Three Decades


Dr. Charles Thornbury, Professor of English

A compliant title, "Three Decades."  Professional life, for me these past thirty years at our colleges, looks as if it were organized but only in retrospect.  The "powerful overflow of feeling recollected [mostly] in tranquility" comes closer.

In 1977, when I was hired by the St. John's English Department (two separate departments as we were then), monks made up most of the department - Fr. Alfred Deutsch, Br. Louis Blenkner, Fr. Pat McDarby, Fr. Hilary Thimmesh (who chaired the department) and Br. Jim Zarr.  We had only one student worker for the department and no secretary.  Our contact with the St. Ben's department was minimal and chary, at least it seemed so to me.  But that's another story.

The two lay faculty at St. John's were the celebrated teacher Steve Humphrey, nearing retirement, and Dr. Eila Perlmutter (she was becoming a celebrated teacher).  J.F. Powers, who was awarded the National Book Award in 1963 for his novel Morte D'Urban, a novel freely based on St. John's Abbey, was writer-in-residence and taught a "writing fiction" course once a year.  

I've always admired the pure Jim description of his course: "The idea is to get the student to see - in the student's own work - the difference between good and bad writing, or better and worse, and so to do more of the one, less of the other.  Subject matter entirely of the student's choosing.  10,000 words (30 double-spaced, typewritten pages) required, with deadlines during the term.  Prose.  No poetry.  No exam.  No classes.  Tutorial.  No text.  Students MUST see the instructor BEFORE signing up for this course."  Those were the days.

When I first visited St. John's campus for an interview in late winter of 1976, I felt I had come home, and I was lucky enough to be hired.  The previous August, I had returned to America after eight years of teaching, travel, and graduate work in Germany and England.  I had taught for a year at the University of Minnesota, and I longed for a place like St. John's, which resembles the red-brick universities in England in both its setting and veneration of teaching and learning.

My three decades exist only in memory: the first, innovation (among other changes, happily we became one department); the second, a new understanding of the politics of gender studies and hiring (less happily); the third, for me, feeling at home and not.  This is my last year, and I feel more at home than I have felt in some time.  I am sad to leave.  These are hallowed halls, to coin a phrase, a sacred place to me.  If I've learned anything, Jim Powers says it best about learning "the difference between good and bad writing [or teaching, or values, or living], or better and worse, and so to do more of the one, less of the other."

I was meditating recently on "retirement," which I mentioned to Mike Opitz.  He told me what Willie Nelson said about retiring: "Well, I sing songs and I play golf, and I don't think I'll be quitting either."  Willie got it right: I teach and I write and I don't think I'll be quitting either.

December 7, 2006