At the beginning of my collegiate career, I was in awe and simultaneously terrified of my professors. Onto the pedestal of academic superiority I placed them, and there they remained. How did one, in fact, decide to become a professor? And how did one actually go about becoming one? I craved answers to these questions, but remained scared. In fact, I remained so intimidated for the first two years that going to office hours required serious courage. Eventually, I kicked this habit, but I had to come out of my shell first.
As a freshman, I took a 2-unit freshman seminar on Jane Austen with an English Professor Emeritus named Morton Paley. As one might imagine, it was a seminar of 15 girls and one man, and to top it off, he looked like an adorable, ancient Santa Clause. I loved the seminar so much it was my favorite class of my first semester at Berkeley and I anticipated its arrival every Wednesday afternoon.
During the course of the semester, each student was obliged to give one presentation on a given topic surrounding Austen or the era in which she wrote, but alas, being the natural overachiever, when Professor Paley asked for a volunteer to give the final presentation, as there was an even number of students and an odd number of topics, I raised my hand. This meant I went to his office twice to discuss matters with him, and needless to say, it scared the living day lights out of me. I wondered why a lauded dinosaur of a professor would want to speak to a peon.
My initiative caught Professor Paley's eye, I assume, because I received an e-mail invitation in December of 2006 to work for him the following Spring semester as a research assistant. At the time, he'd been at work on a book tracing the relationship between the English Romantic poets and their artist contemporaries, which was to be published by Oxford University Press. Knowing very little about what I was signing up for, I agreed. We met that January in his office on the third floor of Wheeler Hall. He explained the project, filled out paper work to get me a Library proxy card to check out books in his name, as well as a copy card so I could successfully copy articles and microfilm. Every week we'd either meet in his office or he would e-mail his requests to me. He eventually gave me a key to his office so I could deposit my findings for him.
I remember lucidly the first time I entered his office with my own key. It was a late afternoon, and the sun was dipping below the thatch of pine trees near Sather Gate, whose tips I could see from his office window. Curtains of dust hung in the air, made visibly by the sunlight, and there was a thick sent of must. I inhaled the smell, but felt like an intruder. I placed a stack of materials on Professor Paley's already overloaded desk, saw his notes in ultra fine and impeccable cursive, and laid my backpack on his chair. I closed the door.
Alone in Professor Paley's office in 335 Wheeler Hall, I stood across from shelves and shelves of books. As I moved closer, I noticed titles with his name on them, old books with wearing covers that, as I perused them, I realized had been published nearly thirty years prior. I let my fingers wander the book spines, and inexplicably, I began to cry.
I began to cry because at that moment, I understood that this man had dedicated his entire life to one small, small portion of English literature. I understood that for him it was an intense, burning love worthy of a lifetime of devotion. I comprehended the amount of energy and the years he had spent doing so. And I cried because I thought it was beautiful.
I think in that moment, I knew I too wanted to join academia, wanted to devote myself to something I loved as much as I understood that Professor Paley had given his life to the Romanticists, to the written word. I think right then and there I knew I wanted to be a professor, but was too scared to admit it. After all, it took me two more years and two unsatisfying law internships to relinquish the thought of going to law school.
And I suppose that is the moment I knew. It was the moment I reaffirmed forever that my life is to be a life of words, of their consummation, and of their pleasure, as both an academic and in my own way, whether published or not, as an artist.
I've known all along.