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The Lily of the West

May 2, 2010

[This was meant to post Saturday, but for some reason did not]

I had a lovely two days on campus. I got to see two of my four committee members (my advisor was out of town) and both were very encouraging. I got to hear a terrific lecture by one of my favorite people, one inspired by her love of reading Victorian novels, and go out to dinner with her and a couple of other faculty and students at a fancy French restaurant on someone else’s dime. I got a lot of work done in a day at a real library, one where I’m not stuffing in earplugs to drown out the toddlers on the other side of the room, one that actually has books I want to read. And I got to participate in a workshop in which I think I more than held my own (and, in fact, I had to force myself not to take over the conversation entirely) against earnest young students quoting Marx and Plato and Aristotle. I’ve gained much confidence in the last year or so, I think.

I also thoroughly enjoyed spending some time with my undergrad advisor that was off the clock. She is the one who encouraged me to come to this particular graduate program (and she is one of the few people in any area of my life whose advice I trust enough to follow blindly, not that I did in this case). She went here herself (and went to my undergrad institution, where she now teaches, also). And some of the stories she told about her time here more than 30 years ago were priceless.

At dinner, which included me, my former advisor, two faculty members from the English department (which was sponsoring her trip) and two current students in my department, the conversation turned to departmental history. Decades ago when my former advisor was a student here, there was a great scandal in my department. There was a male professor who was a famous scholar and also a notorious personality who was married to another well-known scholar in the department. He had an affair with one of his students, a woman a couple of years ahead of my advisor in the program. The married couple eventually divorced, but the details of the event were so lascivious — or maybe just sufficiently more interesting than studying for exams in medieval music — and the personalities involved so outrageous that the story has long since passed into departmental mythology that is handed down from generation to generation of students. One of the players is now dead. Another lives on another continent. The third is in another state. But the legend lives on, with new twists at each retelling. The twist in my generation’s version of the story was that there was a roman à clef of the incident written by none other than Joyce Carol Oates under an assumed name. I have read the book in question and it was in fact written by Oates, but the only real connection with the story seems to be that the book is about sexual intrigue in a music department and one of the characters shares a last name with her counterpart in the real life drama.

This story came up for discussion when one of the younger students asked my former advisor about some of her experiences as a student here, in particular with the male professor in the story above. I asked the English professors later in the evening if their department was so obsessed with its history, and both, even the one who has taught her for nearly 40 years, said no. But I would bet that most students in my department can name the faculty who have taught here back several decades before they were even born. We are peculiar that way.

But I had to shake myself out of my work obsession today to catch up with the weekend tasks: keeping AJ company on the bench at his baseball game, grocery shopping, weeding, transplanting. Tomorrow is likely to be more of the same. But Monday…back to the grindstone.

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