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How I Almost Flunked Out of Grad School

November 28, 2019

steve161 expressed a little interest in the novelist John Barth, whom in passing I alluded to in my review of the Skip Lockwood memoir last week as my former professor who didn’t care for me or for my work one tiny bit. After answering steve’s note about Barth, I remembered this chapter of a book-length memoir I’ve been compiling, tentatively entitled ONLY MOSTLY TRUE. This chapter happens to be entirely true (some chapters I fictionalized a bit, some more than a bit) and it happens to explain the difficult relationship I was trying to describe to steve that I had with Barth in 1979 and 1980. 

ONLY MOSTLY TRUE’s  theme concerns thoroughly unpleasant or distasteful episodes of my largely pleasant and tasteful life, and this chapter is no exception. Oddly, I’ve found that if I arrange these chapters in chronological order, which is not how I composed them, from age 5 through approximately yesterday, they tell a coherent story of a tumultuous life filled with all sorts of conflicts, heartbreaks, drama and, at times, life-threatening action, which surprised me a little. I usually think of my life as drama-free, even boring. These stories are all about the exceptions to that rule.

This particular chapter is just a tiny blip of conflict between a difficult professor and a more difficult student, not much action of any kind at all, but still a vivid memory for me. If nothing else, it’s therapeutic, I've found, to remember long-ago events in great detail—I’m often amazed at the fine-grained memories that stick with me, and I very often find that now, decades after the events have passed, how much more clearly I understand my motivations and behaviors, and that of others, than I did at the time. I highly recommend writing memoirs of crises in your lives, a point I stressed the last few times I taught a class in memoir-writing—how, why, who, when, and where you got yourself into a fix, and how you got out of it (or didn’t) often makes for a good tale.

Anyway, this tale is probably of little interest to anyone but steve161, and not much to him, but rather than send it to him privately via email, I place it here in case anyone else cares to know how I almost flunked out of graduate school.






At the age of 25, after a few years as a journalist, mostly as an assistant editor on medical trade journals, and other office-jobs, between which I collected unemployment and sold a few odd feature articles to publications like The SoHo Weekly News, I decided to go to graduate school in Creative Writing.

In college I had not gotten the best grades. Not the worst, but far from the best. At first, I’d been overwhelmed, surrounded by all these very sharp college freshmen, most of them much better prepared than I’d been for college, but later on by my sense that the entire structure of U.S. society was breaking down, making my grades trivial since the new society that we’d be living in after the Revolution would have no use for grades.  It wasn’t as though I slacked off entirely, just that I wasn’t as fiercely motivated to excel in college as much as my peers who had their sights on law school and medical school and graduate school.

I alloted myself plenty of time in college to playing basketball, to music, to girls, to drugs.  You’d think from this description that college was a jolly time, but I don’t remember skipping through campus joyously when I remember college. By my senior year, I’d written most of a novel, and I thought of myself as a writer, not a college student. The only academic courses I sunk any effort into were my creative writing classes, which I devoted ferocious time and effort to.  My ferocity paid off:  at graduation, I was awarded a fellowship for creative writing, supposedly enough to live on for a year as I finished my novel.

I spent the money immediately on a car, so I could visit my girlfriend in Boston, necessitating my finding all these 9-to-5 editing jobs, which were labor-intensive and boring. These jobs taught me a few skills about line-editing and magazine production, but mostly they taught me that I didn’t want to do office work. They also drained me of the energy on weekends and nights to do what I’d planned to do in my spare time, which was to finish my novel. Eventually, grad school seemed appealing: it would force me to write and, if I could get a teaching fellowship, give me enough money to live on, if barely.

On the strength of my novel manuscript, and not so much my spotty college transcript, I applied to several grad programs and got into most of them. The one I really wanted to get into, and did, was the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars, but unfortunately they didn’t offer me a teaching fellowship. I wanted to go to Hopkins because the woman I was dating, and would eventually marry, had gone to the Writing Seminars, and I needed to match what she had done. She had gotten an editing job not too far from Hopkins, so I could live with her. One of the few living writers revered by all my college friends, John Barth, taught the fiction seminar at Hopkins, which also made Hopkins my top choice. But I couldn’t afford to go without a fellowship.

