If September 11th wasn’t reason enough to cancel a party, then there was a much more down-to-earth excuse the following year. In the party that welcomed the new group of students (including yours truly) the year before, my friend Rosalyn took a fall down a flight of stairs. It was the type of mistake anyone could have made, had they been a little too close to the staircase that led from the living room to the basement floor. While there were handrails, the rectangular hole in the floor that showed the stairs was hardly noticeable. With drinks, high heels, and the stairs’ low visibility, anyone could have tumbled down and hit their head. But it had to be Rosalyn, one of the people who lobbied for the party.
At the Universtity, the English Department traditionally sponsored a welcoming party for the MFA program at the beginning of each academic year. Fortunately, it wasn’t held on campus grounds, but in the home of a student. She was a retired English teacher-turned-professional MFA student as she had been working working on her degree for nearly a decade. The benefit of an off-campus party is the warm atmosphere only available in someone’s house, a gorgeous spread, and the alcohol. The last item is definitely essential as it facilitates socializing, but more importantly, it’s expected. The one that was held in my first semester in the graduate program would be the last one of its sort.
Henry O’Donough, this post-modernist professor at the University, kept office hours in the afternoon and “bar hours” on Thursday night, on the border of the City, between one of its eastern suburban neighborhoods and the exurban neighborhoods of two cities with names that translate into English as “The Table” and “The Box.” Most of the students who came to this little strip mall dive bar to hang out with the esteemed scholar, interviewer, and editor of several postmodern anthologies, including one that is a perpetual best seller for Duke University Press. And Professor K, ever trying to hold on to the tail of the fast-moving Zeitgeist, has a decent story in O’Donough’s best known anthology. Strangely, during my first year of knowing Professor K, I would go to “bar hours” to hang out with Henry and some classmates, past and present associates of Henry’s, and to unwind from Professor K’s classes, which were always held on Tuesday and Thursday nights.
Professor Joseph K is the pseudonym of a professor I worked with when I was in graduate school. The name, of course, is borrowed from Franz Kafka’s protagonist of The Trial. This professor, author of small tomes, and armchair anarchist is the nemesis in much of my previous posts about him. Here, he finds himself in the midst of something I really wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. He’s definitely in that category
It’s funny that Professor Joseph K would find himself in the midst of a Kafkaesque nightmare at one point in his career. Some time after I ended my academic and professional association with him, he found himself the subject of a University investigation. I only have second-hand information on this subject. Given that I had been a student and employee of his for two years and that the investigation occurred while I was still in the MFA program, I’m surprised I was never interviewed as a witness. Getting back to the subject at hand, the reason why the University was looking closely into Professor K’s affairs was that a student felt their grade was at stake after she objected to attending Professor K’s class when there was a sexually explicit presentation.
In this Six Feet Under episode, Olivier is caught in unprofessional conduct by Claire and tries to buy her off with a grade of her choice.
I should be over something like this. As much as I can dwell on the whole MFA experience and what a racket it was, people like the Professor Joseph K are a joke. Unfortunately, my dealings with him and his self-serving behavior haunt me to this day. At the start, he was the mentor figure, the one who gave me admission to his inner literary circle. In the end, I got tossed aside. As much as he told people that they should do what’s beneficial to them as writers, he wanted people to take his workshops and tell him how brilliant he was for publishing his slender little volumes of deviant behavior. Regarding his writing workshops, there wasn’t much to get out of them. Publishable in his terms meant “I publish you, you publish me.” As a grad school friend of mine said, fiction could not create a villain as evil as Professor K.
It’s been a while since I’ve reflected on my experiences in my MFA program. One very significant figure, whom I’ve discussed in previous posts, was Professor Joseph K, who served as my early mentor, friend, boss, and later silent tormentor. This post is Part 21 of If You Want To Go To Grad School.
We’re at a party early on for the University’s MFA program and I mention working with Professor Joseph K. You ask me what he’s like and I’ll try to give you a sound byte answer. After all, this is a party, and the conversation’s not supposed to be too deep. So, here’s what I say: Joe’s a good guy and I work very well with him. I also enjoy his workshops a lot.
My answer would change much later, as I was only one year into my academic and professional relationship with Professor K. Being his secretary didn’t pay much, but I liked it better than working in the supermarket. There, I was paid better and I had benefits, but with Joe, I had keys to the mail room and his office, and I had a code for the English Department copier. I had a place to hang my coat, to read, to study, and even to write. I even had my own desk so I wouldn’t use his. What I had lost in practical terms, I gained in privilege. Which is essentially the case with anyone who goes into something arts or humanities related. I also harbored great hopes that my association with Joe would benefit me in the future. Perhaps I would become an editor or a professor, or even an editor-professor like Joe.
