I spent 31 years, from fall 1990 to winter 2022, working and, eventually, teaching at The University of Texas at Austin. It was initially a stopgap. UT wasn’t my first choice, and Lord knows I wasn’t theirs. More on that later.
Now, I write full-time. I am researching two book projects, but I’ve yet to pitch either to publishers. In the meantime, I am pursuing freelance assignments. My interests are so broad that listing them hardly helps. Music, politics, literature, psychology, history, science, theater, and technology come first to mind. It would be easier to say what seems dull, except that virtually everything seems interesting once I begin to look closely.
I received a Master’s degree in English literature from the University of Virginia in May 1990, where I took classes from the great American philosopher Richard Rorty, E. D. “Cultural Literacy” Hirsch, and Twain scholar Stephen Railton. Professor Railton became my model of the exemplary teacher. I took his lecture class on the American Victorians and his seminar on Cooper and Twain. Thirty years later, I remember not only his words but his cadences, which were how he underscored what he wanted us to register.
I’d intended to pursue a doctorate at UVA. In those days the English Department faculty held a “permission to proceed” meeting – echoes of the fustian Old South there – for doctoral candidates. I had an unresolved grade when the faculty met, and they voted me out. It stung, but it was the right call. I disliked graduate school, and it wasn’t fond of me.
In August 1990 I returned to Austin and, with my savings running out that fall, took a clerical job with UT-Austin’s English Department. I was their third choice; the person I was replacing had run off the first two within a week. She tried to get me fired, too, but they eventually fired her instead. In summer 1993 the university created the Division of Rhetoric and Composition, UT’s first unit dedicated solely to writing instruction, and I was hired as its administrator.
I eventually wheedled my way into teaching Rhetoric and Composition and a seminar called Writing About Baseball. I also became an adjunct, teaching first-year writing courses at Austin’s Huston-Tillotson University and a senior-year thesis course at St. Edward’s University. In 2011 I began moonlighting as Book Reviews editor for the quarterly Texas Music magazine.
At UT, I accepted a position in 2004 with the Texas Interdisciplinary Plan (TIP), a new program to help students transition from high school to college. I led a peer mentoring unit and taught a first-year critical thinking seminar, but my main work was to develop a new interdisciplinary minor that had landed in TIP. The novel aspect of the program was that we allowed undergraduates to propose, with faculty approval, their own field of study and a suitable curriculum. The proposal required students to describe their proposed field in precise, economical language and to explain why it interested them. The proposal itself became my excuse to teach expository and autobiographical writing, initially in tutorials and eventually in seminars.
By 2013, the program had attracted a number of gifted students, and that, with the College of Natural Sciences’ desire to expand opportunities for its strongest students, led to its promotion to an honors program for science majors with interests beyond the sciences. I moved with it to the new CNS Honors Center, and in 2016 I became the Center’s Director. My principal job shifted to managing recruitment and admissions for three college-wide honors programs. I also taught second-year writing seminars in two of the programs. In both, I continued to teach autobiographical writing alongside the conventional modes.
If they’re lucky and pay attention, teachers can learn as much from students as students learn from them. I was exceedingly lucky. I was surrounded by bright, curious, mostly unjaundiced young people, each of whom knew more about their major than I did, and most of them were eager to share what they knew. I was happy in my work.
But working 60 hours per week leaves little time to write. I resigned from UT-Austin in January 2022 to fix that.