I was encouraged to sue Robin Blaser
March 26th, 2012
A brief memoir of the SFU English Department by Stephen Bett.
This document, written in January, 2012, from notes taken at the time discussed here, and from what remains accurately clear in memory, concerns my PhD work from October, 1976, to February, 1979.
The core events behind my “dismissal” from my doctoral work—as a result of a paper I wrote for Professor Rob Dunham—in February, 1979, are really quite straightforward and simple. A fair amount of context and detail—both preceding and post-February, ‘79—is obviously necessary, I believe, to elucidate some tightly related issues.
Before beginning to relate this now long distant memory, I should add that two or three months after feeling utterly numbed by the events of February ’79, I was extremely lucky to begin my college teaching career (at Columbia College), and have spent a simply wonderful career in the English Department at Langara College (initially a campus of Vancouver Community College) from September ’87 until my retirement in May, 2010.
I did what was, essentially, a “Comparative Literature” undergrad degree at the University of Toronto (BA, 1974). At Christmas, 1973, my wife and I visited Warren Tallman at his home in Vancouver in order to go over details about my graduate work to begin under his supervision in the summer or fall of 1974. (I had been corresponding with Tallman, and he had agreed to take me on as his Masters student at UBC.) When my wife and I arrived at his door, Tallman quite drunkenly and effusively greeted my wife as his soon-to-be student. That was quickly sorted out (Tallman’s heavy drinking becomes a minor issue later in this story).
On arrival in Vancouver from Toronto in May ’74 I had a meeting with UBC’s English Dept Graduate Chair (can’t recall his name—something WASPY and whitebread, Harris? Hart? He was an American mid-westerner, dressed in a suit, looking and acting rather more like a car salesman than the kind of English prof I had been used to). My transcript had not yet arrived from U of T. The Chair noted this and said he’d also noted from my CV that I’d been publishing poetry in literary journals—he told me, totally straight-faced, “I am rejecting your application; go home, young poet, and write a poem about rejection.” No hint of humour here. (I’ve since learned much about UBC’s local reputation, from my lifelong college colleagues, many of whom either did their PhDs there or did pre-college sessional teaching there. I also recall, as the solitary graduate student later elected to SFU’s English Dept’s “Graduate Committee,” from an exhaustive report on each university English Dept in Canada, written by the English Dept at the U of Manitoba, that UBC’s department ranked heavily bottom as the most moribund and pedantic in the country. Of the forty graduate students during my time in SFU’s English Dept, thirty were UBC transfers, each with a horror story about that pretty obviously infamous department.)
A couple of weeks later my U of T transcript arrived at UBC. BA, ranked in the top eight students from a graduating class of around 260 in my college at U of T. The top eight had “A” averages. UBC’s English Dept phoned me and asked where I was—why wasn’t I registered at UBC?
I did, in fact, take two undergrad English courses at UBC in the summer of 1974. I then transferred to SFU, and to Robin Blaser’s supervision, where I was required to take one semester of further undergrad English courses before entering the Masters program—updating my courses in lieu of my lack of the required number of English courses at U of T, given that I’d done a “Comparative Lit” BA, rather than an “English” one.
SFU’S ENGLISH DEPARTMENT:
In January ’75 I began my Masters, with Blaser happy to be my supervisor. I did the expected number of departmental grad courses, and greatly enjoyed friendships with students and professors in the department, although it was an extremely cliquey department, as was clear to all—three contingents of professors: Canadians, Americans, and Brits, in approximately equal thirds. A total of 40 – 45 professors. Half thought Blaser a prodigious mind, and about half thought him a charlatan, quite undeserving of his job in the department (Full Professor)—more about that later.
At least two of my grad courses (possibly more?) were semester-long “independent study” courses with Blaser—one extended paper on Philip Whalen, another on Philip Lamantia, which later grew into my Masters thesis. I also took a small class with Blaser on Emily Dickinson, and other classes with other profs, in each of which I was told I received the top class mark. The Dickinson course was a mentally exhausting, but exhilarating, three or four hour weekly seminar at Blaser’s home, all concerned with “consciousness” in ED’s poetry. I was frequently praised, by Blaser, in front of the class, as the brightest grad student currently in the department. That was nice. I was far too shy to say so myself! (I should note I had spent four years out of school after my two years at UVic, each of which I “failed,” having rarely attended any classes! I was amazed that I got a couple of “B’s” each of those two years considering I only wrote the occasional paper and spent my time chasing girls, having come out of a very British boys’-only boarding school; I got into U of T as a “mature student” at age 23, so I was already 26 when I started grad school, and had already been living with my wife for three years as students together at U of T. (While I was at SFU she was doing her MSc, and then PhD, in Zoology, at UBC .) I quickly became aware that Blaser loved his public “head games” with students. (My wife, ever perceptive, thought him an unredeemable Narcissist. Coffees in his kitchen, where she “passed” his espresso test, by declining sugar.)
