When students first met each other, they were naturally nervous about my requirement that they would be reading their papers aloud to the class several times a semester. After a while, they were over their trepidation, but at first they couldn’t imagine doing this. So I came up with what became known at the college as the “famous 30 minute assignment.”
The task required that students spend half an hour doing something they had never done before. The writing was to be two paragraphs. The first would be a description of what they chose to do and how they went about it. The second paragraph was a reflection on the activity, including, if appropriate, contrasting how they thought it would be with the actual activity. There was no way to fail this assignment, nor could anyone be an expert in it. It would also give students a chance to reveal a side of themselves they wanted to share with the others, whether silly, brave, or serious.
Students tried everything–legal and not pornographic(I had those restrictions since they were art students after all!) One rode the school elevator for their time. An atheist read the Bible. One went to the grocery store in pajamas. One of my favorite antics had the student hide her family’s remote control and document the chaos that followed. One went sky diving; another bowled; and one went into the Scientology Center(and left after 30 minutes.)
It was always a successful experience for these students. It was silly enough to get over their stage fright about reading them aloud. It was a chance to try something new for those who needed an excuse. And they were having a chance to see each other outside of the very competitive studios.
After I had been teaching college English classes for a few years, I enrolled at Portland State University in an Master’s of Art in English degree. I thought it would be helpful to have a stronger credential and not always rely on someone recognizing the strength of my undergraduate degree. A drill sergeant named Marge supervised the program, and as part of my coursework, she observed a section of English Composition I had been assigned as a graduate assistant.
Marge and I could not have been further apart in our view of the role of the professor in the classroom. She was a retired army veteran and favored an authoritarian approach to teaching. I was a true child of the 60’s and valued collaboration, though I acknowledged my particular role as discussion leader. I also had a much deeper background than my students and I held the authority of experience in the field that they were yet to gain.
After Marge had sat in on one of my classes, she called me in for a review. Her first sentence was “Do you always teach your students in a circle?” I replied that I did. She then asked, “Why do you do that?” I told her I appreciated conveying that we all had something to contribute. ” She sat silent for a while, as I waited for further grilling. But instead she said,”Well, I don’t know why, but it’s working. Your students are unusually engaged with the material.”
Marge and I reached an uneasy truce.
And I continued to sit in a circle with my students for the rest of my teaching career.
I was 29 and started teaching in a very different environment than the community college. Here all my students were intentionally going to college for four years to study art. Because most of their parents had asked them “how do you expect to make a living as an artist?” few were being financially backed by their parents. This meant that when I started the average student was 24, had been working, and finally just had to follow their dreams. Tuition was very low in those days(as was the pay), so most students were able to fund their way through while continuing to work.
All but three of us faculty members were practicing artists with studios of their own outside the college. I think most of them were teaching to make a living so that they could be artists. The college prided itself, rightfully, that the faculty were active in the Portland art community, had regular gallery shows, and were rigorous in their critiques of student work. It was an intense environment, but the focus was on art making, not reading and writing literature.
My students were all in their first year, getting used to the idea that they were no longer the best artist in their class. Their curriculum was prescribed, very technical, and often designed to correct “bad habits” students had developed in high school art classes. I intuitively realized, without any real experience to back me up, that the last thing they needed was a traditional English class. They needed a chance to talk with each other, share ideas of things besides art, and write about their genuine responses to what they were reading. And so I designed a first year curriculum to allow those things. After all, I was only filling in for a year. Even if it was a disaster, I would be gone after that time.
And then my friend decided she liked staying home. And then my marriage fell apart. And then I needed a job. And so I returned for my second year of teaching.
One obvious conclusion from writing my last long series of posts is that I had a career maze more than a career path. Jobs seemed to come along when I needed them, and for a long time they didn’t seem to have much in common with one another. In fact, at one point, I cleaned apartments when tenants moved out of my apartment house. So it may come as some surprise that the job I took next lasted for 25 years. And it came to me disguised as a one year job.
A friend was having a baby, and she wanted to stay home with him for the first year of his life. Then she wanted to return to her job. My daughter was now one and while I was teaching two evenings a week near our home, I did have time to work more. So I told her I would be glad to cover for her for that one year.
