Photography by Barbara Johnston
The assistant professor who opened the door to the Manhattan hotel suite wore cat-eye glasses, a corona of black curls, a slinky black outfit: She was a fashionable young woman of the world, not at all what I expected. In fact, I’d been advised, by a friend of a friend who interviewed successfully the year before, that a Notre Dame search committee was likely to be made up of older men and might include a Roman collar or two. So I’d dug out the only clothes in the back of my closet that remotely suggested modest professionalism (high white turtleneck, sober black jacket) to enter a room where 16 members of the English Department crowded onto commandeered chairs and couches, ready to fire away. No one but me looked the least bit clerical.
In 1992, the year I applied for a position at Notre Dame, I didn’t really need or want a full-time job. The modest royalties from publishing my novels supplemented the more substantial living my husband earned as a New York video designer. We were raising our sons in Brooklyn, the capital of literary America as far as I was concerned. Sooner or later our boys would need to go to college, which meant I’d have to get serious about a full-time teaching position one of these years, just — not yet. Not when I had a one-night-a-week dream job leading a master class in fiction writing at NYU, not when my writing hours left me time to edit the Public School 321 poetry magazine, possibly the most visionary journal in the country.
But that year the Modern Language Association, the professional organization of literature teachers and critics, was meeting in New York. I thought I’d apply to a few interesting-looking departments, learn more about the process, prepare myself for the future. That was how I came to knock on a door in the Hilton, how I came to fall in love with a department that lured me away from New York and, for the entire 28-year stretch I stayed at Notre Dame, proved itself as unpredictable as the 16 interviewers I met that afternoon.
I walked into our Brooklyn apartment with a question for my family: Wouldn’t it be funny if we ended up in Indiana of all places?
Sixteen interviewers. It was hard that January day even to take in 15 professors and one graduate student — my other MLA interviews had been conducted with three or four members of a hiring committee. As I scanned the room, I saw the whole range of academic types, from tweedy, bespectacled middle-aged men to young women wearing high-heeled boots as text and subtext. I remember, before we even got rolling, a good deal of laughter over how many of them had happily come to New York. Who gets to laugh at a job interview?
As the panel members took turns introducing themselves, I realized I was entering an ongoing conversation about tradition versus change, some speakers emphasizing the stature of a department with a long line of distinguished faculty, others suggesting that the literary times were changing, and the English Department was, too. Their rapid-fire conversation, colleagues tumbling over each other’s lines as quickly as brash New Yorkers might, was good-natured but pointed: As soon as one mentioned Yeats, another hastened to point out how many important Irish poets were women. And alive. One praised the department’s strength in religion and literature; another jumped in with the social activism of Notre Dame students, as if these two realities were opposed. Someone asked me what I was currently reading (that was easy: I’d brought Maureen Howard’s brilliant Natural History with me on the subway) and what ideal course I’d like to teach (American Women Writers from Willa Cather to Toni Morrison, as I recall). Mainly I remember a lively, high-stakes conversation among professionals for whom literature and how it was taught were the most crucial subjects they could imagine.
I went home on the subway contemplating all the ways the interview had upended the stereotypical vision of Notre Dame described by so many of my fellow New York writers, who’d warned ominously that I shouldn’t consider a school so devoted to outdated traditions, Catholic ones to boot. But I was a Catholic writer and thought it might be instructive to join a department with rich, conflicting ideas about what that term even meant. That search committee didn’t look or sound outdated to me. I walked into our Brooklyn apartment with a question for my family: Wouldn’t it be funny if we ended up in Indiana of all places?
It didn’t take me long after arriving at my new job to learn that female faculty were in a distinct minority at Notre Dame. That wasn’t the only difference between the English department, which was relatively democratic and inclusive, and the rest of the University. Like many literature departments around the country, English was a hotbed of contestation: The theory wars (over feminism, deconstructionism, postmodernism) were already winding down in some places, but at Notre Dame they were still heating up. My department, then as now, had 40-some members, many newly credentialed and up to speed on the latest critical debates, others veterans who argued on behalf of a canonical curriculum — or, as was frequently the case, embraced a wealth of new literature encountered late in their careers. Don Sniegowski ’56, a specialist in Victorian literature, as gracious as any idealized film portrayal of an Oxford don (he had, in fact, studied there as a Rhodes scholar), rose in department meetings every year to argue that we had an ethical as well as a literary obligation to hire specialists in African literature. When we failed to land even one Africanist, he trained himself to teach important novels a century removed from his own field — but only, he reminded us, until we convinced experts to join us.
The then-chair of the department, Chris Fox, was a rolling ball of fire with an infinite supply of ambition for us. He had recently managed to attract the world-renowned critic Seamus Deane to Notre Dame, where together they founded what is now the prestigious Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies, but I learned that my new colleagues had subjected even Irish studies to serious scrutiny. If department meetings sometimes resembled those House of Commons debates where cheers and hisses issue from the opposing benches, they were never less than lively.