In those three or so courses with Blaser I never did receive back a single marked term paper that I’d submitted to him. Never. (Same with my thesis!) Whenever I asked for the return of a paper in his office, he would say it was at his home; when at his home he would tell me it was in his office. Once, in his office, he pointed ruefully to his filing cabinet—my paper (my several papers?) was locked up there, and his key misplaced! My only ‘connection’ with a mark were the “A’s” that appeared each semester on my transcript. No written comments (nor even verbal ones, really) ever came my way. I suspected the papers were read—hopefully—and simply graded with a letter-mark. But who knew, really?
Blaser and I often chatted in his kitchen. He loved to try to freak me out about his, evidently rapacious, sex life: his drawling “Oh gaaawd, Stephen, my teeth are green this morning from the cum in my mouth last night!” Not that easily freaked, I was older than most students, as well as being one of those Theodore Rosak “counter-culture” enlightened know-it-alls! I was also very married, of course, as disinterested in his teeth as in his sex life, and decidedly non-homophobic. But, related to this, he did like to tell me I could never be a “real” poet without “becoming gay.” Which I thought utterly idiotic, and easily ignored. (Creeley? Dorn? Hollo?) I knew better than that. Besides, my senior committee member, poet/professor George Bowering was always guffawing with everyone about how macho he was himself, stomping down department corridors wearing his proverbial baseball hat. So, not particularly freaked, or else “too jung to be freuded,” as Joyce once said.
The one and only time my Masters’ “supervisor” and I discussed my thesis—one single page!—was to have him tell me the poem I was discussing on that page was written the morning after “Philip [Lamantia] and I got out of bed together.” (“Oh, gaawd, Stephen,” etc.) Much extended lower jawing (Blaser’s notable under bite; my wife had nick-named him Dudley Dooright) and “oh gaaawding.” That half hour at his kitchen table was the sum total commentary I received on my thesis from my supposed “supervisor.”
After my thesis defence, a very “easy” defence, the full committee told me, I was abandoned as they all went out for lunch. Blaser, Bowering, Ralph Maud, external advisor, Peter Quartermain. (Maud spent his allotted 40 minutes in the two or three hour defence on one lengthy footnote, but he did very kindly go out of his way later to seek me out and tell me how well written he thought my thesis was; Quartermain was a lovely guy, as always I later discovered, and congratulated me too.). Ian Mugridge (my former school teacher, and at that time Chair of History at SFU) was shocked at this lack of courtesy and took me out himself for a post-defence celebratory lunch at the Faculty Club a week or so later, after I’d answered his question, “Blaser took you out for lunch after your defence, didn’t he?”
Blaser indeed had a reputation in the department for burning out his (relatively, and notably, few) grad students, and also for turning against them. One friend of mine, A.S., refused to allow Blaser to unceremoniously dump him midstream and forced the department—how, I don’t know—to go ahead with his Masters’ defence. His defence was a horrible experience, Blaser was sullen (sulky?) beyond belief, and the committee as a whole only too painfully embarrassed by the A.S.-Blaser imbroglio. There were no other “Blaserites” on A.S.’s grad committee, which I’d guess is how the thesis went through, and why the department just ‘got the thing done’.
Most students of Blaser’s I knew of either dropped out altogether, were dumped by him, or changed supervisors. During my time at SFU, I was his only grad student to get through with an MA under his supervision (apart from the one mentioned above, who was doing his MA while I was onto my doctorate; in fact, as I recollect now, only half a dozen of the 40 Masters’ students ever completed an MA—“Department of Anguish,” as a later colleague of mine put it!). The students who did sit at Blaser’s feet were mostly those who’d come and gone before I arrived, and were referred to by Blaser’s many departmental foes as his “Red Guard”—I assumed for their slavish, Maoist devotion to the Blaze. (The Cultural Revolution was, after all, only ten years prior.)
My wife and I finished our Masters at the same time. Where to do PhD’s? My interests were strictly small-niche postmodern American poetics, primarily Black Mtn poets. Hers, likewise, narrow niche Ethology (Animal Behaviour), a Zoology field only a couple of generations old. For her: Rutgers, Oxford, or UBC. That was it. For me: London (Eric Mottram), La Jolla, SFU (Blaser; Bowering’s academic level, by the way, wasn’t permitted doctoral students), or UBC (Tallman). So Vancouver was the only choice for us.
SFU ENG DEPT’S BRAND NEW DOCTORAL PROGRAM:
I talked to Blaser about doing my PhD under his supervision. He was unreservedly encouraging (I planned my thesis would be on Creeley, or Dorn, even Spicer, or perhaps O’Hara, or maybe two or three of these poets). He cautioned I would be one of six “guinea pigs” in the brand new (January, ’77) SFU English Dept doctoral program and that the department would be “status seeking” for quick credibility, so things could be bureaucratically tricky.
