The (Almost) Last Boomer in Graduate School

Brian Taylor

September 26, 2013

When I turned 25, I moved from my home state to a different part of the country to begin a Ph.D. program in English. I saw myself destined to earn the credentials and training necessary to pursue important scholarship.

Just before the move, my master's-thesis director told me what to expect at the huge university I would be attending for my doctoral study. "The English program will draw everyone from fresh-from-the-boondocks brilliant young students to grandmothers in tennis shoes," he said. "You have a talent for getting what you need from a university, and you will do fine."

Two years later, I was back in my home state, teaching at a two-year college. I had fallen in love with teaching, and I had fallen in love and married. Suddenly, earning full-time wages and maybe even starting a family took precedence over scholarship. So I decided to take a brief sabbatical from graduate school during the Bush years.

By the Bush years, I mean the George H. W. Bush years. Nearly 25 years, two Bushes, a Clinton, an Obama, and four children later, I have spent my career teaching at a two-year college in a major metropolitan area. This fall, not quite a grandparent but comfortable in tennis shoes, I began a Ph.D program in English at what Andrew Ferguson, in his book Crazy U, would call the BSU (Big State University) in the nearby big city.

At age 51, I entertain thoughts of finally earning the terminal degree in my field that will lead my research interests away from composition, the default specialty of English professors at two-year colleges. I could conceivably spend the second half or final third of a long career focusing on literature. I imagine myself writing something about performance history (a monograph on Max Reinhardt's A Midsummer Night's Dream, anyone?) that would survive me.

I'm hardly the oldest person ever to seek a Ph.D. The wonderful and widely anthologized writer Anna Julia Cooper, who was born a slave but lived beyond Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech, earned her doctorate (alas, in history) at the Sorbonne, no less, when she was 65. Unquestionably, however, I am older than most of my classmates and many of my professors. After a trial run at my alma mater last year, where I took a few graduate courses to make sure I wanted to be a graduate student again, I have some observations that also serve as predictions for what lies ahead for me.

Note-taking as a subversive act. Whenever I enter a seminar room and take a seat, I soon begin an activity that—more than my bald spot, crows' feet, or no longer svelte physique—identifies me as an anachronism. I reach into a 19-cent folder with pockets and prongs, take out a sheet of lined notebook paper, and begin writing. With a pen. In cursive.

Technologically speaking, I might just as well scratch another knuckle-dragger's comments onto a rock. My millennial classmates, especially those who study digital humanities, would stand a better chance of reading the radical scribblings that I call notes if I wrote in Klingon.

They moved my cheese, and then they threw it away. My first stop in the university library used to be the card catalog. By title, author, or subject, I could search for works and jot down their call numbers on the ubiquitous little slips of paper that libraries always kept at hand.

By 1994, Nicholson Baker could see the card catalogue's imminent extinction, and his New Yorker article (and later his book, Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper) lamented its loss along with that of handwritten librarians' notes. If you want to see a card catalog today, you'll need to visit a private genealogy library or look over Sheldon's right shoulder during next Thursday's episode of The Big Bang Theory.

Even before card catalogs went away, however, nothing could replace a good ramble through the stacks. I always thought a decent lunch hour offered the entrée of an hour in the PR section (English literature), anything 2199 or higher. Another half hour in the mid-3000 PS (American literature) reaches made for a scrumptious, nonfattening dessert.

This much, thankfully, has not changed other than the numbers going higher as new writers have come along. I even encounter an occasional classmate, muttering a furtive greeting, still as guiltily embarrassed by this nerdy behavior as a married couple finding each other in the Craigslist personals.

Hey, Norton, my Norton! I came of age during what will probably be remembered as the Golden Age of the Norton Anthology of English Literature, first edited by M.H. Abrams more than half his life ago, in 1962, and consisting of exactly two volumes, divided at the year 1798. Both graduate and undergraduate English students took readings courses that used one of the Nortons and perhaps a supplemental novel or play. The anthologized canon didn't dictate the curriculum; rather, it was the curriculum.


My generation studied for the GRE Literature in English Exam as well as for a huge chunk of graduate-degree comprehensives by spending hundreds of hours in the Nortons. Americanists, those provincial newbies, had their Norton Anthologies as well. Those of us with continental longings could even pore over Sappho, Goethe, and other "world" (read "Western") greats in their anthologies.

I own current Nortons, the five and six-volume versions, and I teach several sophomore survey courses from them. Culture and literature wars, however, have swept aside the fixed canons of literary texts. Rather than lugging Nortons around, my new graduate-school classmates show up with novels, paperbacks of individual plays or collections of poems, and even laptops with windows open to Project Gutenberg.

On the whole, my brain and my spinal column welcome the changes. Innumerable new texts have become available for study and criticism. Meanwhile, I have that solid anchoring in the works that helped me do quite nicely on the GRE Literature in English Exam this past fall.

Yes, I am a professor. Just not here. Put me among a group of graduate students as a term begins, and some of the funny looks I draw will come from classmates who think I look familiar but can't quite place me. Shorts and a polo shirt aren't standard professor attire, and they don't recognize my face, but still I must be somebody important; otherwise, I wouldn't be there, right? I try to make myself known as a fellow student fairly quickly, but not so quickly that I can't enjoy a chuckle.


As a matter of fact, I know more about my classmates than either they or their professors want to let on. A select few will head to tenure-track positions at research universities. Several more will teach and do research at branch campuses of some Big State University. Some will end up in positions outside academe, whether or not they complete their Ph.D.'s. We'll always see at least a few Ph.D.'s driving a taxi or waiting tables.

Let's not forget those of my classmates who will compete fiercely for the dwindling number of tenure-track positions at two-year colleges. They may never have heard of my college, and when they learn what it is, they may avoid me as surely as most deans avoid the classroom. Perhaps, in me, they see their futures—if they're lucky. I know because I have served on and even chaired committees that have hired folks just like them.

I've had a few classmates already ask me for advice. I make suggestions about the importance of understanding online pedagogy, tutoring students in remedial English courses, learning about dual enrollment, and generally showing an interest in the crucial work that people like me quietly do every semester.

Meanwhile, I encourage them to enjoy their years in graduate school, a time when everyone is poor and Two Buck Chuck and Mamet make for a social event.

I know why I'm here. My main reason for working toward a Ph.D. in English at this point in my career is the accomplishment itself. I have no desire to move into administration. Now and then, I daydream about obtaining a teaching and research job at a liberal-arts college, once I have the degree "in hand" (whatever exactly that means).

But I won't be surprised or disappointed if I remain at my same community-college job. I'll just become, however belatedly, Dr. Dodd.


Jesse Dodd is the pseudonym of a professor in the humanities at a community college in the South who is seeking a Ph.D.