Mildly disappointed, I accepted a fellowship from Boston University, where I had a fabulous year, seeing my girlfriend, soon my fiancée, in Washington D.C. during breaks from school. I loved BU—a college buddy doing a Harvard Ph.D. had a room to rent me, I made lots of new friends and did terrific work in my BU year. It was so great, in fact, I decided that grad school was the life. BU was a one-year MA degree, so it was just nine months of work. I figured early on that this was so enjoyable a life, I should re-apply to Hopkins and take another one-year Master’s degree.

The second time around, I got in with a teaching fellowship, and was delighted to move to Maryland and study with Barth. I was jazzed. Hopkins was the top writing program in the country (maybe tied with Iowa, but who wants to live in Iowa?), it was tiny (only 12 fiction writers and 12 poets), and I was brimming with confidence from my BU year. I was so full of confidence, oddly, that I didn’t finish my BU degree. I excelled at everything—grades, acclaim, wall-to-wall praise from the director of BU’s program. I even won their poetry prize, which pissed off the poetry students no end. The only detail I didn’t attend to was taking their language exam.

Between my junior year of college and my senior year, tacking on a few weeks to the end of one year and the beginning of the other, I had lived in France for five months so I could spend my extended summer drafting my novel in isolation at a farmhouse in a small town in southern France.  This plan had worked out perfectly—not only did I win the fellowship for writing the novel, but I also of necessity learned to speak an adequate French, the alternative being starving to death in an environment where no one spoke a word of English. In the five years since then, though, my vocabulary and my command of French grammar had deteriorated, so I got permission from BU’s grad program director to take the language exam over the summer.

I got it into my head over that summer, however, that I would see what Hopkins’ foreign language requirements were. With a little planning, I figured, I could brush up on my French conjugations, take the BU exam and take the Hopkins exam at the same time.  Summer turned into autumn, and studying French was high on my to-do list.

I’d gotten spoiled by my star turn at BU, expecting that I’d get such royal treatment at Hopkins as well, but I did not.  Some of my lousy reception, I suspect, was caused by my attitude: the first day of Barth’s seminar, for example, I got grilled on some technicalities of the writing trade. Barth was a fiend for nomenclature, so his approach to studying writing was to see that his grad students understood technical terminology.  I was interested in such things, as much as the next grad student, but unfortunately I was the first grad student called upon to define a few terms of art: what was a "frame-tale," for example, and could I supply a few examples of frame-tales in literature? On my feet in the seminar, I could not.

Mostly, though, I think I did myself some damage by boasting about how easy it had been to excel at BU. I don’t remember doing so specifically, but I’m sure at some early Hopkins mixer, I had let on that Master’s degrees were pieces of cake:  BU’s was a blast, challenging but fun. I was beginning to conceive of a plan for a series of novels, all about a grad student who solved a different murder mystery at a different grad program in a different discipline in a different city in every volume of this projected series. At this cocktail party, I may even have opined how easily I could live on the $3000 or so that the fellowship paid, and write a different volume, in a series of grad schools.  And I may have dropped some details about my plan to work on my French and to pass BU’s exam and Hopkins’ simultaneously.

In any event, it got back to the powers-that-were running the Hopkins program, Barth and a scholarly sort of writer named John Irwin, that I was pulling off some kind of scam, using the Hopkins program as a source of income while I did whatever I damned well pleased, having no intention of actually taking a degree from Hopkins nor doing any work that I didn’t feel like doing.

Truth to tell, I wasn’t entirely sold on finishing the Hopkins program, but I imagine there are always several grad students in every program who are more gung-ho than others on finishing the degree. I certainly expected to hold two identical MA degrees at the end of the academic year, and I didn’t think the requirements were terribly daunting, but mostly I was in it for the experience. I wanted to study with John Barth, I wanted to have nine months to do a lot of writing, I wanted to get to know other young writers, but I didn’t think I’d need an MA degree, much less two, to do what I wanted, which was to write fiction.

So sometime in early October, John Barth summoned me into his office for a talk.

"I understand," he began, "that you didn’t finish your degree at Boston University."

"Technically," I said, "I didn’t."

"Either you have a Master’s degree from BU," he told me, "or you don’t.  Do you hold that degree?"

"I do not," I said. "I will have it, though, later in the year."

