Most Amazing I Get Paid to Do This—A Conversation with Dr. Paul Schleifer

Conversations

Priscilla Collins

Dr. Paul Schleifer is Professor of English at Southern Wesleyan University where he has taught for over twenty years. His specific area of interest is in British Literature, especially the works of Shakespeare, John Donne, and the epic poem Beowulf.

ME:  Where were you born?

SCHLEIFER: I was born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

ME:  How did your parents influence your life, specifically in English?

SCHLEIFER: When I was younger, like 10 and under, we lived downtown where my dad’s church was in a parsonage. I was the third of five kids-

ME:  He was a Lutheran pastor, correct?

SCHLEIFER: Yeah, and so my mom would take me down to the library, which was more or less in walking distance from our house, and then sometimes if I was sick at home from school, she would go down to the library and get me books to read, because back then there wasn’t really anything on television during the day. We had five channels (PBS, CBS, ABC, NBC), and one independent channel. So it was only game shows and soap operas, not like today where kids have cartoons and educational programs.

ME:  What were some of the books you read?

SCHLEIFER: I read Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. I don’t know why she got that for me, I was like 10. Oh my goodness, so depressing.

ME: [Laugh] Maybe she wanted you to have a realistic point of view.

SCHLEIFER: I don’t think she knew. I read a lot and then when we moved, which for me was between 4th and 5th grade, the church sold the parsonage to developers to build condos.

ME:  And they tore it down?

SCHLEIFER: They tore it down.

ME:  And that was the house you grew up in?

SCHLEIFER: Yeah, for [the] first 10 years. We moved out 3 miles, and that summer I didn’t have any friends yet, all my friends were downtown, so I would ride my bike downtown.

ME:  How far was that?

SCHLEIFER: About 3 miles.

ME: So how big was the town?

SCHLEIFER: Bethlehem had about 75,000 people.

ME:  Was it like a suburb of a larger city?

SCHLEIFER: At the time, no. The closest big city was Allentown. So I would ride my bike downtown some days to play with my friends from when we lived down there, but if it was a rainy day I was just at home so I read a lot. That summer I read Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and all sort of things. My dad had books, but it wasn’t an extensive collection (a lot of it was theology and stuff) so she would go and get me books.

ME:  Where they both educated?

SCHLEIFER: No, my mom was smart but she didn’t go to college; it was just different back then. My parental grandmother had been a teacher, so she had gone to school, and then my dad had had a doctorate so he had gone to college, then seminary and earned a doctorate in sacred theology at Temple. In 7th and 8th grade I read Tolkien stuff, I did a book report on Lord of the Rings, then by 10th grade everyone was asking “Have you read Tolkien?” and I had already.

ME:  What did you want to be when you were young?

SCHLEIFER: When I was young I wanted to play baseball. Different time and era, most athletic kids wanted to play baseball. Basketball, you had the NBA and college basketball, but it wasn’t as big of a thing as it is now. Football was pretty big, but back then baseball was the national pastime – so I wanted to play baseball. My dad would tell me I was gonna pitch for the Phillies and allow him to retire.

ME: Obviously, when you were thinking about playing baseball, you weren’t thinking about academia, but [perhaps] somewhere along the way someone influenced you? Maybe it wasn’t a teacher, maybe it was someone else?

SCHLEIFER: I didn’t major in English in college, I majored in theater. Actually, when I first went to college, I was thinking of majoring in history and going to law school, because most of the kids that I was in classes with in high school, it was either doctor or lawyer. I look back and I wish I had had a better work ethic, or had taken it all more seriously, because I was actually really good at math.

ME:  Like in engineering?

SCHLEIFER: Yeah. I didn’t even know what engineering was. I knew that Lehigh was a college in Bethlehem that was for engineering, but that’s all I knew. But it worked out the way it worked out. Probably what set me on this path was [that] we were on a quarter system, and my first quarter at Davidson I was playing soccer.

ME: That’s in Pennsylvania?

