Gayle Greene, a professor of English at Scripps College, who took her PhD in English at Columbia, shared this charming story about her experiences with Professor Danto:
“Julius Caesar!” He looked up with genuine astonishment. He was a philosopher. Why on earth would anyone ask him to read a dissertation about Julius Caesar?
“Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.”
“Oh. Right.” As though that made it clearer.
The young woman who’d cornered him in his office was a complete stranger. He’d never laid eyes on me, nor I on him. Doubtless I was wearing a leather mini skirt and high brown boots, my usual garb back then.
My take on the play was vaguely philosophical— very vaguely. I had ideas about Shakespeare and 17th century nominalism, though no philosophical context to fit them into, nor any other context, actually, self-directed as I was, the usual experience for women graduate students at Columbia those days. The Shakespearean hadn’t liked my topic, said it was “too modern and psychological,” so I approached the Miltonist with the idea, who said, uh, no, it would be awkward for him to direct a Shakespeare dissertation. I went away and came back a year later with a completed dissertation, throwing myself on the mercy of the Miltonist, who said, okay, okay, he’d try to set up a committee, there was a theater person who might read it, and a nice young assistant professor who more or less had to say yes since he didn’t have tenure, and he suggested that I talk to Arthur Danto. And that was my committee. They more or less smuggled me out the back door, unbeknownst to the Shakespearean (who found out years later, after I was comfortably ensconced on the west coast).
So that’s what I was doing in Danto’s office that spring morning, with my request. He didn’t have to agree, he was an eminence, even then; I wasn’t his student, and the dissertation was very long. But he came through.
After the dissertation defense, I stood outside in the hall, Philosophy Hall, waiting for the verdict. The committee filed out, shook my hand, congratulated me, handed me a few pages of typed notes, and went away.
Everyone except Danto. He stood there, I stood there, an uneasy moment, then he said, “By the way, do you have a job?”
“A job?” I had, as a matter of fact, just lost the adjunct position I’d been counting on to keep me in New York for the next few years. It was 1974; the job market had crashed.
“Would you like a letter?”
“Like… a recommendation? Sure, that’d be great.” It had never occurred to me to ask, I was that clueless.
He needn’t have offered—nobody else did. And he wrote not just once but many times through the years, as I applied for grants, fellowships, positions. He wrote a good letter; I never saw it but I was told it was eloquent. It opened doors.
Those were the only times we met. We corresponded when he was writing for The Nation and, for a time, so was I; we said, the next time I was in New York, we’d get together, etc., though we never did. But I remember him more fondly and vividly than I do almost any of my Columbia professors, as the one who had a sense that there was a person on the line, a person who might need a job.
I think that’s what we take from our teachers, finally, not so much information imparted as a sense of who they are.