May 18, 2014 by Paula Reed Nancarrow

Last week I was asked, under some unusual circumstances, to perform a version of the story below at a private party. It was first written and performed as part of a Minnesota Fringe Festival performance, The Computer Wore Semiotics, in 2012. So it’s longer than my typical blog post story. I post it here in part because I intend to try to extract two five minute slam stories out of it, one for Word Sprout’s story slam semi-final at Kieran’s on June 3, where the theme is “Passionate,” and the other for The Moth Grand Slam at the Fitzgerald June 7, where the theme is “Fish Out of Water.” Suggestions for that extraction process welcome. As usual, it’s all about the choices.


Anybody need an extra Ph.D.? I have one that I’m not using.

I picked it up in 1987, six months after the birth of my first child. It has an awesome title: Remythologizing the Bible: Fantasy and the Revelatory Hermeneutic of George MacDonald. Really pulls you in, doesn’t it?

George MacDonald (who I’ve written about before) was a 19th century Scots clergyman defrocked for heresy – stripped of his holy orders – for not believing in hell, and for believing that animals would go to heaven. (The MacDonalds had a lot of pets.) His congregation cut his salary in half, hoping he’d leave. When that didn’t work, they chucked him out. MacDonald turned to writing novels and fairy tales to support his wife and eleven children. Yes. You could support a wife and eleven children in the 19th century by writing novels and fairy tales.

It took five years from my oral exams to my dissertation defense. Meanwhile we moved from Minneapolis to Chicago, I put my husband through seminary, we moved to Michigan, we had our first child. I went into labor during a rerun of TRON. Not the new one – the original, with Jeff Bridges. That movie about people trapped inside a game.

My actual defense is a blur. I don’t know what I was more worried about: that they would not pass me, or that my daughter would have to nurse before I was done. One of my committee members – the only woman – left to get a pencil and was gone twenty minutes. Apparently she didn’t have many questions.

He tasks me; he heaps me.

The history professor took issue with a minor point in order to snipe at the speech act theorist. The Freudian who had once told me he had taught from the Classic Comics edition of Moby Dick asked me why I was so interested in Revelations. But I wasn’t interested in Revelations –the book in the Bible with all the end times stuff. I was interested in revelation – the act of revealing or communicating divine truth.

After two hours, they sent me out of the room. Ten minutes later, they brought me back, shook my hand. I had passed. That was it.

Once I taught one of my professors how to run a footnote program. This was the eighties. Word processing was young. You had to run a special routine. He put a footnote in, ran the routine, watched the footnotes renumber themselves, a look of awe on his face. Then he took the footnote back out so he could see it happen again. I knew better than to expect that look during my defense, but I had wanted something. Five years is a long time.,16641,19830103,00.html


In 1982, I was ABD –All But Dissertation.

It was the year I got married, Time Magazine named the Computer Machine of the Year, and I went to the Modern Language Association Convention at the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles.

MLA is the professional organization for post-secondary language and literature teachers. Academics come to MLA to present papers on esoteric topics no one but academics are interested in. All the great scholars  were there. And so were all the jobs.

I had passed my oral exams – that’s where you read 100 books related to your field, and a committee asks you questions about them. One author on my book list was actually going to be present at MLA. He had published the first modern biography of George MacDonald. Not only that, he was going to interview me for a job at his school, Wheaton College, outside of Chicago. Chicago was where my husband wanted to go to seminary. Wheaton was an evangelical school – Billy Graham was the most famous graduate – and that unnerved me a bit. We were Episcopalian. The church had a PR campaign on at the time, with posters you could see in airports:  He Died to Take Away Your Sins. Not Your Mind.

1980’s Poster from Episcopal Ad Campaign, designed by Minneapolis ad firm Fallon and McEllighott agency

But Wheaton considered itself an “intellectually rigorous” evangelical school – still does – and they had a collection devoted to MacDonald, G. K. Chesterson and the Inklings – Owen Barfield, C.S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams. On top of that, this was not an adjunct position. It was an actual, two-thirds time Assistant Professorship. A real coup.

Because, as every dissertation advisor will tell you, your dissertation is not your magnum opus. It is just your point of entry. After that, if you are lucky, you will get a one year, adjunct position at some community college in a corn field, and then another one year, adjunct position somewhere else, and maybe in three to five years, if you publish two articles a year and teach five courses a quarter, you might get a tenure track position. Then for six years you will publish two more articles a year and teach four courses a semester and turn your thesis into a book, and if no one on the tenure committee sees your work as post-colonial, you might get tenure. If not, you start over in the corn field.