Earlier, this afternoon, I hinted in a discreet way to Chris that my former professor mentor Joseph K inflicted Taxi Xum Klo on his students in his Madness in Literature seminar. In an attempt to slyly reveal Professor K’s own perverse (and slender) body of work through links, I kept frakking up on the simple HTML code. I won’t do it here, as it’s been my policy to never directly point the finger at him on my own blog (though he has his own website, an entry in Wikipedia, and tons of generous “I publish you, you publish me” reviews). However, anyone who knows me from the MFA program at my alma mater knows who he is.
Here is an excerpt from my previous entry on Joe:
The literature students were no match for Joe. They appeared to be staid and conservative in comparison to him. The creative writers perceived this and ganged themselves against the MA’s. Joe often favored the MFA’s, showing preference for their ideas in the seminar’s discourse. Joe, or at least his persona, openly eschewed canonical authors. When an MA student proposed doing his final presentation on Virginia Wolff’s madness, Joe dismissively said that was old school. Since I had seen Joe’s personal library, I knew he did not completely subscribe to that view. However, he saw the graduate lit students as orthodox, unremarkable, unreceptive, inflexible, not even worthy of the A’s or B’s he gave them. Then again, was an A or a B even really worth anything in any graduate course?
Many of the literature students were more grounded in the canon, especially the specializations they were drawn to. They were not accustomed to thinking of the avant-garde feeding into literature, unless they were post-modernists. Their ways of talking about literature did not fit in with how he discussed it. They were confronted with the bizarre, the outré, the experimental, the independently published, even stuff that was downright bad. Some of the outsider writers weren’t that good at all, but their ideas were worth discussing. It may have been one thing to be required to read badly written stories, but seeing a sexually explicit German film, Taxi Xum Klo, was definitely much for some. Some scenes left little to the imagination; pornographic, though strong, would be accurate. Like most of work Joe presented, there was supposed to be something beyond the obvious. Or was there?
Beyond Joe’s choice of material, we were treated to Joe’s work. One story of his may have been included in the reader he prepared for the class. During one of the times we met at his home, he did a dramatic reading where he played Charles Manson. His stories were often like two character plays without dialogue tags or description of the characters. His subjects were often sexually unconventional people or murderers, sometimes even both. At this point, he was writing a body of creative work about serial killers, so his work qualified as madness in literature. None of the MA’s cared that Joe was a minor league literary star, a power broker in the avant-garde literary community. I’m sure a certain percentage of the MFA’s also shared similar sentiments. However, the MFA’s in his class treated him like a god. Their reverence was certainly rewarded.
I’m sure this stirs up a huge canister of worms, especially since I haven’t posted about Joe in about a year.
When I was a young college student who majored in French, the French literature professor showed us Fassbinder’s adaptation of Querelle, which some of my classmates had the same reactions as the graduate students who saw Taxi Xum Klo. While I am at a loss to remember the point behind Professor K presenting his German film, the French professor’s showing of Querelle was about Jean Genet, who is very germane to the subject of that course.
Needless to say, I’ll never make students watch a gay, semi-pornographic film. I don’t think it’ll ever happen. I don’t even inflict that stuff on my gay friends.
It’s always interesting when you know someone with a pattern of close, but short term friendships. Yesterday, a fellow alum from my alma mater’s English program and I compared notes on Liza Radley*. He had his falling out with her a couple of years ago and I fell out with her last year. Without getting into too much detail, she picked fights with both of us when it came to expressing her disappointment. Regarding my colleague, Liza screamed at him on the phone until he hung up. I, on the other hand, got some very insulting e-mails. I then fell into the worst trap of all–responding. I recalled some event where she failed me and put it in the reply. That ended the friendship right there.
She also fell out with close friend and poetic collaborator Alexandra and then Shelly, her best friend from her undergrad years. Who knows why it happened, but the news about Liza dissolving her frienship with Alexandra spread quickly through the university’s MFA program, which was such a gossip mill.
A couple of years before my “break-up” with Liza, I was seeing a counselor who asked me in one session to rate the healthiness of my friendships on a scale of 1 to 10. I think I rated Liza 3 or 4. Not good at all.
Last time in this series, I discussed my own 9/11 craziness and explored Professor Joseph K’s “Madness in Literature” course. It’s been a while since I’ve written any installments for this series, so here’s a link to the introduction if you want to read up. This latest entry is the story of a friend I met in the program.
If any of my MFA experiences were like Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories or Cabaret, then Liza Radley was my Sally Bowles. She had that classic gamine appeal, somewhere between Audrey Hepburn and Liza Minelli*. Artsy and free spirited without having the affected persona that often accompanies those traits, Liza commanded attention nonetheless. Though small in stature, she was outgoing, openly passionate, and loudly opinionated, which made her a memorable presence as a poet.
