‘We’re ideally situated,’ said my host from the University of Lethbridge: ‘We’re three hours’ drive from Calgary and an hour from Glacier National Park.’ Not everyone would say the location was ideal but that sort of cheerfulness was typical of many academics teaching off the beaten path in the United States and Canada. Invited to do so by Phi Beta Kappa, the American university honour society, I spent most of the fall toting the torch of learning from sea to shining sea.
Despite strong family resemblances, American collegiate cultures vary enormously, from the film-school Greenwich Village hipness of NYU to the weekly military dress parade at the all-male Citadel in Charleston or the Ethan Fromish isolation of small colleges in New England. At a time when American higher education is embattled over date rape, multiculturalism, faculty productivity, rising fees and political correctness, you are quick to notice which college newspapers feature ads for the suicide hotline, which for the all-night toga party, which for the lecture on feminist theory or the talk by Minister Farakhan. Some campuses, like Ole Miss in Oxford, Mississippi, and Macalester, in St Paul, Minnesota, are served by bookstore-cafés, which double as literary salons; others inhabit a wasteland of thrift shops and greasy spoons.
Faculty lifestyles and manners vary widely as well. At Queens College, in a polyglot borough of New York, we dined at a noisy Italian bistro on portobello mushrooms and linguine frutti di mare, while at a small Mid-western college the English department chair picked me up for dinner at 4.45, greeted his colleagues in an empty restaurant at five and by 5.30 was briskly scraping the remnants of my half-eaten chicken kebab into a styrofoam box. ‘No point in wasting this,’ he said. ‘I’ll take it home to my wife.’
My all-time favourite academic junket, several years ago, was to Lyndon Johnson’s alma mater, Southwest Texas State University on the Pedernales River in San Marcos. My talk was scheduled for a hot afternoon in early spring, and the auditorium was completely empty when I arrived, but my hosts didn’t have that twitchy look of folks who have paid a bundle for a speaker and don’t see an audience showing up. Sure enough, at five minutes to the hour, the students began to file in like convicts. ‘Ma’am,’ asked a tanned young man in the front row, ‘how long is this here lecture going to last?’
Afterwards, when the students had gone back to basking by the river, I wandered around the arcades of the deserted funfair where I had been lodged. In one empty shed, a fortune-telling chicken spotted my entrance and started to cackle and flap. It didn’t get fed unless a sucker put a quarter in the slot; then the chicken grabbed a card out of the deck with its beak, and a few grains of corn dropped into the cage. I don’t remember my fortune anymore, but on the bottom it said: ‘The management is not responsible for the opinions of this chicken.’
In another shed, I watched an aquacade about the sinking of Atlantis starring Ralph the Pig. After two students in togas talked about the wrath of the volcano god, Ralph, a large but shapely pig, emerged nude and dived gracefully into the lagoon. Over dinner with the English department that evening (hush puppies, frogs’ legs and catfish) I could speak of little else. Finally my hosts grew impatient. ‘I must tell you, Professor Showalter,’ one said coldly, ‘that is not the original Ralph.’
After two weeks in Canada, the Phi Beta Kappa tour kicked off at the University of Oregon in Eugene, a little oasis of the Sixties where the newspaper was advertising Oregon Wineries, a concert of Balinese gamelan and a rich menu of counselling: depression and grief resolution, sexual abuse and incest, ACOA and codependency, inner-child, emotional-body release, parenting dynamics, mid-life change, life signs, divorce support group, shamanic healing, soul retrieval, seasonal light therapy, women’s drumming and healing hearts of men. The personal ads struck the same therapeutic note: ‘I play sacred Hawaiian nose flute and African drum, desire to form weekly meeting.’ ‘Warm, gentle, wild woman over 50 seeking wild man over 40 who loves children and dogs, with an artist’s imagination to adventure into newness.’ In seminars, students asked about the relevance of Scott Peck to Jane Austen, and posed New Age questions on the courtship rituals of Pride and Prejudice: ‘Suppose Elizabeth Bennet said to her parents: “I’ve found a life partner I really love, and she’s a woman”?’
Though I had asked for a modern hotel, with a telly and a minibar, my hosts were sure that I would enjoy The Morning Glory, a local guest house near the campus. The alarming brochure described the ‘sumptuous’ breakfast cooked each morning by the proprietor Natalie to get us guests off to ‘a gladsome start’. She also offered to play our favourite show tunes on the piano while we ate it. I escaped from Natalie’s warbling to the 24-Hour Wash Club, where you could get a tan, drink cappuccino, and rent a video while you did your laundry in machines named after movie stars; mine was called John Belushi. At 8.30 a.m., groups of kids in tie-died grunge were guzzling beer and nachos, and watching Rodney Dangerfield deliver double entendres about policemen’s balls on the big video screen.
But Natalie and I had a running battle over my reluctance to be gladsome. Every light fixture in her pastel house had a tasselled cord hanging from it, and every time I tugged one, it fell off. Natalie caught me before I could hide the glum little heap à la Lucky Jim, but her bedtime notes on my pillow grew sharper: ‘Elaine, please get up at 7 to turn up the thermostat for the rest of the house.’ ‘Elaine, did you know you left the front door unlocked when you came in at 9.30 last night?’ ‘Oh, you do seem to have had a lot of trouble with my house,’ she said through clenched teeth as I departed for Scripps College and UCLA.
