One Hundred Quarters–Part II

Richard Walter writes about his journey from first joining the UCLA faculty to celebrating 100 quarters in October 2010.

To read Part I of “One Hundred Quarters” click here.

“Congratulations,” John Young said when I answered the phone. He was chairman of the Theater Arts Department, which was then the home of Film and Television at UCLA. “You are the committee’s unanimous choice for the new screenwriting slot.”

All I could manage was a flat, “Oh.”

“You don’t sound excited. Are you aware there were a hundred and twenty-four applications for this position?”

“That’s just it,” I said. “I never applied.”

“Exactly right,” Professor Young said.

“I’m a little confused,” I lied. In fact I was hugely, vastly confused.

“The Regents require us to advertise the position,” Young explained. “And so we do. Our practice, however, is not to hire but invite. It’s more prestigious. Anyone who applies, therefore, is automatically disqualified.” Here was my first, and to this day still among the finest examples, of that exquisite illogic that pervades Byzantine and wacky world of academe.

I met with Prof. Young the following day in his Macgowan Hall office immediately north of the Murphy Sculpture Garden. We traded the requisite chitchat: the weather, the traffic, the Dodgers. Then we turned to the single most controversial subject in higher learning: parking. He gave me a yellow permit good for a space in Structure III.

Next, he handed me a key and told me the location of my office.

“I have an office?”

The notion of an office worried me. I thought I was merely picking up a course or two. Why would I need an office? What did providing an office portend in terms of the University’s expectations of me? How much time would I have to spend on campus? Would I have time for my own writing? At home in Echo Park an entire wing of our hilltop bungalow served as my office. Of course I appreciated that I’d have to come to campus on my teaching day. Nevertheless, I expected to continue to work primarily at home.

“Alas,” John Young continued. “We’re chronically short of office space and you’ll have to share yours with a professor in the production program, Shirley Clarke.”

Had he really said Shirley Clarke? Here was a quirky, eccentric independent writer/director whose quirky, eccentric, independent early ‘60s films–most notably The Connection and A Portrait of Jason–were ragged little cinematic tone poems shot on black-and-white 16mm film with hand-held cameras treating then-taboo subjects such as the drug underworld and homosexual life before it was gay. I had taken legions of Greenwich Village girls–dangly earrings, sandals–on dates to Shirley’s art-house fare in order to impress them with my hip, savvy, avant-garde sensibility. The formula for dating success in New York City circa 1964: 1) take a girl to a Shirley Clarke movie; 2) score.

Shirley Clarke, who soon enough became a cherished friend, was the quintessential office mate in that she never–I do not mean rarely–used the office. Notes left for her by students, pinned to the bulletin board on the wall outside or slipped under the door, languished there forever unattended, slowly curling, darkening, and ultimately turning to parchment.

“Am I going to have time for my own writing?” I asked Professor Young.

“You don’t understand,” he said. “The University of California is a research institution. Teaching is merely of secondary importance. Your own writing is your primary obligation. The University does not merely tolerate faculty having extra-curricular careers; it requires it. It is not your teaching but your research–in the arts we call it creative activity–that will win rewards, most importantly tenure.”

He now laid out my teaching load and, indeed, it struck me as not especially daunting: two sections of an advanced feature length screenplay workshop with only eight writers in each.

“When do my classes meet?” I asked.

“When do you want them to meet? You’re the instructor; it’s your call.” I bunched the two classes back to back on the same day.

“That’s all I have to tell you,” John Young said. “Do you have any questions for me?”

“Seems to me you’ve pretty much covered it all,” I said. “I can’t think of anything.”

“Not anything?”

I racked my brain. “Nope.”

“You’re not the least bit curious about your compensation?”

I leaned back in my chair. “I’m a writer,” I told him. “Writing consists of a lot of stuff, but mainly it’s words. Words are important to me. ‘Curious’ is exactly the word. With UCLA being a public institution, I’m assuming the job doesn’t pay much. I’m a busy writer. I’m not here for the money.”

“All the same,” John Young said, “I’m ashamed to tell you how little you’ll be paid.” And then he told me. A wave of unease arose deep in my belly. The amount he mentioned struck me as a heady sum. Adjusted for inflation, it lay in the mid to high five figure range. I had assumed I’d be getting a few hundred bucks to pick up a course or maybe or two. What would they expect of me for so much money?

Regarding my students, I did not have high expectations. A spate of newspaper and magazine articles and television programs had talked about ‘the new illiteracy’ on America’s campuses. Frankly, I anticipated they would be morons. The excesses of the vastly over-appreciated, anything-goes ‘60s had wrought a harvest of anarchy and unlearning at institutions of higher learning. I had no idea at all that I would enjoy teaching.

I couldn’t wait to start my first class. I was wholly confident it would prove a bust. The students would be intolerably dense. I vowed that while I would at the very least finish the quarter, if the experience interfered with my writing or dispirited me in any way, I would not finish out the whole first year. By trying out the job I would have satisfied my guilt, and I would be making not an ignorant but an informed, wise judgment to steer a million miles clear of the academic life.

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