So with few prospects for offering an upper-level seminar in the minor poets of American literature, I had an unexpected opportunity when a colleague at South Dakota State University (long story how I got there and what I was doing) invited me to teach technical/business communication and to collaborate in the development of a minor in technical communications, which, unlike a minor in English, might prove interesting to students pursuing degrees in agriculture, engineering, or business. Although at the time I did not think of it in these terms, I now regard the texts created in business and technical communication as examples of functional art, a concept I have mentioned before and one that very much attracts me. When I spent the year in Iowa, which I have talked about in earlier posts on this blog, I came to regard the Iowa landscape at whatever time of year I saw it as itself functional art, a literal landscape created by farmers for a function and which, with its lines, its colors, and its communication with the horizon and the sky both functioned and could--in Keats words--"tease us out of thought." And when the sound of the landscape was added to the smell, especially at the time of year that the fields were ripe with manure (which some described as the smell of money), then sight, sound, and smell all came together to create functional art.
To give a sense of the profundity of agreeing to teach business communication, let alone to work on developing what would turn out to be an interdisciplinary minor, I need to tell a little more about my time as a graduate student at Purdue University. The late 1960s and early 1970s were a heady time. To reduce many complex forces swirling around at that time, suffice it to say that as graduate students, we were convinced (perhaps correctly) that we saw both the transparent and rather seamy motivations of many of the faculty, especially when it came to setting requirements for degrees, and at the same time were struck by their blindness to those motivations and their assumption that the kind of power they had enjoyed throughout their careers would continue unabated.
To take but one example, student evaluation of faculty came into existence--at least at Purdue--during that time; and as graduate students, our classes were often used as groups to test questionnaires and to get reaction both to the questions and to the whole idea that students might have an expectation of expressing an opinion on faculty. To take just one other example, the option for a student to enroll in a class and then to drop the class after attending it for a session or two was unheard of (so far as my experience was concerned) until this time. Some of us had mixed feelings toward the idea that--theoretically--all the students might, on meeting a professor, walk out of the classroom and register for someone else. Forget whether one wanted to teach minor poets, what would the idea of giving students a choice do to one's employment?
As a graduate student, I remember being a bit torn between a commitment to students' rights and powers and a recognition that the world of the faculty, which I hoped to join, was undergoing a profound change. As graduate students, we were slightly more than students--we were also teaching assistants, a status I would describe as being slightly better--although perhaps not much better--than the status of an adjunct faculty member, a status I occupied for a number of years after finishing my doctorate. A teaching assistant is "better" solely because one is pursuing a degree, which, in theory, will lead to full-time employment. Adjunct status, as I and many others have come to find out, is often to "eat the air, promise-crammed," but to end up going nowhere.
As a graduate student, I was not as concerned with conditions of employment as with a more meaningful role in governance. I will talk about this more in a later post, but as I write this post for Sunday, March 30, I find the ruling that Northwestern University football players can form a union recalls some interesting memories. As teaching assistants, of course, we did not bring the wealth to an institution that football players do. But considering what was paid (there were no benefits, of course) against the revenue from students who sat in our classes, Purdue did quite well.
After considerable discussion, graduate students were granted two representatives on the English Department's Graduate Committee. I was one of those two representatives. At the time, I did not fully understand the nuances and apparent meanings of what seemed to us graduate students a reasonable and justified decision. But I now understand that graduate faculty were the Grand Masters of the English Department, superior in every way to the louts consigned for their academic careers to teach undergraduates, most of whom were fulfilling general education requirements and not even majoring in English. Thus graduate students, who were only barely qualified to teach anything, were sitting amongst the powerful and deliberating on issues the non-graduate faculty were never invited to approach.
But there is one final piece, which I now recognize, but did not recognize then. One category of faculty in the English Department that was so far removed from the land of the living (so marginalized and devalued, one might say) that no one ever thought of them, unless one happened to see one of these beings wandering the halls. These were the people who taught technical and business writing. Today, rhetoric--or the teaching of writing--is a specialty; but at the time I was at Purdue, anyone who was not in literature counted for nothing. So when a colleague invited me a few years after I was at Purdue to become both an instructor of technical/business communication and to work on a minor in the area, I had to "work through" my sense that I was leaving the respectable world for the demi-monde. I did not realize until later that this decision would lead both to two full-time positions down the road and to the opportunity to work across an institution.