Between the fires and the earthquake, it was summertime in LA, and the learning was easy. On American television, the kids of Beverley Hills 90210 have moved on to ‘California University’; an episode on date rape this fall was more balanced and sophisticated than anything in the press. Californian academics have an enviable joie de vivre. When my husband and I first moved to the University of California at Davis in the early Sixties, we were dazzled to find that our colleagues owned stock in the Napa Valley vineyards, and drove out on the weekends to look at their grapes. In the ascetic East at the time, a penchant for anything more lowbrow than The Seventh Seal raised eyebrows at the faculty lunch. Now professors of French write film scripts or lecture on ‘Sex, Food and Videotape’ at Spago and Chez Panisse. Near the great UCLA library, the licence on a Porsche read ‘IB PHD’.
Back east at chilly Gettysburg College near the Civil War battlefield in rural Pennsylvania, all the talk was about ‘the Greeks’ – fraternities and sororities – whose parties, policies and rushing practices obsessively dominated student conversation. It’s easy to see why the Greeks hold sway. Fraternity houses (sorority women do not live together; students claim that a Pennsylvania law defines more than eight women in a house as a brothel) have an absolute monopoly on all the fun in town; Gettysburg’s one movie house had been playing the same film for a month, and the town has no public transportation at all. At the deserted Women’s Center, an enterprising feminist student confided that the only way to get an audience for workshops on women’s employment or breast cancer was to have them co-sponsored by a popular sorority. Yet in a seminar on Classical drama, discussion was passionate. Some of the students had prepared a scene from Medea in the style and accents of The Godfather; the Berkeley-trained young professor kept jumping up to write phrases in the original Greek on the blackboard, and students argued fiercely over different translations and texts.
The ease of intellectual life enjoyed by Gettysburg faculty, quite a few of whom commute from Washington, would be envied by many who teach at campuses in the South. Until 1992, Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, maintained an affiliation with the Southern Baptist Church; it is down the road from fundamentalist Bob Jones University, and a few miles from Sugartit, where I had just missed the BubbaLympics. Those who teach at Furman have to drive four hours to the University of Georgia in Athens for a good research library; it’s nearly as far to the bright lights of Nashville or Atlanta. When the only openly homosexual man on the faculty calls himself gay, his friends roll their eyes: ‘Oh, Don, you’re so political!’ Faculty trying to start up programmes in women’s studies were battling student and collegial resistance to everything from interdisciplinary teaching to terms like ‘feminism’ or ‘gender’.
Furman faculty sustain themselves with mail-order books, home entertaining and conferences, like the MLA or its South Atlantic spin-off, SAMLA, where they can meet kindred spirits and exchange ideas. Their best students, idealistic and intellectually voracious, are grateful for the scholarships that get them out of small towns and give them access to the world. I particularly wanted to see Bob Jones University, where Furman professors fear to tread. Its president, the evangelist Bob Jones III, was starring in a production of Macbeth as ‘an ambitious man whose deliberate commitment to evil destroys him and his kingdom’. (According to Don, who had reviewed it for the local paper, the play was presented, not implausibly, as a story of demonic possession.) The Bob Jones campus looks like a set for a low-budget Fifties movie, with neatly-groomed students walking its paths. In the bookstore, next to rows of baseball caps (‘Missionary Pilots of BJU’) was a flyer with big black letters in Hebrew and English: ‘FREE TO THE JEW. A copy of the Bi-lingual New Covenant. Pick up a copy for your Jewish Friend.’ How long, I wondered, had that covenant been waiting for a Jew to come along? It was almost like being the Messiah. But my nervous guide from Furman hustled me out before I could stake my claim.
Last stop in Birmingham. I had been there before as a newly-wed, in the terrible summer of 1963, when we drove through the Deep South en route to Mexico. In his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’, Martin Luther King had called it the biggest segregated city in the United States; it was certainly the meanest. After weeks of Freedom Riders and crusading black children, Governor George Wallace had called out the state guard to help Police Chief Bull Connor with his fire hoses and dogs, and the highway was jammed with military trucks. In Birmingham the steel mills spewed red smoke into the evening sky; we kept our heads well down, our Yankee voices hushed.
Now the mills are closed, and the Birmingham campus of the University of Alabama is the city’s largest employer. Across from the 16th Street Baptist Church where four little girls were killed in a racist bombing in 1963, the new Birmingham Civil Rights Institute tells the story of Jim Crow and the heroic Civil Rights movement with films, tapes and videos. Coming out of the exhibit in tears, I exchanged memories of 1963 with the museum staff, black women who remembered their mothers standing up on empty buses after long days of work, and their fathers building barricades on the street when each night brought fears of an attack.
The hilly brick campus of Birmingham-Southern College borders a black neighbourhood, but many of its students come from tiny backwoods towns where the weekly trip to Wal-Mart is a big event. They joke about their rural accents, the ‘might could’ construction (‘I might could go to the pictures with you’), and their shock at discovering Flannery O’Connor and Richard Ford. Unlike some small American colleges which aspire to be the Oxford of the Ozarks, plus royaliste que le roi, Birmingham-Southern has decided to take advantage of its region and its size. The lively young English faculty are experts in the techniques of seminar teaching, and have devised an imaginative new curriculum which they are going to present at the December MLA; they are hoping to start an association of small-college English departments as well. From the medievalist whose office is a shrine to Elvis, right down to a vial of his sweat, to the students, as bright and banteringly flirtatious as characters out of Scott Fitzgerald, Birmingham-Southern defies convention. During the winter term, everyone does an intensive study project on or off the campus. Some sociologists were heading for the Delta in a van to study ‘Dirt Roads in Dixie’; others were learning African languages in preparation for a research trip to the rain forest.
An outsider’s view of academia – or anywhere else – always sounds off to the natives. The current media image of Princeton, for example, as a hotbed of militant feminism seems mighty strange to those who inhabit its staid environs. But I came home impressed by my tour. Most critics who gripe about the changes on the American campus are yearning for a golden age of learning that never was. The reality of democratic education in the Nineties is still a pretty good act, even if it’s not the original Ralph.