Guest Speaker: Dr. Sally Parry
I’m honored to be speaking at the Sigma Tau Delta initiation tonight. Although I’ve been a co-advisor of this chapter of STD for over 25 years, this is the first time that I’ve actually spoken at the ceremony as the guest speaker rather than introducing our new members (although I’ll be doing that too). It’s odd to be the center of attention rather than focusing on others. But I’m glad for the opportunity.
Tonight I’ll be talking about my life as a scholar, what I’ve learned from it, and what you might be able to take away from it as you go on your own professional journey, whether it’s in academics, business, nonprofits, or creative activities. One of my first pieces of advice is not to be so wedded to what you think you want to do that you lose sight of other possibilities. Although I played teacher when I was little, just as I’m sure many of you did, when I went to college it was to become a famous film critic. I didn’t realize at the time that one had to watch a lot of bad movies, not just good ones, and that the turnaround time for reviews could be quite short, depending on the publication one was writing for. I even thought of combining my love of film with that of writing and composed a not very good screenplay with my roommate, who shared many of my career ambitions. It didn’t take long to decide that we were not cut out for the less than glamorous film business. Instead she became a writer for the New York Times, and is now a political columnist at Roll Call as well as a freelance journalist, and I’ve become an educational administrator and faculty member in English.
When I graduated from college I took a business-like path and became first a copyeditor and eventually vice president of a public relations firm in Manhattan. I’d like to say that I got the job solely on my merits, but it was to a great extent because of the networking I did, which is piece of advice number two. I was very active in our college theater and met a lot of people, one of whom introduced me to his father, who owned a public relations firm. This meeting resulted in a ten-year career in public relations.
It’s also connected to piece of advice number three: become involved in activities beyond the classroom. I had fallen into theater work by accident, when someone came to my dorm room on a rainy weekend and asked if anyone in our suite wanted to help do stage makeup. I guess I was trying to put off writing a paper or something because I volunteered, knowing nothing about makeup, but looking for something to do beyond taking classes. As luck would have it, the show I did makeup for won a regional theater award. I travelled to a theater competition, met many interesting people, and learned a lot. I became hooked on the theater. I worked on many productions over the next several years, learning how to design and build sets, hang lights, and stage manage. The theater became my second home and the people there my second family. This became literally true, as also met Dr. McLaughlin while helping a friend cast a production of The Tempest. I cast him as Gonzalo, the wise old counselor in the play.
This leads to piece of advice number four: take leadership opportunities when you can. There are so many things that we are involved with throughout our lives that we complain about—why isn’t something done differently or better? Why doesn’t someone do something about a particular problem? The answer is often staring at you in the mirror. Why can’t the someone be you? And there are always excuses—that you’re busy or don’t know very much about it or that someone else would be better. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which I stage managed in college, Malvolio, the steward of Olivia’s household, reads a letter that some others characters have contrived to write to spur him to action. “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Although in the world of the play Malvolio misunderstands the letter, in the real world, it’s important to take chances and become involved, as leaders, as volunteers, as people who are turned to because they are reliable, and do what they’ve promised. In college, the president of our theater group quit rather precipitously because she was frustrated with people who didn’t do what they had promised. There was a need for a new president of the organization, and I quite literally had “greatness” thrust upon me. This led to more opportunities, including stage managing a travelling production of Jaques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, becoming the production manager of a summer theater in the Bronx, stage managing a summer stock theater in upstate New York, and producing musicals off-Broadway. All this because I answered the door on a gloomy day.
And I’m sure some of you are thinking, well, I’m not going to become involved in theater or public relations or even become a famous film critic so how does this advice work for me? Here comes piece of advice number five: leave yourself open to opportunities and realize that your life and career will probably not be a straight path. So I had my job in public relations, was working on Madison Avenue, and working with business leaders from around the world—our company specialized in American businesses investing in Southeast Asia. Sounds great—right? Well, yes and no. I was intellectually bored. My job was sometimes interesting. I planned events, attended lots of luncheons and dinners, and responded to stockholders for a Philippine oil company, but that was at the office. I commuted an hour on the subway each way and found myself reading two mysteries a day (I’m a fast reader). I thought—I can’t do this for the rest of my life; my mind will turn to mush. So I applied to grad school, in part because I wanted the discipline of being required to read books that I would not necessarily have chosen myself. I worked full time while going to school, and discovered that I enjoyed the challenge. I went on for a Ph.D. because I wanted to learn even more, not really thinking it could lead to an academic career. At about the same time the Southeast Asian economy was going downhill and my paychecks were delayed. I had to work, but I also wanted to finish my degree. So I bargained with my boss, and in exchange for the paychecks coming late, I was given every Friday off to travel to Yale University where the papers of Sinclair Lewis were lodged. Every Friday for a year Dr. McLaughlin and I took the train to New Haven and opened boxes of Sinclair Lewis papers at the Beinecke Library, not always knowing what to expect. Sometimes it was manuscripts of novels or plays that Lewis wrote, sometimes it was letters from famous writers like Willa Cather and Edith Wharton, sometimes it was Christmas cards and menus.
So here’s piece of advice number six: do things that you love whenever you can. I liked taking courses, and I liked writing about Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature. I thought he was underestimated in scholarship and in the classroom and it has become part of my teaching and scholarly mission to introduce his work to as many people as possible. When I was defending my dissertation, some wondered why I would spend my time on someone who was no longer critically acclaimed. I contended that by applying critical lenses other than Formalism to Lewis’s writings, one could find out a lot about American society both at the time he was writing and now, because Lewis had a good sense of the American character for both good and bad. This has become especially true lately as Lewis’s 1935 bestseller It Can’t Happen Here has returned to the bestseller list, and I’ve been called upon to discuss the novel and Lewis more generally with radio audiences around the world. Although I’m very sorry that a novel about a fascist who gets elected president and brings the country to ruin has such resonance for today, it’s interesting to see that although the slang and the specific circumstances change, the American character is still very much as Lewis pictured it.
And that leads to my final point: accept challenges that are thrown at you. I had presented a paper at the Lewis Centennial Conference in Minnesota in 1985. I guess some of the attendees were impressed because a couple of years later when I presented at the American Literature Association Conference in San Diego, a group of Lewis scholars organized a meeting about creating a Lewis society. One of the senior scholars looked at me and said that I should start a newsletter for this new organization. I was untenured and probably pretty clueless about what that entailed. However, I put my organizational skills to work, that I had gleaned in business, while working at the Modern Language Association, and as an advisor in English at ISU. That was over twenty-five years ago. The Lewis Society is now international, with a website, a biannual newsletter, occasional conferences, and a lively listserve. I have met scholars and fans of Lewis from all over the world and have received many neat opportunities, from invited talks and articles to meeting Lewis relatives to portraying Dorothy Thompson, Sinclair Lewis’s second wife, in the Sinclair Lewis Days parade in Sauk Centre, Minnesota, Lewis’s hometown.
I hope that this advice, seen from the perspective of someone who has seized opportunities and reaped many benefits, will encourage you to take chances and think outside the box.