Call me Mr. Unicorn. I have degrees in political science, English, and classics—and I have done extensive work both in ethnic studies and classics. In Los Angeles I found myself teaching at an über-liberal California college that loved my multicultural work though it viewed my work in classics with suspicion. They suspected at first, then confirmed that my love of the classics might encourage an unstylish conservatism.
On October 3, 2014, I brought students to a conference at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Because of that, some women and gays charged me with discrimination. The Title IX investigation felt absurd. The greatest irony surrounding the spectacle stemmed from what the event at the Reagan Library actually was. It was called “Bonds that Matter” and it was about the importance of family relationships across time. I had tasked my students to identify examples of family relationships in great literature and create exhibits for them.
Between October 3, 2014, and August 1, 2016 (and then for another year beyond), I endured a Kafka-esque investigation too convoluted to summarize here. “Experts” were called in to make gross generalizations about the field of literature, deciding that “Bonds that Matter” held no merit. One anthropologist, for example, concluded that these family subjects were not persistent themes in antiquity or the Romantic Era. The anthropologist seemed somewhat clumsy in his discussion about the role of texts like Oedipus Rex or The House of the Seven Gables.
It became clear my classical self would find no shelter in Los Angeles. So I vacated tenure in 2016 and took a job at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, teaching literature, Greek, and Latin in the undergraduate humanities program.
When I came to the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, I dreamed that I would finally put away my battle armor and snuggle safely into a teaching position that happily matched my interests. I was in that naïve phase some conservatives pass through, when they blame liberals for everything and think conservative Christianity is some Shangri-La.
I would be set straight soon enough.
The program into which I was hired promised an almost utopian splendor for someone with my interests. An eight-part seminar series included the Greeks, the Romans, the Medieval era, the Renaissance and Reformation, the Enlightenment, the 19th century, and two semesters of the 20th Century. I would also teach literary interpretation, Greek, and Latin. This went splendidly until May 2018, when the president who had hired me, Paige Patterson, was ousted in a tumultuous #MeToo controversy engineered by Baptists who wanted to dislodge Patterson’s supposedly 1950s mentality.
By spring 2019, they put forward a curriculum stripped of any creative works, except for those that could be situated as case studies for theologians and philosophers. Soon I was told that in the revamped humanities major, poetry wouldn’t “cut it,” creative writing no longer counted as humanities, and we could not teach content survey courses (so long, “Nineteenth-Century Novel” or “Greek Drama”!). The eight-part seminar series became a four-part sequence with drastically reduced reading lists that really leaned more toward philosophy and theology.
It didn’t stop there. The dean decided to eliminate the literary interpretation class and the fine arts class from the list of required texts. Under “English,” we would only require students to take two semesters of academic research writing, the second semester of which could only be taught by a colleague whose degree was in composition.
They would add a new freshman requirement called “Meaning, Vocation, and Flourishing” and another called “Critical Thinking and Worldview.” New rules also meant that freshmen could not enroll in language classes, thereby rendering it impossible for me to foster a critical mass of students to study Greek or Latin literature in upper-level language classes.
They insisted that in their “Great Ideas” courses students would get enough literature by reading a little bit of Homer, Virgil, Beowulf, the Song of Roland, Dante, and a Shakespeare play. I found myself in the unenviable and painful position of now having to fight conservatives so they would see that 1) the classics included imaginative and creative texts, and 2) multicultural diversity mattered. I was now the dirty disobedient liberal. The fact that I organized missions to El Salvador, founded a multicultural drama club, and proposed a media arts and culture major with an African American music professor hurt my standing rather than helped it.
A new president took office—Adam Greenway—and fired 26 professors in 24 hours, sending a clear signal to all of us that we were eminently replaceable. Greenway told us this was due to budget cuts, then turned around and hired at least six new professors (all white) from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the place he had just left. My memos warning about the problems with the watered-down curriculum did not go over well.
By September 19, I was asked to resign by the provost. In early November, the spring 2020 schedule was published, indicating that I had no classes at all. Just like that, I went from tenure in California to joblessness in Texas. And now I can say, sincerely, that liberals and conservatives are both the enemies of great literature. I have been promoted to the rank of high misanthrope (pace Molière).
I know I can do nothing about my situation. I also know that if I had just curbed my own passion for the field, in Los Angeles as well as in Dallas, I might not have come to this sad impasse. But I am allowed to grieve. For 20 years, I loved being a teacher. I really cared and gave the field my all, where others treated the field like a rote chore.
So I wrote this poem.
“But I Did”
Twenty years teaching
means I lived a life
on the other side of the desk
Did I say desk?
It was no desk
no slab of steel or wood
protecting some tweed-wearing man
from angry young men
and curious dangerous questions.
No desk, no lectern, no podium.
It was a hill.
On this side, you decide;
a few years in, you decide
what hill it is.
Is it your hill to die on?
Or is it your hill to live off of?
Is it a sleepy slope to build your hut
your hut of Virgil and Melville
and Ralph Ellison and Sappho
so many leaves, pages, feuilles
call them what you will,
to make a safe hut for you to shut in
punch in punch out keep your head down
and die the death of a thousand paper cuts,
the death you die when you live
for your little grants your little chairs
your little keynotes your little titles
your little powerpoints and corny jokes
for little sycophants and their little spies
little ideas for little minds in little doses?
Maybe most build their cozy huts
on their hill beside a whiteboard
thankful they have a log-in
and the password to the Xerox
and hostages to laugh at their puns.
Maybe they spent those years
in dusty archives
dissertating on Dayquil
Kanting and Hegeling and Marxing
ripping their minds open
to take on 3,000 years of humanity
for that hut on a hill—
and nothing else.
Just a safe space.
Maybe they didn’t mean the passion
they played up in quals.
Maybe they never put their heart
in what they preached at the MLA.
Maybe they never sought brotherhood
with the men who gave all
for the truths they found.
Maybe they never thought Cicero
was someone to be like-no more than a mug quote
Maybe they never thought of Ovid’s
immolation by the Black Sea
as a call to mean every word you say
when you stand on this side of the desk.
Maybe they never saw the hill
and said, this is my hill to die on.
But I did. Maybe I was wrong to decide
that a hill beside a desk was
a hill on which to die.
Maybe I play the fool thinking
the other side watching me on the hill
for 13 weeks would be betrayed
if all I did was play it safe.
Maybe I should have never chosen
to do the risky things I did.
But I did.