SCHLEIFER: Davidson is in North Carolina, just above Charlotte. I had orientation and signed up for classes, we only took 3 classes, and for whatever reason, I took theater appreciation. I think I took it because we had to have an arts/ humanities kind of thing, and I wasn’t musical. I sang in choir in high school, but I didn’t play any instrument. So in this theater appreciation class we had to participate somehow in the term production, and I had done a little theater in high school so I thought “I’ll audition for the play.” So I audition for the play, and I thought I did really well, and then when the cast list came out my name wasn’t on it anywhere. So I was feeling kinda bummed out about that, it didn’t occur to me until some years later, that I really could not have been in a play while playing soccer, because of road trips, things like that, but at 17-years-old… So the winter quarter came, soccer was over, and the teacher I had for theater appreciation was directing the winter play. It’s a play called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard. A very, very funny play connected to Hamlet. I was walking across campus one day and Dr. Garner saw me:

“Are you gonna audition for the winter production?”

“I haven’t really thought about it.”

“Do me a favor, go to the library. There’s a couple of copies in the library, and go in there when you have some time and just read it. If you like it come audition.”

So I did… I was sitting in one of the comfy chairs in the library just laughing my head off. I know people thought I was nuts, because you’re supposed to be quiet in a library.

So I audition, and I played Rosencrantz and had a really great time and met some nice people. A friend of mine and I were part of the honor center, you could create your own major, so we created a theater major. It was actually honors in dramatic theater and literature. Of course, then what do you do with a theater major? So my uncle, after Lydia and I were married, gave us jobs at a manufacturing plant in Georgia, and we talked to the vice president and he told us the company would pay for us to go to graduate school. They were trying to get new management with more education than the old management.

ME:  What year was this?

SCHLEIFER: 1978. We went to work there, it was a textile plant, really old fashioned really out of date.

ME:  So you got your degree and high tailed it out of there?

SCHLEIFER: Well no, we started – this is one of those faith stories—then we started applying to school. Kumar told us they would pay 80%, we would only have to pay 20% of our tuition. It would involve driving 25 minutes to Athens, and it would involve doing school in the evening.

ME:  And you didn’t have children at the time, correct?

SCHLEIFER: Nope, no children, so we applied. It had to be in business, so my wife applied in accounting and I applied for an MBA program, then I had the GMAT. I guess sometime in February we got acceptance letters to start in the spring (they were on a quarter system like Davidson), but they actually had a summer quarter in Georgia. So we went to Kumar and said “Great news, we’ve been accepted to start in the spring!” and he said “Well that’s great, but right now we don’t really have the money to pay for it, but we strongly encourage you to go and do it.”

ME:  How old were you both at time?

SCHLEIFER: Probably about 22 or 23.

ME:  I bet you were really let down.

SCHLEIFER: I was more than let down. I was really angry because I felt like we had been betrayed, and we had only been there 6 or 7 months and hadn’t really had a chance to save up a lot of money. We had made some stupid purchases, like a refrigerator because the duplex we lived in didn’t have one, that sort of thing. I wanted to just quit and go to school and she was like we can’t afford to quit, we need to work for a while and save up our money and then we’ll go to school. In response, I cheated and pulled out the Bible. I quoted Jesus saying, “Look at the birds of the air, they neither toil nor spin and look at them, and look at the flowers of the field, God arrays them…” so I won because I cheated. We moved into married student housing and it was really cheap. The Monday after we moved in I got a call from the business school wanting me to come and talk to them. I went down and this lady explained to me [that] they give out research internships at the beginning of each fall semester based on GMAT scores; the highest gets the first one. This kid had dropped out of school and then at that point I had the highest score, so she asked me if I would like to have the research internship job. On the way home, I picked up the wanted ad and there was this all you can eat seafood buffet called The Landing that was looking for waitressing help, and Lydia had waited tables in high school and college. So she got a job and we both started school and we both had jobs and income.

ME:  How long had you been married at the time when you moved to Georgia?

SCHLEIFER: We had been married about 3 months.

ME:  That had to have been really formative, only having been married for a few months [and then] to move to a new state away from your parents and coming up against a struggle.

