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Valediction

Valedictory: of or relating to an occasion of leave-taking.

It’s the conclusion of the spring semester of the 2017-2018 academic year. And if things go according to plan, I have six more semesters until retirement. And if they don’t, it’s no bad thing to have an exit strategy.

Last night was one of fitful sleep. Depressives tend to be early-awakeners and I often get no more than two hours of sleep at a time, articulated by sudoku and the current book lying beside the bed. Early this morning seemed as good a time as any to rehearse my valedictory speech, the fare-well address I might deliver to whomever shows up at my retirement celebration—or that might be read for me at a memorial service. Who knows: this iteration of it may be the one you hear.

My old friend Marilla Thurston Missbach said I was one of those people who grow where they’re planted. And so I arrived at this new job in the late summer of 1971 through no effort of my own: Harlyn Thompson, chair of the department at the time, was looking for someone to teach architectural history; someone who was not an art historian, i.e., some schooled in the ways of the architect, with an appreciation of all those factors that shape our buildings, from economic and legal to functional and aesthetic. Seven years of undergraduate education (five in actual classes and two just farting around) and a year of graduate study in historic preservation had prepared me for what I was about to undertake. Thompson had called James Marston Fitch, founder of the Historic Preservation Program at Columbia University, asking if there were any in the class of 1970-1971 who might be interested in a job at the edge of the known universe — my words; not those of Professor Thompson. I had not inquired about employment anywhere else, so why not fly to Fargo.

Being literally pushed into a classroom that fall, filled with abject fear, I had no illusions of lasting the week, let alone the forty-seven years that followed. Forces beyond my control planted me here and, as luck would have it, I grew into the position. Hindsight could be telling me that it’s relatively easy to do a job when you have little idea what that job actually is. So I stayed one chapter ahead of the students, who were, I should add, just four or five years my junior. The blind teaching the deaf and dumb how to cha-cha is a politically incorrect but highly appropriate metaphor.

Among my many assumptions was a notion that students of architecture might have genuine interest in the history of the profession for which they were preparing — a foolish one, I admit, but the operative force guiding me at the time.

At some point it dawned on me that I am neither fish nor fowl: my academic credentials were intended as preparation for a professional life, not one in academe. Yet anyone in higher education knows that interlopers like myself are barely tolerated here. My BArch and MArch degrees should have led to a license in architecture, which would have satisfied tenure requirements. But I hadn’t and, instead, count myself a Humanist who has an architectural point of view. So I possess the credentials for the thing I don’t do, but lack the credentials for the thing I do.

Higher education does not suffer fools, and I am both foolish and foolhardy but steadfast in my efforts to convert the heathen through the use of interpretive dance. I live, quite literally, for those seventy-five minutes each Tuesday and Thursday morning, doin’ the Shakespeare thing—my curious hybrid of hamlet and Jack Benny—in one of the FLC lecture rooms hung like colostomy bags on its north elevation, or in some other remote corner of campus, grateful for any who show up and anxious to see an acknowledging nod when a point has been made, even if it were not my own. If I am at all successful, it’s my fearlessness to discover things on the screen simultaneous with the students; I’ve lost track of the times an image has flipped or twisted before my eyes and presented me with new insights shared on the spot, presented in precisely that way: “Say, I’ve just noticed this and wonder if you have, too.”

If successful teaching depends on a high degree of fecklessness, my so-called career has been a stunning success. If, on the other hand, its success is a reflection of approval farther up the food chain—well, that ship sailed and left me waving from the pier. A recent unsuccessful application for promotion doesn’t warrant another charge headlong at that wall, though a few friends have offered encouragement.

Blogging in Agincourt about measuring “the good life” has led me to dozens of websites fluent on the topic, but nothing thus far seems to apply directly. If you’ve got a metric for success, please share it and help me understand what these nearly fifty years have meant. Because I don’t have a clue.


These two photographic images, by the way, were made by early 20th century photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn. Their mystic melancholy suits my mood today and most others, for that matter. So enjoy them, if nothing else.

Not incidentally, I was second choice in a pool of two faculty candidates. Number One turned them down and there wasn’t time to do another search and interview, so I became the default candidate. Someone who’d been a part of the process shared that perspective with me. What do you suppose his motive might have been? Some people get off on that sort of thing, I guess.


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