Tallman, still at UBC, was by now a sort of shrinking elfin drunk, so utterly useless as a potential supervisor (sadly, because he was a nicer, more open, kindlier sort of man, more a promoter / patron to living poets than a hard-edged academic). I should, in retrospect, have talked to Peter Quartermain (UBC), a man I got to know, a bit, later on—an incredibly decent, kind, generous man in this little demi-world of colossal egos—but Tallman & Quartermain were constantly on the outs with their 100 member fussy, fusty, pedantic, rule-bound department because these two had the affront to teach “living” authors! I’d, by the way, been to many (and many more to come) parties at Tallman’s house over these years. Always the same interesting charade: least “significant” guests arrived (6:30-ish) before the more significant, fashionably later. Undergrads clustered in nervous excitement around the food and drinks tables, then Masters students, then doctoral students (namely, only me), then the low-lying, low-flying faculty (both UBC and SFU), then tenured profs. George and Angela Bowering arrived, penultimately, at about 10:00, and argued loudly with each other, as if on cue (Albee-esque; one of his colleagues told me Atwood’s Surfacing features this pair doing their public arguing thing; I knew, and liked, Angela quite well); and finally, at 11:00 p.m., Blaser would make his entrance, doff his cape (literally, a cape!) and semi-recline on the central divan (literally, as well!) while people actually formed a wiggly, self-conscious queue in order to have, each, his or her, very few “moments” with “the great man.” I never joined these lines; I already had the one answer to my question: my essays were eternally locked up in his cabinet, sans key.
SFU ENGLISH DEPT’S BRAND NEW DOCTORAL PROGRAM
Brand spanking new, and spanking’s the word, it later turned out! I enrolled in the program along with five other “guinea pigs” (the most mainstream and conventional two of whom actually finished). I didn’t lose a week of TA’ing. Lucky timing for me.
The Dept had argued (heavily, I gather) about whether to adopt an American approach (small class course work followed by thesis) or British (send ‘em away to write a book-length dissertation and bring ‘em back to defend it a few years later). The “program” at SFU thus ended up with a typical committee (still-)birth: a hodgepodge, and then some, combining both these sizeable systems—mid-Atlantic, cold, deep, rather formless (subject to all sorts of interpretation and usage, as we shall see) and fathomless to all in the department, it seemed. A “candidate” would study, solitarily, three “minor areas,” each under direction from a (“minor”) supervising prof, for one semester per “area,” at the end of which a complicated (and varying) system of either long paper, or exam, and/or “oral” defence (and a requirement that all these forms of adjudication be used for a student at one time or another). Then the doctoral thesis, or dissertation.
As I still felt “morally” obliged (with no external pressure at all, and to no-one but myself ) to fill in, diligently, my remaining “literary period” gaps (again, despite all the make-up courses, my work till now had been largely 20th century focussed and comparative lit focussed). I decided two of my “minor” areas (the student could choose) would therefore be on John Donne, followed by work on the Romantics; my third “area” would be closer to my abidingly consistent interest, Pound, the great “influence” on postmodernism.
My Donne supervisor was Fred Candelaria. He was in a dead-heat with Blaser as the all-time laziest teacher I’ve ever encountered in my academic life, stretching from school, university, and thirty years as an English instructor myself. (I should provide further context here by saying that my thirty years teaching in the college system—no fewer than 48 faculty in Langara’s English Dept, and most with doctorates—and also serving as Faculty Union Sec’t, where I worked pretty closely with 450 faculty, and saw a great deal behind the scenes, the vast majority of faculty struck me always as truly gifted teachers with tremendous work habits and dedication to their students; we baby-boomer post-secondary teachers had a much more “vocational” mindset than our own “publish or perish” teachers had had. And of course students, in our time, had, very reasonably, a lot more in the way of enshrined “rights.”)
Candelaria managed to wangle enormous “release time” as Editor-in-Chief of the (very good) West Coast Review, but the magazine’s actual work seemed to be done by junior faculty acting as “Fiction,” “Poetry,” and “Reviews” Editors. Not only was he operating at that level of laxity at his job, when I was doing my doctoral work I’d frequently get a very early morning phone call at home, from Fred, asking me to take over his day’s classes, as a favour to him. And when teaching, himself, he was renowned for coming to class ten minutes late and ending his lectures ten minutes early. He also, frequently (in his 17th century undergrad lit class), took a ten minute break of silence, having his students listen to recordings of music from the time-period. Assignments consisted of his asking students to write poems mimicking the style of the 17th century poets studied, an exercise that required him to do no marking either, just slapping on a grade. So a 55 minute class became a 25 minute teaching exercise for Candelaria. As I recall, he spent two active semesters a year, teaching six hours a week in one and nine in the other, with the third semester off. The Magazine provided him with his publications requirement, too, as far as I could tell. He published nothing else except his own books of poetry. Full Prof. His lecturing (I took one undergrad Milton course as part of my make-up semester, and later TA’d his other courses as a grad student) consisted of putting on the blackboard simplistic, generalised phrases in chalked boxes with arrows pointing box to box, showing “relationships” between ideas, poets, poetics, etc. Simplistic, conventional, dull.
Every single time I tried to engage Candelaria, during his “office hours” (note), in discussion of my own doctoral work on Donne, which he was, after all, “supervising,” he deflected conversation to my tutoring duties, to my covering for his teaching, and to fishing expedition queries about what I thought undergrads thought of his (surely, wonderful) teaching. The Donne “reading” list that Candelaria provided me was large: all of Donne’s work (poetry and prose), plus numerous secondary critical texts on Donne, and scores of academic articles. Enough reading to take me (as it did) more than two full semesters to plough through, not one semester, as envisioned by the Dept in setting up this brand new program. (All six of us guinea pig doctoral students quickly realised each “minor” area was taking two, three, and even four times longer to finish than the single semester the program dictated. That’s before even starting on our dissertation work.)
I worked hard, usually seven days a week. I was a serious student seriously interested (no, enthralled, in all honesty) in what I was doing. The PhD was shaping up to be a ten year degree for each of us, given the sloppy way the program had been ‘thought out’. My wife and I of course continued to TA to fund ourselves, which took up part of the week. We took small breaks in the evenings. Saw John and Jocelyn Mills one evening a week—John was the only inspiring teacher I’d had in twelve years of school and eight years of university. A couple of evenings a week, for ten years, at Roy and Slavia Miki’s. They had no money for sitters, so we spent evenings at their house—that is until we had our own kids, when we were summarily dropped by the Miki’s. (That did hurt. But although I knew Roy in those ten years far better than anyone did, except his wife, I knew him hardly at all—the most secretive, contained person I’ve ever met.)
Candelaria knew my interest in Donne lay in this magnificent poet’s opening up, radicalising, systems of metrics, enjambment, etc., etc.—in short, my over-riding interest in an historically opening form of “poetics.” Once finished all the reading (I was decidedly not a lazy, unengaged student)—I read everything, made copious notes, and thoroughly enjoyed high-level academic research; I was even publishing a modest few of my own academic articles unrelated to my school work—once finished the reading, I was to write an eight hour exam in a locked departmental office, and knock on the door, or phone the department office, when I needed a bathroom break. Candelaria knew very well, all along, that I wanted to write an exam paper tracing Donne’s liberalising poetics, and he agreed to take this into account when designing the exam. On the morning, I was given a sealed envelope containing two typed questions (I was to choose one)—neither of which would allow my interest in poetics to be unleashed. One asked which poems I’d put into a hypothetically new “selected” Donne, and the other asked me to write about the poems—I can’t recall the question’s specific wording, but it had nothing to do with poetics, simply with the poems themselves. I turned the second question on its side and wrote a 21 page exam paper on Donne’s poetics, explicating the major poems that showed the poet’s developing poetics.
I was told in due course that my paper was excellent, etc. Glowing response. But why had I omitted discussion of secondary sources, of Donne criticism? Nothing in the exam question even hinted at this, and in my six months working on Donne, Candelaria had made no reference to anything but the poems themselves being on the exam, although he well knew I’d read all the Donne scholarship I’d been asked to read, and more. Could I please—forthwith—do an “oral exam” with Candelaria and the other 17th century prof in the department, Alan Rudrum? (This is a very crucial piece of now clearly inferred departmental guidelines for my work on the next “minor” area, and, directly, on Blaser’s eventual “dismissal” of my candidature in the program; I should also add that by now it was clear virtually all members of the department were entirely uninformed about this new doctoral program’s requirements; in fact, it was faculty who were asking us six guinea pigs what on earth was going on, what were the requirements—re: supposedly single semester “minor areas,” the basis on which grades were assigned, and so on. Papers? Exams? Written? Oral? No-one seemed to know. Certainly none of the doctoral candidates’ “minor area” supervisors were communicating with each other, nor they with the dissertation supervisors. Talk about a program seemingly making things up on the fly!)
I spent two hours in Candelaria’s office with these two 17th century scholars grilling me about Donne scholarship. I was on top of every question, had read every critical book and article I was examined on, and I had well informed answers to all questions. I barely had to “think,” I knew the period scholarship so well. The oral exam was, to me, “a snap.” At the end of the two hours the second examiner, Rudrum, closed up all his papers, and said to Candelaria, “I’m certainly very well satisfied this candidate thoroughly knows his stuff.” So, onto the second “minor area.” Having learned that written, or oral, attention to secondary critical sources was an absolutely essential requirement in the department’s brand new doctoral program!
I met with my next “minor area” supervisor, Rob Dunham, the department’s chief “Romantics” man (and very close, younger friend and cohort of Blaser’s—the two popular and “cool” gay members of the Dept). Dunham asked me to read everything written (poetry and prose) by all six of the major Romantics: Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, and Keats. He drew up, with me at his desk, a voluminous reading list of secondary sources—dozen upon dozen literary critical books, and a lengthy list of critical articles. This time I was to conclude my “minor area” by producing a major paper, before moving on to my third “minor” area, which would precede my research area and doctoral dissertation. I passed by Blaser’s office on my way to the library—excited at the prodigious reading list I looked forward to devouring in the months to come, although somewhat rather more, to say the least, than the single “semester” envisioned by the program! Blaser looked at this massive reading list and promptly added to it (in his own excitement at the pleasures in store for me) by another 50%. (Reading this list 24 hours a day would undeniably take anyone many, many months. But, to be fair, I was enthralled at the prospect—such delicious reading!) Needless to say, working at full tilt (and TA’ing, of course, my only source of income) it took me a full 18 months to complete the reading, not the one semester of 14 weeks the department had laid out in its program! Pound would be my third “minor area,” and then I could finally begin the several years of researching and writing my doctoral dissertation on Creeley, Dorn, and O’Hara (I had by now decided)—“oh gaaawd, Stephen, you really do love the ‘cool’ poets” (that is to say, not the “mystical,” tarot card flipping ones—Duncan, Spicer, Blaser).
Those 18 months were the most exciting of my academic life so far! I absolutely loved reading the poets, and reading about them and their work. The secondary sources I found to be exceedingly stimulating, intellectually—Owen Barfield, et al. I even added to my reading by ploughing through several (not one or two, as required) biographies on each of the six poets. Absolutely fascinating, especially with regard to Shelley and the suspicion of Whitehall agents! I read book after book after book—scholarship of every conceivable stripe (for the time period)—Marxist, Freudian, Frye’s mythopoeic, the whole works! (Frye, whose lectures I had sat in on for fun, non-enrolled, as an undergrad at U of T.)
I attempted many, many times to discuss my reading, my reading and thinking, with Dunham—attempted every month or so. Not once would he discuss my work. He provided no “supervision” whatsoever, not even as a listener. Just like Blaser himself. He did, however, love to meet and talk. Talk about himself, about poetry he was reading, about departmental gossip (especially! such a cliquey department with so many rivalries and petty feuds), about my summer-long girl-friend, Susan Musgrave, when she and I were in our mid-teens. He wanted to know about her sexuality. I kept that a very short conversation.
Dunham’s pet student, a gay undergrad honours student, had first right to every SFU library book I was chasing down on the Romantics—or so it certainly seemed, and it was quite uncanny that every time I went in search of a book he had already taken it out. I had to re-jig my reading list to accommodate this, to me, totally unknown and never seen young male student. I even asked Dunham if he could please intercede and ask his undergrad student to at least co-ordinate, and share, books with me in turn. He (Dunham) tossed this request off completely, without even a wave of his hand.
At the end of 18 months of collecting notes and planning and writing my paper, which featured two of the six poets, Blake and Coleridge, again, poets opening up the poetics of their day—remembering the special importance of secondary sources this time!—I handed in my lengthy essay. This was around Christmas, 1978, by now over two years into the program, and with another two, three, four (?) semesters to go before even starting in on my dissertation area.
In February, ‘79, I received a sealed letter “response” from Dunham. He simply railed, for several typed pages, about the fact that I spent a good deal of time in my paper (along with plenty of my own explication) engaging the Blake and Coleridge criticism (of which I had indeed been asked to read voluminously). I agreed with, argued with, and took much further and deeper (I believed) the existing major scholarship of professional Romantics’ experts. Dunham’s purely hostile and vindictive “letter” sneered that all he could see was “Bett’s nose peering over the pages of the critics”—he’d clearly wanted (by osmosis?) explication of the poems and nothing else, no reference to any existing scholarship whatsoever. The exact opposite of what I’d “learned” about the department’s brand new doctoral program (“trial run” describes it better) as a consequence of my exam on Donne and on being required to do a “make-up” oral exam on the Donne criticism! Clearly, the department members acting as doctoral supervisors (very few of them, as the vast majority of the department wanted nothing to do with this trial-run “program”) were not on the same page at all. In retrospect, this was not in the slightest bit surprising, as the three main departmental cliques were involved in wars of silence and jealousy; they didn’t speak to those outside their group.
In short, Dunham “failed” my paper (and my 18 months of damned fine work), and recommended, to Blaser, my immediate dismissal from the program. What a shock! And entirely out of the blue. Dismissal, without hearing (no “grievance procedures” existed for students in this still “feudal” period in academia), without the slightest prior hint of anything untoward—right out of the blue, ending the academic history, in fact, of a departmentally favoured student, always highly praised, sought out by many profs as their first chosen, most desired TA: Bowering referred to me as his “Lieutenant” of TAs; several other profs asked first for me; my marks were solid “A’s” as a grad student in their department; I’d been elected by fellow grad students as their sole representitive on the department’s “Grad Committee.” Never a hint of discord with any faculty. There had never been the slightest stain on my record at SFU (or at U of T as an undergrad). Praised publicly by Blaser. Etc. Tried and hung by a jury of one “minor” supervisor (Dunham); and my senior supervisor, Blaser,who had always praised me publicly, cravenly did a complete 180 degree turn against me rather than even question his young friend Dunham on his methods and his marking. (I never saw that paper back either.) Anyway, my paper on Blake and Coleridge can readily be judged on its own merits, I believe.
I was literally mind-numb with shock (for three months). I went to Blaser, who ruefully told me “Rob’s a dear friend; I can’t interfere against him.” I went to the Dept Chair (Mike Steig), who said he had no authority to do anything; my “minor area” supervisor was the one and only arbiter on my doctoral candidacy in the department! The decision was arbitrary, and it went in complete ignorance of what my work on Donne had told me this brand new program wanted: a discussion of scholarship along with original ideas. My Donne work did that and was praised. My Romantics work did that too and was damned. Even my supposed feudal lord, Blaser, my actual supervisor, abandoned me for fear of contradicting his “dear friend.” I’d been well and truly, and in the fullest meaning of the word, “jobbed”!
My wife wanted me to sue. By these years the relationship between grad student and supervisor was well known to be an outdated feudal one, as I say. And there were no student “grievance” protocols, as have existed throughout my teaching career a generation later. Not very much later, though, the news media were frequently reporting incidents of grad students suing their supervisors for failure to “supervise.” I shortly learned (again from the public media) that completion rates in all doctoral disciplines had been quantified, and statistics published concerning North American universities: doctoral candidates in Biology had a dismal 21% completion rate; doctoral students in English had the lowest completion rate of all academic disciplines, a stunningly appalling 9%. That figure spoke volumes to me.
I considered suing, and decided not to, very largely because my closest friend, Roy Miki, absolutely pleaded with me not to. He was on tenure-track in the department and one of Blaser and Dunham’s “Red Guard”; therefore, on the principle that my enemy’s friend is my enemy too, in this cliquey department, Roy knew full well, and expressly told me, that the votes for his tenure were extremely tight, that there were enough members of the Dept only too willing to find a way to deny him (a true Blaserite) tenure; even more so, he was terrified that if he stood up for me, his closest friend, he’d lose both Blaser’s and Dunham’s crucial votes and thereby his tenure. Such an outrageous little pack. And pact! By standing up for me his career in the Dept would, he undoubtedly rightly felt, be seriously threatened. He didn’t, and it wasn’t. Nonetheless, my loyalty to my friendship with Roy continued for another several years, while he was at SFU and I was teaching college. (Two other strong reasons why I decided to “go away quietly” were the hopelessness of fighting this feudal system that allowed for no grievance procedures for students, and the fact that I was now 31 and couldn’t stomach the thought of starting a doctorate all over somewhere else. My PhD’ing wife and I were also into our second decade of student “Kraft Dinners” and pretty wretched, absentee landlord basement apartments.)
I finished the spring ’79 semester co-teaching an introductory poetry course with Roy. A twice a week evening course—he lectured and led discussion one evening, and I the other. I was stunned dumb with numbness for these three spring months after receiving Dunham’s letter, a letter that would nowadays, in the post-secondary teaching profession I know so well, undoubtedly be characterised as grossly “abusive”; certainly it was terribly misguided (given I was being reprimanded to the fullest possible extent—turfed!—after being “reprimanded” following my “excellent” exam paper on Donne for not—not!—discussing secondary source scholarship and making up for that in an “oral exam” on those sources). Blaser was speechless in answer to this obvious contradiction in the “program’s” expectations, and, as usual with Blaser, he went to his automatic default mode he stooped to whenever he wasn’t being praised: sheer petulance. In fact he refused even to listen to my sense of the impossible discrepancy between the (unstated and unclear) guidelines on my Donne work and my Romantics work regarding secondary sources and whether or not to include discussion of them in term paper or final exam. The total lack of “supervision” received from any of the three “supervisors” so far (Candelaria, Dunham, Blaser) was not even worth the bother of pointing to in the ‘70s. Such teaching (indeed, sheer lack of) would not get someone anywhere near “tenure” in my—the following—generation of teachers. I saw a sizeable handful of poor quality teachers shipped out before completing tenure in the department(s) where I served for 30 years.
POST-DOC, NOT “POST-DOC”
I spent the summer of 1979 doing construction work for my sister’s husband’s construction company. And was offered a job at Columbia College for the fall, against all prevailing odds ; I worked there for eight years, and kept my eye on the public academic 18 college system in B.C. all that time. (Shortly after starting this job, the new Dept Chair at SFU, Jerry Zaslov, one of the nicest and most widely respected people in the department, very kindly called me up to offer me a job teaching post-secondary English in the prison system; a number of my college colleagues had done that kind of work, and were grateful for it.) There was virtually no hiring across North America, college or university, from the mid-‘70s to mid-‘80s due to a strong demographic dip in student numbers, and also due to “runaway” economic inflation; retirees were simply not replaced. In 1987, I was offered work in the English Dept at Langara College (at the time, the academic campus of Vancouver Community College). Three of us were hired from a long-list of over 250 applicants. I was soon on the department’s hiring committee myself, for several years, as the economy turned and retirees were replaced. The same numbers of English Dept job applications continued throughout the ‘90s: two to three hundred applications to the Dept for every single job posted.
I absolutely loved my 22 years at Langara College. My colleagues, my students, the buzz around the place. (9,000 students, only one or two thousand fewer than either SFU or UVic.) I forever referred to the college as my “second home.” I was active on committees, and elected several times as Secretary of the Faculty Union, which also got me to interesting faculty union meetings around the province, and with the provincial government.
Thanks to my upbringing in a very stable, loving family, bitterness was, fortunately, never an issue for me. I also quickly realised with my first college job that I had, unintentionally, ended up far ahead of where I would have been had I spent another half dozen or more years completing my PhD. I’d simply have been competing for ever-competitive jobs in the provincial college system. (As it turned out, my wife finished her PhD a few years later and ended up, like most of our “boomer” generation, tenured at another, virtually identical college.) So, as it is, I got a bit of a jump-start. Hired for my first job at age 31, and then tenured at Langara by the mid-‘90s. (Not long after I was tenured, it became virtually impossible for anyone in any college faculty to get a job without a PhD, so I felt blessed.) After my first month at Langara I remember telling friends I felt as though I’d died and gone to heaven! I felt that way for the next 22 years, until I retired. So, bitterness has never been an issue. The only issue, personally, was that initial three-month period of feeling mind numb, and professionally, that there had been injustice!
Why write this now? Thirty-three years later? Blaser’s been dead for a few years; Dunham died of AIDS shortly after the events I’ve described above; Miki’s an Emeritus after years in the SFU English Dept; Quartermain’s long retired and continues an admirable publishing life; Bowering’s finished his term as Canada’s Poet Laureate and continues to publish (his books of trenchant essays on postmodern writers and issues are the best I know!). These people’s deaths, or lives, are certainly irrelevant in equal measure to my writing this ‘memoir’ now. I’ve told this story to a few friends; Sharon Thesen, a poet I consider one of the top three in the country, and a “Blaserite” herself, heard about it and was shocked. But it’s my new wife (the Zoologist and I divorced after 32 years, in 2003) who’s now encouraged me to write this history. My fabulous, soul-mate, English teacher wife wants it published at some point. I think I agree; it ought to be brought into the light. Feudal days in academia are (more or less?) dead, and best not forgotten.
IMPRESSIONS OF ROBIN BLASER, THE PERSON
A few words about this undoubtedly lofty mind, and terribly self-obsessed man. I should, first off, note that Blaser wrote me a lovely (and very flattering) reference letter for my college applications, as did George Bowering (generous indeed), and my wonderful friend John Mills (who raised some suspicions in my job applications—I later learned—as he was almost over-the-top in his effusive praise of my teaching ability)— one of the dearest, kindest, most truly interesting men I’ve known.
As I’ve said above, the SFU English Dept (numbering about 40 to 45 faculty when I was there) divided roughly into halves—those who thought Blaser brilliant and those who thought him a jargon-riddled, bafflegab charlatan (“charlatan” was the term commonly used by that half of the department). I still consider him to be by far the most brilliant mind I’ve ever encountered. His students, as I mentioned in passing above, were known in the department as his “Red Guard”—presumably due to their blind, Maoist-like obeisance to his every opinion. I believe I was considered by faculty, generally, as an exception to this, no doubt due to my age and my quiet (strictly “off-campus” after hours) married life. Blaser’s opinionated mindset was, for sure, a deeply rooted characteristic. He frequently fumed about “science” and “scientists,” as I’ve said, considering that field to lack any imagination, almost to the point of being evil. (My wife was doing her PhD in David Suzuki’s department, and I saw how large his, and others’, “imaginations” were; not to mention the astonishing imagination of my own cousin, Martin Rees, one of the world’s current leading scientists—read his books; google or Wiki him. Science lacking “imagination” and theoretical intellect? My gaaawd, indeed.) And Blaser likewise scorned and sneered at any poets he didn’t deem worthy of the “numinous” (my own short-hand term, here). At the end of my SFU sojourn he even attempted to slight me (or so I took it—his parting shot, in return for my audacity in asking him to stand up for me, his first and only doctoral student) by telling me my literary critical interest was “sociological”—whereas it ought to be “de-constructionist.” (Oh dear! Oh gaaawd; and more oh gaaawding.)
