Wednesday, January 18, 2006

What's your line?

There's a post at Intueri about having a conversation with someone and answering the "oh, what do you do for a living?" type question. Maria at Intueri , a psychiatrist, finds that the information pretty much destroys any conversation rather quickly. I can see that. It wouldn't with me, but then I'm too curious for my own good sometimes. (She also uses imagery in really strong ways, so I'd be asking about her writing all day anyways.)

I usually get one of two initial responses when I answer the question about making my living.

In a general (rather than academic) context, I tend to identify myself first as a teacher, because, saying I'm a professor just still sounds pretentious. And saying I'm a Shakespearean sounds even more pretentious. And what I actually DO, most of the time, is teach in some way or another.

How do other academics handle this one?

Sometimes folks let it drop at teacher, but there are two follow ups: what grade and inevitably, what subject. It's at the "what subject" question when the responses generally split off: if I'm lucky, someone tells me about their favorite teacher in high school or college, the English teacher who taught them so much, who cared about his/her students, who was funny, brilliant, all those things I'd like to be if only I had the brain cells left after being a young adult. These conversations are easy and fun.

If I'm not lucky, the person looks at me suspiciously, gets self-conscious, defensive, or offensive about his/her grammar or knowledge or whatever they think about when they think about English as a subject.

"So, I bet you're just cringing at the way I talk." Nope, not in the least. I like hearing variants in people's dialects, accents, usage.

"So are you going to correct my grammar?" Nope, I get paid to correct grammar. I don't do it for free. (Okay, I do on occasion help people with written stuff or grammar questions for free, but ONLY when they ask, or if it's a close relative under the age of ten.)

"I hated/failed my high school/college English class/teacher!" Gosh, I'm sorry to hear that. I failed my high school English tests on Julius Caesar and Macbeth. I hated Shakespeare in high school.

The absolutely most completely delightful reaction I ever got came from a couple friends of my great Aunt Em, when I was teaching my first Chaucer class some years ago. My great Aunt Em was supportive and fun; we were pretty close, writing letters back and forth while I was away, and she was very proud that I'd earned my PhD. I think she was also happy that we'd gotten close (for which I'm very grateful) and that we'd always get together for lunch or something when I hit the old hometown area. At any rate, I think she was happy because she gladly introduced me to her friends, and proud because she always told them what I was up to.

One day she told her friends I was teaching Chaucer. Her friends' reactions? They BOTH started laughing and joyfully reciting the "General Prologue" to me in Middle English. We must have chatted about Chaucer and other literature in various ways for a good hour. What a great way to spend part of my afternoon.

Let's do the math: These women were both in their 70s (at least), and neither, I'm pretty sure, had beyond a high school education, and yet they were having a great time reciting verse they surely hadn't read for what, 50-60 years?

Something, somewhere along the line, went VERY right in their educations for them to have such a joyful reaction to their experience with Chaucer and for them to remember lines 50-60 years later. Yes, so no doubt it was rote learning, but surely there's value in learning to memorize at some level?

Alas, my memory for recitation is best demonstrated by the now old Robin Williams bit where he's "doing" Hamlet, "To be or... damn!"

Anyone else have good "what's your line?" stories?


  1. I don't have a good "what's your line" story...but I so enjoyed the bit about your Aunt Em's friends. How delightful!

  2. I've gotten joyful recitations of GP 1-18 as well (and I once saw an episode of Blind Date in which the two people bonded over doing that -- really!). But the *best* reactions I got were in Denmark. After saying to one fellow that I taught medieval English literature, I was rewarded with a joyful and enthusiastic, "You mean Beowulf? We Danes *love* Beowulf! It's all about the 'weekings'!" (That is, vikings, but in his Danish pronunciation.)

    Mostly, though, after saying I teach medieval English literature (if I even get to that level of specificity) I get this response: "Hm. Name a medieval author for me."

    Oh, and I say I'm a "college English professor" in order to avoid the "are you going to correct my grammar?" responses, though it doesn't always work.

  3. What if you said you were a literature professor? Maybe then people wouldn't ask you if you're going to correct their grammar.