Forty Acres and a Notebook
It took a while, but I finally found my niche at the University of Texas at Austin.
Last May I finally graduated from college, the first person in my family to do so. With a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Texas under my belt, I spent much of my summer basking in my post-graduate glow, floating in a pool or watching movies, because, damn it, school was hard. In addition to being a full-time student, I waited tables at night and raised a family, but I was never overwhelmed by the amount of work involved with school. In fact, I loved being in college and I loved attending classes, but being one of nearly 50,000 students within the spider web that is the UT-Austin campus was, at times, discouraging.
I was drawn to UT for the same reasons that many people are—the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, the Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art, the sprawling, beautiful campus. I imagined myself flipping through the archives of the HRC or lying on the South Mall lawn in between my classes, chatting with my classmates or preparing for an essay question. I entertained grand visions of heated discussions about William Faulkner and Samuel Johnson, mediated by a wizened professor who nodded his head in approval of our intellectual acrobatics. But attending a university with almost 50,000 students doesn’t allow for such nonsense. I was too busy trolling for a parking space or elbowing for a seat on the bus. Most of my time at UT was spent sitting in cramped auditoriums, taking multiple-choice tests, dealing with power-crazed teaching assistants, and paying for overpriced textbooks that for whatever reason could not be sold back to the University Co-op for more than $5, which, every semester, forced me to curse this monopoly and wish to God that I was a law student. It didn’t take long before I began to wonder just where my ever-rising tuition fees were going. Where were the professors who would guide and shape my thirsty intellect? Didn’t anyone ever talk about anything other than football? Would I ever feel like I was really learning something?
It wasn’t until my senior year at UT that I finally found my niche, when I took an upper-division English class with Wayne Lesser and was astounded to learn that there is much more to Herman Melville and Mark Twain than Moby Dick and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. At last, a professor who clearly loved the material teaching a small class attended by students who were there to learn something. I wanted to take the class over and over, and I left every day wishing that it had always been that way. The rest of my senior year was almost perfect—I adored my professors and I loved being on campus, and by the time I graduated, I felt pretty good about UT. It’s certainly possible that I was just ready to graduate and be done with it, and that some sort of senior pre-nostalgia had taken hold of me. But in retrospect, I think there was much more to it than that. Maybe all I needed was a little attention—something that is certainly hard to come by at UT. I needed someone to read my essays and appreciate my contribution. As silly as it may sound, I needed someone to call me by my first name. The encouragement and enthusiasm of professors like Lesser and the enlightened James Garrison, who fulfilled my Samuel Johnson discussion requirement, allowed me to ignore the white noise at UT and enjoy the gift of a higher education. My advice to an incoming UT student? Understand from the beginning that you are in a big place that is full of people who don’t care about you, then prove them wrong. In the end, you might not even care that you can’t sell your books back for a decent price.
Casey Wilson is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin.