Looking Backward and Forward

What to do? That has seldom been the question in my life, as I am usually overscheduled. Today is a day that I have sat down to ask myself that question. My cleaning lady is here and I have straightened up as much of my desk as I need to feel entitled to let my thoughts stray. I always have many things on my plate, but for the moment, no. I am waiting till she finishes and leaves, so that I may go out to lunch and then to the Y to do water aerobics. My days are filled.

Yesterday, for example, I went to water aerobics, then to my chiropractor for her weekly adjustment, then to the last class with Professor David Roy about his translation of Chin Ping Mei. After dinner I went to the Hyde Park Art Center to a clay sculpture class. A typical day. Other days I am going to meetings with the University of Chicago Service League, where I run the monthly Movie Section and the website, or I am at a book group (I belong to two), or I am busing or driving to a play (I recently saw three in four days) or the Chicago Symphony or the Lyric Opera.

I look ahead to traveling—this year I’ll be going on a cruise to Norway in July and staying in London for a week afterward. I usually travel alone, as I can’t find anyone willing to go with me, or to spend the money, I could say, since they would probably go with me if I paid. Traveling alone you meet other people. Traveling with someone, unless that person is very gregarious, like my friend Dor, whom I have taken on several cruises, and whom everyone always loves and so I make even more friends. Travel is the highlight of my year. As I look back on my life, travels have been the peaks.

Looking back on my years teaching Literature, I am filled with gratitude at my good fortune. When I chose English as my major in college and graduate school, I did so wanting to spend my time “walking with Shakespeare” as DuBois put it. I thank God that I was fortunate enough to continue to achieve that dream and to make a living at it. I was able to live in good company for forty years, sharing my love of good writers with my students until I retired in 1996.

In addition to teaching the classic literary canon, I wandered far afield (for the 60's) into the fields of women writers and black writers. During graduate school, when there were few women and no black professors in the English Department at the University of Chicago, I dived into the field of women writers in my dissertation in, and into black writers, auditing George Kent’s classes at the University of Chicago, where I was getting my PhD. I was able to introduce courses in those fields at Chicago State back in the 70’s. Indeed, the seventies were the time when black writers and women writers forced their way into the curriculum and I—being a newish hire and adventurous—volunteered to teach those.

As I look back now through my portfolio and see ghosts of courses past, I savor the syllabi and memories of authors we read. How fortunate I was to have begun teaching in the late sixties at a small liberal arts’ college which required its graduates to be well-grounded in English and American Literature, from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf and from Phyllis Wheatley to Faulkner. Chicago State had trained Chicago’s teachers in the old days as Chicago Teachers’ College and held to the belief that educated teachers should have a good foundation in the humanities. Later in the seventies, however, Chicago State College morphed into Chicago State University and into various colleges which reduced the number of humanities requirements, so that students could take art or music instead of literature. The only literature class many of the students thenceforth took was Introduction to Literature, which was barely more than a high school lit class, divided according to genres, with a sampling of short stories, essays and poems. The students enjoyed the class and found it easy. We usually discussed one short story per class. Who couldn’t handle that?

I also taught many composition classes and came to especially enjoy the basic exposition class where I could get students to be creative, observing the sights and sounds and characters within their own lives. I had so many good essays from them, full of dialogue and lively, concrete details and names of people, places and things, that I put together several editions of a journal of freshmen writing.

Beside composition and Introduction to Literature and the standard survey of British Lit and Survey of American Lit, I taught World Masterpieces in Translation, The Experience of Film, Advanced Studies in American Literature (which could be any writer we wanted to teach—I chose Thoreau, whom I adored), a number of courses in African-American literature (before we had any black professors on our faculty), History of Literary Criticism, Elements of Literary Study. classes of my own devising in Popular Literature (science fiction, detective fiction, along the lines of my advisor John Cawelti’s classes at the U of C).

When the move away from requiring humanities courses began to have a noticeable effect, I conspired with a number of professors from other humanities departments to introduce a Humanities course, with a history professor, an art professor, a literature professor and a philosophy professor. We followed an historical outline and the (alas few) students who signed up for it during the two year span which it ran really did get the education all the students would ideally have gotten had ours been a liberal arts college.

My favorite courses, though, were a series of courses on women writers for grad students, beginning with an introductory course I called Women’s Voices, authors drawn from the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, (in its very first edition at that time—it is now in its third, two-volume paperback edition) : Margery Kempe, Anne Bradstreet, Mary Rowlandson, Aphra Behn, Lady Mary Chudleigh, Lady Mary Montague, Fanny Burney, Phyllis Wheatley, Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria Edgeworth (“A Defense of Literary Ladies”), Dorothy Wordsworth, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth B. Browning, Margaret Fuller—and those were only in the first six weeks of a 17 week course! Imagine getting to put together a bibliography for and devise questions for students to answer as we went along (e.g., Why was there no female Shakespeare? Is there a female or feminine sensibility? Is there a female style and a masculine style?) Advanced courses might include writers like Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, George Eliot, Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Edna Ferber—about whom I wrote my dissertation and whom I continued to endorse, Zora Neale Hurston, Doris Lessing, Sylvia, Plath, Joyce Carol Oates, into whom we would delve deeply. This is the class I still long to teach the Women Writers course online! Fortunately I’m in several book groups where we continue to discuss recent books by women writers (among others).

I followed the regular path of promotion from assistant to associate to full professor, by publishing my dissertation on Edna Ferber and another book on Fannie Hurst later in the 80’s, serving on many departmental and university committees, being evaluated over the years.

I studied Mandarin Chinese from 1983 to 1985 and decided that I would like to apply for a Fulbright to teach American literature in China, at Nanjing University, specifically, which I had heard was more open to foreigners and was, moreover, one of the 10 “key” universities in China. I still treasure the recommendation that Dr. Alice Barter, chair of our department, (whom I had known since I joined the faculty in 1968) wrote for me when I applied for a Fulbright to China in 1985: (Note: I have written about my year at Nanjing separately in these memoirs.)

“As her vitae shows, Dr. Shaughnessy is a person with wide-ranging interests and exceptional energy. Her published research concerns women authors primarily, but she is well-prepared to teach and bring together in an insightful way a variety of subjects; her course proposal given above is just one example of her capacity to coordinate in an imaginative and interesting way what she has learned by way of formal academic training and extensive independent reading throughout her life. She has proved herself to be a competent and effective teacher of both undergraduate and graduate courses; many of her grateful students here have been practicing teachers themselves. Her course proposal is an excellent one in that she will be able to bring to her students truly representative image of regional America through her choice of readings and the visual/auditory materials that she has developed over several years. Dr. Shaughnessy’s relations with her colleagues are friendly in spite of the fact that ours is a very individualistic and independent-minded department. She works enthusiastically and zealously to improve the skills and understandings of her students. Being well-traveled as well as well-read, she is accustomed to changing conditions, aware of different cultural values and eager and accepting enough to meet the challenges this fellowship can offer her. Dr. Shaughnessy’s interest in China led to her study of the Chinese language for the past year. Her students will be fortunate to know her and to learn about America from her.”

One of the best things about teaching at a university was that we had time off to travel, and I always took advantage of travel opportunities. I will not be one of those who have regrets about not traveling when they were young and able to go. I would spend money on traveling before anything, and over the years had spent my precious sabbaticals traveling-- to Italy-Greece in 1975, to Israel in 1982, and finally, in 1992 to India. I had taken a full year sabbatical to see whether I could actually fill up my time, and my five weeks in India in February and March sparked a new interest in Eastern spirituality, a whole new direction in my life. By that time I was also studying ceramics, allowing and my right brain and my artistic side to develop. I realized that I had enough new projects and interests to fill my life, so I applied for retirement. I was sixty-five when I retired in 1996. I would have a pension and health care and a new stage of life would begin for me—a time for projects, travel, art, and who knew what else?

Going Forward with New Projects and Interests

The "retirement" stage of my life coincided with the rise of the information technology. When I went to China in 1986, I used my own computer to save data about books I would be sending and courses I would be teaching, and once I was in Nanjing, a friend lent my his computer, so I wrote my journals and summaries and reports while there in Wordstar. Remember that? I later imported all that material into Word.

I had also always been an amateur photographer, like my father, and I liked to record the places and people I had met in my life. Those passions grew,as computers and cameras and video technology improved, and I as I had never stopped learning, I picked up and used the many programs that combine photography and text--Pagemaker, Photoshop, Office, In Design, Dreamweaver--to name but a few of the programs I use, I became a publisher of brochures, a designer of websites for the University of Chicago Service League, a group group of ladies in Hyde Park with philanthropic interests. I am a total techie--I could not live without my iPad and Android phone.

I live in a marvelous community near the University of Chicago, of which I am an alum, so I continue to attend lectures, movies, plays, concerts, etc. sponsored by the University. The community is rich with interesting people. The Service League of which I'm a board member, has interest groups like music, film (which I run), books, public affairs, along with language sections. The city of Chicago is only a busride away, with its symphony, opera, theater, art institute, cultural center, libraries. Who could ask for a better home town with better access?

The Hyde Park Art Center is located across the street on Cornell. I have taken classes there for years, chiefly painting and ceramics. Sculpture has become the activity that I most enjoy as I get into my 80s. For years I was in the community art fair at the Hyde Park Art Fair, but eventually found that hauling all those ceramic pieces was too much work for too few sales.

The Internet has brought so many new things into my life, including Genealogy research. So much data from census and public family trees is available at Ancestry.com, where I have put a "Shaughnessy Family Tree" and have found relatives all over the country. This project continues to grow. Along the way I discovered my Irish great grandparents, who turned out to be buried here in Chicago, and I became so interested in their story that I have been writing a hybrid account of their lives, combining real data from census, material (photos and deeds) other descendants have turned, history of the places they lived and worked: New York (1833-53, Chicago (1853-1876) and Kansas City (1876 onward), woven together with my imagination. This ongoing story is available at www.shaughnessy.us/chieftains.htm. Recently I found that they immigrated to Rochester (not New York City as I had imagined and wrote) in 1840, and that their five older children were born in Ireland. I cannot believe how they could have gotten the money together to bring that many people with them. They were illiterate!

My great grandparents Thomas and Bridget O'Shaughnessy could not imagine that their great grand-daughter lives in a lovely apartment overlooking Lake Michigan, that she goes to operas and theater and concerts in this lovely city where they chose to settle in 1853, and where Thomas, an illiterate laborer, would die within a few years. They couldn't believe all that I am able to do, thanks to their efforts at crossing the Atlantic in 1840. They were a traveling people, and maybe I have inherited this, along with some skill at sculpture from Thomas.

Travel has been my chief joy over the years. I started traveling in1967 right out of the convent. I traveled solo for years, then with Elderhostel (now called Road Scholar) programs as I got older. Whenever I would travel to visit a friend anywhere in the country, I would add on a week doing an elderhostel in the area. I've put all those online at my www.shaughnessy.us website, under Travels. I have been focusing recently on cruises, especially repositioning ones which go from one area to another and cover usually many thousands of miles are favorites, along with river cruises. I have now done about every cruise I want, but I will not stop traveling as long as my health holds up.

For all that I have received and been able to do in my life, I truly thank God. I see the hand of divine Providence guiding me.