Since 1983 I’ve been on the faculties of various universities in the United States: two public land-grant systems (Wisconsin, Illinois), one Catholic university (Notre Dame), and two private research universities (Chicago, Duke). I’ve taught undergraduates and graduate students, supervised doctoral students, written books and essays and journalism (some of it for Commonweal), and, throughout it all, talked to anyone who wanted to listen, with a special preference for those who’d pay to listen to me. The ordinary academic thing.
I’m a creature of the university, and, above all, a child of words. Words have flowed through me, sometimes easily and sometimes not. They’re what I’ve immersed myself in and provided a channel for, and they’re what I've tried to give to others. I’ve loved word-work and poured my life into it. I love it still.
I am, too, a working-class emigrant Englishman, in the first generation of my family of origin to gain a university degree. I’ve been a delighted citizen of the United States by naturalization since 1994, and have lived here much longer than that, from the bitter end of the Carter presidency to the astringent beginning of the Trump years. I’m sixty-one now, and was twenty-four when I landed at JFK Airport with a suitcase, a scholarship, and $500. My life in those years has been a university life, which has been both a privilege and an ecstasy.
Deep in me is a love for, and romanticism about, the United States that is perhaps only possible for an alien. Equally deep, the gift of class and temperament, has been a need to make my way. That’s an ordinary immigrant passion, at least for those without resources. I had none, except for words. And so words, in universities, have been what I’ve used to make my way. I’ve used them to elucidate, to explain, to understand, and to argue. The word-life, which is the same as the life of the mind, has been for me one of struggle to accentuate and sharpen intellectual differences with the goal of increasing clarity about what they come to and what’s at stake in them. I’ve been rewarded for that word-struggle with academic positions and some academic honors. For those rewards I’m grateful and, often, still, astonished. How is it possible that I’ve held professorial chairs at top-flight universities? It didn’t seem possible when I began; it scarcely seemed so even when it happened; and now that it’s over it seems like a Taoist butterfly-dream or a Buddhist sky-flower.