Now that I have been retired from university teaching for a few years , I have had to create my new “classroom” within CDs, DVDs, downloads, zooms, and live lectures, mostly to similarly retired adults. Thus, perhaps 80% of my audience today is over the age of 70. Conversely, another 15% is probably under the age of 18, since Darian and I now offer free online streaming of my literary lectures for teachers to use with their classes.
We decided to provide this service early last year when Covid forced on-line-only school instruction. We immediately understood what a nightmare it was going to be for already overworked middle and high school teachers. Our gift was to give English and history teachers some new virtual content for their students: Professor Engel to go! Our sign-up list now includes over 150 teachers throughout the entire U.S.
And so the one group I no longer reach is the one I spent fifty years teaching: college students. I really regret no longer having my own college classes. Perhaps I miss them most on the night before a fall or spring semester begins. When I first taught as a teaching assistant at UCLA, the class rosters were always put in our faculty boxes the weekend before the Monday when classes began. I would drive over to the English office on Sunday evening to collect my class rosters and just gaze at the alphabetized names. They were all unknowns except for an occasional student who was taking a second class from me. Next to his or her name I would jot down GFP (“Glutton for Punishment”).
Obviously a name on a roster reveals little. I did once have a student named Brandon Landon. I assumed he would have had a Dickensian childhood since his parents demonstrated their sadistic streak upon naming him. Before I called the roll on the first day, he informed me that he preferred being called “Chad,” his middle name. I remember thinking: “Yes, well, who wouldn’t?”
I recall one Sunday evening before classes began when I received a phone call from a friend who taught in the physics department. He too had retrieved his class roster early, and he excitedly told me that the name “Lee Chan” appeared on it. The name was familiar to me because “Mr. Chan” was all of fourteen years old. He was one of those prodigies who had scored 800 on his Math SAT exam when he was twelve and had therefore been launched on his way to college before I had been on my way to Bar Mitzvah.
It struck me that night that of all of the prodigies I had ever heard of entering college at an astonishingly early age, not one of them had ever majored in English. All seemed headed for a concentration in science or math. Was this because a genius did not want to squander his or her talent on a field as notoriously paycheck-challenged as English education?
I don’t think so. I believe that it has to do with maturity. No matter how intellectually advanced an adolescent might be, he needs a very different type of gift to be an outstanding English major. As one of my professors once said, “English is the study of what it is to be a human being.” Thus, the finest students of English literature would be those who have lived, those who have experienced the joys, sorrows, moral ambiguities and ethical challenges that give depth and meaning to our individual lives.
I have always been proud of the fact that to be a dazzling student in my academic subject, it might help to be intellectually brilliant, but it is imperative to possess both sensitivity and empathy, two qualities not even a fourteen-year-old Einstein could fully possess. That is why English professors in particular tend to value adult students. What age might occasionally diminish in intellectual quickness or abstract reasoning, it more than compensates for in emotional maturity and literary insights.
I do miss teaching my eighteen-year-old students, but I now relish lecturing at so many retirement communities. And how they love to learn! I've traded in my freshmen for “Seniors,” and I am inspired by their joy in continuing to grow intellectually. They have taught me that when it comes to staying young, a mind-lift beats a face-lift every time.