The process has little to recommend it. But I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else. Because I had a personal stake in my dissertation, in that 19th century defrocked clergyman, and in the Victorians. Their faith and doubt crisis mirrored my own adolescent angst.

The discovery of dinosaur bones, the theories of Darwin, the scholars who first asserted there were passages in Scripture that were not history – Victorians were hearing about all this for the first time. When I heard these things for the first time, the people I asked for answers weren’t very helpful. The priest told me to trust in the Church’s understanding of the Bible. That was what faith was about. My youth group director said Jesus loved me. That was what faith was about. The adults I admired just tried to live a good life. That was what faith was about.

These were good answers for them, but they didn’t satisfy me. I think that’s why I went into academia, because I thought they respected the questions. Because I could immerse myself in literature, and stories, which embodied the questions, without having to calcify them. And something beautiful came together about the questions and the stories as I watched the Victorians make sense of their new reality. They balanced faith and doubt in a way I could live with, and did, for quite some time.

Still, I couldn’t tell other academics this. It wouldn’t have been professional, and I needed a job.;op=detail;id=15040

Illustration for Phantastes, Bernard Sleigh (1872-1954) Leicester Galleries Copyright © 2014 Peter Nahum. All Rights Reserved.

But I was not at the MLA convention to present anything even remotely related to my dissertation.

I was there because the University of Minnesota Department of English Program in Composition and Communication got a FIPSE grant – that’s Fund for the Improvement of Post Secondary Education – and I was the research assistant for the grant. I had applied for this job to get access to a computer for writing my dissertation. I had no competition; hardly anyone in the English department back then even knew you could write on computers. But I did, because before I was married I had dated another grad student, a statistician – a guy who later went on to write the algorithm that lets Amazon tell you what other books you’ll like – and he’d snuck me into the computer lab so I could write a term paper on Wordsworth’s Prelude. I was hooked. This was the greatest invention since correction tape.

So I was at MLA to present a paper I had written on integrating word processors into a writing curriculum. Because of this paper –not because of George MacDonald – I was surprisingly hot stuff. But as far as I was concerned, the real purpose of my going there was to soak up the academic ambience – to meet the great scholars – and to have job interviews. I had two others scheduled besides the one with the Wheaton scholar. They were all composition jobs – but they were in Chicago. It was a start.

My program was marked up with session after fascinating session I had to attend. Woman as Demon in 19th Century Literature. Darwin in Wonderland. Matthew Arnold, Culture Vulture. I went to panel after panel in my field, faithfully. Five thousand people at the conference – maybe a tenth of them specializing in Victorians. Over and over again, I was struck by the fact that there were more people on the panels than in the audience. Still, there was inevitably someone in that audience who started a fight over a picayune point. It’s Sayre’s Law. Academic politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.

Given how slim attendance was in the sessions I went to, you could have knocked me over with a feather when our presentation was standing room only. If I had done the math beforehand, I would have anticipated this. People go into English literature because they love books, and they want to talk about them. But you don’t get out of teaching composition in most English departments until you are a full professor. Which means you will be looking at three to four papers in a quarter, or five papers in a semester, draft and then revision – that’s about 250 papers per course. Anything that can lighten this load is going to be welcome.

The feeling in the room was entirely different from any other panel I had visited. No one was there to snipe at a colleague, or to put forth their own theory. They were there because they wanted information. And a new tool – something better than the distaff to spin wool into yarn, better than a stone to wash clothes on, better for writing than clay tablets and scrolls. Who could blame them if they thought that tool might spin straw into gold, make stones into soup, or write its own story.

The Machine That Brought Me to the MLA. Image Courtesy Dave’s Old Computers

At my Wheaton College interview, the MacDonald scholar kept calling MacDonald’s wife Louisa Lou-I-sa.

That couldn’t be right. No Scotsman would say Lou-I-sa. It was a petty thought, and I suppressed it. At Wheaton they were passionate about what I was passionate about. A few weeks later I had a phone interview with the department chairman. Miracle of miracles, they offered me the job.

Then the contract came, with the covenant I had to sign. There were a few picayune points. I can quote from that document, which was written in 1926, because it is still on their web site.

“WE BELIEVE that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are verbally inspired by God and inerrant in the original writing, so that they are fully trustworthy and of supreme and final authority in all they say.”

WE BELIEVE that God directly created Adam and Eve, the historical parents of the entire human race; and that they were created in His own image, distinct from all other living creatures.”

WE BELIEVE in the everlasting punishment of the lost.”

