The Job I Love and How It Found Me

gread-eWhen I entered Marquette University’s Graduate Program in Philosophy, I had no idea what I was going to “do” with an advanced degree in Philosophy, but I was sure that I wasn’t going to teach. Accepting Marquette’s scholarship and fellowship was a way to postpone a future in which I would certainly be expected to shape up, grow up, and find something useful (and profitable) to do with my life. My hazy plan was to get my Master’s Degree and then go to law school. When I was accepted into the Ph.D. program, I made sure that I could “opt out” after two years with Master’s Degree in hand.

Before my first term at Marquette, my mentor at Mount Mary College warned me that graduate school would bear little resemblance to my undergraduate classes, where we had read wonderful books and asked fascinating questions.  Graduate school, Dr. Conlon told me, would be about learning a specific set of skills. I would be taught how to think, write and speak like an academic. What we studied would matter less than what I learned about how to do research, how to write for publication, how to defend my ideas in public at conferences.

I didn’t care. Maybe graduate school wouldn’t resemble my undergraduate experience, but from where I stood, it was as close as I was going to get. At least I would still be reading philosophy and talking about it with others. I was sure it would be superior to any alternative I had. As the summer ended and my first semester at Marquette drew closer, I grew more excited to begin my classes and my research work. I had graduated Summa cum laude from Mount Mary College in May, and I felt certain that I was ready.

I was not ready. The first class I walked into was a Philosophy of Freedom seminar—an entire course about free will. On that first day, Dr. Anderson informed us that each student would be writing a major paper on a topic of our choice related to free will. In addition, we would be writing a critique of a fellow student’s major paper. Each major paper would be presented in class, followed by the critique. We would not have access to the critique until the day we presented; part of Dr. Anderson’s evaluation of us would rest on how well we responded to criticism “on our feet.” Our grade would depend on how well we defended ourselves; the grade of the student writing the critique would depend on how thoroughly he or she filleted us. Those two scores—our paper and our critique—would be the sum total of our semester grade.

David Hume

I wrote my paper on David Hume’s philosophy of freedom. I logged hundreds of hours writing that paper; the final version was forty-four pages long, and I felt confident.  Not only did I have a strong paper; for the occasion, I had gone to Marshall Field’s and purchased a new Pendleton skirt and matching cashmere sweater with my initial embroidered on the breast. I was set.

The critique of my paper had been assigned to a fellow student named John; he was a Sartrean. He also looked like Tom Cruise, and I was pretty sure that he liked me. He had asked me over to his apartment after class so he could make me dinner; clearly, I was sailing high with this whole “graduate student” experience.  After I presented my paper, John-the-Cute-Sartrean began his critique, and I simultaneously experienced my first—and only—case of hysterical deafness. John’s mouth was moving, things were clearly being said, but I heard nothing. And then his mouth stopped moving, and the members of the class, including Dr. Anderson, turned in unison to look at me. “Um,” I stuttered, “Could you repeat that?”

Silence. Then Dr. Anderson nodded at John and said, “Repeat your main objections.” John did so, and I could hear his words this time, but they were not strung together in any way that made sense. He may as well have been reading a shopping list. From the planet Bajor.

Silence. I knew I couldn’t ask John to repeat his critique yet again, so I stammered out some sort of response, relying on my undergraduate knowledge of Sartre to carry me through. It must have been alright, because the conversation moved on from there, but I was badly shaken. I begged off of dinner at John’s; the thought of spending the evening with the fellow who had carved me up for lunch was distinctly unappealing. I went home instead, and spend the evening whimpering, listening to Paul Simon songs, and eating chocolate peanut cluster ice cream. I had taken a major hit. And I was, more than anything, confused.  In my classes at Mount Mary College, I had always been confident, calm and self-possessed. I still had warm memories of the night before I graduated–first in my class. All the seniors had stood on the steps outside Notre Dame Hall carrying Japanese lanterns and singing “Climb Every Mountain.” What had happened?

I wasn’t sure. But I had gone to an all-women’s high school and an all-women’s college, whereas the free will seminar consisted of nine men—and me. My last experience of being with men in the classroom had been Christ King School, and those “men” had been twelve years old. These graduate student men were considerably older, and seemed like a different species. They talked—a lot. It seemed to be their way of figuring things out—talking, jousting, thrusting, parrying. They were thick skinned and aggressive, and not one of them was inclined to say, “I totally see where you’re coming from,” or “I hear you,” or “Wow! Your hair is so shiny today!” I was used to my fellow students using language to establish continuities and connections, to understand my point of view, but these beings were using language to make distinctions and establish dominance, to defeat my point of view. It was a new world, and no had given me the Instruction Manual.

