Professorship and ‘The Perennial Taker of Courses’

In ‘In Greenwich, There Are Many Gravelled Walks‘ Hortense Calisher writes,

Robert was a perennial taker of courses–one of those non-matriculated students of indefinable age and income, some of whom pursued, with monkish zeal and no apparent regard for time, this or that freakishly peripheral research project of their own conception, and others of whom, like Robert, seemed to derive a Ponce de Léon sustenance from the young.

I have special fondness for the non-matriculate; I began my academic career as one, taking two graduate classes in philosophy before I began formal doctoral studies. And before I registered for them, when I informed my mother that I planned to quit my day job eventually to seek a full-time academic career, her immediate, and immensely gratifying, reaction was, ‘That’s great! If you become a professor you take classes for the rest of your life at your university!’ I hadn’t thought that the opportunity to be an endless dilettante, browsing through each semester’s course offerings and picking one, would present itself as the most obvious advantage of a professor’s life, but my mother certainly thought that way.

I haven’t managed to do so. But I did try. After I returned to New York from my post-doctoral work in Sydney, I sat in on Spanish 101. Learn a language, travel, cook–you know, the standard aspirations. I attended quite a few classes, but found it difficult to keep up with homework given my teaching and service duties (and of course, my own academic interests). I didn’t make it to the end of the semester; sometime shortly after the mid-term (in which I got a decent, but not excellent, grade), I dropped out.

A year later, I tried again. This time around, having convinced myself that the problem the last time around had been the lack of a formal component to my dabbling, and with an eye on a graduate seminar on the Frankfurt School offered through the History department at the CUNY Graduate Center, I registered, taking advantage of the tuition exemption for employees of the City University.

This time around, things went marginally better. I did most of the readings, attended all the classes, and even wrote a  paper on Horkheimer, which was probably quite amateurish, but which was very helpful in making me more familiar with his writings. But again, I found things not entirely to my liking.  I was still busy with teaching and service and writing, and the time needed to travel to Manhattan for the seminar and do the readings seemed onerous. (Perhaps I didn’t enjoy the company of graduate students. Too many of them seemed to instantiate dreaded archetypes of that demographic: the hasn’t-done-the-readings-but-will-still-pontificate-on-it and the can’t-shut-up-and-stay-on-point varietals being the most pernicious. I certainly wasn’t deriving any ‘Ponce de Léon sustenance’ from them.)

So that was my last attempt to replicate the non-matriculate days. I became ever busier with my own writing and confined my dilettantism to unguided, unstructured dabbling on my own. And I had found other outlets for it: teaching new classes or revising syllabi for classes taught previously and blogging being the most prominent among them. Besides, once you’re a full professor, its all pretty much dabbling in any case.

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