Paul LeBlanc, the president of Southern New Hampshire University, has a charming essay up about a single conversation that changed his life. It was with a professor who suggested that he should go to graduate school and then called in a few favors to make it happen. The rest is history.
It got me thinking about my own version of that.
It was 1989, and I was in college. I was struggling a bit with a paper for a poli sci class. The class was taught by a professor I had taken before and liked — Kurt Tauber, for any erstwhile Ephs out there — so I made an appointment to see him during his office hours on a Tuesday to try to talk through what I hoped would eventually become the hook for a paper.
Kurt Tauber was a character, and I mean that affectionately. He was Austrian and vaguely Marxist. He was short, with a shock of white beard. He had a mischievous sense of humor and was known to wear leather knickers on campus along with the occasional cape. What drew an impish Marxist to a college full of prep-school alums was never entirely clear to me, but he always seemed to be having a wonderful time.
When I took his Intro to Political Theory class in my first semester at college, I didn’t have the foggiest idea what was happening. This is back when papers were written on paper and comments were written in ink: the paper came back with a full-page handwritten cri de coeur alleging that, among other things, my exegetical skills were lacking and my argument bordered on sophistry. I had to look up “exegetical” and “sophistry.” (Those words didn’t exist at my public high school.) I wasn’t used to comments like that, and they occasioned a full-on blast of despair. But I’m nothing if not tenacious, so I kept going, and some vague combination of improvement and sheer dogged persistence seemed to win some grudging respect over time.
The second course was on technology and culture, at least ostensibly, though it often seemed more like applied epistemology than anything else. The readings were all badly photocopied, with edges of paragraphs sucked into the void of the binding. (Readers of a certain age will remember what that was like.) Again, he seemed to have a grand old time in class, even though most of us seemed only vaguely to follow what he was saying most of the time.
When I arrived to talk about my paper, we did for a while. But the conversation started to meander. He asked about my future plans — I was a junior at the time — and I mentioned being torn between law school and grad school. He told me about how he had bounced around from one place to another early in his career, which I found inconceivable; at that point, he seemed like he had been there forever. (As someone once said of Tom Waits’s music, it sounds unearthed, rather than written.) The idea that he had once been young and professionally marginal struck me as absurd. Alas, no.
In discussing some possible destinations for grad school, he mentioned that a former colleague had recently landed at Rutgers and spoke well of it. I had heard of Rutgers, to the extent that I could identify it as being in New Jersey, but that was about it. Until that moment, I hadn’t given it a single thought. It struck me as such a random reference that I decided it was worth checking out.
Had it not been for that conversation, I wouldn’t have found my way to New Brunswick and met my now-wife. I almost certainly wouldn’t have found my way to DeVry, which opened a path into administration. The Boy and The Girl would only have been twinkles in somebody’s eyes.
I’d bet money that Professor Tauber forgot that conversation shortly after it happened. It was a pleasant diversion for him, one of many over the years. But had he not thought to mention Rutgers, my life would have been unimaginably different.
Thank you, Professor Tauber, for taking the time and for taking me seriously. It made a difference.
Office hours matter. Use them wisely …