University of 
Notre Dame

The Story of 
Notre Dame
Twenty Septembers / by Elizabeth Christman


In the same Spring that my book was published, I received an invitation from Notre Dame to come and teach on the full-time faculty in the American Studies program. Ronald Weber was the chairman of the program at that time, and my friends Tom Stritch and Ed Fischer were teaching in it. But Ed had decided to take early retirement in order to write the books he had planned, and they wanted me to replace him.

It was not easy to decide to leave DePauw. During my seven years there I had found some wonderfully congenial spirits among my faculty colleagues. Greencastle was so small that faculty members were physically close, their homes being only blocks away from, across the street from, or next door to one another. This undoubtedly had its disadvantages in the matter of privacy. Everybody knew everybody else's car, and on a Saturday night driving through town you could easily see who was entertaining whom. But it made for a neighborly closeness that I relished, coming from the anonymity of an apartment in Stuyvesant Town, Manhattan. My best faculty friends were couples much younger, really of another generation, but my being of the third age didn't seem important. I enjoyed being part of their family life and knowing their children as nieces and nephews.

The chief recreation was the dinner party, or the evening party at which bountiful food, as well as drink, was served. Going out to restaurants was pointless -- the food at faculty tables was so much better. There were good restaurants in Indianapolis, forty miles east, and a couple of good ones in Bloomington, forty miles south, and we sometimes made these excursions. Bloomington had another attraction: music. Indiana University is in Bloomington, with its superb music school, and I heard some fine opera performances. A concert series every year in Bloomington brought notable orchestras and instrumentalists within our reach.

In fact DePauw University itself had an excellent music school for its size, and I heard a good student or faculty recital nearly every week. The DePauw Music School gave an opera every February, a major social event as well as a musical gala. Everybody dressed up. One year the Cavanaughs gave an opera supper after the performance, and we felt almost Viennese.

It's true that social life was insular. A great deal of the conversation at all social events was shop talk. Rarely did I encounter the kind of literary and intellectual give-and-take that I had imagined academic life would sparkle with. There was a good deal of gossip, but I didn't hear much that could be called malicious.

Before I had embarked on my teaching career some friends had warned me about political feuds and factions in academic life. I wasn't conscious of much of this at DePauw, and none of it affected me. A late-comer like me, of advanced age, could not possibly be a threat to anyone's career, so no one regarded me with jealousy or suspicion. But I must say that I didn't even sense rivalries among the younger members of my department. If ambitions were clashing, I must have been listening to something else.

In short, I had made a happy life during my seven years at DePauw, and the chance to go to Notre Dame did not seem an unalloyed blessing. Moreover I felt, and still feel, a peculiar gratitude to DePauw for having taken a chance on me when I was still untested. But Notre Dame attracted me because of its religious congeniality. Among Catholics, Notre Dame has always represented something almost mythical, something that is more than just the combination of a good college, a beautiful campus, a winning football team, and a crucifix in every classroom. To me the last item counted heavily. I grew up in a Catholic family, was educated in Catholic schools, have lived always with the ideal of a Christ-like life before me, though so often failing sadly to live up to the ideal.

I hoped that at Notre Dame I would be teaching young people who shared this ideal. I wanted to try to make good writers out of people who would see human life as having noble possibilities as well as mean ones. When I looked at the current best-sellers, it seemed to me that too many of the wrong people were writing: people who glorified the cruel and the carnal. They were skillful, many of them, and hence their dehumanizing messages were persuasive. I hoped to increase the skill of young writers who might have more heartening messages to send. I was romanticizing Notre Dame students, of course. They turned out to be mostly good-hearted, carefree young materialists, like college students everywhere, not particularly intent on a soppy ideal of making the world better. But in due course I did meet some who lifted my heart with their aims and their deeds.

On such hopes, I made my difficult decision to accept the job at Notre Dame, and in June of 1976 I moved to South Bend. I would teach in the summer session, as I had done every year since 1971, and then begin as a regular faculty member in American Studies in the Fall, taking Ed Fischer's place. Ed and I both enjoyed this felicitous rounding out of our relationship: fifteen years earlier he had inspired me and encouraged me to embark on a career of teaching, and now I had come to take over his very course, Writing for Publication. Grooming your own replacement seldom starts that far back.

