Saturday, September 19, 2009

Think things were better in the olden days? Think again.

I've been reading The Autobiography of William Lyon Phelps (1939), and while it does have some sigh-worthy features (such as having colleges like Yale and Harvard call him up and, in effect, start a bidding war to have him come and teach there . . . when he was an instructor), it also has a few tidbits that should give one pause.* Here are some excerpts from 1891-2 and a few years later. A lot has changed--but then again, a lot hasn't:
  • "In the early Spring, obsessed by the work I was doing on my Doctor's thesis and by the fear that I should not finish it in time, I became afflicted with insomnia" (258). A faculty member tells him that he has already done enough to be worthy of a degree and that he can polish it up later, thus helping Phelps to avoid "a complete and prolonged breakdown."
  • In those days, Harvard had a composition requirement for freshman, sophomores, and some juniors in which a daily theme was required, which Phelps regarded as an unnecessary compulsory exercise: "The only men on the Harvard English Faculty who were excused from reading themes were Professor Child and Professor Kittredge. . . One day I met [Professor Child]in the Yard, and he asked me what I was doing; I replied, 'Reading themes.' He looked at me affectionately and said, 'Don't spoil your youth'" (274).
  • "During the entire academic year at Harvard, I read more than eight hundred themes every week; I read all day and a good part of the night. Once I was sick for two days, and a substitute read for me, because even one day's lapse made it impossible to keep up" (274).
  • "There is no doubt that in those days (1880-1900) popularity with the students was a serious handicap . . . [because] extreme popularity made the ruling powers feel that the candidate must have stooped to conquer. Professor Sumner used to say it was often easier for a man from another college to receive an appointment than for a man on the ground; 'the latter's faults we know, and all we know of the distant man is that he has faults, but as we do not know what they are, we forget their certain existence'" (287).
  • A few years later, at Yale, Phelps decides to teach "the first course in any university in the world confined wholly to contemporary fiction. I called the course Modern Novels." This "amazing addition to the curriculum" (298) inspired all kinds of ridicule in the newspapers, usually under the headline "THEY STUDY NOVELS."
  • "I well remember also [Professor Lounsbury's] saying to me over and over again, and always with emphasis, that it was ridiculous to judge the value of a college professor by what his students thought of him. They were not qualified to judge. It was only what other professors thought of him that should count; for they were his peers" (324).


    *(You see how contagious Phelps's style is?)
  • 6 comments:

    profacero said...

    I love it, love it, love it.

    I'm sure you've seen the rules made for the University of Paris when it was new. No wine in exam rooms. No lying in wait with knives for professors who have failed you.

    Ink said...

    "They study novels" = wonderful headline!

    Really enjoyed reading these...thanks for sharing.

    annieem said...

    A fun post, and yes, not so much better!

    undine said...

    Profacero, I hadn't seen those, but that one about "no lying in wait with knives"? I totally agree.

    Ink, you're welcome. I'm trying to imagine reading 800 themes a week, which would be over 100 a day. Somehow I think Harvard must have invented "minimal marking" at this time.

    annieem, he also sees the whole process of promotion as somewhat capricious. At one point he tries to keep the fact that he got a teaching award quiet lest the senior faculty get jealous and fire him.

    bitternsweet said...

    I don't know who this Phelps fellow is (should I?) but I have decided that I adore him. That last bit about the uselessness of student evaluations is one for the ages -- I might have to make that my personal motto, as we're wrestling with assessment issues in my department right now.

    Thanks for sharing!

    undine said...

    bitternsweet, he's not someone you need to know, but he does have a lot of interesting things to say. I first heard of him when Dorothy Parker was making fun of him in one of her book reviews.