Don’t Take Career Advice from a Crabby College Professor

shakespearebooks

As a freshman in college I “placed” into a junior level class called “A Survey of World Literature.” Because I had done well in English in high school – AP classes, A grades, loved to read, wrote stories and poems – I thought myself quite ready to compete with college students two years my elder. It was an English class; I spoke that language, right? It would be a breeze.

“World Literature” was taught by an older male professor who was, in my not-so-humble-opinion, a “misogynist”. It seemed to me then, and now, that it was odd for a person who so disliked women to be teaching at an all women’s college but there it was. He spoke in a biting, abrasive tone and did not tolerate fools gladly. I bonded with the only other freshman in the class (still a friend today) and as I recall, we sat in the back row, looking down intently at our notebooks, hoping to avoid the professor’s eye so he would not call on us. (This was a skill I later practiced to perfection in law school. But I digress.)

We started off the year with Plato, then Homer and then Dante. Pretty quickly I realized I was in way over my head.

After we wrote our first essays, the professor asked each of us to meet with him during his office hours.

You have to picture me as I was then. Very Susie Student Council, straight as an arrow (marijuana, what’s that?) but with a hint of a rebellious streak, not fond of following authority but knew it was better to do so. Preppy shirts, cable-knit sweaters, knee socks. I looked like the naïve freshman I was.

After I sat down in the professor’s office, he asked me:

“Miss Wolf, where you were born?”

Good, I knew the answer to this one!

“Bridgeport, Connecticut,” I replied.

“Is that so?” he said, as his voice dipped acidly, “I find that hard to believe because your essay reads like it was written by someone who just got off the boat from Bulgaria.”

Although I probably wasn’t so sure back then where Bulgaria was,  I knew that was not a compliment.

And let’s just say that soon after that office meeting it became evident that I was not going to be an English major.

Skipping over the boring parts of the story here, jump ahead to law school (a couldn’t-think-of-anything-else-to-do choice but one which made my Dad, who has a passion for the law, happy) and then to thirty plus years of law firm life.

During my lawyering years I still had the itch to write, never mind what my college professor thought of my English language abilities. So I wrote the occasional free-lance article, reflecting, with humor, on where I was at that stage of my life. An essay on parenting (moms do more, that hasn’t changed), a piece on law student hiring (I was the hiring partner who specialized in catching typos on resumes), a commentary on some of the absurd aspects of the college admission process (lamenting that I didn’t make my daughter learn to play the cello or pursue fencing in the 4th grade to give her an added edge).

What I am doing now –  non-fiction, essays, memoir, blogging – has come about courtesy of my two open heart surgeries leading to an unplanned early retirement. Here I am at midlife (or a little beyond to be actuarially honest) and I’m lucky enough to return to my earlier love of the written word. Not everyone thinks that writing should count as a day “job”, though.

My 91-year-old Dad (still trekking happily to his law firm every day) asked me recently what writers get paid. When I told him that sometimes in the online world writers don’t get paid, or get paid very little, he harrumphed. Why again was I doing this instead of lawyering? Good question. My mortgage company probably shares his concern.

And the lawyer husband of a friend of mind wants to know if I find writing as intellectually challenging as the law.  I try to explain that I feel I must write, that it was tamped down way inside me all of those years I was chained at my desk writing legalese. He doesn’t get it.

But I do. And it pleases me when my son and daughter tell me they are proud of what I am trying to do “late in life.”  One of them asked me the other day why I didn’t become a writer after college.

It never occurred to me to become a writer, I told my kids. I didn’t have a role model or mentor to show me different career paths. Following in the legal footsteps of my Dad was a safe, practical, choice.

The remainder of my freshman year class in “World Literature” passed v-e-r-y slowly. By December we were into Shakespeare. We were reading “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The professor asked us to select one passage in the play that reflected humor and to analyze why it did so. That didn’t seem so hard, I thought. I chose a passage that seemed funny to me, duly wrote the essay, submitted it and went into the dreaded office hour with the professor.

“Miss Wolf”, (I called myself “Ms.” but I wasn’t about to tell him that.) he intoned:

“How did you manage to find the only passage in this play that reflects absolutely no humor at all? That takes a certain skill. Your essay misses the point entirely.”

I limped through the rest of the year, scraping by (in my mind anything less than an “A” in English was a failure) with a grade of B minus. I stayed away from literature classes for the next three years of college. I missed out on so many learning opportunities all because I let one professor shake my confidence.