My Plato seminar was more of the same, but without any instances of hysterical deafness. There were three other women in that class, and one of them—Mary–befriended me. She had been around for a while, and was dating one of the dominant primates in the group, so she was a kind ally, my Virgil as I navigated the first graduate school circle of hell. But the class itself was incredibly difficult. Each student had to turn in, by semester’s end, an eight page single spaced summary and analysis of ten separate dialogues, excluding the Republic, in addition to a short paper on the dialogue of our choice and a longer (20-30 pp.) paper on a topic of our choosing.  I had made it through college never having pulled even one “all-nighter,” and was convinced that students who stayed up all night studying were just poor time managers. I was never so smug again after my Plato Seminar. There were several nights of driving to Open Pantry (open 24 hours) to re-up on Diet Coke in order to finish an analysis of the Gorgias or the Meno just as dawn was breaking over Milwaukee.

I was also taking Metaphysics, taught by the most enthusiastic atheist I had ever encountered. Dr. Algozin was one cheerful, relentless atheist. I was the only woman in that class as well, but it was smaller than my other two classes, and more comfortable. The other students included a young man who dressed every day in three piece suits, carried a briefcase and a rolled up Wall Street Journal, and sweated profusely. The other two students included a farm boy from Iowa who wore overalls to class, quoted the Misfit from Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find at least once a day, and glowered at our atheist professor. Rounding out our little group of metaphysicians was an eerily quiet fellow who slouched back in his seat, took no notes all semester, then blew everyone away in the last week of class with an analysis of the flaws in the arguments of Errol Harris. (Years later, I married him. The quiet fellow, not Harris.) Dr. Algozin, the professor, loved George Santayana, and so I learned more about “tropes” in the philosophy of George Santayana than I had ever expected—or wanted—to learn.

Darth Vader: Not Dr. Vater

Those were my classes. For my research assistantship, I was assigned to Dr. Vater, also my Plato professor. (And yes, we all called him “Darth Vader.”) He gave me what he took to be an ideal job: I was to spend ten hours a week learning how to use Marquette’s fancy new computer so that in the spring semester I could type his book manuscript into it. This was well before the days of the personal computer. Until Dr. Vater gave me this assignment, the only computer I had ever even seen was the one at Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance when I worked there the summer after high school. That computer was a behemoth, and only the very most trained Computer Shamans were allowed to go anywhere near it.

My first research task: find the computer. This task I completed successfully; the madeline-kahn-in-whats-up-docdepartment secretary gave me directions to a large and drafty old garage at the edge of campus, near the freeway. Approaching the site of my new job, I felt a bit like Madeline Kahn in the movie What’s Up, Doc?” The whole scene felt forbidding, strange and weird.

Inside the garage was housed The Computer, walled off from all of us by glass walls. Around the circumference of that walled-in machine were desks with terminals on them. The terminals were, of course, connected to the main frame computer behind the class. They each glowed a ghostly green, and on the unused terminals flickered a tiny cursor: on/off, on/off.

Bravely, I grabbed a terminal and sat myself down. The person in charge of the terminals came over when I beckoned, and showed me how to log into the giant computer behind the wall. He also handed me a dog-eared manual listing all of the prompts and commands I would need. He might as well have handed me the operating instructions to a space shuttle—written in Cyrillic. I knew I was in for a long semester.

Me Before Graduate School

By the time the annual Christmas Party for the Graduate Students came along, I knew that I had done well, earning two A’s and an A-. On the other hand, my eating disorder was back with a vengeance, and I was a far more rattled and anxious girl than the one who had stood on the steps at Mount Mary College the previous May singing “Climb Every Mountain.” Apparently, it is much easier to sing about climbing mountains than it is to actually climb them.

In the Old West, when a cowboy gets shot, his friends make the decision whether to take him along or leave him to die by asking one question: “Can you stand?” If the cowboy could still stand, he had a decent chance of surviving his wound. I was

Me on my Last Day of Classes: Thinner and A Bit Shaken

wounded, but I was still standing. At that Christmas party, I walked around in a bit of a daze, and whenever one of the professors asked me “How are you doing?” I said “I survived.” When I said this to the Chair, he twinkled at me, and said, “This is all part of the process. You come in thinking you know it all and we spend the first semester destroying you so that we can build you back up to be stronger.” I thought Dr. Coffey sounded a bit like a deranged educational Cartesian, but I smiled and said, “Oh. Hah. Hmmm.”