Oh hell.

George MacDonald Photo circa 1870

George MacDonald
Photo circa 1870

I called the MacDonald scholar. “MacDonald couldn’t sign this,” I said. “None of the Inklings could.” He seemed confused about why this bothered me. The chairman of the department called me back. “It’s for the alumni,” she said. “Really, you can think anything you want.”

I wanted a job at this school. I had a husband to support through seminary. But I believed the things I said about my faith mattered. I went to a friend. I laid out the pros and the cons. “Sign or not sign?” I asked. He was kind of a Zen friend. “Who gets to decide the choices?” he asked.

In the end I wrote a letter saying what I did believe in. I sent them my creed, not their covenant. Then we waited.

The 8 inch floppy disk that document was on has long since disappeared. But it was that three page letter – not the eight page paper on word processors and the writing process, not my 250 page dissertation – that determined the course of my working life.

They called me back. They applauded my integrity. Then they offered me an adjunct version of the same job, which did not require me to sign the covenant. Apparently my beliefs were less dangerous to the student body if I was hired at a third of the salary, without health insurance, and no job security.

But I didn’t complain. How often does a person get a chance to save her own soul?

Irene On Her Quest
from MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin. Illustrated by Arthur Hughes

At the end of the semester, my position evaporated.

I spent the next two years as a secretary at the Banking Research Center in the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University. I typed a Finance instructor’s dissertation for her, and worked on my own dissertation on the side. During one of those years, the MLA Convention met in Chicago. I went to the University of Minnesota Department of English Open House. It was awkward.

Finally, in 1987, after five years of obsessive research, writing and rewriting, I found myself at a table in a room in Lind Hall with five academics – they no longer felt much like colleagues – trying to assess whether I had made a contribution to my field. And at the end of two hours, they concluded I had. That was the beginning – and the end – of my career as a scholar in Victorian literature. I’ve taught in a community college once or twice as an adjunct. Neither job required a doctorate.   I spent ten years writing technical abstracts for the automotive industry. For the last decade and more, I’ve written grants for nonprofits.

I bring my dissertation out at parties sometimes and let people Touch the Book. I tell stories. I write a blog. But the only book I’ve ever published, with three colleagues, is an annotated bibliography on word processors and the writing process in 1984. It is a complete anachronism, but you can still get it on Amazon. Unfortunately the algorithm can’t figure out why you’d want to, or what else to recommend.



11 thoughts on “Choices

  1. Charli Mills says:

    The entire essay makes for a fascinating, enlightening story and I have terrific respect for both your hard work and your integrity. The Inklings and McDonald would be proud. For condensing into shorter forms, play around with your greatest points of tension and how you can build that tension for your audience without having to plateau the tension with too much back story. You’ve got great material to work with for both “passionate” and “fish out of water” themes.


  2. As usual, Charli, you’re right on target! Thanks for taking the time for a long read, and for a discerning comment.


  3. Amy Salloway says:

    I agree with Charli and have some additional thoughts on tone, structure and writing/telling style as well, if you feel like chatting. Love the last sentence – nice callback. :)


  4. Annecdotist says:

    I love the sound of your Ph.D. topic and the other bit that particularly interested me was how it mirrored your adolescent angst. If I were going to be in your audience these are the aspects that would most appeal to me


  5. […] a lot of time to work on new material these days, so I chose to pull a five-minute story out of a longer piece that I told at another event earlier in May. The revisions that followed that longer performance […]


  6. Diane says:

    Coming late to the party (smile), I read your 5 minute version (your June 8th post) before this 15 minute version. Both were fascinating and had me reading right until the end. Like the choices you made for the 5 minute version, but having my own 133 page leather bound Master’s thesis gathering dust on my bookshelf, I can relate to the extra details in this 15 minute version (smile). PS: My awesome, pull-you-in title was, “An Exploration of Gender Socialization and Alcohol Misuse in Men” :)


  7. Thanks, Diane. Only a fellow thesis writer would be curious enough to read the long one second. I think it would be a fun experiment to tweet thesis titles w/ links and see which ones get clicked on and retweeted. Of course the 140 character limit would eliminate a lot of thesis titles. ;-)


  8. lorilschafer says:

    Ah, I knew this story sounded familiar – I must have read the shorter version before. The bit about dating the grad student who wrote the Amazon algorithm is quite a neat piece of trivia. Good thing you didn’t reveal his identity – I have a feeling he’d be flooded with questions from authors! ;)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Blog Stats

  • 136,911 hits
%d bloggers like this: