I have arrived at this point, wanting to study Flannery O’Connor’s works on the doctoral level, in a simple but meandering path. Only in retrospect can I find a pattern in my intellectual life, which developed out of luck, happy opportunities, and a willingness to follow opportunities that would be a sin not to take.
As a child, I was an intellectual explorer, taking advantage of the set of Encyclopedia Americana and of the medical encyclopedia that my godfather gave me. Since I was in a military family, these references were a stable part of my young life. I soaked up the facts in them like a sponge, including the survey of Western philosophy and the complete works of Shakespeare that were additional volumes to the Encyclopedia Americana. With formal schooling (which encompassed public schools from Great Lakes IL, Charleston SC, Guam, and Grand Prairie TX), I learned to apply this knowledge, not just in winning trivia games but also in answering questions. I became an information booth, and since my earlier investigations included scientific knowledge, my parents assumed that I would be a scientist or a medical doctor.
But merely scientific knowledge, which strove to answer "what" and "how" did not stop my own questions. I also asked "why." Even as a child of ten, I wrote occasionally in poetry and prose to figure out the Big Whys at the time: "Why do we do the things we do? Why do we believe the things we believe?" In writing these other worlds, I distilled what I saw in my world and created characters to react with the problems I saw at the time: e.g. what friendships meant, what family meant. Even as I proceeded in my secondary schooling, learning to ask questions in other disciplines, I believed that continuing in English literature would show me how other writers explored these questions on why. I came to the University of Dallas to study the Great Books, and I learned how to become a more insightful critic. I discovered Flannery O’Connor at the University of Dallas in a Literary Tradition class and rediscovered her two years later for my Senior Thesis. I graduated from the University of Dallas able to explicate, analyze, and theorize; I felt, however, like an outsider looking in, picking apart texts and putting them back together again. At this stage of my intellectual life, I craved returning to my childhood love of writing stories. I wanted to be a creator of texts, to learn the craft of writing.
Southern Methodist University gave me a full scholarship in its Master’s program, a stipend, and a job as a Graduate Assistant with the Shakespeare Association of America. I worked with the director of the creative writing program while taking other graduate classes to expand my knowledge of other writers’ works: Chaucer, James Joyce, Mark Twain, William Faulkner, for examples. I returned to these familiar authors with the eyes of not only as a critic but also as a fellow writer. I learned that the creative life is not easy if the writer is true to his beliefs and his craft. I learned I am a slow writer and am impatient with myself and others when a piece of my writing does not convey what I want it to convey. In my creative writing classes, I became the insider looking out, facing the critique and questions of my audience. From these readers, I saw details and meanings that I was not even aware were in these stories; I also saw weaknesses that forced me to be critical of my own work. My time at SMU taught me that to be a good writer, one must also be a good critic.
After receiving my Master’s, I began work at the Quaker State Corporation. I was first a temporary employee but became a full-time employee of a new department for which my managers asked me to develop the procedures. I worked with people of diverse socio-economic as well as educational backgrounds, and so I tightened and simplified my memos and the my department’s training manual with this audience in mind. A corporation is a very political body with many people with different motivations trying to work together under the governing eye of upper management and the shareholders. It was unlike anything I had experienced in my nineteen years of formal schooling. The company was a good company to work for as long as the upper management saw that the shareholders were happy. Benign feeling from on high would diffuse to the lower levels of the corporation. But when the shareholders were not happy with the company, ripples of that unhappiness would spread throughout the industry. In such an instance of unhappiness, another corporation bought Quaker State. I was amazed by how quickly the motivation to work devolved. The motivation before was primarily in team camaraderie and company pride. Since the reasoning for the merger was entirely pecuniary, the motivation that I saw in my department and other departments became pecuniary as well. Pride in product, customer service, and company fell way to working until the employees could get retention checks and severance pay. Working for this company was a learning experience in seeing human nature in action. If in academia I had wondered what the "Real World" was like, I wondered no longer. Too many people in corporate life identify who they are by what they do or what company they belong to. The higher ends of family, creativity, even religion get squeezed out by the demands of the company. I saw too many people work well into the evenings and even on the weekends. I saw too many people look lost as the merger occurred; they wondered, "Who am I now? What am I worth now?" In my academic work, I saw fictional people working out these questions; in my corporate life, I saw real people trying to work out these same questions. In this observation, my life inside and outside academia came together, and I decided to return to the academic world with these real world experiences in tow.
I enrolled in the University of Dallas’ Post-Baccalaureate Teaching Certification program because up to that time I had always been a student. I wanted to know what it meant to be a teacher. At SMU, I had an opportunity to teach a freshman level composition class, but the Shakespeare Association continued my employ, and so I had not the time. With an M.A. but no teaching experience, I felt that now I needed to learn of the concerns of the teacher qua teacher. The most important thing I have learned so far this semester is that knowing something and being able to teach that something well are two different skills. In the future when I teach, I not only want to teach but I want to teach well; I want my students to master the skills and content such that they too can become good critics and writers.
While enrolling in the teaching program, I received word from The Flannery O’Connor Bulletin. The editors suggested that I read some recent scholarship published on O’Connor, revise my paper that I had sent to them, and resubmit. The zeal in teaching and the zeal in studying O’Connor came together, which is why I want to study O’Connor at the doctoral level. Louise Cowan in her book The Southern Critics speaks about "the reunion of fragmented man" (Cowan 15). Upon looking at the meandering path that is my intellectual life, I realize that my fragmented experiences are coming together full-circle, and I am finally reuniting myself as explorer, critic, artist, teacher, and scholar.
Cowan, Louise. The Southern Critics. Irving, TX: Univ. of Dallas Press, 1972. 15.
© 1999 Rufel F. Ramos
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