While pursuing my Master’s Degree in English at the University of Pennsylvania in 1966, I took a course in American literature taught by the celebrated critic and anthologist Robert Spiller. I was honored to be in his class.
Throughout the semester, the congenial, grandfatherly Dr. Spiller didn’t intimidate or interrogate us about our voluminous readings. He never engaged in class discussion. Moreover, he said nothing about the works per se. Our job was to pass in at the end of the course a thick notebook of our personal critiques of the authors. There were no tests except for a final exam that would presumably in tandem determine our grade. Dr. Spiller’s forte was to entertain us from his grab bag of amusing anecdotes about the great American Romantic writers of the nineteenth century. He didn’t expect us to take notes—all we had to do was enjoy his shtick, and we did so.
I diligently transcribed my opinions about the major works we were assigned. By the end of the semester, my notebook was brimming with what I thought were provocative insights.
But I was shocked when I and my fellow grad students submitted our work to Dr. Spiller on the next to last day of class. He rifled through all of our folders and gave no grade but a checkmark, returned them to us, simply satisfied that we had done the required work. The quality of that work was evidently irrelevant. How demoralizing!
The final day of the class was even more bizarre. Dr. Spiller smirked that many of us wouldn’t like one half of the test; so to avoid any complaints, he left the class until the end of the period.
One of the two questions was legitimate: it dealt with an analysis of two of the major works that we had studied. But the other question involved comparing one American Romantic author to his counterpart in the English Romantic era. During the course, Dr. Spiller never even mentioned any English Romantic writer. Most of the grad students were upset because they were predominately American literature majors. I, on the other hand, had taken most of my undergraduate and graduate courses in English literature, so I figured that I was in pretty good shape. After completing the test, I was sure that I had done a passably good job, but I felt sorry for my fellow classmates.
When I received my final semester grades, I did fairly well, except for Dr. Spiller’s course: I got a D. Whoa! There had to be a mistake. That grade would doom my chances to continue at Penn for my Ph.D. I was dumbfounded and dyspeptic.
The next day, I rushed to the graduate faculty suite, determined to confront Dr. Spiller about my appallingly low grade. When I located him in his office, I, as calmly as I could, inquired if there had been some error, some oversight. Dr. Spiller said indeed the grade was inaccurate. He had been too kind: I actually deserved an F. I was horrified, but he was not done. He reared back and bellowed that I should get the hell out of his office. The once mellow professor had turned into a monster.
The upshot was that I had to leave U Penn with a terminal Master’s.
But there was a silver lining. If I had done better on that test, I would have stayed in Philadelphia and never gone to Kent State University in Kent Ohio, where I did obtain my Ph.D. and even more importantly, meet my future wife.
So after all, Professor Spiller (in his guise as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) did me a favor, and I will always be grateful to him. And I hope that my wife will say amen to that as we anticipate our 52nd wedding anniversary.