She taught in Portland, a half hour from our home, at a college I had never heard of, The Museum Art School, part of the Portland Art Museum. She taught a course called Humanities which she had created herself. I was, she said, free to teach whatever I wanted as long as it was in the humanities and wasn’t art history. The college had an art historian. There was also a full time faculty member whose background was in anthropology. Naturally, since as we know I was already an English teacher despite my vow never to be one, I decided to focus on literature. Beyond that, I didn’t have much of a clue, so I spent the summer figuring out how to structure a year long class which met for two sections a week, each one for 75 minutes.
And in September, I drove into town and met my first students. First, though, I walked past another classroom, looked in and saw a naked woman standing on a platform. This was certainly not the community college. When they say “life drawing” in an art college, this is what they mean. My semester in this unusual environment had begun.
Hearing about my work with Carol, another local attorney hired me to work on another class action case. This one was close to home, involving a group of women professors who felt they had been unfairly paid, not promoted and not tenured in a large multi-campus university system. It intrigued me and I was glad to have the chance to help prove the case.
Unfortunately, this attorney was very different from Carol. She had been incredibly organized, had a laser sharp mind, and knew what I needed to be researching. I felt clear about my work during the two summers I aided her. This man was incredibly unorganized, had a mind that wandered all over the place, and knew he needed help, but was unsure of what help that might be. While he was a seasoned attorney, this case, I believe, had gotten away from him as demonstrated by tall stacks of papers, notes and depositions scattered around his office floor.
I thought my first task would be to set up a filing system for all of this material, sort it by plaintiff and school. But he apparently liked his “piling” system better, and immediately took apart any efforts I made to systematize the information. After a few weeks, I realized that I was becoming as scattered and overwhelmed as the man I was supposedly helping. Not wanting to burn any bridges, I politely resigned citing increased work load at my community college teaching.
Sadly, Carol died very young and I never had the chance to work with her again. I decided to set down my legal pad and pen and focus purely on teaching.
Another summer Carol hired me to spend several weeks with the Linn County Sheriff’s Department. In this instance, she had been hired by the County to see if they should defend a charge brought against them for sex discrimination. I was to spend several weeks basically hanging out with the men(they were all men–a clue about the merit of the charge!) and see if they appeared to have a discriminatory view of women in the department.
I enjoyed them very much, since they reminded me of all my old rural neighbors and police I had taught. They were very relaxed with me and we had honest conversations. One time they even took me into the old jail cells which at that time were still part of the courthouse. It was very chilling to go through several locked doors to get inside, even though I knew it was just for looking, not staying.
At another time, they were gleeful about arresting a car thief. When I asked how they had captured him, they said they went to his house and found a bunch of stolen cars. I was astonished about his careless storage of the cars. They laughed and teased me about thinking crooks were smart. They assured me that most criminals were pretty dumb.
But they were very blunt about stating that they did not think a woman belonged patrolling the isolated far reaches of the county. They didn’t think it was safe. Of course, that proved the claim of sex discrimination. So, I had to report back to Carol that the County should settle and not contest the charge. I bid them goodbye, respecting their old school chivalry but aware that it no longer had a place in Linn County.
By now you have probably figured that for a long time I had to cobble jobs together, especially in the summer, to make sufficient income. For several different summers, this meant doing paralegal work for a Portland attorney named Carol Hewitt. Carol recognized that the research skills developed studying English literature and the people skills developed teaching adults would be useful in some of her cases.
The first case she hired me for was against Princess Crystal brought by a class action of some of their sales reps. Princess Crystal was an operation much like Tupperware and Avon at the time. Individual women(they were only women) sold crystal dishes and knick-knacks in a “party” setting in their homes. At each “party,” the hostess would try to recruit other women to host similar events. The hostess usually got a “free” gift for having the”party” and discounted prices on other items. When she recruited someone new, she also got a discount on future pieces and a percentage of the sales at the next event.
The details of their specific legal complaint are blurry to me, forty years on. I remember talking to individual women, however, to record their experiences. Carol had hired me to try to get specifics from each woman about her experience with the company. In general, women felt used by the company. They felt they had bought product so that they could have their own successful businesses. But, as in any scheme that requires recruiting new sales reps, they quickly ran out of people to recruit. Then they were left with a lot of crystal that they had no use for.
Princess Crystal settled out of court and the class action members were satisfied with the outcome. I became determined to steer clear of any such “opportunities,” no matter how much I needed the money. “Party Hostess” is one of the few jobs I never held in my peripatetic career history.