I was very much part of that first generation of literary students to embrace the organic openness of “postmodernism” (as opposed to the more closed, more absolutist, system of thought practised by the Modernists—quick generalisations, of course.) In fact even the term “postmodern” was brand-new, and much maligned by mainstream criticism (and by SFU’s English Dept at large!), and I hungrily sought out its “information” in the ‘70s, long, long indeed before it became an accepted term and broadened out beyond literary matters. (Olson’s 1950 essay “Projective Verse” still strikes me as “the” watershed moment, so profound and enduring a statement of poetics.) Blaser, Bowering and Maud were the postmodernists in the department. To do work on Black Mtn poetry was the reason I was in grad school in Vancouver (Blaser at SFU; Tallman at UBC). I was absorbed in an avant niche right from my late teens/early 20s, absorbed in the legacy of the Beats, the San Francisco Renaissance, and the New York School, both first and second generations (a.k.a. St Mark’s Poetry Project in the Bowery; I still have a delightfully snooty magazine rejection letter from Robert Bly, denouncing my poetry as “St Mark’s school game-playing”).
Blaser—brilliant mind, for sure, but a pretty thoroughly appalling, intolerant, narrow, petulant human being. Ironically, given the hip use of the term, a man without much “heart” at all. (But then lots of postmodernists claim “heart,” while lacking one themselves, much as armchair leftists claim love for humanity and treat the flesh and blood individuals in front of their noses dismissively.) Pedantic, petty, nastily gossip-obsessed. Utterly in love with himself, and gracious to those (young students, young faculty) who worshipped him, of course. But a smug, myopic Blaser knew better, knew it all. Scientists, and much else of academia, were mere technologists. The man’s ego was marvellously (to use one of his buzz words, lifted, as it was, from the Surrealists decades earlier) boundless. And speaking of buzz words and jargon (“The real,” etc.), he was simply baffling much of the time. Speaking (and writing) in code, in cipher. But no need to hear that here; read his essays. Emperor with no clothes. Olson, whose essays could certainly be tricky reading, was by and large clear and concise, hard-edged and to the point, sharing his novel, excited discourse with his fellow “citizens”—completely unlike Blaser’s highly pretentious vagueness and nu-age-iness. And speaking of cloth-less emperors, read second generation NY School (St Mark’s) poet Tom Clark’s immensely brave essay on “language-centered” poetry.
I only once, in five years, saw Blaser lecture. He rarely did. As with his writing, his speaking style was unnecessarily barely comprehensible, except to the initiates, in whose number I counted myself. (People say the social scientists, 19th century johnny-come-latelies to scientific “method,” made up for the hard sciences’ thousands’ of years head-start by bombasticizing their discourse with jargon-filled, multi-noun-clustered bafflegab. Ditto Blaser.) His lecture consisted of “folding together” quotes (and leaving these quotes simply to hang, unattended, unattached, in the air) from his usual in-crowd sources: Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, et al. Showing off. Just as he did likewise in the casual setting of his kitchen. Showing off, looking for a reaction. And yet, from him, to be fair, perhaps more than from anyone else in my life, I did learn, by always listening carefully, a lifelong appreciation for a life of “ideas”—“the” life of ideas, I should say. A gift I treasure, and the reason why I’ve always admired—without the bitterness I’ve seen from many jaded colleagues—the ideals of the “Academy.” Despite all. The unexamined life is, indeed, not worth living. That creed has served as gift.
So, no, seriously, I’ve never been bitter about grad school. Where else but in academia (as opposed to the so-called “self-taught” with their undermining biases) are ideas examined rigorously, from all sides, debated, tested, refined? Blaser did provide an example of a questor for knowledge. How else can we hope to discover bits and pieces of truth. Undisciplined, “untrained” minds, in my experience, seek only affirmations of their own prejudices. Thank gaaawd I learned to respect something better. I hold no contempt for Robin Blaser. He is what he is. Now another voice is being added to his largely adulatory legacy. The Academy, thank gaaawd, just can’t treat students that way any more. As Olson said, onwards! That’s the postmodern spirit, right there, in a single word.
My two fabulous kids are currently in grad schools, one in a professional school, the other doing a PhD. Simultaneously expanding and disciplining their minds. All my wishes always go first to them. And they have hard-earned, 21st century “rights” on their side, now enshrined in this larger world.
Essay Date: 2012