University of 
Notre Dame

The Story of 
Notre Dame
Twenty Septembers / by Elizabeth Christman


My proposal for a dissertation on "Childhood in the Work of Graham Greene" had been accepted at New York University, and in January 1971 I began to write it. I couldn't quite believe in the reality of this undertaking. In fact I had felt a certain absurdity about my whole graduate school experience. What drew me toward teaching was the conviction that I could help young writers to develop their talents, drawing on my years of working with writers and publishers. But the academic establishment which controlled teaching appointments would not accept me unless I had a Ph.D. I knew I had to adapt to this regulation by plodding through graduate courses, but I had moments of rebellion. I had been exhilarated by my first two courses at NYU: Professor Gottlieb's course in the 18th century novel and Professor Ray's in the Victorian novel. Later I had an excellent American literature course from Professor William Gibson. But I took other courses which were tiresome or empty, and which seemed unnecessary for a teacher of writing. I thought my experience should have compensated for all this academic equipment, or for some of it.

I didn't really understand the academic establishment, or the need for it. Now I can see my own naivete better. I was a maverick in the system and it couldn't be wrenched out of shape to accommodate me. I always felt at NYU that I was on a track where I didn't belong and that they would manage to spin me off. The graduate advisor particularly gave me this impression. In the few interviews I had with him he always struck me as condescending and dismissive. When I tentatively broached the idea of doing a dissertation on literary agents and their dealings with American writers, he looked contemptuous. "I always think of literary agents as charlatans," he said. He may have pegged me as a dilettante, a middle-aged woman with a job (I don't think he had any idea what my job was), who was taking graduate courses as a sort of hobby. Even though I paid for all my tuition myself, which graduate students almost never do, he may have resented my taking up time and space intended for serious students. Several times he warned me that I was progressing too slowly, and that at NYU there was a limit of ten years from first graduate matriculation to the granting of the Ph.D. More than once I almost quit. But not, of course, after I went to DePauw.

In January 1971 I was at the dissertation stage, still feeling as if I didn't belong. To write the dissertation seemed the ultimate absurdity. I had long admired Graham Greene's novels. I thought his preoccupation with the childhood of his characters was a crucial theme in his fiction, as it was in his autobiographical writings. But it seemed to me that there was already plenty of criticism on Greene, and on every other writer of any distinction and on plenty of writers with no distinction. I wished I could write a novel instead.

Actually I might have done something like that if I had known about the possibilities. A number of universities have a graduate program which culminates in a Master of Fine Arts degree. Candidates for this degree may be painters or sculptors, musicians or writers, and instead of a thesis they present a creative work. Many colleges consider the MFA an appropriate degree for a teacher of writing. New York University didn't offer a MFA, but if I had only known enough, I might have found such a program which would have served my purpose. But I hadn't. DePauw had hired me with the understanding that I would complete the Ph.D., so my duty lay before me.

I rather enjoyed digging in libraries for articles and books about Greene. Ph.D. candidates almost always enjoy their research but shrink from the writing, and I was no exception. It was hard to make myself start, hard to go on. The task seemed staggering. I had never written anything longer than twenty pages, and now I had to produce a thesis of, say, two hundred pages. The director of my thesis, Dr. David Greene, was eight hundred miles away, and he was a very busy man, the chairman of graduate English at NYU. After he and other members of the English Department had approved my proposal, I didn't have any consultations with him. I simply sent him the chapters as I finished them, and he simply accepted them.

During the second and third years of my DePauw teaching I actually finished the dissertation. I don't know how I did that, along with teaching three courses each semester. Now that I am more familiar with academic practices I suppose that I could have asked for a semester's leave, at least, to do my writing, but at the time it never occurred to me. Besides I loved teaching so much that I wanted to do as much of it as I could in the time left to me. I had been fifty-five when I came to DePauw, and retirement age was sixty-five then, so I had looked forward to just ten years of this stimulating new career. (As it turned out, my career lasted a good deal longer, but more about that later.)

I felt like a juggler with many balls in the air. On my desk were numerous piles: papers from a freshman writing class, tests from "Intro to Fiction", stories from a seminar, manuscript pages on Graham Greene, packs of research cards. Sometimes I'd drive down to Indiana University at Bloomington, forty miles away, to spend a day in that fine library, filling in more research cards. When I went to St. Louis to see my mother, I'd visit the Washington University Library to search out things that Bloomington had not supplied. My manuscript grew thicker. Dr. Greene professed himself satisfied with each part as he read it. "You write beautifully," he said a couple of times. That helped me keep going. In the Spring of 1972 I finished the dissertation. In the month between DePauw commencement and the beginning of Notre Dame summer session, I typed it. I took it to New York in June and submitted it formally.

