Well, more like one misogynist professor.
It started before my essay on The Devil Bat–the 1940 Bela Lugosi horror flick about a mad scientist who uses a dubious aftershave on his victims before they are mauled to death by his devil bats–but it was this piece of writing that has so cemented this unpleasant experience in my memory.
It was an introduction to creative non-fiction course, a class I had waited to take till one of my final semesters in college. I had never tried my hand at it before and I knew that anything I produced would be shaky at best. If even my own writing ended up being terrible, I was more interested in sitting in a room with my peers and a professor, talking about this avenue of writing that had not yet been a part of my undergrad studies. I wanted guidance, critique, and a list of recommended readings that were so wonderfully a part of my other writing classes at the university.
My friend Richard* and I were both in this class. Richard was a strange, chain-smoking loner who looked like a greasy Alex DeLarge minus the Russian slang and debauchery whose long meandering conversations I took pleasure in after class. He told me he had enjoyed previous classes with our chosen professor, but he said this with reserve. As the weeks went on and I had first-hand observations, I was able to pull out of Richard what he was actually holding back from me. But we’ll get to that soon.
Right from the beginning everything was all wrong. The course, which met once a week for about a three-hour block, was being dismissed around 60 minutes. I would soon learn, however, that this was a godsend for I don’t think I could have made it without first ripping out my eyes. Most other writing classes at my university were much more intimate; we usually moved desks to face each other or at least sat close together so we were in discussion mode. Not here. We were spread out, unable to see everyone and half the class became disembodied voices from across the room. The professor stood at the front for the first part and rambled on, usually about which movie he saw that weekend. The next half was dedicated to a few people chosen to read their essays aloud. A short comment by the professor was given at the end of each selected essay.
The above was a snoozefest, but that was not where my more drastic complaint comes from. Our papers, whether read aloud or not, were all submitted and then redistributed the following week with a handwritten grade scrawled atop the front page. I noticed that Richard always had a higher grade than me, but I attributed this to non-fiction being more up his alley. Yet, I started to see that the women of the class always had a lower grade than the men (grades were denoted by both letter system and numerals: A-/92). I would have completely dismissed this until it came to The Devil Bat.
I was randomly selected to read this essay aloud, which was a weird retelling of the time I was watching The Devil Bat with an ex-boyfriend when a strange phone call interrupted our viewing. I can still remember that this was the only day that I sat in a different desk away from Richard. I handed in my paper and the following week, I received my paper–no grade, just a note that said to see the professor after class. When I spoke to him, he said he wanted me to rewrite the paper, that it wasn’t up to snuff, and that maybe I should confer with my classmate, Richard, who could tell me how to make the essay better. In short, I was annoyed with this response. After class, I told Richard what had happened.
He told me that he met with our professor during office hours and had in the past when he took other classes with him. I didn’t understand Richard’s fascination with our professor and I still don’t. This is when Richard divulged some of what our professor had said to him. Before I continue, it is wise to point out that this is second-hand, no longer my perceptions and immediate experiences, but I still have no reason to doubt him. Our professor, according to Richard, confided that he wanted to be a novelist, but failed at it. He became a literary critic and penned books on twentieth century American [male] writers (his experience with literary criticism had been a reason I chose to take his class in the first place). We all fail–I still do on a daily basis–but this wasn’t what struck me. It was what Richard then said: our professor told him that he didn’t think woman could be writers.
I went home, chopped out one paragraph from the essay, and handed it back in the next week. It was a test of my own concoction to see if anything I handed in really mattered in the eyes’ of this one professor. A grade was finally inked on it and this episode has been one I’ve told very rarely over the years. I had even forgotten the professor’s name (with a little Googling and the university’s website) I was able to determine that he had retired at some point and you know what, we’re all better off.
It was such a strange experience for me. My professors and peers, both men and women, had never shown a gender prejudice in our classrooms. It felt like we were all in it together and our faculty’s most prominent professors were women. One of them even went on to help launch Women in Literary Arts, which later became the organization we all know as VIDA and another was the first professor who really made me feel that I was no longer a student and had some sort of potential (I am always delighted when I see her vast accomplishments written about).
I complained only to Richard about our professor and at the time, I don’t think I even thought to complain about it to anyone else, especially in any official capacity. By writing this, I don’t think I’m overreacting. In fact, I think I’ve totally under-reacted. My 21-year-old self let this roll off her back completely and instead, tapped into some schadenfreude over this man’s self-perceived failure in life.
I consider this a minor blip in the overall gender bias women face, both in publishing and the other facets of our lives, but I can’t help but wonder what would have been if I hadn’t had such an atrocious guide with my first (and last) experience at creative non-fiction in school. Perhaps, something marvelous would have happened, but most likely not (but a gal can dream, can’t she?).
I wonder why Richard was drawn to him, even though he readily pointed out the man’s flaws. I searched for the professor’s name on Rate My Professor and saw that people were writing reviews who had his class two decades removed. He had somehow made an impression. The handful of write-ups were so polarized: some absolutely loved him and found him inspiring, while others, like me, found him to be a dud.
The Devil Bat is lost to time. I have no copies of it or the other essays from the class (the rest of whose topics I don’t remember). I’m sure it was wobbly and tangled, but that’s the stuff that first drafts are made of, right? I have never excelled at non-fiction writing as this uneven post can show. As a writer, my attempts at non-fiction are awkward and I usually think my writing weaker. I’ve always been comfortable in fiction, where I’ve found encouragement and support. Perhaps, the devil bat instead will find a home there.
*His name has, of course, been changed.