AFTERWORD What Would Jim Sledd Do? BY MICHAEL ERARD Teaching writing to freshman college studentsteaching writing to anyoneis 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 fenceeverything 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 digginghard, mind-breaking, Sisypheanthe 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 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-andcoming linguist named Noam Chomsky faced off for the first time against senior members of the field. \(Later Sledd spent a year teaching at 28 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 9/12/03
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