Dr. Greene set up a date for the "defense" and the final oral exam in July. I hadn't even finished my course work; in fact I had to take two courses at Notre Dame that summer for transfer to NYU. Most Ph.D. candidates finish their course work first and then write their dissertations. Dr. Greene was going on sabbatical leave the following year, and he was eager to get my exam out of the way before he left. I was eager too. I didn't want to wait another year to get the degree.

I should have waited, though. I was by no means prepared for the rigors of an oral exam on modern British literature. That was "my field," since I had chosen to write on Graham Greene. My ignorance of academic trials and rituals led me astray. During the whole course of my graduate study, I had had almost no contact with other graduate students, who could have alerted me to what I should expect of the ordeal before me, and how I should prepare for it. I took the whole process too lightly. I let myself be persuaded by colleagues who told me that the final oral examination was only a matter of form, "a pleasant conversation" one of them said. I did do some reading and reviewing, in the weeks before the exam, but at the same time I was teaching a writing course to eighteen graduate students and taking two courses myself. My reviewing of the "greats" of twentieth century English and Irish literature was pretty superficial.

I flew to New York on the weekend and presented myself, on Monday afternoon the 17th of July, to a committee of five New York University professors, three of whom I had never seen before. The first hour of the exam was devoted to a "defense" of my dissertation; this part went well, or at least Dr. Greene said it did. In the second part, the examination on the literary period, my performance was feeble, if not disgraceful. I simply didn't know enough. I was almost hopeless on Yeats, which happened to be Dr. Greene's special interest. And that rattled me so that I fumbled badly on Joyce and Lawrence, whom I really felt able to handle. When the grim hour was over and I had to wait outside while the examiners discussed my case, I tried to prepare myself for the bad news. I hoped I would be given another year, and a chance to redeem myself.

They passed me. Dr. Greene said it was because I had defended my dissertation so well. He was embarrassed, I imagine, at having presented to his colleagues a candidate who did so poorly. Most directors of dissertations, of course, have a great deal more contact with their advisees than Dr. Greene had with me. There was a misunderstanding on his part, as well as on mine, about how much supervision I needed. When he phoned to tell me the date of the exam, I asked him uneasily what kind of preparation I should make. "You're a professional," he said nonchalantly. "You know what to do."

I didn't know what he meant by "professional", but I took his casualness to mean that the exam was nothing to get excited about, a corroboration of the assurance of my colleague that it would be just a pleasant conversation. I believe he thought I had been teaching for years and knew the ropes. I had told him long before about my career as a literary agent, but I don't think he took it in. At any rate, he was shocked at my ignorance of Yeats in the exam. When we talked for a few minutes afterwards in his office, he told me ruefully not to feel too bad about my poor performance. "You wrote a beautiful dissertation," he reiterated.

But I'm afraid it wasn't even a very good dissertation. I tried valiantly to get a revised version of it published, or to get a chapter of it published. I tried like a literary agent, offering it to some sixteen university presses, but although one or two showed mild interest, nothing came of it.

After the exam I went back to Notre Dame to finish the summer session, and the two courses I was taking. My writing students gave me a party to celebrate my "achievement", but I didn't really want to celebrate. I couldn't sleep for going over the questions that I had answered so poorly in the exam, wishing I had said things differently. When people congratulated me on passing my oral, I felt like an impostor. There was no triumph for me in receiving, a few months later, the important document that certified me as a Doctor of Philosophy.

This chagrin was unreasonable. All along I had been telling myself that, for my purposes, getting a Ph.D. was like getting a union card, insignificant for itself. I looked at it as something I had to get through in order to be able to do the work I wanted to do. All that mattered was to pass, not to pass with distinction. But I guess in my heart I thought I could do it well in spite of haste and overwork. Overconfidence was my undoing. I still suffer from the memory. In the year following the exam I tried to repair my deficiencies by reading extensively in the literature of modern England and Ireland, especially in Yeats. Some time later I gave a course in Modern British Literature at DePauw, feeling almost as competent on Yeats as on Graham Greene.

© 2004 by Elizabeth Christman. All rights reserved.

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