I learned from friends in other departments that English’s customs of electing and presenting to the dean our own choice for chair and metaphorically duking out hiring decisions were not, shall we say, the usual practices. Back then, most departments followed the hierarchical model of the University administration and, well, the Catholic Church: Deans appointed chairs who appointed search committees. Women in other departments did not necessarily have the kind of mentors — male and female — I was grateful for, nor did they have the freedom to squawk that I so valued in my own department. Faculty of color despaired that Notre Dame would ever be diverse, especially when a supposed paucity of Black Catholics was often offered as an excuse for the paucity of Black faculty. (One Law School colleague memorably replied, “I can take you by the hand and show you where the Black Catholics are.”)
In my earliest days at Notre Dame, I was taken aback by the lack of diversity in the classroom — my students had a remarkable number of recessive genes. Faculty also faced a different but related issue: Notre Dame politeness. Many clearly intelligent, diligent students hesitated to voice their opinions about issues raised in readings by the likes of James Baldwin, Susan Sontag and Judith Butler. The admirable camaraderie of dorm life conspired with the homogeneity of student backgrounds to make many white students hesitant to challenge one another and to persuade many underrepresented students that silence was the better part of valor.
In my first semester, though, I learned an important lesson about a university where change slammed up against tradition and the fear of causing offense sometimes muted students entirely. I’d been struggling to create an atmosphere conducive to lively debate in a fiction-writing workshop but was often met with deadening silence. When I received students’ written response journals a few weeks into the semester, though, I discovered that they weren’t apathetic or bored or hostile, all of which I’d feared — on the contrary, they were churning with excellent questions and challenges. From then on, I knew I’d have to open up ways for students to respond before they even arrived in the classroom. I’d have to find ways to let students who feared they were alone in their thinking know they were surrounded by silent allies, that intellectual disagreements can be expressed with respect and even wit. As luck would have it, all around me were faculty grappling with the same challenge and offering clever tactics to Get Notre Dame Undergrads Talking. Change was already underway.
The push of change against tradition is, of course, nothing new on American campuses or in American intellectual inquiry. Universities reinvent themselves with each entering class, each new faculty hire. Notre Dame’s traditions, though, are world-famous and fiercely defended, and that can make the pace of renewal seem glacial here. Change continues nonetheless. One of the most moving moments in my classroom career came in the 1990s, a tough time to be openly gay at Notre Dame; several of my students complained, privately and publicly, about homophobia. My fiction-writing students recognized in one student’s manuscript a closeted gay student at a university suspiciously like their own. Though they knew from the first day of class that we didn’t treat first-person narratives as autobiography, and though I began the discussion with suggestions of literary models of gay life, they were most interested in expressing outrage and dismay at the treatment of the story’s protagonist. I recognized in their fiercely supportive comments the empathy so often nurtured in Notre Dame’s campus life, and so did the student writer — he spontaneously came out in our class for the first time. The room erupted in applause.
From the time I arrived, I was moved by the way Notre Dame students could spring to each other’s defense, but over the years I also noticed how many more challenges they were willing to offer each other — and their professors –– than when I first arrived. As the number of minority and female faculty and students slowly, slowly increased, a diversity of opinions, grounded in lived experience and in broader, deeper reading, gradually made classroom conversation livelier. Teaching a university seminar on short stories to incoming freshmen, I marveled at how much more voluble my students became, year after year, how much more willing to declare their own deeply held adherence to one school of thought or another, but also how much more comfortable with disagreeing and changing their minds after reading and hearing persuasive arguments.
The faculty was changing around me, too. The percentage of faculty of color and women on the faculty and in administration steadily, if slowly, improved. After years of struggle for adequate support, the Department of Africana Studies has embarked on a new period of growth. Programs and institutes in Latino, Asian, Native American and Middle Eastern studies have complemented new and ongoing interdisciplinary studies in sustainability, gender, human rights, labor and peace. When a new dean in the College of Arts and Letters, Sarah Mustillo, launched an Initiative on Race and Resilience as one of her first priorities, she signaled a change in momentum. Two years after Mustillo’s appointment, we welcomed our first female provost, Marie Lynn Miranda, and took note of her energy and receptive style.
The push to make a university more representative and democratic can feel unbearably slow and frustrating, but it is heartening to be among colleagues who persist. At one heated meeting of angry, disappointed faculty and staff with administrators, a colleague said: “You know, we love Notre Dame, too.” That sounded right to me: When you love an institution, you challenge and question and offer alternatives. For 28 years, until I retired last June, I was lucky to belong to a department that valued debate and activism and doubly blessed to have students who, for all their love of tradition, were more open to new ideas than I first realized. I might have been dead wrong about what to wear to my Notre Dame job interview, but it turned out I had pretty good instincts about where I would find a congenial community honoring its traditions while it struggles toward positive change.
Valerie Sayers is professor emerita of English and the author of six novels, a collection of stories and many essays.