Oviatt Professor Emeritus of English
Degree: PhD University of California, Berkeley
At my retirement party I said that Case Western Reserve had been very good to me, and I meant it.
I graduated from Grinnell College in 1964. I went to graduate school at the University of California and got my MA in 1966 and my PhD in 1970. My first job was at Fordham in 1971. I came to Case—Western Reserve College then—in 1978 and I retired from The College of Arts and Sciences at the end of spring semester in 2018. I spent almost forty years watching the English Department, the college, the university, the city of Cleveland, my family, and myself change and grow.
I started out as a specialist in eighteenth-century British literature, but I was hired at Case as Director of Composition because by then I was coauthor of a writing textbook and at Fordham I had co directed the Freshman Writing program. I never stopped teaching writing, but like many academics my other research and teaching interests changed and broadened over time. Before I retired I had taught survey and major author courses in the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries, the novel, continental masterpieces in translation, biography and autobiography, and Chaucer. In my later years I taught SAGES courses like everyone else. In the last decades I think my favorite classes were the big surveys of British Literature—Beowulf to the present. They were required for majors, but there were always a lot of non-majors in them. I liked that. I loved to try to make converts.
At about the middle of my time at Case I tried my hand at administrating. I was department chair for a total of eleven years. One year I was the chair of English and Interim Chair of Art History and Modern Languages and Literatures at the same time. I was also a dean for two years, but only a dean with a small “d”. I pushed a lot of paper. That was all. All told my time as chair and dean was often interesting, sometimes fun, and sometimes not. I was glad I did it and glad to stop.
As a scholar I never wrote anything likely to set the world on fire, but I published enough not to perish. In the last decades I got involved in projects that involved ghost writing and got to help some genuinely fascinating people tell their life stories. By the time I retired I had worked on five such collaborative projects. Each one was different. Each posed different challenges and opportunities. I learned a tremendous amount from each. I think it was the most fun I had as an academic. Except for teaching.
As I’m sure any former student would tell you, I’m a big ham. I loved classroom teaching. Getting paid to do something that’s that much fun seems almost like stealing and getting away with it. I liked everything about it. Well, not quite. I hated grading papers. But I loved everything else: deciding how to present books, poems, and plays that I loved, talking about them with my classes, and discovering things I would never have thought of if I hadn’t seen the texts through my students’ eyes. I think it was also the classroom that helped me see when it was time to take a bow and get off the stage. One day in a Chaucer class we were discussing Troilus and Criseyde and a student said she saw Pandarus as Troilus’ wingman. I had to stop class and ask her what a wingman was. Things like that started happening with increasing frequency, and that’s when I started thinking maybe I was getting past my “sell by” date.
I had a great retirement party. People said a lot of nice things, and I got a bunch of great presents including a bottle of 25-year-old single malt scotch, a lot better than a gold watch! I’m told there are people who get to this stage of their life and look back wistfully, wishing they had done something different, fulfilled some other dream. Not me. If real life could be like Groundhog Day, and I could re enact my teaching and academic life over and over again I might edit out a few embarrassing moments and mistakes and maybe a couple of deans but otherwise I wouldn’t change a thing.