A Conversation with Prof. Betsy Fifer

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After more than forty years of mentoring and inspiring students at Lehigh, Professor Betsy Fifer has decided the time has come for a change. She will be retiring at the end of the spring semester. She was one of the first female faculty members hired at Lehigh after it became coeducational in 1971, and she has worked to make the campus more a democratic place ever since. She will be sorely missed. While she was still within arm’s reach, Drown Unbound stole a few moments of her time and asked her to share a bit of the wisdom she has gathered so far in her long career.

What was your experience like when you began at Lehigh in 1973?

There were 260 women, 4800 men. It was a very, very different campus. When you wanted to have a women’s studies course, you were told, “We don’t have any women, no one is going to want to take that course.” Or if you wanted to do black studies, “There are no blacks on campus.” There were, but they just didn’t see them. They were invisible. There wasn’t a critical mass yet. So, you had to push to get these things started.

It was a very different place. Everyone on the faculty was an older man. They were older-older, in the last stages of their career. There was no one to mentor you. And then, I saw them all go through that middle-to-late stage and die. It was an incredible experience to see a whole generation—to interact with them first, which was fantastic—but, then, to see them pass through those stages. It was a great lesson to us all. And I was coming in as a younger person. But, you know, they did their best. But there was a lot of bad language and bad attitudes. Things that can’t be said, but it was said, oh, God! I think people of color experience this too, the terrible insults. But they kind of let them wash off. You have to. You cannot go to the barricades for every single utterance. You have to be choosy, otherwise you’ll be getting angry all the time.

Then, if you did something good it was, “Oh, you mother hens!” If a man did something good, he was a star. If men were huddling, something important was happening. If women were huddling, it was old biddies having a biddy-fest. We just weren’t taken seriously. They did not think we were smart. We had been through the graduate school experience of having professors who didn’t want to invest in you because you were going to get married. And their careers are based on the men who go out and make them famous, and you weren’t going to do that. So, you could have a little bit of their time, but you were never the amanuensis of a great man. But when you came into your power, and you actually started the courses that you wanted to teach, and you were bringing in the population that you hoped would come into things, it was a great place to be. Especially the English department was not too judgmental.

What are your plans after Lehigh?

Well, I have no set plan. Everybody says, “You need a plan, you must have a plan.” But I love to read and write, and I keep on writing articles and reading widely. I don’t think I need the spur of classes to make me do that, as I really am curious about the world. I want to travel. And my son, and his wife and son and stepson, and twenty-seven parrots, and five dogs, and two cats are living at my house right now. It’s a busy house. And I think I will enjoy retiring and playing with my grandson—though people always say they want to retire and do that that, but they don’t always mean it. It’s a good life. It’s a good time of life. People fear this stage—going into the later stage. The seventies seem to be a really difficult decade for people to embrace, but as more people in the demographic are pushing toward that age, we’re seeing that cohort gaining power. People are living longer. You can have two careers.

Would you share a little bit of what you have learned as a teacher over the course of your career?

I always had a terrible fear of burnout from the beginning. And I never taught the same course twice. Remember, you were in graduate school with professors who had taught that course 55,000 times. You knew it. They were “Milton” men, they were “Shakespeare” men, they never taught anything else. So, with me, I got to change books every semester. And because I was in contemporary world literature, the line kept moving. So, it was twentieth century, then it was twenty-first century, and I could do American and world. I could switch back and forth, and I was never burned out.

Same thing with teaching composition. I had a terrible fear of burning out. So I had new ways of grading in ways that stimulated me. It wasn’t just sitting down to fifty essays, and I think I’m going to kill myself before I reach the end. Or the timer is on—five minutes for a paper and no longer. Then you find you spend an hour on the first paper, and you are so angry you could tear your hair out.

So, really change it up. Always be very experimental. Say, “I’m going to try something new this semester.” Keep changing it up. Say, “What will I like doing next semester that will really excite me and make it easier for me?” You don’t want to be a martyr. You don’t want to be a cynic.