"It’s a one-year program, same as ours," Barth told me. "Students arrive in September without an MA, and they leave in May with one. Except for you. You arrived in Boston, but then you left without bothering to take their degree."

"Well, I plan to," I explained. I told him of my needing a few months to review my French, and then to pass the BU exam by mail at the same time I passed the Hopkins exam.

"I understand," he said again, in a tone that I would not describe as "understanding,"  "that you’re not intending to take our language exam, or BU’s, and you plan to leave here without taking our degree."

"No," I told him. "That’s incorrect. Where did you hear that?"

"I’m not at liberty to say," he said. "But that’s what I’ve been told."

I shrugged.  "You’ve been misinformed."

"Nonetheless, we cannot have a graduate student in our program who does not intend to take the degree. We don’t accept non-degree candidates. There is no place here for auditors, or for students deciding what requirements they will and won’t fulfill."

"I just told you what my intentions are," I said. "I’m going to take your language exam in another month or so, and I have every intention of getting your MA in the spring."

"I’ve heard otherwise," he said, "about your intentions from my other sources—"

"—who are misinformed," I interrupted.

There was a silent moment. Grad students didn’t normally interrupt John Barth. His catfish-like lower jaw clenched, and my jaw probably did too. Neither of us liked the way this conversation was going.

"You will take our language exam," he told me, "later this week."

"This week?" I said. "Today is Wednesday. That’s not enough time to study. I was told that grad students could take the exam any time between now and April."

He nodded. "But you," he said, "will take it this Friday. As a sign of your serious intent to finish the program."

"Are you asking any other student to take the exam before the Spring term? If not, this seems –" I paused to find the term I needed: "Unethical"? "Illegal"? "Discriminatory"? I settled for "—unfair."

"Nevertheless, you will take it this Friday," Barth assured me. "Or your acceptance into our degree program will be rescinded, and your fellowship will be revoked."

"My French is spotty," I confessed. "I’m rusty. If you would take me at my word, and give me a few weeks at least to study, I assure you—"

He now interrupted me. "This Friday. At 2 PM. In Mr. Irwin’s office," he said. "That’s all. You may go."

I went. That evening, I railed against Barth’s imperiousness, his insulting refusal to accept my word, his coldness in assessing my motives, and I threatened my girlfriend that I would sue Hopkins for putting me under a deadline that it wasn’t putting any other student under. My girlfriend, to her credit, asked me what I had to lose in taking the exam on Friday. I was miserable for the next two days, but on Friday I found myself in John Irwin’s office taking the language exam.

They allowed me a French-English dictionary, and 45 minutes to translate a short passage from a French novel. (I later figured out it was The Princess of Cleves.) It wasn’t too hard to translate, though I made one crucial, comical error in my translation that could have easily resulted in failure: the central character in the passage was "La Dauphine," which translates as "The Princess," obviously the correct translation, not "the female dolphin," which is how I translated it. I had never come across the word before, but I knew that the male form of the noun, "le dauphin," was French for "the dolphin."

Despite my producing a very strange text about aquatic mammals in the French royal court, I was (very generously) afforded a "pass" on the Hopkins language exam, courtesy of John Irwin, who tactfully and with a straight face pointed out my surreal error, saying that the rest of the translation was adequate to the task.

I took the Hopkins MA degree later that year, but relations between Barth and me only got worse after this incident.  I might not have been his cup of tea to begin with—he was all about devising the most architecturally intricate of plots, built on the most elegant wordplay, while I was writing a loose, almost baggy, improvisatory novel, painting myself into corners that I would need to tunnel my way out of—but I don’t think our issues were mostly artistic.  Simply, he saw me as a scam artist, conning his beloved Hopkins out of a degree. He mistrusted my every motive, even after I passed the language exam.  Perhaps especially after I passed the language exam: John Irwin spoke fluent French, and Barth did not, so Irwin’s judgment had to prevail as to my adequacy in French. Since I don’t believe that Irwin had heard the same rumors about my intentions as Barth had, it’s entirely possible that Barth felt that Irwin could have and should have judged my French inadequate for the MA degree. Certainly for the rest of the year, Barth was alternatively snide, or dismissive, or faux-puzzled in his considerations of my work.

