Remembering T.A. Alley – NMU’s English Department
Eighteen years ago today–August 23, 1993–I attended Teaching Assistant orientation at NMU and was hired to teach freshman composition in the English department while I worked on my Master’s Degree. So I thought it appropriate to post my memories of those years (1993-1995) at NMU from My Marquette:
The English Department
Below the library in the academic mall were the offices for many of the professors, including most of the English Department until early 1995 when the department moved to Gries Hall. In 1993, as I completed my bachelor’s degree in English, I did not know what to do. My plan had been to write novels while earning my bachelor’s degree and end up published and famous by the time I graduated so I could begin my career as an author. While I did write and send my manuscripts out for publication, I was not successful finding a publisher. During these years, I completed writing the first draft of The Only Thing That Lasts which I had begun in high school as well as the original version of Narrow Lives and another long-winded novel that remains in a drawer.
Upon graduation, and still not a famous author, I decided I would get a Master’s Degree, and when I learned that being a teaching assistant paid $4,500, I was thrilled since I had spent most of my undergraduate years working at McDonalds and NMU’s Writing Center for minimum wage which over a year had averaged about the same as the teaching assistant wage. And better yet, the teaching assistants got a gigantic raise that semester, so I felt quite prosperous making $6,000 a year and living at home while I earned a Master’s Degree. After a few weeks of teaching, I found I liked it and decided I would get a Ph.D. and become an English professor—again, until I became a famous author.
As a teaching assistant, I was given my own little office down a hallway off the academic mall along with about a dozen other new teaching assistants (T.A.’s) who were working on their M.A. degrees. We dubbed our new office space T.A. Alley and set about becoming great friends. Some of my best and longest friendships began during those two years.
I have nothing but good things to say about the education I received at Northern Michigan University, and especially in the English Department. And beyond the stellar professors I had, what I most appreciated and failed to find later at other universities was a real camaraderie among the students and professors. I’ve been in other English departments where you walk down the hall and all the doors are closed, but at Northern, the professors’ doors were always open. Most of them spent several hours a day in their offices and were always available to their students. Professors and students passed each other in the halls, we all knew each other, and we always talked to one another. Even if I did not have a class with a professor, I never felt I couldn’t talk to him or her. While I was just a graduate student, nevertheless, I felt accepted as part of the department and encouraged in my teaching and academic goals. I saw none of the snobbery or competitiveness among graduate students or professors I unfortunately witnessed elsewhere in academia. I don’t think I could have had a more fulfilling start to my career than being part of that supportive, learning environment, and while I have long since left academia, those years remain frequent and pleasant memories.
I did not party a lot in college. Yes, I did occasionally hang out at the Shamrock with my friends, and we had parties at friends’ apartments, and the camaraderie added a great deal to the general happiness of those years, but part of what made me so happy was the learning environment. My classes at Northern fulfilled my intellectual needs without making me feel stressed about competing with others. Sitting in Dr. Maureen Andrews’ Survey of British Literature class, where I was first introduced to the poetry of William Wordsworth, was like having rockets go off in my brain. Dr. Peter Goodrich was the insightful director for my master’s thesis King Arthur’s Children in Fiction and Tradition. I enjoyed working under Dr. Mark Smith at the Writing Center and also being a teaching assistant under Dr. Bill Knox. Although I eventually left teaching in an official way, today as an author and editor, I continue to teach people as well as entertain them, and I feel highly fulfilled as a result; without the education I received at NMU along with a little creative entrepreneurship, I wouldn’t have been able to start my own business Superior Book Promotions (www.SuperiorBookPromotions.com), writing, editing, reviewing books, and basically, doing what I most love to do.
Many of my college friends remain my friends today—Stephanie, Becky, Tom, Chris, Paul, Dana, Greg, Jill, and Larry. Hopefully I have not forgotten any. Larry Alexander ended up sharing an office with me when the English Department moved to Gries Hall. In those days, he and his wife, Ann, had a newborn son, Max, whom Larry would bring to school with him. I ended up volunteering to babysit Max while Larry went to teach his class. The paternal instinct unexpectedly blossomed in me at that time. I changed many diapers, but it was all worth it whenever Max fell asleep with his head propped on my shoulder. Time goes by too fast—Max is sixteen today—but time’s passing shows that friendships last a long time. And little did I know then that someday Larry would design my websites as well as the layout for this book.
I cannot discuss every professor and student I knew at Northern, nor all my friends I had in college. I hope it is sufficient to say that whether I was teaching a class, hanging out in T.A. Alley, having lunch at Bookbinders, attending a play at Forest Roberts Theatre, sitting in a class at Jamrich Hall, studying in the library, or walking across campus, I was happy at NMU, and everyone I knew there contributed to that beneficial experience for me. It’s been said before a million times, but for me, the college years truly were the best years of my life.
When I finished my Master’s Degree, I moved to Kalamazoo where for five years I worked on my Ph.D. at Western Michigan University. While I found a couple of good friends there and I appreciate the excellent education I received, the atmosphere was not as friendly as what it was at NMU. Partly I’m sure the experience was different because doctoral students have more stress than undergraduate and M.A. students, partly because I didn’t know anyone in Kalamazoo when I moved there, and partly I felt displaced from my native environment, but I think the truth is ultimately that Northern Michigan University, like all the U.P., is a superior place.
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