Women Making History…Including My History

Today marks the end of Women’s History Month, and I’m thinking back today to an event at the beginning of the year when the Rev. Alex(andra) Hendrickson, Lafayette College’s Chaplain and Director of Religious and Spiritual Life—and one of the great souls on campus—invited a monthly gathering of spiritually-minded faculty and staff to remember women that had shaped their own histories. Mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and aunts made appearances in the moving, lovely stories shared around the room. Since we knew the conversation topic in advance, I gave thanks for the Phillips and Ludwick women in my life that have lived their histories into me in many life-giving ways. And then, professor that I am, I turned to the archives. My archives.

Here’s me writing as a sophomore—and learning from a professor.

This image is the first of a two-page weekly response paper I wrote as a sophomore in English 130: Major American Writers to 1865 at Westmont College. The professor for that class was Dr. Marilyn Chandler McEntyre. This short, fairly meh document is the most important thing I’ve ever written. And the main reason for that is the writing done on top of my writing.

This paper came early in the semester (fittingly for the theme of this post, the subject was a poem by Anne Bradstreet, nicknamed “The Tenth Muse” in her day and now seen as the godmother of American poetry). I hadn’t gotten the grade I wanted on it and, in true ambitious pre-law student form, I went to Marilyn’s office hours to talk with her about how I could improve my work. She was Dr. McEntyre then, and little did I know I was about to ask Dr. McEntyre a dangerous question. In fact it bore a resemblance to the rich young man asking Jesus, “What must I do to be saved?” Just give me a hint where the bar is, ok? I won’t have a problem clearing it once I know, honest.

Marilyn’s initial markings were in red pen. When I sat down with her and asked my question, she took the paper and a blue pen, and then she proceeded to take me on a guided tour of my own essay, pointing out the flabby prose, the inexact words, the unconsidered style, the not-quite-felicitous argument. Imagine my eyes getting wider as the blue spread down the page, slowly overwhelming the red marks that “counted” and my own ideas of my ability as a writer. The second page has about another paragraph marked, and after that, only red. Dr. McEntyre had made her point. This paper was no longer a written text; it was a testament to a conversation—a conversation that showed me as no writing or grade could how far I had to go as a writer, how much more there was to learn about writing.

In a famous letter to Hawthorne, Melville declared: “Until I was twenty-five, I had no devleopment at all. From my twenty-fifth year I date my life. Three weeks have scarcely passed, at any time between then and now,  I have not unfolded within myself.” I date my intellectual life from that conversation, because it was then that I began to unfold within myself. The humility of realizing how little I’d grasped, how self-satisfied I’d been as a “smart kid,” and how far I still had to go was one of the most energizing feelings I’ve ever experienced. That was when I could start to imagine what it might really be to be a writer and a thinker. Later that semester, Dr. McEntyre would introduce me to Moby-Dick, which would do for my intellectual work what Melville’s reading of Shakespeare at age 29 did for his. I wonder, though, how ready I would have been to “get the gift” (a favorite McEntyre phrase) of Moby-Dick if I hadn’t had that transformative experience with a wise new mentor and a blue pen weeks before.

Marilyn McEntyre is a highly accomplished professional. Having worked with Robert Fagles and Emory Elliott at Princeton, she has been a tenured professor and department chair in two English departments, then turned to a career as a writer and speaker. She has given the Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary, published books of scholarship and essays and poems and devotional guidance, and played a pioneering role in the development of the medical humanities. These are remarkable feats, and they trace a career path that is relatively new for women in American history (Anne Bradstreet never lectured at Harvard, after all). Yet Marilyn has accomplished all this while doing the difficult, unseen, nurturing work of the mentoring teacher and parent and friend—work we are all called to do, but that has for various reasons become marked as female.

The kind of teaching Marilyn did with me got her no bonuses, accolades, promotions, or prestige. While it was more visible than the labor my own mother, Elizabeth Phillips, put into home-schooling my sister and me (that in the 1980s, before it was fashionable), that work of teaching is often both written on the heart and lost in the landfill. Until last summer, I had assumed that this twice-marked essay had vanished from the earth, turning up during my packing for a summer office-painting campaign in my academic building. These things tend to survive, if they do, by sheer accident. Ask any historian of the teaching of writing where they find the paper trails, and the first reaction is liable to be laughter. Grading, marking drafts, offering informal direction with no prospect of publication—those are the first things to lose their traces in a professor’s life, even as the dry minutes from soul-draining committee meaning settle into a comfortable afterlife in the college archives and publications rest on their shelves. Today that invisible work is increasingly done by adjunct instructors: some for the sheer love of it, many more for a subsistence income, quite a few as a way of keeping touch with the career they sacrificed to get and then betrayed them—and most of these adjuncts, in English and elsewhere, are women.

To say that adjuncts are victims is both to state the obvious and to make a ridiculously simplistic statement. Teaching as a profession, particularly in the heavily feminized elementary grades, has long suffered from low pay, prestige, and respect in America. But many keep doing it. And many of those do it well. And there are those in the teaching world, past and present, that have planted seeds, unfolded selves, and opened the way to new vistas that allowed life to stretch and feel its own power. That’s not just woman’s work. I hope that I can continue it in the tradition I’ve received it. But I also want to point out, to celebrate, and to thank the women that have given so much life through teaching. And in the case of my mother and Marilyn, your private, faithful work is now a little more public. Thank you.

2 thoughts on “Women Making History…Including My History

  1. Marilyn McEntyre

    I’m completely touched and honored by this lovely reflection, Chris. Thank you. It was a memorable pleasure to work with you then, and is now. I hope to return very soon to reading Melville together. Blessings to you in the good work you do!

  2. Ashley Hales

    Love this. Marilyn is the professor I always wanted to become. She is thoughtful, precise and capacious in her delight with language; these are her gifts to me from my time at Westmont. She fueled love for words. I admit I based my schedule on what she was teaching. 🙂

    Thank you too for your own history shared here through the women who have been prominent in your story.

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