People often seemed puzzled, and they still do, about why a writing teacher is in American Studies rather than in English. The American Studies program grew out of the Journalism Department. Curriculum builders at Notre Dame became convinced that journalism was too narrow a field to govern a student's education. A good journalist, they believed, should study literature, politics, history, and sociology, as well as writing. The journalist should know something about American life and culture against which to report and interpret the events of the day. The Journalism Department was transmuted into the American Studies Department, which still retained the emphasis on communications.

In my first semester I taught Writing for Publication and Current American Fiction, and my students were all, or nearly all, senior majors in American Studies. In Writing for Publication my goal was that each student would write an article which could be published in a local newspaper or magazine, or in a campus publication. To prepare for this, I assigned them to write descriptions of places, profiles of people, interviews, editorials, and accounts of action. Early in the course they were to try to shape an idea for the main article, so that the shorter assignments could become part of it. For example, a student who planned to write an article about a sculptor in South Bend could write a description of the sculptor's studio for one of her short pieces, an interview with the sculptor for another, a profile for another, and a scene of him working on a piece of material for another. She wouldn't simply stitch all these bits together for the article, of course, but would blend parts of them into her major structure.

In teaching Writing for Publication, I continued the practice of writing with my students. I had done it at DePauw mostly in fiction-writing classes, and I had succeeded in selling most of the stories I had written, and had made one of them into my first novel. Once only at DePauw I had written a nonfiction article with a class. This was a course in writing about business. I undertook to write an article about the only business I knew: literary agency. I wanted to show the students how to develop an article from a formless idea by asking themselves: What is my main point and to whom is it addressed? I decided to address my article to the many readers of writers' magazines who want to get a literary agent and can't do it. My main point became my title: "Why You Can't Get a Literary Agent." The article was an analysis, with details and examples, of what a literary agent does. It showed why an agent, owing his time and attention to his regular clients, can seldom spare any for even the most promising of newcomers. I showed my students my plan in its developing stages to help them make their plans for their articles. When I had finished the article, I submitted it to Writer's Digest. They bought it and published it in November, 1975.

At Notre Dame in my first Writing for Publication class I planned and wrote an article on campus ministry. I didn't succeed in selling that one. I think it turned out rather bland, like a public relations piece. Nevertheless I found it even more useful to write with my students in nonfiction courses than in fiction because in nonfiction it is more necessary to pay attention to plan and structure. I could show students how to plan and shape their articles by giving them my own examples as I worked them out.


The first thing that struck me about Notre Dame students was they seemed happier than DePauw students. I ascribed this, at least partly, to the absence of fraternities and sororities. Notre Dame students did have some sense of loyalty to their dorms; there were many inter-hall rivalries in sports. But they didn't eat in their dorms. They all ate together in big dining halls: North Dining Hall for the north campus dorms and South for the southern ones. There was none of that tension about exclusivity and rejection that had troubled the students at DePauw. But there was one major tension: the issue of women.

In 1972 Notre Dame had begun to admit women students. The change was proceeding cautiously. Though the University graduated women in 1974 and 1975, these women had transferred from other colleges. When I came to Notre Dame in 1976 the first graduates who had entered as freshmen had just received their degrees. The number of women students was still small. The issue was extremely sensitive, agitating different groups in different ways. No group was satisfied.

Many alumni were fiercely opposed to Notre Dame's becoming a coeducational institution. To these men who had enshrined their college days in a holy myth of piety, chastity, and sport, it was a sacrilege. There was envy, too, in their opposition: they hadn't had girls, why should these modern youngsters enjoy such an indulgence? Perhaps it was to placate these alumni that the admission of women began with such a small group.

Many male students, too, resented the arrival of women, treated them with hostility and sometimes with ridicule or insult. Their attitudes, I suppose, derived from generations of conditioning which taught them that girls were charming to flirt with, romantic to court, and indispensable to family life, but didn't belong in board rooms, operating rooms, or locker rooms. A male student with such attitudes would vociferously deny that women could compete intellectually with men. Yet he was afraid to test this conviction. Other male students, however, were delighted to see women in their classes and cafeterias and halls. Their complaint was that there were too few of them.

In another age, the women students would have been delighted to be such a small minority. In the thirties, the bigger the stag-line at a dance, the more fun a girl could have. If a girl of the thirties (I was one of those) had been set down on a campus where the ratio of women was seven to one she would have thought herself supremely lucky. Even a plain girl, even a studious girl, even a shy girl could be a belle in those circumstances. And in the thirties girls were conditioned by generations before them to believe that to be dateless was to be a failure, no matter what other achievements and talents they had.

In the seventies, however, women did not want to submit themselves for the approval of men, especially when the approval was based mostly on beauty and charm. So the disproportion of men and women at Notre Dame was upsetting to the new women students -- in fact, harrowing to some of them. Even when they were welcomed, they felt it was for the wrong reasons. They were touchy about the gestures and verbal forms of gallantry which are part of our culture and which even with the best intentions men could not immediately cast off. A young man who had been brought up by careful parents to defer to women, help them lift heavy objects, hold their chairs at table, and restrain his language in their presence, could not stop doing these things -- could not believe, in fact, that women wanted him to stop. And perhaps they didn't want it, on the whole. But a young Notre Dame woman felt herself vulnerable and exposed. She carried the burden of representing the new woman, and she feared that any conventional deference from a man might be an insult which she ought to resent. If a middle-aged professor offered the kind of ritual compliment that he had been offering women all his life, commenting perhaps on her decorative presence in the classroom, she might feel "degraded" or "demeaned." He had referred to her as a sexual object! She ought to have stalked out.

A few professors, I heard, offered not good-humored pleasantries, but real insults, based on their own resentment at the admission of women. They made cracks about women's inferior intellects, sometimes disguised as humor, playing to the overwhelming majority of males in the classroom. Since there are always plenty of students ready to laugh at a professor's jokes, the one or two women students would suffer agonies of embarrassment.

These young women needed the support of older women in the tensions of their college life. But the ratio of women faculty and administrators to men was even more skewed. After all, Notre had been a men-only college for well over a century; moreover it had been largely a priest-staffed college. When coeducation began, the number of tenured women on the faculty could have been counted on one hand, and this disproportion could not remedied as easily as the disproportion among students. The male professors were there. They were tenured. They could not be dismissed to make room for women. Nor could fifty or a hundred women professors be immediately hired to make the proportion more respectable. There wasn't a large pool of potential women professors, because for many decades women had had little incentive to embark on a long, expensive preparation for college teaching. Colleges rarely hired them. Even DePauw, which had been coeducational almost since its founding in 1837, had very few women on its faculty. I had been one of a small minority there, and I was frequently made a "token" at some college function. For example, when Margaret Chase Smith, the former senator, came to speak at DePauw, the dean wanted a woman to introduce her, and asked me to do it.

At Notre Dame, with the proportion even smaller, and the position of women so sensitive, a number of groups sought me out to speak or participate in panels. The young women needed "role models," I was always being told. They needed to see older women who had made a place for themselves in the male-dominated world.

I felt uneasy about presenting myself as a "liberated woman." I didn't think of myself that way. In fact I had not felt especially suppressed by the male-dominated world. In the literary agency where I had worked for twenty-two years my boss was a woman, Dorothy Olding, who was fully as powerful in the business as her two male partners. If I myself didn't achieve any great power in this field, it wasn't because I was a woman but because I hadn't the required business acumen and drive. Later, at DePauw, I felt thoroughly respected by male colleagues.

I believed, and I still do, that women are fully equal to men intellectually, but I didn't think we had to keep asserting it. It was obvious. Only mores and cultures, not inferiority, had prevented women from doing things they were perfectly capable of doing, such as governing states, designing buildings, running corporations, and directing symphony orchestras. (There didn't seem to be any women undertakers, either, or women butchers, but never mind that.) I wanted cultures changed so that women could do all they were capable of doing and desirous of doing. But I was old enough to see that culture changes take time. I didn't expect instant transformation.

Nor could I go along with the overcharged insistence of the feminist movement on adjusting the English language to "equalize women." I deplored, and still deplore, the clumsiness of "he or she" and "him or her" and "man or woman", when the whole tradition of the English language has allowed the masculine pronoun to accommodate both sexes in generalizations. When Milton undertook to justify the ways of God to men, he didn't find it necessary to hobble his meter by adding "and women." Everybody understood that women were included. Likewise with the few powerful nouns often given a feminine declension, such as the soul, the moon, ships, and the names of countries, the feminine pronoun carries the generalization. "The soul selects her own society," wrote Emily Dickinson. Nobody suspects Emily Dickinson of denying that men have souls. For years I have been trying to teach students to write lean, supple prose. I hate to see those lumpy constructions thickening it.

Even worse are such words as chairperson, spokesperson, and Ms. They defeat the very purpose for which they were created. If you read of a chairperson, you know it's a woman. When a man is in the chair, the word chairman comes out naturally. The title Ms., which was intended to deny the distinction between married and unmarried women, is in practice seldom used for married women. They are still Mrs. Granted, the Ms. is handy when you don't know whether a woman is married. But I don't like to be addressed as Ms. I think that title is demeaning, implying that a single woman doesn't want her embarrassing state to be known. I'd rather be called Miss. That defines me more distinctly.

In these days of mounting depersonalization, it seems contradictory to try to blur distinctions. I like titles of all kinds because they particularize people. I like to hear of Aunt Martha, Cousin Fred, Great-aunt Catherine, Grandpa Dennis, Sister Mary Francis. I wish we still used locutions such as Nurse Garrett, Lawyer Parkington, Editor Scovill, and Farmer Brown as readily as we use Doctor Smith and Rabbi Goldman.

Semantic matters having to do with gender were extremely agitating to young women in the late seventies, and perhaps they still are. I wrote a humorous article for the South Bend Tribune in 1978, appealing to women to rally to the cause of lean language.

There's enough sludge in our stream of language already, with hopefully clinging like seaweed to every future verb, and like fermenting into green scum, and oily jargon leaking from the ship of state. God forbid that women should add to the pollution in the name of "rights."

I got several testy responses from women in the community who felt that I was betraying the cause.

I didn't want to betray the cause, and I felt uneasy when I was asked to be on a panel with some younger faculty women at a Farley Hall women's program. Many of the young faculty were terribly truculent. They felt wronged by the way society had programmed women -- wronged, unhappy, angry. I didn't want to contradict them or get into a cultural argument with them. I can't win arguments.

But I thought I had something to say, if only in an oblique way. I wanted to show students a happy woman. My life didn't turn out the way I intended it to when I was young, and thought there was no good life except being a wife and mother. If I had looked ahead, had been given a view of myself at sixty-three, living alone, an old maid -- I'd have been appalled. Yet I was happy, I told that audience, happy in having work that I loved, having good health and energy enough to do it. You can build a happy life, I said, out of all sorts of unlikely materials. I urged those young women not to have a stereotyped idea of what life should give them. Whatever it gave, they could make a happy life out of it.

What I hoped to show by implication is that though most people do marry, you don't have to marry to have a good life. I suspected that in spite of their protests of liberation, some of these students were secretly panicky, just as non-liberated women were, about finding someone to love and marry. It was this panic I wanted to allay. Panic is not a good motive for marrying. I think a good marriage is a supreme blessing, and I love to see and hear about such marriages. I've done a little sly match-making myself. But I don't want women -- or men either -- to marry out of the feeling: "Maybe this is the best I can do," or "I might not have another chance."

A faculty woman on that panel told me afterward that she needed someone like me to talk to when she got upset about the way things were going. She was a happily married woman with a child. Her anxieties had to do with academic life and tenure, things that I couldn't offer much wisdom on. But I could and did help her a little with her writing, which was heavy with sociological jargon and scholarly abstractions.

My faculty colleagues often asked me to help them with their writing, and I was glad to do it. Having no husband or family, I had time for them, as well as for students.

© 2004 by Elizabeth Christman. All rights reserved.

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