And I don’t talk, in the classroom, in the front, a lot. No, you get them boiling. You get them started. You get them writing, in the first few minutes of the class. They are cooking. They are rolling. They are writing. And then they come in. In their voice. My eye is panning. Be in a circle, so they can see each other. You know, friendships are formed in these first-year classes that stay with them for their whole time at Lehigh, and maybe after. People get married who have been in freshman English together. They just get to know each other. Because their other classes are not that “touchy-feely” where we get into some of the emotional aspects of life. Where we talk about issues.

So, I get them going. So, it comes from them, but, somehow, you orchestrate it. And I’m kind of listening. And sometimes I wait for someone to censor somebody else or to say, “I don’t like what you just said because it’s not really true about Lehigh, or about me, or something.” And then I say, “We’re going to solve it because you’re going to tell. I’m not going to be the one. Don’t focus on me. Look at each other.” That has really served me very well.

From eighteen to twenty-two years old, I think we have the chance to really form them. Just by your attitude and what you’re emanating, they get ideas of things to do and ways to be. They take it outside the classroom. When a conversation comes through the door, and after the class, and outside the door, and the conversation is spinning as they’re leaving, I’m saying, “I think it’s okay. They’re still talking.” If someone is drifting away, bring them in. The art of it. It’s tremendous. It’s like you have a symphony. There are first violins, but there’s also the fifth seat. Not everyone is going to dance on their toes like Pavlova. Not everyone is going to sing like Caruso. “Why can’t I have an A?” Because not everybody can do it. But you can do your best, and that is wonderful to see. Every student is different. I’ve never seen two alike. There may be similar errors, but their minds are totally different.

But make it easy on yourself. You have some days where they write in class. And you put two teabags on each eye, or a cucumber, whichever you prefer. Because they’re doing work. They’re writing. What is wrong with in-class writing?

What is a positive change that you’ve seen in graduate study, and what’s something that you think has been lost?

Positively, I think you can study a much wider range of things. They’re doing things that we really couldn’t do before. We had to write about dead people. When I was a graduate student, and they were not dead, you waited for them to die. So, we were like vultures at the grave of these people. Now we can bring out new voices. We’re much wider and that’s better.

Graduate students now are very close, even if they commute. They stay in touch. They help each other. We competed. If someone could take a book out of the library and hide it and get ahead of somebody else, that was our dream. Now we’re helping each other write the dissertation.

But I think everybody is really busy now. I remember sitting around in my office talking to students for hours. I don’t do that anymore. And I think everybody did. And I think, for some reason, they had the time. We would just sit there, and students would come in and we would talk. And that is not something that happens as much. It’s not as relaxed. And people aren’t as relaxed with each other because there’s so much to do. Everybody’s multitasking. And remember, there were no computers. We don’t eat lunch with departments anymore because now we can communicate while we’re at our computer. And people are doing three devices at once.

So, it’s a little bit different in the personal face time. But let that also be a lesson to you. You watch the face time. You don’t give as much as they want. They could cannibalize you. You can’t be sucked into the black hole of student need. Don’t go across that boundary, that you do not cross into the personal life, that you don’t have the expertise to manage. When that happens, I think we’ve gone too far. I just can’t offer that much support. I say, “There’s places where you can go and get more support than just me.” And people didn’t take offense when I said it.

So, that luxury of sitting around. I don’t feel like you have it. I don’t feel like I have it. And we did. They were different times. I don’t think the pressure was on as much. People got tenure more easily, now it’s ridiculous, and you see it in the fatigue. And people are multitasking. People are parenting and going home earlier. We used to go out with students and have a drink. I don’t do that as much anymore. But I don’t decry it. I’m still in touch. I’m just not physically present as much with them. I guess it’s just a matter of the times, that we’re a busy people. It doesn’t mean we can’t be great teachers.


  1. Pingback: What’s Happening? May 2017 | Drown Unbound

  2. Sandra Hindson says

    Very much enjoyed Betsy’s graduate classes. Funny to think of Ben being married as I used to babysit him! Wishing Betsy a happy and creative retirement. Sandra Hindson

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