When I was a grad student at UC Davis in the 1970’s, I believed in a liberal education. With a B.A. from UCLA, I entered the Ph.D. program in English in 1971, and I was in no hurry to specialize. University life seemed natural to me. Unlike some of my fellow students of that era, I enjoyed preparing for the foreign language exams, I liked all areas of literature, and I loved teaching English 1, the freshman composition course. Philosophically at least, I felt responsible for everything in my field, but I also felt I should be free to study what I wanted.
Hard times were ahead, our professors warned us. The job market was tightening up, and we couldn’t assume that a degree was going to land a job just like that. (The word “job” took on an intonation of its own.) The practical students started early on a coherent plan to define themselves as specialists, taking courses and writing seminar papers that prepared them for the big “D” (the dissertation).
I had come to campus with the general notion that when I did have to settle down to a dissertation topic, it would probably be in the eighteenth century. When I was two years into the program, my mentor in eighteenth-century British literature retired. Without much deliberate planning, I migrated into nineteenth-century American literature. Meanwhile, I studied French when I didn’t have to, I drank more beer than was good for an aspiring scholar, and I read paperback westerns.
One day I was sitting in my T.A. office on the ninth floor of Sproul Hall, and a fellow graduate student appeared at the doorway to talk about some small matter. In the middle of our conversation he glanced at the bookshelf in back of me and exclaimed, “What’s that on your shelf? Those are cowboy books!”
“You read them, don’t you? You read cowboy books.”
I nodded again, pleased with myself and my non-conformist image.
“And you’ll probably write your dissertation on cowboy books!”
“Uh-huh. If I can get away with it.”
He shook his head in what I took to be disbelief, but I was not surprised. This same student had told me, on an earlier occasion, that he didn’t think I really fit into a Ph.D. program because I wasn’t serious enough. (An irony revealed itself later when he dropped out of the program and I didn’t.)
I thought I was serious, in my own way. I knew I did not have the dedication to become a devoted scholar and live in evil cities where my work might take me, but I believed in my own studies and my own interests. I was a country boy who wanted to be educated, and I was determined to finish my degree. I just hoped I wouldn’t have to compromise my ideals and come up with a contrived topic in order to complete the program.
At this point I hadn’t decided that I had to write a dissertation on western novels, but I had gotten the idea that the field of academic inquiry was supposed to be open. I knew that people could and did study popular literature and give it serious, sustained attention. I knew that my broad interests in the history and theory of fiction could provide a basis for a reasonable study.
A little more time went on, and I shaped up my examination areas for the Ph.D. qualifying exams. What I needed now was a prospectus, a research proposal for the dissertation. And, of course, I needed a director—a professor who would agree to oversee my work.
I had been studying American literature with James Woodress, who of all the professors in the department had the strongest national reputation. I had always thought of him as being formal, but I also knew he believed in American literature in all of its aspects, including lesser-known writers and minor literary trends. So I went to his office, which was on the second floor of Sproul.
I sat in front of his desk while he sat behind it, with a metal bookshelf behind him. I hemmed and hawed about my progress toward the upcoming exams, and he nodded. I told him I was still poking around at a prospectus, and he nodded. I told him I was interested in the western novel, and I asked if he might be willing at least to take a look at a prospectus on the topic.
He leaned back against the metal bookcase, which was lined with scholarly books he had written and scholarly volumes he had edited. “Any time,” he said, in a tone that reassured me.
It was an important moment in my life, as I was fully aware. Here was a professor of national rank, who had nothing to prove and nothing to apologize for, and who was willing to see me through. I had dared to ask him because I knew that if he said yes I could trust him. His unreserved answer told me he had confidence in me and in the work I could do.
Professor Woodress did see me through. Shortly after I gave him my prospectus he came up to the T.A. floor, not wasting any time, and said, “This is all right.” He saw me through the qualifying exams and then the dissertation, which took me too long but which I did finish with pride. My only surprise came at the end, when he told me that the dissertation was fine but it had too much scholarly apparatus in the form of footnotes and bibliography.
Also during this time, Woodress read and complimented me on a couple of short stories I had succeeded in getting published. He encouraged me to write my first journal articles and book reviews, all on western subjects. Years later, when my first western novel was published, he read it and wrote me a fine letter of congratulation. We have kept up a correspondence through the years, and he has always encouraged me in the projects I have chosen to undertake.
Getting a graduate degree at a major university is a mixed experience. We remember moments of intellectual excitement, of malice, of absurdity—and other moments somewhere in between. At about the time I was finishing my dissertation, another professor, who perhaps thought he was helping, stopped me in the hall and volunteered his advice. He said I should abandon Western American literature because others would think it was trite. He went on to say, “Unless you want to stay working in landscaping and gardening—and there’s nothing wrong with that—you should pick something more serious.” This moment has stayed with me, in contrast with that greater moment a few years earlier, when Professor Woodress leaned back in his chair and expressed his confidence and support.
Nearly twenty years later, I am still working in my chosen profession. My teaching duties include Western American literature, and I have the freedom to write fiction about the American West. I value beyond words the education I received in the UC system—the variety of courses and professors, the vast libraries, the open-ended stretches of reading and studying. I have always felt I took part in a great tradition of learning. It is a tradition enriched by professors such as James Woodress, who believed in the tradition and took time to encourage a boy from the country.
This is an article I wrote for the UC Davis Alumni Magazine. It was published in Fall 1998. I have decided to share it again.