The View from Parlin

An English professor pays tribute to his home on campus.

grahamThe girl just ahead of me is talking excitedly on her iPhone. She is in a world of her own, and I listen. What else can I do? We are both hurrying to class afloat in a scrum of cell phones, the Tower with its injunction to know the truth (John 8:32) looming behind us. She’s talking to a friend about some dude who has done both of them wrong. I miss the rest of the story as we are thrust apart by students in an even bigger hurry than we are. This kind of unintentional eavesdropping is a part of daily life on UT’s pulsing 50,000-person-plus campus.

Once inside Parlin, the English department’s home building, the scene is chaotic. Everybody’s either on a phone or a computer or both at the same time. The halls are jammed with students sitting alongside the walls, their feet thrust forward, which makes wending one’s way to class harder than it used to be. In the classroom as I sort out my notes, students continue to arrive, carrying skateboards, rolling their bicycles. We might as well be on a sidewalk in Jakarta.

But then the bell rings, things settle down, and class begins. I have been doing this for a long time, and I realized recently that I have actually been in and out of Parlin Hall since the third year of the Johnson administration (Lyndon, not Andrew). The building itself looks almost exactly the same as it did in 1965 on the day I walked in to inquire about attending graduate school: the same bilious green tile on the walls, the scuffed floors of a high school gymnasium, the elevator slower than the Amtrak Express, the professors in dress ranging from academic chic to homeless Drag worm. When I left UT in 1971 to teach at the University of Pennsylvania, I never imagined I’d see Parlin’s green halls again.

It was strange, then, in 1976, when I returned to UT with an office of my own in Parlin instead of the bullpen that I had been assigned as a graduate student. Although for a time I felt like an imposter, eventually I began to feel at home. The first step was securing tenure, and thinking back on that momentous event, I remember just how distant that period is.

At that time the English Department had no outside telephone service in individual offices. My second year back, I was informed by a knock on my office door and an excited staffer that I had a long-distance call from the University of Missouri. It was to be a decisive moment in my career, I knew, and I was frantic to get to the phone before Mizzou, in my perfervid imagination, decided to move on to somebody else. Today the experience of racing between floors to grab a phone seems Dickensian, if not altogether ancient.

The second-floor booth was occupied, so I took the stairs two at a time to the third floor, where I found at last an open booth and learned the news: The University of Missouri Press was going to publish my book. Tenure, the ne plus ultra of academics, awaited. Or so one would think. The president of the university at that time was Lorene Rogers, whom I did not know, but I learned we shared one thing in common: We were both from Collin County, cotton farming country northeast of Dallas. When I mentioned this fact to my mother, she was elated, certain at once that Collin County folks looked out for each other. Alas, when my promotion came up for tenure in 1979, it was turned down “without prejudice,” the translation of which was relatively positive. The next year, and under a new president not from Collin County, I happily nabbed tenure and never looked back.

In the ’80s UT English finally got complete telephone service. I remember Betty Sue Flowers, a distinguished member of the department, relating a story of a meeting with prominent alumni, wanting to know what they could do for the English faculty workplace. Anything we particularly needed? “Telephones,” she answered. They didn’t believe her until she repeated it, and they promptly changed the way we were able to communicate, supplying bright new shiny phones for each office. We still have landlines in our offices now, but of course we all carry cell phones along with our students.

Parlin, like other UT buildings, was once quite the opposite of a smoke-free zone. Our longtime assistant chair, John Walters, was old-school. He wore tailored three-piece suits and smoked cigars all the livelong day. No one would have thought to object. Although I have never smoked, many of my friends did, and I admit I considered taking it up when I was getting ready for my PhD orals. In those days, professors—perhaps unconsciously—followed a protocol of deference to smokers, granting a student time to fire up a cigarette or fiddle with a pipe. To me it seemed like a pretty sophisticated way to buy time while thinking up a good answer for the interlocutor. The widespread feeling then was that smoking was cool, inoffensive, and maybe even helped you think. Some veteran puffers, now relegated not only to the outdoors but to sneak-smoking on our smoke-free campus, probably still believe that last part.Undergrad students smoked in classes too. I never paid much attention to this until one time, during a final exam, when a smoking student made an indelible impression. He was someone I’d have guessed had not taken American literary texts very seriously, missing several classes and just not seeming interested in the course at all. And here he was, ready to take the final. He took a seat at the back of the class, took out two pens, flipped open his blue book, and then ritualistically opened a pack of Lucky Strikes, lining up 10 cigarettes on the desktop just so. Stretching out his feet on the empty chair in front of him, he read methodically through the exam for the full three hours, wreaths of smoke curling up from his face. He seemed pleased with himself the entire time and turned out a memorable performance. He did very well on the exam.

The most important changes at UT, of course, had to do with technology. Most of these, like the telephones, were positive, but I for one miss the Cinema Texas film series that used to screen films in the Texas Union and has long since closed. Ed Ward and his team put together wonderful, semester-long programs featuring film noir, European offerings, American screwball comedies, sci-fi, you name it. In the late ’70s and through the ’80s I taught a Western film version of English 342, J. Frank Dobie’s famous “Life and Literature of the Southwest,” and I showed 12-14 Westerns a semester. This meant that my students got to see some real film classics in a real theater and on the big screen. We’d see and discuss films like Red River, Shane, High Noon, The Searchers, and The Wild Bunch, to name a few.

Two memories from those days stand out. One was that quite often at the end of the semester female students would volunteer that they had loved the course, but their reason surprised me. They loved it because now they had something to share with their fathers. Among the many Westerns we discussed in that class was a little-known 1959 film called Warlock, starring Henry Fonda, Kirk Douglas, and Dorothy Malone. Edward Dmytryk, the director, happened to be a visiting luminary in UT’s Radio-Television-Film program for a couple of years, and he agreed one time to talk to my class. It had been a great class, and my final exam that semester was a single question: Spell the director of Warlock’s name. Another semester when Warlock was on the syllabus, I stumbled into one of those tricky analyses that can make teaching so much fun. I was holding forth on the character of Lily Dollar, pointing out the overwhelmingly obvious significance of the symbolism in her name: A flower betokening a frail beautiful woman, with biblical echoes; and a distinctly non-spiritual last name betokening her Babylonian stock-in-trade (also biblical). I remember invoking the Renaissance play ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, by John Ford, and realizing that my students were already well familiar with another John Ford altogether.

On a roll, I went on to remark that Dorothy Malone, who played Lily Dollar, had fashioned a career out of portraying loose women (I was thinking particularly of her Academy Award-winning performance as a dipso-nymphomaniac in Written on the Wind, 1956.). Suddenly three sorority girls sitting in the center of the front row burst into uncontrollable laughter. I hadn’t a clue why beyond the potential awkwardness of the “loose women” talk, until one of them pointed to her classmate and sorority sister and said, “Dorothy Malone is Diane’s mother.” Of course she was. I suddenly realized that the Diane Bergerac in my class was the daughter of Dorothy Malone and the French actor Jacques Bergerac (later head of the International Paris office of Revlon Cosmetics). I’ve always wondered if Diane told her mother about my mentioning her in class. She had an illustrious career in film and later in TV, starring in Peyton Place, and still lives in Dallas.

As the years passed, I grew more and more comfortable in the classroom. UT allowed me the freedom to develop the Life and Lit class as I saw fit, and to invent new classes as well. Coupled with this freedom was the luxury that tenure provided, the luxury to write the books I wanted to write, and these in turn, almost always, grew out of what I was teaching.

Had I remained at Penn, my career would certainly have had a different trajectory. Returning home to Texas meant continuously rediscovering Texas, in both my life and my scholarship and writing. UT made all of that possible.

In the mid-’80s I wrote on a typewriter in my office, supplied by the university, a clanky little machine that would give Parlin’s elevator a run for its money. I whipped through the ribbon cartridges at such a rate that every few weeks or so I’d have to go to the English department office to get a new supply. Eventually I ran afoul of a wonderful staff person, 30-year veteran office manager Dorothy Rattey. One day Ms. Rattey informed me that I was “writing too much,” and that I’d better cut back to save on cartridges. “We aren’t made of money,” she informed me. Boy, did I know that!

Rattey’s watchfulness regarding department office expenses made her an ideal company woman. When the chair’s office was being remodeled, she collected, at the end of the day, discarded nails, picture hangers, paper clips, and usable staples. No doubt the university’s operating costs escalated as a direct result of the wonderful Miss Rattey’s retirement in the early ’90s.

Knowing, though, that I’d never get around that kind of frugality, I sweet-talked a secretary in the dean’s office into ordering a brand new electric typewriter. While I was talking to her, then-Liberal Arts dean Robert “Bob” King overheard our conversation and barked, “You got anything against computers?” After I assured him I did not, he instructed the secretary to get me one. As soon as it arrived, I couldn’t believe the difference. I was typing so fast I could smoke up the place when I got going on a writing project. And thus I entered what now seems like another kind of Bronze Age, the Floppy Disc Era. So I still had to face Dorothy Rattey for supplies, but not nearly so often. Today, most faculty are eligible for replacement computers every three years. We have gotten much better at keeping up with the Joneses of other departments.

Still for me, despite the media consoles in every classroom, the microphones and audio systems and DVD players and clickers (whatever those may be), teaching is essentially, and for me always will be, the human interaction of language and text, the voices of professor professing and students engaged in responding, reading, analyzing, writing. That’s as old as Aristotle, and it’s quite good enough for me.

And lo, these decades later, in a new century, I still discover things about Parlin that I hadn’t noticed before. Four or five years ago as I was approaching the east entrance, a portal I’d been passing through for 40-some-odd years, I happened to look up above the entrance, toward the crest of the building, and there I beheld a wonderful bit of architectural decor, a finial book with its pages spread open in stony splendor. Imagine that: a book.

Illustration by Peter Oumanski.


Tags: , , ,