UMass Boston 1966-70
Looking back through the haze of fifty years, I would like to say my four years at UMass Boston were a seamless progression of academic and personal growth. And in some measure they were, but they were also extremely difficult years when the world impinged on our lives in a way that changed the experience of college. Vietnam and the Civil Rights struggle overshadowed everything. My focus couldn’t be entirely on my studies. There were books on the war to read, teach-ins and demonstrations to go to. The pull of engagement in the world was strong.
Those years were also difficult for personal reasons. After ten years of drift, at 29 I felt I had to make a change. I had sabotaged every educational opportunity I had been given, including high school, turning instead to playing hockey and then to a three-year stint in the Marine Corps. On my discharge, I took jobs driving trucks or working construction. When I’d save enough money, I traveled, first to Scandinavia and Spain, later to Mexico. Feeling desperate to make something of my life, in 1965 I made two fateful decisions – to get married and go to college, two decisive acts that I thought would give direction and purpose to my life.
I arrived at the Boston Gas Company building in September of 1966. Registration in the first floor lobby was crazy – lines of students trying to sign up for courses, a deafening volume of noise as students discovered after long waits that classes were full or didn’t meet at times that would accommodate their work schedules. I sat off to the side studying the course offerings trying to decide what my first year should look like. The only thing I knew was my major, English. I waited till the crowds dissipated, sometime in the early afternoon, and with the help of a patient professor, cobbled together four courses. Being late in the day, I pretty much got what was left over, which meant late afternoon classes spread over all five days of the week.
My first English class, “Great Books and Composition,” was held in an office on the 5th floor that could accommodate only twenty or so students. The professor, Joel Blair, had recently gotten his PhD from Harvard. Safe to say, few of us in that classroom were up to the standard of work he expected, a scene played out across the University to what must have been the great disappointment of our professors. This contrast between the quality of the program and the weak preparation of many students would become a major issue for years, sometimes in contentious faculty and department meetings between those who held to the vision of high standards and those who felt some accommodation should be made to the students. After all, the university had opened its doors to us, invited us in, didn’t it have some responsibility to get us through? In the end, only one third of our entering class graduated in four years, and for some time afterwards graduation rates became an issue.
Another class I took that first year was held on the 11th floor. Getting there was something of a challenge. I could wait in the crowded lobby and push my way onto one of elevators or walk up a congested, narrow staircase eleven flights. Once there, though, I found that the class was meeting in the executive suite, a wood-paneled room with an enormous oval table around which the gas company executives had once met. Professor Starr, a well-known government professor, was prepared to discuss the uses and abuses of power in Washington, when what I really needed was a course in civics and the Constitution. I don’t remember much from that course but was impressed with the top floor view and the plush surroundings. It was by far the most commodious classroom I’d be in for the next four years. In a funny way, the fact that we were in such a well-appointed room did make me feel that I was being taken seriously despite my shortcomings.
That first year was fraught. I’d take too long with reading assignments, wasn’t clear about what was important or how to articulate my response, struggled with papers long into the night. I was too literal-minded, too tied to the correct answer. How could two interpretations of a story be right? How could someone else see a character so differently? What did it mean to develop my own opinion when the professor obviously had the right answer?
Sometime in the second semester, I caught on how to play the game. Since grades on papers were what counted most, I would invest my time and energy in writing them. I’d spend hours and hours taking notes on my topic, reading and rereading passages, collecting evidence for whatever idea I was trying to develop. When my thesis finally emerged, I’d set to the writing, usually late at night, and with maximum drama eke out a few paragraphs of spare, anorexic prose. But over time I got better at it. The late night dramas continued, but the content improved. Best of all, the papers were well received.
During my sophomore and junior years the University expanded with the addition of two more classes and the acquisition of several more buildings, one an armory and another The Sawyer Building on the corner of Berkeley and Columbus Ave that had spacious classrooms. The armory came complete with a moat, drawbridges, and crenellated towers. Inside, beneath its vaulted ceiling was a raised indoor track that ran around the perimeter. I’d often look up and wonder at the incongruity of trying to study in a building that had been built to house troops trained to quell civil disturbances.
The new students who came with the addition of these two classes were a diverse group, reflecting the city and its suburbs, and I was happy to see some were even older than myself. By this time I’d made a few friends, several of whom have remained close these fifty years. I was speaking more in class, though not a lot, and I had gained some confidence. I finally knew that I could hold my own in the classroom. But just as things were improving academically, my marriage was drying up. In the spring of my sophomore year my wife and I separated, but it wasn’t till the fall that I felt the full impact of the loss.
