Sometimes I come across something so surprising I’m simply struck dumb. This is an amazing letter from Miss Dean ’16, Rice’s acting librarian until 1946 and a generally formal and quite serious person, at least while she was at work. The final sentences here in my opinion qualify as an outburst for her:
That’s irresistible. And in fact I do join her– after almost thirty years tomorrow is my last day at Rice.
I’ve learned a lot in those years. At the beginning I spent countless hours reading thousands of memos, reports, committee minutes, and a staggering variety of strategic plans attempting to understand Rice’s “institutional history.” I was both naive and ignorant and so rather surprised to discover that this doesn’t actually get you very far. What I learned thereby is that at that level “institutional history” is largely the story of folly changing its clothes every decade or so. This is not uninteresting—those memos do in fact have a great deal of impact on the direction of the institution–but it’s undeniably dry and it leaves out the deep story almost completely. One wants something more. And it turned out that there was more. It turned out that it was the people as individuals; the scholars, the staff, the coaches, the people who cut the grass and empty our trash cans and take care of our buildings, all of them—that were truly interesting and understanding them was a critical part of understanding how Rice evolved.
There are hundreds of collections in the Woodson, thousands of photographs, millions of documents that overlap and intertwine. At some point I learned that if I just kept still and looked at absolutely everything that crossed my path—not just official correspondence but also thank you notes, address books, gin rummy score pads, condolence letters, dorm furnishings, wrought iron railings, dance cards, slide rules, match books, marginalia—I could know something not just about the evolution of say, the school of engineering, but about the humanity of the engineers who worked there. Once that happened every box I opened became a small tale out of Chekov. That will hold your attention for a good long time. It even made the interminable memos and reports spring to life—I no longer see only what someone wrote, I have some insight into the many and various reasons why they wrote it. I’ll really miss these people, my colleagues dead and alive. Getting to know them has been a profound and largely joyous education.
It’s no surprise either that there’s another side to this. It’s also allowed me to observe the folly of university life in intimate detail: the pointless and self-defeating internal arguments, power struggles where everyone loses, betrayals (both grand and petty), self-aggrandizement, thwarted ambitions, wasted energy, plans that should have worked but didn’t, and of course loads and loads of ordinary human suffering. At times this can feel like quite a heavy burden but through it I’ve learned that those I admire might sometimes disappoint and yet remain admirable. For the ways I’ve disappointed others here I beg your forgiveness.
In more mundane business I have a couple of long term projects I’m still working on that will keep me hanging around the Woodson for a while. I also still have lots of things stashed away on my laptop. So my plan is to take off the month of July for the annual trek to the Northwest. When I come back I’ll resume blogging but more like weekly rather than daily. I don’t really know how much longer I’ll do it so if you have requests, or want to donate something to the archives while I’m still around to see it, or if you just have something you need to get off your chest, do not delay. We’ll see what happens.
Bonus: In the mean time I imagine myself and Miss Dean as Thelma and Louise. What a pair we would be. That’s her on the right with no shoes on. I bet she’d make me drive.
Extra Bonus: I got a new grandson last week. This is Robert. He seems very bright.