Teaching writing to freshman college students–teaching writing to anyone–is like digging fencepost holes on the prairie. It is necessary work: without a hole there’s no post; without a post, there’s no fence; without a fence–everything falls to entropy. It’s also endless work. After you dig one hundred thousand holes, the horizon’s still no closer, and somehow the feral-minded children popping out of the undergrowth seem wilder, and younger, than ever.
The late James Sledd, who died on July 21, 2003, a professor emeritus of English at The University of Texas and longtime contributor to the Observer, dug many fencepost holes himself, first as a graduate student at Texas from 1939 to 1945, then as a professor from 1964 onward until 1985. In the interim he taught at the University of Chicago, Northwestern, Berkeley, and in London and Sri Lanka. Trained in the history of English, Sledd spent the early years of his career writing about and teaching Chaucer, the sound patterns of English, American dialects, English as a world language, and the history of dictionaries, before shifting his focus to the teaching of writing, which is where he left his greatest mark on the University of Texas and on the state itself.
In 1969 he became the director of freshman writing at UT and discovered that fencepost hole digging had fallen on hard times. The teachers were exploited graduate students, forced to populate the seminars of tenured professors, who refused to dirty their hands digging holes. All of it violated Sledd’s notion that, though it is post hole digging–hard, mind-breaking, Sisyphean–the teaching of writing is also service to society. Service may require humility and sacrifice, but it doesn’t deserve degradation and poverty. Sledd spent the rest of his career puncturing and haranguing the department, the University, and, every two years, the Texas State Legislature on this erosion of service and the corruption of the academy. “I became the most hated man on campus,” he told me. Meanwhile his colleagues built small empires of theory, writing textbooks and histories of the field.
“I could indulge no dreams of empire,” he wrote in a 1999 essay, “I was compelled to busy myself about such lowly matters as faculty chicanery and intrigue, plagiarism by football players, and pot-peddling by TAs; and I quickly discovered that no conceivable rhetoric would check the ambitions of careerist colleagues, imbue the mind of Darrell Royal, head football coach, with reverence for scholastic honesty, or mitigate the authoritarianism of John R. Silber, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.” He wrote those words in an essay he sent to the Modern Language Association, which had asked for 250 words on “the past and future of literary study”; Sledd responded with 30 pages. “If the statement’s too long,” he wrote in the cover note, “Then cut out the third paragraph. If you want a blurb, not the truth, you asked the wrong man.”
Sledd came from an old Georgia family and went to college at Emory. His prose style combined the Southern verbal elegance one might expect with a snappish Northern utility, an American form of prose produced after the Civil War. Yet his writing also had a touch of gamboling wit reminiscent of Restoration comedy, almost as if British sensibilities offered a grace that crude American ones didn’t (his wife, Joan, is English; they met when he was at Oxford in the 1930s). From the mid- 1960s Sledd favored jeremiads most, but a good example of his early humor was a 1957 paper, “Prufrock Among the Syntacticians,” which he presented at a Texas conference where an up-and-coming linguist named Noam Chomsky faced off for the first time against senior members of the field. (Later Sledd spent a year teaching at MIT and became friends with Chomsky, about whom Sledd told me, “He’s the smartest man I ever met. He’s got real guts.”) The opening to “Prufrock” was not atypical: “I am here to be publicly puzzled. This I can do. I have so long cultivated a natural gift that I misunderstand as quickly and tenaciously as any man alive.”
The published version of the paper has the following footnote:
Mr. [Archibald] Hill as editor removed the wisecracks from this paper. When I objected, he said that the wisecracks might be put back but that I must add a note to justify them, since other readers would find them as objectionable as he does. I am sure that he is right, for flippancy may be malicious. A man who knows that in spite of himself he will often be foolish should pretend that he is always a fool. By laughing first, he can keep the other fools from laughing, and if now and then he manages to talk sense, they will eventually take his most sincere stupidity as a cunning pose. Academic gardens are full of real toads with imaginary jewels in their heads.
When John Silber was Dean of Arts and Sciences at UT, he and Sledd engaged in battles so spectacular that, in at least one instance, a public meeting to decide a relatively minor policy had to be held in the Texas Union ballroom, and people waited in a line that snaked down the stairway to see the rhetorical fireworks. In one apocryphal story about that battle, Silber waves his withered arm for rhetorical emphasis, and Sledd, who had lost an eye in an accident as a youth, makes the only response imaginable: he takes out his glass eye and begins polishing it on his sleeve.
In all, Sledd spent two years in charge of freshman writing–and then quit the position to wage his own battle as an ordinary professor, writing letters to the newspaper (“I think the Austin American-Statesman has a block on my name,” he told me), giving provocative papers at conferences, and sticking up for post hole diggers wherever he could. “Professor Sledd had fought as well as he could for the English department of whatever tomorrow we can foresee,” Ronnie Dugger wrote in Our Invaded Universities. “He lost.” In 1977 Sledd surveyed the state of student writing at UT and published the results in a paper titled, “Or Get Off the Pot: Notes Toward the Restoration of Moderate Honesty even in English Departments.”