I met Liza at the first or second week mixer for new MFA’s. It is difficult to remember everything about someone at those meetings. I also met her on the bus ride home from one of my fiction workshops and on a bus evacuation of the campus during 9/11, but neither of those meetings had much impact on me. Even though she was never my girlfriend, a date had the most impact on me in getting to know her as my friend. Since Liza was new to town, she often took new friends to Hipps, a notorious drag queen nightclub was in the district where she lived. Somewhere between my time at Professor K. office doing journal work and her time at the poetry journal office, we agreed to meet at Hipps at the end of the week. I put on my favorite iridescent shirt and boots, while Liza showed up in a simple red chemise. Oddly, some blonde women who looked like they were from the more conservative eastern part of the county thought Liza was a drag queen. We both found that perception strange and amusing, and something about conspiratorially watching the drag queens humiliate selected patrons was fun. After Hipps had its run, we went down to a British styled pub, where Liza flirted with an Irish bartender who knew nothing of Seamus Heaney. At the end of the night and our drinks, we walked arm and arm for a couple of more blocks and crashed at her apartment. We had breakfast at a Russian restaurant a block north of her place, which was good for our hangovers.
I soon started to hang out with Liza and Alexandra, a gifted, but conservative poet who pursued having a close friendship with Liza. Occasionally in the orbit of the Liza/Alexandra nucleus were Brandon, the mid-western surfer poet who sounded had more of a southern California accent than I, and Gabriel, a textbook Gen-X type who always had something sarcastic to say about everyone. There were a few times where Alexandra, Brandon, Gabriel, and I hung out and played cards and drank lots of red wine. Then there was the time where we went to Monster Trucks at the stadium. Liza made spontaneous plans to go to to the event and got Alexandra and Gabriel on board. I got the message late, so I bought a ticket from a scalper and tried to find them once there. If I had a cell phone, locating them would have been easy. However, I spent an hour canvassing a few levels, and finally met my friends by chance. I described it as a “happy accident,” which Gabriel would make fun of for a while. That night, I also met Topher, her on and off boyfriend of the past few years who would become central to the drama of her life in the next year.
Before Topher was back in her life, she dated a nerdy guy from the Essay Composition department. I don’t remember if I’ve met him on any outings, but I do remember hanging out with him for a bit at the Halloween party at her boyfriend’s house. Liza wore a small, tight black dress, a cowboy hat and boots, transforming the outfit with spiderwebs and Arachne on her skin, done with eyeliner. My skirt was longer, of course. I had a Chinaman’s cheongsam and I wore that. Some other people, such as Brandon dressed up as an Australian outbacker and Gabriel in a priest’s outfit, were present. There was one guy, Hosea, whose form-fitting skeleton costume highlighted the shape of his ass, which I kept looking at throughout the entire party. For a while afterwards, I would refer to him having a nice ass if I couldn’t or didn’t want to remember his name. Liza and her boyfriend retreated at one point from the party to his room, where they had loud sex that could be heard by everyone in the living room. They would date for a short while more, though the Halloween party is the last time I can concretely remember them being together.
Since Brandon and I were quick friends and we were in the “Teaching Composition” course together, we would often talk about our mutual crush on Liza Radley. Mine was the gay man’s type, which doesn’t go anywhere and is often expressed in an admiration and friendship, while Brandon’s was very strong. Of course, I had an attraction to Brandon, making this a “bizarre love triange” of sorts.
After the Christmas break, with Liza Radley, Brandon, and Alexandra back in town, there was a small get-together. I met up with Liza, Alexandra, and Gabriel at a Japanese restaurant for dinner and the party later moved to Liza’s apartment with card playing, conversation, and copious amounts of red wine. Brandon crashed the party, drank wine out of a Pyrex measuring cup, and took his shirt off and gave me a lapdance while I commented on how sexy he was. When the party was over, Alexandra went home and I got a ride with Gabriel. However, Brandon remained, and then it would be a story of he said/she said.
to be continued…
*Liza Minelli’s portrayal of Sally Bowles in Cabaret.
Here is a sampling of RateMyProfessor.Com comments about Professor Joseph K (by students). I have altered the name and the university reference to maintain continuity with “If You Want To Go To Graduate School.” Here are posts from various students, ranging from praise to criticism to ad hominen attacks on critics:
A very stimulating experience–as long as you’ve got an open mind!
Interesting and unconventional–not recommended for the ultra conservative
Some of the best and most interesting classes I’ve had yet at the University, taught by one of its best scholars. Prepare to be challenged and inspired to expand your intellectual horizons beyond the typical University sanitized comfort zones. Very supportive.
Sensitive and encouraging; always open to discuss any concerns students might have. Stands by students and provides an atmosphere of openness and freedom of expression that enabled me to feel completely comfortable to do some of my best work yet.
