Barbara Gitenstein writes a memoir of the life that set her up to lead.
Throughout her life, R. Barbara Gitenstein, former president of TCNJ, has held books and scholarship in the highest esteem. Her pursuits since she retired from the college in 2018 indicate she still does. She recently published a memoir; and she and her husband, Donald Hart, made a $1 million gift to the college in February, with $750,000 earmarked for the library that bears her name and an additional $250,000 for the Gitenstein-Hart Faculty Early Career Prize, which will support the scholarship of junior faculty.
In her book, Experience Is the Angled Road: Memoir of an Academic, Gitenstein recounts her own scholarship and the faculty who influenced her — from as early as middle school, when an English teacher advised her how to write in the first place (“Be sure to eschew gobbledygook, prolixity and hokum.”), to her time as a doctoral candidate at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Gitenstein ends her memoir prior to her time at the helm of TCNJ, but excerpted here are a few moments with the people who were her guiding voices and who helped shape her into the leader she was to become.
There was of course the stereotypical unreasonable professor, the one who lived to flunk students. In the English department at UNC during those years, that was Dr. Norman E., the professor of Old English and linguistics. Because of his areas of expertise, almost every student had to take at least one course with him, and he relished the status of gatekeeper. He believed strongly that women should stay at home keeping husbands happy, and non-Whites should not be studying in the English department, not even American literature (which he held in great disdain).
I decided to take two courses with Dr. E., not just the one required. I had two goals in my work with him. I was going to take on the role of protector of his version of the unwashed, and I was going to overwhelm him with my performance. [In one of the classes], we were discussing the concept of bravery in Beowulf. I raised my hand, and surprisingly, Dr. E. called on me.
“Dr. E., don’t you think, however, that vengeance is even more a feature of the narrative than bravery? This is the one thing that both male and female characters exhibit. I realize that there is really only one female (Grendel’s mother), but she is a pretty important force.”
“Do you mean, Miss Gitenstein, that for a theme to be important, a female character must be involved?”
“No, that is not my point. I am saying that if you are talking about the beginning of a culture, and I think that is what Beowulf is about, it is unlikely that there would be much of a future if there are not both male and female progenitors.”
More important than the memories of my battles with Dr. E., however, were my encounters with two of the most important mentors of my life — C. Hugh Holman and Cecil Sheps.
Holman, a nationally renowned scholar of Southern American literature, was the most coveted advisor for students in the English department at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The most important thing that I learned from Hugh was a deep commitment to working hard and to loving the profession. As I was preparing for my exams, I turned to him for advice. At that time, a student in English at Chapel Hill chose two areas (mostly historical) for focus and took written and oral exams on those. The student was also required to take just written exams in three other areas.
…For about one-and-a-half hours, Hugh, known for his prolific memory, talked, listing hundreds of documents that were important in those five areas. I took notes furiously. Some six months later, in a meeting with Professor Holman, he asked me how my preparation for the exams was going. I responded that I had read all but three remaining documents from the list.
“What list of documents?” he asked.
“Well, the ones you told me to read.”
He remembered our meeting of six months earlier and his eyes widened. “All?” he asked. “You thought I meant that you had to read ALL that I listed?”
And so began my academic career, diving into the deep end.
When Hugh agreed to serve as my advisor [for my dissertation about Yiddish literary influences on Jewish- American fiction], as a specialist in Southern literature and a child of the Presbyterian Church, he knew that we needed the input of someone who knew something about Jewish literature and culture. Since it was Chapel Hill in 1973, there were not a lot of choices. Hugh introduced me to Cecil Sheps, then vice chancellor for health sciences. Sheps turned out to be one of the most important influences on my professional life.
… I had an appointment to meet with Sheps to discuss the second chapter of my dissertation. When I opened the door to his suite of offices, his officious secretary sniffed in disdain and then said, “Ms. Gitenstein, I am sorry to tell you that we will have to reschedule your time with Dr. Sheps. He has been called away by the chancellor on urgent university matters.”
I thought I was being funny when I replied, “Well, that’s okay, as long as it was the CHANCELLOR!”
It may have been funny in my head; it may have even been funny to Cecil, and it surely would have been to Hugh. It was not funny to Vice Chancellor Sheps’ secretary.
… When I was named president of The College of New Jersey, [Sheps wrote to me]: “I have never been a college president but my experience as vice chancellor gives me some idea of what you’re facing, enjoying, and being challenged by. That you are doing and will be doing well I have no doubt whatsoever.”
Reprinted and edited from Experience Is the Angled Road: Memoir of an Academic with permission from Köehler Books.
Picture: Anthony DePrimo