It was my fault of course. I had been arrogant, throughout my schooling, and I had been boastful about that arrogance. If I had kept my mouth shut tight about my doubts on the value of graduate study, or the ease of completing it, or my confidence in projecting a future in a series of grad schools, this problem could have been avoided entirely, but I didn’t. That lack of humility, that headstrong choice to pursue a graduate degree under my own terms, didn’t serve me well—it hadn’t before this incident and it didn’t later on, when in the course of getting a doctorate (another choice I never thought I’d make) I presumed that my own judgment could and should supersede that of my professors.

I really can’t complain, as I’ve made a good career out of teaching writing, publishing some books along the way, but I regret my arrogance all through my schooling, always thinking I knew better than my professors what I needed to learn, and how I needed to learn it. Thinking back, I’m glad I read, and was examined on, all the books I read in college and in grad school, but I wish that I’d read more of them, many more of the difficult texts I’d been assigned. Instead, I tried cutting corners in a variety of inventive but ultimately self-defeating ways: I wrote papers on novels I had read in a previous class instead of writing about the books on this class’s syllabus, for example, or I convinced my professors to allow me to submit a "creative" assignment, like a short story that I could easily produce, in the place of writing the boring academic paper they wanted from me. Or my time-saving plan to study for both MA programs’ French requirement at the same time.

On the other hand, maybe this arrogance had its uses. An axiom I think I invented, at the end of my doctoral studies, was "Your studies are done when you understand how to teach yourself better than professors can teach you," and one never really gets to feel that way without a little arrogance. That arrogance let me apply for academic jobs I wasn’t really qualified for, and eventually got me one of them.  That arrogance let me presume I understood far better than I did the subjects that I proposed books on, and let me eventually write several of them. Thinking "I can do that" requires confidence that is a little presumptuous and a little arrogant. It almost, but not quite, got me bounced from grad school, part-way through.



COMMENTS (22 Comments, most recent shown first)

Marc Schneider

How can you say "not be mean spirited about this" when that is exactly what you are being? I mean, if you don't like his writing, don't read it. Why do you feel the need to insult him? Is your opinion so important that you can't bear not to express it?

I don't like people who apparently feel the need to be gratuitously nasty.
2:01 PM Dec 6th
So, one small piece of the story that I don't think you told us. Did you ever take the language exam for the BU program?
10:33 AM Dec 3rd
"To me, all writing contains some fiction, even writing that purports to be strictly factual, because it must use some techniques of fiction to make its point.."

Ugh, this is the problem with many journalists today. I can hear the eyes rolling of my professors at Medill.

1:54 PM Nov 30th
Fireball Wenz
Nice piece, Steven - I must confess, however, that during the French language exam part all I could think was: Hasn't he read Huckleberry Finn!
10:17 AM Nov 30th
Steven Goldleaf
I thought there must be a helluva story behind getting fired from a tenured position, Charles Young, and thanks to InsideHigherEd's "program reprioritization" article, I see that there is. Wow. Very screwed up. My condolences.

mpiafsky--what great timing, to have gotten to JHU when Dixon was there. I'm filled with envy. I would have reapplied to the program, if I hadn't had a fulltime job, and also if there was any chance at all that the WS would have admitted me for a third time. I mean, if Barth accused me of being a non-degree candidate, then applying for the second MA from the WS prolly wouldn't have worked either. Woulda loved to have taken a single seminar with him--I learn from his stories all the time. Total genius, and his sweet, generous nature shines through his work, which is full of compassion and understanding.
6:54 PM Nov 29th
Steven Goldleaf
Charles Young--same story here, only it was Yiddish that my grandmother spoke exclusively and which I spoke with her until I was seven, when she died. I lost it completely after that, and got a little of it back when I decided to research my genealogy. Come to think of it, my family history is the first chronological chapter in ONLY MOSTLY TRUE, beginning with my grandfather's birth in 1856. (I will spare davidt50 the pain of reading it, though if you google "goldleaf mordechai emigration" you'll find the first half of that long chapter, published by the Maryland Instutite College of Art, on Charles Street.)