My second semester as a graduate student was better; I became friends with some funny and wise fellow students, and my second semester professors were not as much from the Nietzschean School of “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” Even better, Dr. Vater had looked over my work on the Marquette Computer, and immediately informed Harry Klocker, S.J.—my Aquinas professor that Spring—that I was far more suited to his needs. Fr. Klocker agreed, and I happily ensconced myself in the library, studying Church Latin for Fr. Klocker while another graduate student hiked over to the Garage with the Giant Computer and typed in Dr. Vater’s manuscript.  What with the nicer professors and the more amenable research project, I was actually looking forward to coming back for my second year.

Before we all broke away for the summer, Dr. Coffey summoned me into his office. “I have good news for you!” he beamed at me. “We had our meeting about all the new students, and based on your grades and evaluations this year, we are moving you from Research Assistant to Teaching Fellow one year early! Starting next Fall, you will be teaching two full section of Logic! Yes! You’re Welcome!”

Wait. What?  “You mean, I will be a Teaching Assistant for one of the Professors?” I asked. “Oh no,” Dr. Coffey said. “The Philosophy Department doesn’t have TA’s. We give our students their very own courses to teach, after they have earned the equivalent of a Master’s Degree. In your case, we are saying that you are ready to move up now.”

I knew that after two years doing research, graduate students were moved up to Teaching Fellowships. But I had assumed I would be sitting in a classroom at Marquette Law School by then. Teaching was not ever supposed to be part of the plan.

“Oh, No,” I responded. “No. I am not. I am not ready. I don’t want to teach. I didn’t come here wanting to teach. I like research. I love research. I have never wanted to be a teacher. Thanks so much, but no. I decline.”

Dr. Coffey paused for a moment, then scowled. “Hmm. You’re not catching on. I’m not asking you. I’m telling you. The Graduate Committee has moved you forward. You aren’t a Research Assistant anymore. If you want your scholarship and your 660.00 a month stipend, you are a Teaching Fellow. In Logic. Two sections. Next Fall.”

I had no idea how to even begin to picture myself as a teacher. I was twenty-three years old; many of my students would be just one or two years younger than I. Watching my own professors at Mount Mary College, I was keenly aware that they were possessed of vast amounts of knowledge. I knew next to nothing, and yet I was going to be plopped down in front of two sections of thirty students each with the expectation that they would emerge in mere months with a working knowledge of modus ponens and modus tollens?  Oh God, I thought. I have a lot of work to do.

Over the course of the summer of 1981, I chose the textbook I would use for my classes, opened the book up to the first page, and worked my way through the entire text, completing every problem until my memory of how to do symbolic logic was fresh. I made meticulous notes on each chapter and outlined lectures for the semester. I went back to the syllabus from my Logic class at Mount Mary College, and used it to model my own versions of paper assignments. When the first week of September 1981 rolled around, I was as prepared as I was ever going to be.

“Prepared,” however, is not the same thing as “Ready.” In no way did I feel ready to stand in front of a classroom and act as if I knew anything. I drove to campus that first morning and wished the tires would fly off the car so that I’d have a reason not to show up. To my consternation, the car remained sturdy, and I arrived at Marquette with time to spare. Before heading over to Marquette Hall, I stopped at Coughlin Hall to drop off my coat and books; there I ran into my old Metaphysics professor, Dr. Algozin, the cheery atheist.  He was on his way out of the Men’s Room. “Oh Hi!” he chirped. “How are you?”

“Well, Dr. Algozin,” I said, “I am pretty awful. I have to teach for the first time in a few minutes, and I am a mess.”

“Oh, yeah,” Dr. Algozin laughed, slapping me on the shoulder. “That never goes away. I’m almost twenty years in, and I still get nauseous on the first day of classes.” He swung his head left to indicate the door of the Men’s Room. “I teach in a few minutes, too. First class of the term. I just threw up! You’ll be fine! See Ya!” and off he went, whistling under his breath.