SCHLEIFER: We were 2 ½ hours from her parents in Brevard. We moved to Washington, Georgia which was 3 hours from her parents, then we moved to Athens, which was 3 hours from her parents, and then our next move was to Clemson which is 1 ½ hours from her parents. So we’ve been married 37 years and we’ve never lived more than 3 hours away from her parents. Anyways, I got really bored really fast with the MBA program and decided I’d switch to English. It was Theater or English, but English seemed like the safer bet.

ME:  Did you ever regret that decision?

SCHLEIFER: My number 3 daughter said to me the other day (she had been applying to grad school) “I can’t believe I’m applying to graduate school when I don’t even know what I want to do yet.” She’s been going back and forth between the various types of engineering. I said, “Look, I’m almost 60 and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.” I read popular books about linguistics and behavioral psychology, really interesting stuff, and I think I should go back and get a Ph.D. in evolutionary psychology. But that would take like 8 years.

ME:  Who in literature has had the greatest influence on you? I assume it’s Shakespeare, but I could be wrong.

SCHLEIFER: Well, when I went for my master’s degree, the guy who was the graduate coordinator for the English department helped you figure out what you were interested in and suggest[ed] a couple of advisors. He would give a big sales pitch starting with Old and Middle English, because how can you understand renaissance English and literature if you can’t understand or you don’t know anything about Old and Middle English literature. He kinda convinced me with that to do my master’s degree in Old and Middle English literature. I was already interested in doing Renaissance (particularly theater) because I had been in theater at Davidson. So that influenced me, and reading Tolkien when I was young: of course, Tolkien is a medievalist, and there is almost an inherent connection between people who like fantasy and people who like Old and Middle English literature. I guess Tolkien influenced me more than I thought. Drama was also influential to me, like Tom Stoppard. There’s been all kind of literature I’ve enjoyed over the years. I’ve gone through phases. I’ve read a lot of science fiction, and fantasy, and then for a while I got into detective fiction, particularly hard-boiled detective fiction like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. In terms of contemporary authors, my favorite was Robert D. Parker, who died a few years ago.

Once I finished with the graduate program, I started doing theater again and I was involved in theater here and community theater. I directed plays here for 11 years. They had the tradition of doing a spring musical when I came to SWU, and then they asked me if I would direct one. Then the kids said we only ever do this musical, and some people don’t sing but would like to be in a play, so I started doing two plays a year in addition to the community theater. Then when my son got a little older I had to stop because he was traveling a lot with soccer. I’m still interested in theater. I taught and developed a theater appreciation class here. I used to teach a class on modern drama, but then the budget got tight and things got cancelled. So Shakespeare, yeah, but Middleton, John Donne, and Eliot. Lewis, I read The Space Trilogy when I was in grad school. Of course, most people are familiar with his Narnia stuff, but I started with The Space Trilogy because it was science fiction. There have been a lot of genres I have enjoyed. I like genre fiction. I don’t really get in to the serious fiction that’s contemporary. There’s something about it. So much of it seems to be everyday life.

ME:  Too cliché?

SCHLEIFER: It’s like it doesn’t seem to have the inventiveness of genre fiction, which is ironic because there are certain things that are automatic in genre fiction, so you would think it would be mechanical, but you also get creativeness and imagination because people start with those conventions of the genre and then you watch how they get around them, or expand on them, or play with them. A lot people think that writing sonnets or couplets is a strait jacket because you can’t just be free to invent, but I think a lot [of the] time those strait jackets provide the chance for real creativity, whereas free verse or your standard literary fiction there is not much room for inventiveness at all. [You] have so much freedom you can’t do anything. It’s like when you go to Baskin Robbins, and you have so many choices and you’re like…. Vanilla.

ME:  Your high school: was it a big school?

SCHLEIFER: My high school was 1500 students with 3 grades. Davidson was 1200 or 1250. It had recently gone co-ed. Lydia was the class of ‘77, she started in ‘73 and she was in the first group of freshman women. The previous year they admitted women as transfer students, so prior to that Davidson had been 1000 men and when the board of trustees decided it was time to go co-ed they kept the 1000 men and just added women.