So here’s the Life Lesson:

If you are now a College student (or a Parent of one offering advice) – consider NOT doing as I did. Follow your passion. Listen to your heart and your gut. Don’t be blown off course by one professor, one bad grade, a job you don’t get or an internship that doesn’t work out.  Everyone thinks they are career experts in the business of telling young adults what they should or shouldn’t do. But only you know your own dreams –  take the less traveled path is such a cliché but if only I had…

I still think of Professor Misogyny. By now he has likely passed on to the great beyond and if there is any justice, he is spending his afterlife on a puffy cloud surrounded by young female students who misplace their commas and don’t understand Shakespeare.

17 Comments

Filed under Adult Kids, Books, Careers, College, Law firm life, Lawyers, Midlife, Reading, Second Careers, Women, Writing

17 responses to “Don’t Take Career Advice from a Crabby College Professor

  1. Audrey Sheridan

    Love reading your articles Nancy, keep them coming. I’m a Scotswoman, your humour travels internationally.

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    • Audrey, thank you so much for your praise! and from Scotland, one of my favorite places. I am a big mystery reader (Ian Rankin, Anne Cleeves) and someday I will get to see Edinburgh, Glasgow and the Shetland Islands!
      Nancy

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  2. This reminded me of many unpleasant office hours of my own–and an upper division English class that kicked my butt! A few years ago I left my career as a college counselor and entered an MFA program in creative writing. I can’t tell you how many people told me I was living their dream. I say, it’s never too late! Great post!

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  3. Bravo! You have such a strong voice. Don’t ever stop writing these wonderful pieces.

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  4. Carolee Britton Gregg

    I just recently started reading your writings, and I think they are wonderful. Your frumpy college professor was very mistaken!

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  5. True, true about how one person can push you in the wrong (or right) direction. Hard to trust your gut when you’re 19 and everyone’s lived longer than you. And often you’d be wrong or starve to death by 21. All that said, I do agree that writing is not a lifestyle that is valued in our society or admired by most, certainly not businessmen who can’t quantify the value of something they can’t put a price tag on, or duplicate in the thousands. They are right about one thing: you will never make more than a passable wage on your own labor (in any field). The hard work of writing and editing and pursuing publication and marketing what you’ve written AFTER A DAY JOB seems too hard to most wannabe writers.
    As a second career writer/novelist (after lawyering, that career prize for 70’s female grads, because finally ‘we could’), I thank my CEO husband every day for making this possible (and our savings from three decades of law practice).

    But the more important message here in today’s blog: when something is ‘in your blood,’ or you ‘feel it in your gut,’ that has to be noteworthy.

    Listen, young and old, you can pursue your dreams part-time and still feed and clothe children, build a roof for rainy days, drive more than a clunker. But you have to want it and go for it when you’re exhausted and it would be easier to stretch out on the couch and watch a movie.

    A more significant truism than reach for the stars might be one man’s meat is another man’s poison. If one person laughs at what you’ve written, you’ve opened a door and let in the sunshine. If one person cries, you’ve eased their pain by sharing and letting them know you understand. Writing is a means of communication. And humans are the only creatures that do it. The written word holds power, magic, inspiration, hope. Go for it, just be realistic about what it will yield.

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  6. Hilary

    This is soooo true! After receiving my journalism degree from San Jose State, I made the naive leap of moving to New York City. I actually stayed for nearly four years. But I still remember meeting with a small publisher about work — and it was obvious to me that he didn’t like women. VERY gay and very much, how shall I put it, someone who didn’t like women. I remember I was making something like $15,000 per year and he told me that I would NEVER make more than $10,000 more per year as a writer, because I just wasn’t good enough. What an ass! I eventually moved back home to California and worked for more than a decade in television, as a producer, where I made, thank you very much, well over $50K per year. And today, I am pushing my film (www.botsomovie.com), which I wrote, and which just qualified for an Academy Award nomination. I am glad I didn’t listen to this man. 🙂

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  7. valj2750

    Ah, if only. I started out wanting to be a writer in college. But, I was led away from the career by family because of financial concerns. “You can always write. You need a real career.” Elementary Education – now that’s debatable. I am thankful it is never to late to set new goals (CS Lewis).

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  8. susan558

    Two things. First, I think you’re generous to leave it at misogynist. My guess is he was as obnoxious and unlikable with men. And, your story reminded me of when I was standing next to my sportswriter son when I was asked what I earned for a piece I’d just published. I didn’t want to answer, I glanced at my son and he gave me this really funny smile and said, “Ha. Get used to it.”

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  9. Keep writing, your story really resonated with me. I pursued a career in law for years because everyone convinced me writing was not a practical choice. Now I enjoy working in education and writing. I am realizing my own dreams and am also able to pay my own bills.

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  10. Wow. What a cranky guy. I’m glad you survived all that. Success is the best revenge. Write on!

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  11. Hello from another Nancy–You are awesome with an upper case A! 🙂

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