Marquette Hall

With no more tasks to distract me and no other professors to cheer me on in whatever way they saw fit, I trudged over to Marquette Hall. Room 100 was a lecture hall with desks on risers and a blackboard at the front of the room. There were thirty bodies in chairs when I entered the classroom. I placed my notes on the lectern, cleared my throat, and said, “Good Morning. I am Miss Maloney, and I will be your Instructor for Logic this term. I am here today because I am getting paid to talk about Logic. What are you doing here? Why should anyone study Logic, anyway? How is all this talk about Logic not a waste of time? What good will it do any of us? What’s the point of this?”

I looked up. At least seven people had their hands up. I called on them, and other hands went up. I started to write on the board, and every time I responded to one student, another hand would rise, another student would ask a question. I was talking about ideas with intelligent people just a bit younger than I was. They were asking good questions. I was answering them, often by asking other questions. I was going to get paid to do this. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I was home.

The bell rang. I couldn’t believe that forty minutes had passed. It had seemed like ten. On their way out the door, several students said, “Great class! Good conversation! See you Wednesday!” I couldn’t wait. I could use some of the great ideas and questions from this day to make my opening for the next class even stronger. I started scribbling down new ideas, imagining how I would start class on Wednesday, imagining how I might move into the opening chapter of the text.

There were, of course, some bumpy days ahead of me. I was teaching two sections of Logic, but I had never in my life crafted a syllabus, made up an exam, created a paper assignment, or graded student work. I learned some necessary skills the hard way; when I created my first Logic midterm exam, I figured that if it took me thirty minutes to “take” my test, the students should be fine in their allotted forty-five minutes.

That turned out to be a wildly wrong assumption; none of my students finished in the allotted time. As the minutes ticked past, the smell of panic and sweat permeated the classroom; two girls cried. One fellow was in ROTC and it was uniform inspection day. The test freaked him out so badly that he threw up on his dress shoes and I had to write a note to his commanding officer explaining what happened. No one passed the exam; no one even finished it.

The following class period, when I handed back the tests, I apologized to the students, and told them that there would be another exam in a week; I would be throwing this one away. They forgave me. They took the makeup test and mostly did fine, and I learned that an exam that takes them forty-five minutes should take me about five.

Another time that semester, I realized after I got home from my day’s classes that I had taught Aristotle’s Square of Opposition incorrectly. After two nights of agonizing about my error, I walked into class and told my students to rip out the pages in their notebooks from the previous class, because I had messed them up bigtime. Then I retaught the Aristotle, and they were fine. From the beginning of my life as a teacher, I have found that, when I admit my limitations, acknowledge my mistakes, and make sure the students never suffer because of my errors, they are generous, kind and forgiving.

I taught Logic again the following semester. I loved it just as much, perhaps more. In May, Dr. Coffey called me into his office to tell me that my grades were excellent and my teaching evaluations impressive; the graduate faculty had decided to promote me from teaching Logic to Philosophy of Human Nature for the next academic year.

I now knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to teach philosophy. I hadn’t been certain of much up to that point, but I was certain of that. This new certainty, however, meant that I would be staying at Marquette for my Ph.D. Because I had always operated under the assumption that I would “opt out” at the Master’s Degree level, I had blithely ignored the Ph.D. requirements. Now that I wasn’t leaving, they were pertinent.

I would have to complete at least one more year of coursework, pass proficiency exams in both French and German (neither of which I had ever studied; I had six years of Latin under my belt), pass an eight hour written comprehensive exam on the history of Western philosophy and a three hour oral exam on two areas of my choosing. When that was behind me, I would be writing a dissertation on some original idea in philosophy; I would have to find a topic, choose a director and a dissertation board, write the thing and then defend it publicly.  In short, I was in for a long walk through several more circles of hell.

I didn’t care. I knew what I wanted to do. My life’s work was to teach Philosophy, and I had nearly missed it. I had ended up in Room 100 of Marquette Hall in September of 1981 either through a series of coincidences or the whimsical turnings of God’s will for my life. (For more evidence of this whole “God-in-my-Life Thing, see here.) With no real idea why, I had applied to graduate school, and I went only because I knew that I loved doing philosophy and would do it for as long as life let me. Good Catholic girl that I was, I saw in the twists and turns that led me from a required Core Course at Mount Mary College when I was seventeen years old to a cavernous lecture hall at Marquette University five years later a plan whose author wasn’t entirely me. I decided then and there that the God who somehow got me to Room 100 would show me the way through the forest of obstacles that now confronted me. I was ready.