ME:  What was your favorite job, or is it this, being here at SWU?

SCHLEIFER: I’d say this. What I like about teaching full-time at a small college like this over 21 years: I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of things. For instance, if I were at Clemson on the 10-year track, the research expectations would have been a lot higher. You would have been expected to publish a book, not a novel, but a book on literary criticism. A lot people will take their dissertation and re-work it into it. I wouldn’t have been teaching many classes, but it would be freshman and sophomore classes, and every once-in-a-while an upper level class in my discipline, which for me would have meant Shakespeare or early British literature survey. But here I’ve taught Shakespeare, theater classes, grammar and linguistics, the history of English language; I’ve developed 400 level classes. I did one on the “Inklings” and the last one I did was on dystopia fiction. Plus, I directed theater here.

ME:  What were you doing before you started teaching? Were you teaching at another college before you started here?

SCHLEIFER: We moved up here in ‘85, she had a 10-year track position in the accounting department at Clemson and she’s still there. I had an instructorship in English which is just a one-year renewable thing. That ran out and I was looking for something else to do, because I didn’t have my Ph.D. yet. A friend of mine told me about an announcement that the business school was looking for a full-time person to look at their advising model and propose improving it. They had had a lot of complaints about the faculty advising in the business school, and I applied for it. I got the job, and I spent about 6 or 7 years doing that. The first year that I was there I did research on academic advising models. I visited other schools to find out what they were doing, then wrote a proposal to the dean about a suggestion for improving academic advising in the college by going to an advising center model. He accepted it, and for 6 years I was the director of advising, which was nice because it was like a day job. It wasn’t like faculty where you had prep work to do and grades to do, it was just a day job that allowed me to work on my dissertation at night. Actually, the first couple of years I was working on Lydia’s dissertation or helping her do the typing. Then I worked on my dissertation. Then in ‘95 the person who was the division chair here, who happened to be my neighbor, told me there was an opening and said, “Why don’t you apply for it?” So I did. I’ve been here since.

ME:  I know you’ve been married for quite some time, but what is one of the most important values you and Lydia have tried to instill in your children?

SCHLEIFER: I guess one would be that you’re responsible for the decisions you make. I grew up in a Lutheran church and we had theology classes three years before conformation, then in 9th grade you were confirmed as an adult member of the church. I had to go through it because my dad was the pastor and these were classes at night. On Thursdays, if my dad threw out a question there better be at least one kid to raise their hand. Well, that was me. I was that one kid. I didn’t really push my kids into confirmation, I wanted them to make the decision. I wanted them to learn about their faith, I wanted them to be prepared for when they left so they would know.

When I was at Georgia, there was a group there called Maranatha chapel. They would find kids that were kind of lonely and hadn’t found a group, they would be super welcoming, and once they got into the group it was “You can’t date that person because they’re not who you should date.”

ME:  What domination was that church?

SCHLEIFER: I don’t know, non-domination, super fundamentalist. You run into people who say if you’re baptized as a baby that doesn’t count, because you have to say the magic words when you’re baptized, and I wanted [my kids] to be prepared for that and be able to respond to those kind of things. I wanted them to be able to say “This is the Biblical basis for what I believe,” but I didn’t want to force them into conformation because I wanted them to be responsible to do it. In the same way my dad’s approach to premarital sex was, “If you get a girl pregnant, you know you have to get married and get a job and support your family, so – so much for college.”

ME:  He scared you to not do it.

SCHLEIFER: It was more you are responsible for your decisions. If you make that decision and things go that way, you’re responsible for them. So that would probably be the one thing.

ME:  Do you feel like that’s been successful?

SCHLEIFER: I think so. They’ve had struggles, but the two older ones are married, they both have Master degrees. The third one is finishing up her undergraduate degree. She did what she needed to get scholarship money and got the work done. Now she is going on to grad school. My son is starting here at SWU in the fall. He says he can go anywhere and get a Computer Science degree but, he can only go to SWU and get a Computer Science Degree for free and he won’t have the student loans till he goes to grad school.