He is very inspiring, but has a very different teaching style, go to his office and talk to him, the more he knows about the more he will help you get a better grade. Make sure to have a very open mind if you decide to take this class.
As weird as they get. First night he came into class with very dark sunglasses on and just stood up front staring at the class. During “Howl” he just kept repeating “Endless****and balls” (line from the poem) over and over. Made us buy his book, which was all about weird sex and violence in the future. However, he did expose us to a lot of good modern American lit and I learned a lot.
My comments: Regarding the first two comments, they’re general and just praise him. They could easily be from the disciples of a cult leader. The same could be said about the next three. Thses would definitely come from those in the inner circle, especially the part about going to his office. Be part of the party before class. The people who stop by his office before class are part of his “in crowd” (unless it’s that one time they need to discuss something with him). Learning from office visits? Shouldn’t that come from first reading the book and then from the lectures? I believe there are those students’ of Professor Joseph K who are perfectly aware of his abuses, yet defend him. Didn’t Jim Jones have similar defenders?
The last one is perhaps the most right on as far as positive comments go. The three before that have some merit, but they also could be written by a sycophant. This one highlights some of K’s oddness, but the student feels he or she has learned something in the end. I have my issues with Professor K; however, I did learn a lot from his classes.
Prof. K is condescending and vague. I’d never take another class with him.
What is with this dude and his SHADES? He wears wrap-around sunglasses in the classroom EVEN at night. I imagine this gives him a “secret identity” mindset that let’s him abuse and insult students he is afraid to talk to in the clear light. So POLITICALLY oriented that faking agreement with his politics is all it really takes to glide through A+!
really the worst parody of an mfa professor. with ego ten times bigger than his talent, and an uncanny knack for using and abusing his students, K plods on and on and on, publishing his friends work in his journals and getting published in turn in theirs. as sad a case of logrolling as is.
K is a joke! He writes no better than most students but has somehow slipped through the cracks. He uses his influence and power to help make the MFA at the University a lower than average experience while playing the characature part of hipster black-clad underground writer. Run!
A self-absorbed, condescending washed-up writer. Interested in obscure “cutting edge” fiction which no one reads. A coffee house writer-wannabe with a PhD. Thinks he’s avant garde cause he owns an all-black wardrobe. Really shouldn’t be teaching.
My comments: These people are really angry! The first one is general, could fit any disgruntled student. The second two seem to come from people who had some relationship with Joseph K. Of course, they’re disgruntled, but they’re more articlulate about their rage. They could be students who felt trampled on by Professor K, or they could have worked for him. The last two simply characterize him as a hack. His work has questionable literary merit, and he inflicts his books upon his students, who have no idea how to approach his text. They often fear saying, “I don’t get it.” The emperor is naked and no one wants to be unfit for an A or even a B. Several of the posts accurately depict his wardrobe choices and how he uses them for his persona.
Ad Hominen Attacks on Critics
The people who complain about K are probably bitter because of all the rejection letters coming their way. Get over yourselves. He’s a great teacher.
Comment: How does predicting rejection letters for critics help this poster’s case?
One of the most helpful professors at the University, provided you make an effort to talk to him about your work. He’s as flexible and fair as a prof can be. To the ranting girlies prior to this post: it’s time to unbunch your Victorian panties.
Comment: Ranting girlies? Victorian panties? This person is incredibly guilty of using sexist language to attack the critics.
Students who dislike Professor K fear unstructured assignments, demand conformity of themselves and others, never did drugs and are most likely sexually repressed. To create postmodern fiction is to live it, and vice versa. If that sounds lame or obscure to you, you may have a calling in Business or Comm. If not, you’ll love K.
Comment: Unstructured assignments – I don’t remember his assignments being unstructured. The irony of so called “non-conformists” is that they are accusing some people of not conforming to their views – that drug use is some kind of rite of passage and living a post-modern life (whatever that is) is a prerequisite to writing. As far as a so-called conformist having a call for Business or Communication, perhaps they are the smarter ones in the end. Maybe the humanities takes more brains, but full time professorships are at an all time low and being an adjunct prof for several institutions is just financial suicide.
In ref. to accusations–Work of disturbed individuals attempting to get out of doing course work, trying to force their own personal agendas/issues on the rest of us, using Prof. K as an easy target for their negativity. Don’t credit rumors as fact.
Any professor rated on this website will have a fair shair of praise and criticism. Some professors recieve almost nothing but nice things, while others are constantly attacked. Then there are the cult of personalities such as Professor Joseph K, whose disciples can see no wrong, while the disgruntled wish to see him get his just due.
The comments in the first two categories have merit. These are the posts that best represent views on him. The ad hominen attacks, however, are just weak.