Even after his retirement he didn’t let up. In the late 1990s Sledd could still generate controversy and a good fight, continuing to call the heads of freshman English “boss compositionists” who headed “composition plantations” staffed by exploited graduate students who did the bulk of the teaching. The bosses were chagrined; graduate student fencepost hole diggers cheered.
Not so long ago, I was a hole digger at UT myself, where the work was still underpaid, but where an active community of graduate students tried our best to do it better. In 1999 a draft of a paper by Sledd, advancing the boss compositionist thesis, circulated the English department and caused great uproar. That’s when another graduate student, Chris Pearce, and I decided to interview Sledd. We knew him only by reputation, but wanted to connect his history with our work. The conventional wisdom said that he was an irascible firebreather tilting at irrelevant windmills, who hadn’t received the news that in our new religion we had returned to service: we had computers, we had dignity, we had theory, we good people were preparing students for democratic discourse, onward!
Nearly 85 years old, Sledd agreed to meet us in the office he kept in the basement of the Undergraduate Library. When we sat down to talk, we found a frail man, as quick-tongued as people had promised, who was also genial and patient and easy to laugh. He spoke plainly, with an old Georgia accent (no r’s, broad vowels), without once saying “um.”
He wanted nothing of the new-timey writing religion. Over and over our conversation returned to the notion that one could not make oneself heard anymore, because corporate control of the media is too strong. That would put a damper on the fundamental assumption of me and my co-religionists–what’s the use of preparing students for public discourse if what’s public has already been sold? But we pressed on and kept him talking for nearly two hours. Sledd genuinely liked students and wanted to help, but the interview must have felt like torture to him. At one point I mistakenly asked when he became pessimistic.
“Am I pessimistic?” Sledd asked. “I think it’s stupid to talk about the perfectability of man. Horsefeathers! In all of the scope of history as I know it, to the extent that I do know it, it’s disaster after disaster. I don’t see any reason to expect that to change. That’s not pessimism, that’s the way the world is, and the job is to recognize the way the world is, and to realize there’s damn little you can do about it, and at the same time to try to do that little. And when you try, you will fail. You just do the best you can. And when it’s all done you go have a beer.”
He did provide some insight on his more overt political work. The conventional view is that Sledd refused to ally himself with anyone. But he told us about going to the Legislature to ask for help in fighting against a set of “phony courses” that the University made teaching assistants take:
I managed to make myself heard quite by accident, through Mr. Billy Clayton, who was the Speaker of the House. For some reason, he backed what I was doing–up to a point. And then when the big guns began to fire, he backed off. But there was a bill in the Legislature, which passed the House, that was going to limit the number of TAs that could be used, and so on. When it got to the Senate, it fell into the hands of a committee whose leader was supposedly a great liberal; he wouldn’t even give it a hearing. I went to see him with the man who had sponsored it in the House, and I said, look, I know this bill won’t pass, but if we can get a hearing in your committee, it would get publicized. People would hear what goes on at UT.
But they didn’t. There was no hearing. At one point in our conversation I asked Sledd if he had made the right people angry. “I made so many people angry, ” he replied, “some of them are bound to be the right people.” We all roared with laughter. When we quieted, he said that if he made some people angry unnecessarily, that was just the way he was. “But unless you make some people angry, in this society, you haven’t done your job. This society is corrupt, the people who run it are incredibly brutal, and you ought to say so. Unless you’ve made people mad, you haven’t done what you should.”
We live in times when idealists and purists, even of honorable ideas, are called radicals, and Sledd disagreed that he was one. In a rare autobiographical essay, written in 1961, Sledd described himself as “a middle-aged conservative white Southern academic from an educated middle-class Protestant Christian family.” Thirty years later, he boiled that down. “I am a paleo-Methodist,” he said in an interview in 1993.
He was interviewed by a former student, Richard Freed, who now teaches at Eastern Kentucky University and collected many of Sledd’s essays in a book, Eloquent Dissent. There he wrote that Sledd is radical, “primarily in his insistence on integrity, regardless of the consequences, though his basic values are as traditional as humanism itself.” Throughout his own academic career, Freed says he has kept Sledd’s ethics as his standard. “I always ask myself, is what I’m doing worth doing? Is it honest? Am I hurting anybody? What would Jim do?” For all the political thunder and theological lightning that surrounds what Sledd wrote and did, it is worth remembering that everything he lamented and criticized was intended to benefit one group of people: students. He did not romanticize them, but he didn’t also resent them. “You can’t teach writing unless the students want to write, and most of them don’t want to,” he told me and Chris, and hole diggers that we were, we knew what he meant: you have to take off your gloves and use your hands and cajole, frighten, entice, and persuade people into knowing better than they do. Such humility before the work, and the work itself, is the center of the educational project, and that is the center that James Sledd tried to hold.
After a two-year hiatus, contributing writer Michael Erard is again digging post holes at UT.