ME: I hear a lot of negative things about teaching. In the past, how would you have responded to these comments?

SCHLEIFER: First, I think teaching is a lot of fun. There are times when I am preparing to teach Hamlet and I think back to a Steve Martin album. The first album he put out was “The Wild and Crazy Guy,” and the last line of this one song was “The most amazing thing is I get paid to do this.” For me to be able to talk about Shakespeare and talk about Donne, which I am passionate about, is great. Teaching at a Christian school where I don’t have to pretend that Shakespeare wasn’t a Christian writer is great also. For decades now, the public school system has been taken over by the constructivist[s] and the progressives who insist they know better how to teach young people better than anyone in history. For instance, one of the things they talk about in the public schools is [that] you should be the guide on the side not the sage on the stage. Sorry: I have [a] Ph.D. for a reason, and what I got with my Ph.D. is a whole lot of knowledge that you’re not going to get if I don’t offer it. Anyone can be a guide on the side, you don’t need an education for that. You don’t need a certificate to teach to be a guide on the side. There was a study done called “Project Follow Through,” and they solicited different approaches to teaching. Different students were surveyed, mostly under privileged students. During this study they were tested for their learning skills along with their ability to attain what they were taught. At the end of the survey they found that the best approach was Direct Instruction. Some of the approaches that were less effective in those days are being used today. I have a soccer coaching license, and you have to take a class and demonstrate all your skills to earn a license. They teach you how to train young people be soccer players. Take a simple thing like passing the ball: they teach you to line them up and have them pass the ball back and forth. You as the coach are there to analyze their accuracy. Then you move on to passing in motion, they are supposed to do what they just learned and [move] at the same time. And finally you play a game with goals, and the only way you can score is to pass the ball through these cones and have them score a goal. During the game you have to stop the game and teach them what they are doing wrong or what they could do differently. To me, imbedding reading and writing instruction is [getting] the kids and put[ting] them out on the field, and as they are playing you try to occasionally stop the game and point out the errors and correct them. You have to teach the basic skill[s] and move on. In Grammar we have to slow down and focus more on those individual things. But if I don’t do that then the students won’t get any of it. I pray that as my students graduate they don’t have a dominant principle. I am so glad I learned my times tables, and all I could think of is “Did John Milton, Albert Einstein, or Thomas Edison have a guide on the side?” and the answer is no.

ME:  What event in your life has been a major changing point?

SCHLEIFER: Sarah’s heart condition; she had to have a pacemaker. It was an invitation to put my trust in Christ. For instance, Sarah was a gift from God and if God chose that moment to take her away, she was His first. The morning of the surgery, the nurses came to get Sarah and carted her off. So what do you do at 7:30 in the morning? We went to eat breakfast, we had peace, so the surgeon was shocked to not find us in the room. You say these things that children are a gift from God, and you can decide to live that out or not. That was [an] exceptionally hard year. I had an instructorship at Clemson, it was one year, renewable twice, it was the summer of ‘87 and it was the end of second year in the internship. It was time for my renewal and the department head didn’t renew me for the third year, and I was very upset. It was required, and I felt like I was being discriminated against. I was more qualified than the people who kept their jobs, I felt like it [was] because I wasn’t a Clemson grad, that sort of thing. Katherine was born in July, my father died in August, so I spent a lot of time in Pennsylvania dealing with that, and Lydia’s grandmother died that year also.

ME:  Aside from the Bible, what Christian literature has influenced you?

SCHLEIFER: St. Augustine’s Confessions, C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, studied some of Luther’s work related to his theology and some of his table talk with graduate students. In terms of more literary stuff: Langland’s Piers the Plowman, John Donne’s Holy Sonnets.

ME:  If you had to pick one Shakespeare character that’s the most like you, who would be?

SCHLEIFER: This is going to sound egoistical, but Hamlet. He’s very introspective, he doesn’t just do something, he has to think about it and hash it out. I need my own reasons for doing something, I don’t accept handed down wisdom.