During these years, 1967-69, the war in Vietnam grew progressively worse: more soldiers killed and wounded, more bombing raids, and more use of napalm. As the war broadened and became more horrific, the divisions in the country deepened and grew more violent. Protests drew counter protests; construction workers attacked a peaceful march in New York City; there was more teargas and pepper spray, and many more arrests, and in Chicago wholesale beatings. And then came the thunderclap of assassinations – Martin Luther King in April of ‘68 and Robert F. Kennedy in June — followed by bombings and killings in the South and riots in most major cities. There was an edginess to life, divisions within families and conflicts between those students who supported the Nixonian policy of “peace with honor” and those who were completely against the war. Everyone was affected.
By then I had a better idea of the courses I wanted, thanks in large part to my advisor Seymour Katz, including one of his courses, “The Rise of American Realism: Twain, James, Howells, Norris, Crane, and Dreiser.” The reading was extensive, including Portrait of a Lady, The Octopus, Sister Carrie, and related criticism, and the writing assignments were frequent and demanding. Through Professor Katz’s generous criticism of my papers, I learned to get rid of the clutter in my writing and to be more precise in my thinking.
I was also lucky to take several other English courses with demanding professors: “The Neo-Classical Period” with Blair, “Forms of English Poetry to 1700” with Broderick, “Modern Drama” with Babcock, “Pre-Shakespearean Theater” with Slover, and “Literary Theory” with Marx. In this last course I received a compliment on a paper that had an impact way beyond its immediate relevance. “You write with an engaging clarity of thought,” Marx wrote. That single sentence was the only comment on the paper, that and a grade. I doubt Professor Marx had any idea that this compliment would stay with me the rest of my life. It seemed to go beyond a comment about my writing to validate something in me – that all the hard work and focus on papers was just what I should have been doing all along, and that with patience and effort I could be successful. It was and remains a precious gift.
In my senior year I took two seminars, one in the fall on Samuel Johnson with Knight and the other in the spring on King Lear with Bluestone. In the latter we went through the play line by line, supplemented with a constant flow of criticism. Five of us met once a week late in the day for three hours that would often extend into the night; on holidays we would meet for most of the day. I was acutely uncomfortable throughout. Max unnerved me, as he did many others. Whenever I got a hold of a thought, he’d challenge it. “Have you considered this?” he’d say and mention a critic who disagreed with what I had just said. I was kept off balance, so spoke infrequently. I felt I had regressed, returned to the timid freshman I had been, but as I got used to the badgering and grew more engaged with the play, I regained some confidence.
Then in late April we learned of the extension of the war into Cambodia, and on May 4th National Guardsmen killed four students at Kent State. Shortly afterwards there was a silent march from Boston to Cambridge along Memorial Drive. All you could hear was the shuffle of feet and the distant noise of the city. The next day, May 9th, UMass Boston went out on strike, as did more than 400 colleges and universities across the country. Classes still met, but we weren’t penalized for not attending. Professor Bluestone met with us individually about our final papers, and just before graduation we gathered at a student’s apartment for a potluck dinner.
The result of four years at UMass Boston: a sort of patchwork education. In retrospect I wish I’d been better able to take advantage of the opportunity given me. I got good grades but skimmed over much of the content of courses. To this day I regret not having acquired a stronger foundation in history, philosophy, and politics, as well as having mastered a foreign language – the stuff of a liberal education. I might have gotten a fuller education in a less troubled time and if the breakup of my marriage hadn’t been so fraught, but I doubt it. With my deliberate mind and poor memory, I would have struggled whenever I went to college. But the education I got in those four years proved to be enough, and it made all the difference. I’d acquired the skills and knowledge needed for the profession I was most suited for – high school English teaching – and was able to pass on some of the understanding and richness of literature that my professors had given me.
It was a gritty four years at the intersection of four busy streets in makeshift buildings far from the tranquil seaside site of the present campus, but it sufficed. I even grew to like the city grime and noisy traffic. It was authentic at a time when reality rubbed hard against the skin. And we had what we needed – professors who were dedicated teachers. Their commitment to us, often undeserved, was generous beyond measure, and my gratitude to them is immense.