As to Memorial Stadium, I arrived at the Homewood campus in September of 1979, just in time for the O's to win the pennant. My run-in over the language exam, in fact, coincided with the Pirates-O's World Series, if I'm remembering correctly.
6:00 PM Nov 29th
Yeah, studied with Steve and Alice McDermott. Man, Steve was a complete trip-- everyone would swap stories about him. Just a kind, sweet, funny guy. The best thing about his workshop was that he would type his end notes on your submissions on the back of his own discarded story drafts. So somewhere I have about five or six authentic Steve Dixon rough draft typed pages. One time he started class by sheepishly asking the last week's workshop to return everything he'd given them because he'd included the only copy of a page of his newest story and needed it back.
5:37 PM Nov 29th
Steven Goldleaf
We should have a thread about that, steve: "Writers who other people seem to like just fine but whom I'm colossally bored by." My own list is very, very long.
5:37 PM Nov 29th
Steven, right on Aristotle. I thought Paul Gallico and Babe Ruth might be more appealing to the audience here. It’s not the Poetics, but it’s a great story.

We overlap in other areas. I did my graduate work in philosophy at Hopkins in 1968-72 - a very good time to be an Orioles fan, what with Memorial Stadium 5 blocks away, selling upper-deck seats and crab cake sandwiches to students for $1 a pop. I finished my PhD in philosophy (mostly Plato and Aristotle), and then taught at the Claremont Colleges until they fired me in 2017.

I’ve even got my own Hopkins language exam story. My father was part of the occupation of Germany after WW2, so I lived there from age 3 through age 6, returning as a fluent six-year old speaker of German. That was rare enough in post-war Roanoke VA for the local paper to write me up, complete with a picture captioned, “Charles Young speaking German!” Sadly, I wasn’t made to keep using it. Despite the stories, my experience is that languages have a half life of six months to a year if you don’t keep them up, and sure enough my German was long gone when I got to Baltimore in 1968. I showed them the picture - my parents had kept it - and argued that there could not be a picture of me speaking German if I couldn’t speak German. They didn’t buy it, though, and made me relearn it.

As the Wicked Witch of the West said, “What a world!”

5:05 PM Nov 29th
Steven, apparently I'm not the only one who found it interesting. I respond to it as one who started a PhD but never finished it. My first year as a grad student in political science at UC Berkeley was unmitigated hell. I moved for the second year down to UCLA, didn't hate it as much, but also (fortunately, even providentially) discovered computer programming (it was called a research tool) and thus my lifetime profession.

I had though seriously about majoring in English when I started college, but figured out in time that literature meant too much to me to have to read it as an academic.

shthar, your college experience matches mine at Berkeley, but neither my undergrad years at Pomona College (1961-5) nor my year at UCLA.

davidt50, you remind me of a saying of one of my college professors: There are no uninteresting subjects, only uninterested people. There are countless immensely popular writers that do not speak to me (Neil Gaiman, to name just one). I always assume the failing is mine, not theirs.
3:06 PM Nov 29th
Steven Goldleaf
Sorry--meant "European and Russian literature." Don't want you to think I don't know my geography.
2:48 AM Nov 29th
Steven Goldleaf
I'll have to write an entire other column about this to express it completely (sorry about that, davidt50), but one of the more valuable things I learned by attending back-to-back redundant programs in the same damned thing was how different two identical programs in Creative Writing could be, and all because of the approach of the two identical programs. BU's was very traditional--the program director there sought to make his students knowledgable in canonical writing (very big on European and French literature, on critical theory, on coursework outside of the CW programs, etc.) while the JHU program was designed to encourage rigorous yet whacky experimental writing--if you could somehow produce a novel out of macrame and dog biscuits, JHU would say "Beautiful--I don't get it, but maybe I'm not supposed to get it" and BU would say "Uh, maybe you could try reading all five volumes of Proust's memoirs and then replicate his results before you invent the wheel all over again. Go back to square one and start over." JHU was all about originality and innovation while BU was all about showing competence at doing what other writers had done before you imposed your own methods on the world. I didn't really fit into either line of thinking, but it was enlightening to know how varied the two ways of teaching writing could be. Mostly what I got out of grad school was two years to write, and then five more years of doctoral work that wasn't quite as liberating in terms of productivity.

