulted over the arch.” Silence. Fr. Teske stroked his mustache for a few seconds, staring at his desk. Then he said, “Well, no. Not quite. That last sentence actually says “He changed his mind.” Oh God, I thought. I am not going to pass this German exam.
The exam, I knew, was going to be a page of German text from a major German philosopher. I feverishly studied texts from Hegel, Nietzsche, and Kant, trying desperately to translate something from each of them into recognizable English. The night before the exam, I did something I didn’t do nearly enough of in those days. I prayed. I told God that I was pretty sure I was supposed to teach philosophy, that I loved it with all my heart and my students loved me. That I was really, really scared to take comps and write a dissertation. That I knew how hard it would be to find a job once I got this incredibly difficult degree. But I was willing to trudge forward and move through all of it, because it felt like the thing I was being called to do. I remember sitting on my bedroom floor in front of the door that opened onto my little balcony, and staring at the moon, saying, “Hey, if You really want me here, doing this, I need some help. Whatever you can do. Thanks.”
That night, I dreamed I was taking the German Exam. Unlike my classic anxiety dreams, where I was late for a test and couldn’t read the words on the page, however, in this dream I was reading the ninth paragraph of the Critique of Pure Reason. It was in German, but I was reading it in English. I woke up with a start the next morning, and the mood of the dream stayed with me. I felt weirdly calm.
It had snowed the night before, and I was borrowing my mother’s car to drive to Marquette. On my way out the door, I renewed my prayer, reminding God that I needed some help if I was ever going to stand in a classroom as a philosophy professor. Minutes later, I managed to steer my mother’s silver Monte Carlo straight into a snow bank at the bottom of the driveway. I was thoroughly stuck. Panicked, I ran back into the house to call the Philosophy department and tell them I would be late while my father got out a shovel and a bag of rock salt. As he dug and I spun the wheels, I thought, “THIS is your answer, God? Really? I’m going to miss the whole frigging exam because of a snowbank? THANKS.”
My father dug me out, and I raced down the Menomonee River Parkway to Marquette, parked the Monte Carlo and ran across the campus to Coughlin Hall. I was late. I was allowed to take the exam, but I would not be able to stay past the end time to make up for the time I had lost. Sweating and out of breath, I tried to calm myself and took a few deep breaths. I looked down at the page to see what my passage was. It was the ninth paragraph of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.
I closed my eyes, and remembered my oh-so-vivid dream from the night before. Then I picked up my pen.
Two days later, Fr. Teske’s best buddy and my Aquinas professor, Harry Klocker, S. J., stopped me in the hallway. I hadn’t heard anything about the exam, and I didn’t know how long I would have to wait to find out whether I had passed. With a twinkle in his eye, Fr. Klocker said, “So Roland (Fr. Teske) wants to know how in the hell you passed the German exam with flying colors!”
I had passed the German exam. It took me four more years to make my way through the rest of my coursework, my oral and written comps, and my dissertation, but I got that Ph.D. and this year I begin my 29th year teaching philosophy at St. Catherine University. I wrote my dissertation on Gabriel Marcel’s critique of Thomas Aquinas’ arguments for the existence of God. As for me, I felt pretty sure that God existed. And He was very, very good at translating Immanuel Kant.