Professor Shipley

Required reading for the English major.

I will never forget Professor Shipley. I met him at UIC when I was taking English classes.

UIC didn’t offer any journalism courses, so I took creative writing courses and ended up majoring in English. I loved taking literature courses because I really felt that I would learn to be a writer by studying the great writers. During my second quarter at UIC, I took an interesting British literature course Professor David Spur where all my classmates and I would try to sit in the front row, in the center. Professor Spur made the class very interesting. I usually would beat everyone to the class and get to sit in the first row, although not always in the center. The class before ours would end promptly ten minutes before the hour and I would have time to sit down, review the assigned readings, and relax for a few minutes before our class began.

After I settled down to my pre-class ritual, I noticed that the professor, Professor Shipley, for that was his name, from the previous class was still there until almost the minute when our class started. Students would continue the class discussion with him for as long as possible. He was an elderly gentleman with distinguished gray hair and reddish beard with some gray. He wore a tie and earth-tone sport-coats with elbow patches. And he always put on his hat before he left the classroom. Occasionally, Professor Shipley didn’t have students detaining him with questions or comments about the class readings. But he would take his time to pack all his notes and books into his brown leather accordion briefcase. He always smiled and looked very friendly.

One day, I smiled as I watched him pack up. He smiled back. He wanted to know why I was so early for class. I didn’t have the nerve to tell him that he was actually running late that day. After a while, we always greeted each other and we usually engaged in small talk. I asked him what he taught and he told me Swift, Dryden, and Pope. I was intrigued. I had read plenty of Swift and a little of Pope on my own, but Dryden scared me a little.

The next semester, I enrolled in Professor Shipley’s survey course of British literature based solely on my conversations with him. He was a very interesting lecturer who never bored me, or the class for that matter. He had such a friendly demeanor. In fact, everyone in the class loved him! He commanded such respect. And he was thoroughly knowledgeable about the British literature he taught.

My memory of the class is very hazy now when I try to think back to those days. However, two events do stand out from memories of that class. The first one involved a paper we had to write. I don’t even remember the topic. Sometimes before class, we would sit on the floor in the hallway discussing the readings. Some students would get there at least thirty minutes early and we would have some very good discussions. One day, we were talking about the paper that we were about to turn in that morning. Suddenly, one classmate jumped up and said, “What? There’s a paper due today?” He had forgotten all about it. He told us to leave him alone so he could write the paper before class started. We all stared at him in amazement as he scribbled furiously into his spiral notebook. When everyone turned in their neatly typewritten papers, he asked Professor Shipley if he would accept his paper even if it was  handwritten. Professor Shipley was nice enough to accept it as is. The next class, Professor Shipley returned our papers. Occasionally, professors like to read from a student’s paper that demonstrates exemplary writing and critical analysis. Well, he read from the only paper in the class handwritten on lined paper ripped from a spiral notebook. My classmates and I were all amazed at the high quality of the paper because we watched him write it while he was sitting in the hallway before class. He received a well-deserved A.

The other incident I remember always makes me laugh. We were reading Dryden’s “The Dunciad” in class and he really taught me to find the humor and satire of the poem. One day, Professor Shipley announced that he had a special treat for us. Well, we were all excited because he totally caught us off guard. He had never given us any sort of special treat before. So, he opens his brown leather accordion briefcase and pulls a small book in a plastic baggy. He announces, “I have a first edition book of poetry by John Dryden!” Maybe most of the class was a little nerdy, but we all looked at that book in awe. Professor Shipley slowly opened the bag. With tenderness, he took out the book and carefully opened it. Suddenly, the books started falling apart–actually it was disintegrating! I was reminded of the scene from the movie The Time Machine when they find the last existing books on Earth and when they open them they disintegrate. Professor Shipley stared in disbelief. “Oh!” he said and put the remains of the book back into the baggy.

Stuff White People Like


Stuff White People Like on my iPhone.

I started reading the blog Stuff White People Like about two months after it started up. I think I read about it on the Internet somewhere and I checked it out. I really enjoyed reading it and found myself laughing out loud many times. Then, one day, I thought, “I could write for this blog.” So, I contacted Christian Lander and asked him if he accepted freelance submissions. He said that he would, but that he had just signed a book deal and they didn’t want a lot of other new writers now. I understood perfectly. But for some strange reason, I had really, really wanted to write one post for the Stuff White People Like. I tossed around several ideas in my head during my idle moments–of which I seem to have more and more with each passing day. But I never actually wrote anything down, as I am wont to do.

Soon the blog announced the forthcoming publication of the Stuff White People Like book and there was much excitement in the blog’s comments. I commented that I wouldn’t buy the book since I had already read all the posts and comments on the Internet for free. As it turned out, the book version had several new never-before-read entries. However, I still refused to buy the book and ended up reading it for free at Borders in two visits!

Before the book’s release, Lander announced that there would be a contest for the best post written for Stuff White People Like. The prize? A free copy of the book. I immediately sprang at the opportunity to write for this blog. There were hundreds of entries. Since there were so many good entries, the first prize was expanded to the top five best entries. In addition to the free book, the winners would also receive a subscription to The Onion.  Well, the first winner was announced and there were scores of complaints about the quality of the entry. Commentators complained that it wasn’t written in the same style, that it wasn’t funny, etc. With each winning entry announced, the complaints grew more vocal. Soon, readers started posting their own submissions in the comments. Okay, so did I! And since I wrote it, I’m posting it here for the sake of posterity! 🙂

The dream job for the English major.
English Major

When choosing a college major, white people often choose the tried and true English major rather than the last resort of Undeclared. When asked why, they will give the convincingly believable reason that an English major will help them get accepted into law or med school. Worst case scenario is that they can always go to grad school for that arts degree and work at the local coffee shop and be the most intelligent, misunderstood barista there. Being misunderstood adds to the mystique of the English major.

Whenever a college student announces that he or she is an English major, be sure to state, “But you already know English!” This will reaffirm his or her belief that no understands the value of a great liberal arts program. When speaking to an English major, whether a current student or a proud graduate, always comment on how well they speak English and how flawless their grammar is. Also mention the decline of the English language since the Elizabethan Era. Many English majors have learned some very funny jokes while enduring long, boring seminars on Chaucer and the Romance of the Rose. They will even share these jokes with you if you let your guard down. English majors are proud of the fact that they are English speakers.

When engaging in a conversation with an English major, be sure to nod in agreement but never interrupt. There is no need to start an argument with an English major. Oftentimes, he or she will start one without your assistance. For example, the conversation may suddenly turn to The Wasteland, and without your aid, he or she will begin arguing whether T.S. Eliot was American or British. Be sure not to get involved in the argument. You will not win. If you would like to change the subject of the argument, simply mention how you always felt that the Nobel Committee screwed James Joyce.

In order to gain the confidence and friendship of an English major, be sure to ask about his or her writing: “What are you working on now?” But don’t expect an answer immediately. In fact, don’t expect to learn any details about anything he or she has ever written. He or she will tell about how difficult it is to write. Be sure to ask to read a recent work. Of course, the reply will be, “I haven’t let anyone read it yet. Very few people will understand all the literary allusions.” Give them a consoling look and say, “It must be hard to write with all the long hours you put in at the coffee shop.”

See! I can act white, too!

Choosing a major

University Hall, University of Illinois at Chicago

When I was an undergrad, I couldn’t decide on a major. After much deliberation, I finally narrowed it down to English or Spanish. After even more deliberation, I decided not to decide and I double-majored in English and Spanish. My emphasis in both majors was literature.

I love to read. And besides, my personal agenda includes writing The Great American Novel, that is, if I ever actually got around to sitting down at my computer and writing a novel. Nothing would help me achieve my goal more easily than majoring in Spanish, and oh, yes, English, too.

Anyway, by doing this double major, I straddled two academic cultures. I saw the best and worst of both worlds. Most of the students who majored in Spanish were from the middle or lower class and were very humble. The students who majored in English were also from the middle or lower class, but they thought they were really cool. Not every English major exuded this arrogant aura of “cool.” Just a handful, but just enough to annoy the rest of the class. Whenever they said something they thought was extremely brilliant or witty, they would proudly announce, “I’m an English major!” as if no one else in the classroom was also an English major.

Some of the English professors were of the plain vanilla variety who seemed tired of Academia, the “cool” English majors, and the literature they taught. The Spanish professors, on the other hand, were from Spanish-speaking countries who also seemed tired of Academia, but lacked “cool” students, and absolutely loved their subject. In general, there was much more laughter in my Spanish classes than in my English classes. The Spanish professors weren’t afraid to reveal their cynicism and world-weariness in satirical and humorous ways, and besides, the literature in Spanish is generally much funnier than literature in English. Of course, whatever literary theory I learned in English classes, I applied to my Spanish classes, thereby making me one of the better Spanish students. I have never regretted my decision to major in both English and Spanish. Eventually, I will write a novel, even if it doesn’t achieve The Great American Novel status. But I did learn a lot about world literature as a double major in Spanish and English. I feel so “cool” since I majored in English!

Look at me! I'm cool! I'm an English major!!!