2:47 AM Nov 29th
[The most important thing about college I finally learned at college, is that professors just want to hear what they just said. ]

I guess that I was lucky to be majoring in a scientific field: there was room for varying theories, but most of what you had to learn was indeed correct or incorrect!​
1:06 AM Nov 29th
Not to be mean spirited about this, I find your writing very uninteresting.
I believe I have mentioned this before. I'm sure you grab the attention of ohters, just not me.
12:24 AM Nov 29th
The most important thing about college I finally learned at college, is that professors just want to hear what they just said.

They are not interested in your opinion, unless it agrees with thiers.

8:23 PM Nov 28th
Steven Goldleaf
And a more prosaic, specific response to 77Royals: even in journalism, there are certain situations where fudging the truth is an acceptable practice. Changing the name of a source who wants to stay anonymous, for example (and saying so, of course), is standard. Writing journalism or history requires a scrupulous attention to the truth, but reporters and historians are not, as Ronald Reagan would have it, "stenographers with amnesia." They have to use their brains to order a narrative, and sometimes they have to switch up a strict transcript to get at the truth. For example, a historian may get three slightly different and irreconcilable versions of a story from three different sources. He can tell all three versions, of course, and try to explain how he makes sense of all three, but usually it makes for a better book if he just uses his own sense to figure out which one seems most accurate, and rejects the other two. This happens constantly in working with sources, and if one were to explain every choice at length, history books would be unreadable.
3:55 PM Nov 28th
Steven Goldleaf
Another JHU WS graduate here, mpiafsky? Who knew? Glad to know that requirement has gotten easier. Did you study with Dixon? I love his work, and was very sorry when we lost him a month or so ago. I thought he was the best story writer working today, and certainly the most prolific, too. I recommended his work in these pages a few years to Daniel Okrent--don't know if Okrent ever got into him, but I just gobbled his brilliant stories up, and recommend him to anyone who asks.

Charles Young--that's straight out of Aristotle: the plausible impossibility is better than the implausible possibility, or something like that. The truth is often found through lies, though when I taught journalism (my first few years of full-time teaching) I didn't mention that one too much.
3:29 PM Nov 28th
Sometimes you have to make things up to tell the truth. This, some think, is one of Paul Gallico’s points in his postmodern classic on Babe Ruth, “His Majesty the King,” in Farewell to Sport and many anthologies.

Charles Young
1:55 PM Nov 28th
Steven Goldleaf
It's a far more interesting question you ask, 77royals, than I think you know. To me, all writing contains some fiction, even writing that purports to be strictly factual, because it must use some techniques of fiction to make its point, so this memoir challenges the reader to pick out the parts that are made up. I've got a chapter, for example, that's pretty easy, in which I change my wife's name and my own, and make us young professors of musicology instead of the young professors of writing that we were. That's an easy call, although, the story is actually otherwise pretty factual. (Like my musicology prof, I was accused of murdering my downstairs neighbor, and we did have to move out of the building and the city we were living in to avoid looks of suspicion from our other neighbors, the ones I hadn't murdered yet.) Other times I had to leave out some crucial elements, just to keep my narrative manageable and not turn into a lengthy saga. A few times, I just made up shit, and a few times I'm sure I just misremembered the details. But mostly I was deliberately blurring the line between fact and fiction, which I find much more fluid than others do.
12:12 PM Nov 28th
Enjoyed this a great deal. I am reminded of Isaac Asimov's autobiography, particularly volume II, which contains an entertaining recounting of his battles with Boston University. I am also reminded of Robert Heinlein's short story, "Tale of the Man Who Was Too Lazy to Fail," which I believe appears in his novel, "Time Enough For Love." If you've read either one, I am sure you understand the relevance.​
10:45 AM Nov 28th
I got my MA at the Writing Seminars at Hopkins after Barth left and the language exam had gotten considerably looser. As Steve Dixon said, "you take an online test. If you fail that, you take a written test. After that, I'm guessing they give you an open book test or something..." When you took the online test and got your results, they let you click on "Finish Test" or "Start Again." Seriously.
So, yeah, things were different in 2000 is what I'm saying.
10:29 AM Nov 28th
How do you fictionalize a memoir? Doesn't that make it a novel?

Or is this more like a ballplayer telling stories from 50 years ago, and not remembering all the facts, because the story is always better than the truth?

Which you don't do.
10:26 AM Nov 28th
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