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Interview with John Desmond

posted Nov 30, 2015, 7:54 AM by Chrisie Mitchell
An Interview with John Desmond, Professor of English

In January, 2016 John will retire from DCC after 33 years.

With Tom Denton

You came to Dutchess in 1982 with a variety of experiences, including work as a congressional aide.  What did you bring from those experiences that you were immediately able to use in your teaching?

            I came directly from Wright State University, where I had a three-year temporary teaching position.


So they had that position even then?

            It was a grant position but gave the same experience: teaching, advising, committees. So coming to Dutchess I had already had all of that.


What about your work with Chris Dodd, congressman from Connecticut?

            I had three jobs before Wright State: adjuncting, working for Dodd, and writing an outdoors column for the Norwich Bulletin. Dodd cured me of any shyness I had. He had 69 municipalities to serve, and I volunteered to be his rover. That meant I was seldom in the office anymore, but I would go to two towns a day, going to the town hall, saying, “Hi, I’m representing Chris Dodd.” I loved that, being in politics, but I knew that it wouldn’t last, as Dodd was running for the Senate. His replacement, Sam Gejdenson, asked me to stick around, but I said No, since it was the flimsiest of the jobs I had. My other job was reporting. In my night fantasies I would eventually be working for the Bridgeport Herald, the Hartford Courant, or the New Haven Register. I always enjoyed interviewing people, direct observation—all the things you find in the “I Search” paper in my ENG 101 classes, journalistic-based. Wright State University, though, had an opening, and I decided that I wanted to say goodbye to eastern Connecticut and see what the rest of the world looked like. Go west, young man, like the newspaperman, Horace Greeley.


So when you got to Dutchess in ’82—the big hire under Jerry Lee [26 new people]. . .

            And then he wanted to fire us all because he considered us all temps. That was when I began to think that maybe this union has a backbone. Dick Reitano [then the DUE president] told [President] Jerry Lee that the whole lot of them will sue you because they were advertised as tenure track positions. You can’t fire these people unless you say they are incompetent as instructors or are acting up outside and are in the newspapers. Well, one of them was . . . I won’t mention the name. So Lee backed down. They were hired under the SUNY guideline that parity, or near it, had to be maintained, so that’s why they were hired.


When you arrived at Dutchess, you jumped right into positions of responsibility.

            Right. In my first year I wrote the newsletter for DUE and advised the student newspaper. I was asked to be the secretary of the PSO. I was grateful to Al Ragucci [faculty member] because I would sit next to him. He knew everybody, and he would give me their names and then an editorial comment about them while they were talking. And it was the year of DCC’s 25th anniversary, so since I advised the student paper, I was asked to be the anniversary yearbook editor along with Joe Meehan [former DCC faculty member]. I worked with a bunch of people with whom I became good friends. No names—that’s memory lane stuff. 


In those early years, did you think that you would be at Dutchess for 33 years?  Was that on your horizon?

            2000 wasn’t even on my horizon. I was living in the present. What happens is that suddenly there is money for a roof over your head, clothes on your back, food on the table, kiddies come along, and then a chance to take a trip here or there that we never would have taken if the job hadn’t come.


Over those many years you became the College’s point person for bringing notable writers and celebrities to campus, a lot of people from the arts.  How did you pull that off?  The money wasn’t there in the English Department budget.

            No, I went to the academic deans.


You just called them up and asked for a meeting?

            Yeah, I just asked to come by their offices with an idea. Curiosity. I just wanted to talk to these writers. When my wife Karen’s father was getting surgery at the Cleveland Clinic, I read Gary Kinder’s The Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea, his major work. I wondered who this guy was. You have to do some research, find a contact through agents. Kinder, I happened to find through his own website, same as Thomas Cobb. I had gone to the 92nd Street Y to see Tom Wolfe—who I was more interested in—and Pete Hamill. So I listened, and Hamill kind of struck me. He comes across in his writing as a deez and doz guys, but he’s not. So I thought he might be interesting. The trick with these guys is that you don’t come on as competitive. I’m not; I’m not a poet, I’m not a novelist, I’m not a dramatist. This is what I learned from Chris Dodd. You are accommodating; you want something, they want something. You want them to talk, they want the money. You don’t compete because you want them to feel as much at home as possible. You also have to think: they’re on the road, they’re with a bunch of strangers, academics, you’ve a lot of nit pickers, critics. So if you come across like an administrative assistant, a docent, you can have them eating out of your hand. And you just listen to them. Most of them are self-centered and want to talk about themselves until they get sick of their own voice, and then they want to know about you. Robert Pinsky, he went on about remedial writing. He said, “You know, I’m at the other end of that whole thing. No offense, it’s not reflecting on your talent as a teacher. I’m just curious about what kind of student you have.” Hamill told me, when I was co-teaching with George Stevens [faculty member] the course on New York City and film, “All you have to do is feed us. Give me the name of a director you want, show a film—say, Bill Friedkin and The French Connection—show it, and I’ll get Bill up here; feed us, and we’ll call it even.”  


We didn’t get Friedkin, did we? 

            No, because the course only ran once. Students wouldn’t sign up for it.



            Susan Moore [the director of scheduling] told me I was shooting myself in the foot. I was running a course on introduction to film, film and literature, this course with Dick Reitano [faculty member] on politics in film, and the course with George Stevens . . . the pot’s only so big.


Of course, you wrote a textbook about films adapted from books, a co-authored book.  Maybe you can tell me about the highlights of collaboration with another author.

            I started off one time when my colleague Peter Hawkes at East Stroudsburg University [a former DCC faculty member] called me when he got a chance to teach film and lit there. So we started talking. By then I had taken courses at NYU on intro to film, especially the point of view of film, mise-̀en-scene, camera angles, I had to learn all of that. For my Films and Literature course I felt I had to talk about the film side of things as well as the narrative side. A week later I called Peter back and said, you know, there’s no textbook in the field. There were a couple of essay collections that were almost unreadable. I didn’t think the Ph.D. students who would be reading them would know what the hell they were reading. The essays were very abstract and jargon-ridden. That’s one of the virtues of teaching at a community college. You learn that the most effective form of communication is two things: clarity and repetition. Especially if you’re teaching remedial courses. I learned this from my colleagues in the English Department who taught English 91 and 92.

            So I asked Peter if he would be interested in collaborating on a textbook.


 That was a big commitment.

            It was. That was 2000. We wrote a draft of it, and that’s where Lowell Butler [graphic arts faculty member] came in. He desktopped our book proposal; I think that helped us get McGraw Hill’s attention. They were impressed by Lowell well enough that we suggested he design the book cover. Peter and I would call each other; I would call one week, he would call the other—usually on Sunday nights. We’d just talk about a chapter we had planned, and we’d send each other chapters. I think the process was my subject, his verb in one sentence and his subject, my verb in another. It was that interwoven, which I think is helpful. He split infinitives all the time, and I’d say, I don’t think I’d split an infinitive. He’d say, “Here’s because,” and I’d say, “Peter, ‘The reason is’ or ‘Because of that,’” stuff like that. The book came out. It took us four years to write and revise. Michael Korda, the agent, said that book publishing is like the cliché about the armed services: hurry up and wait. Publishers say, “We want three chapters by Friday,” so you knock yourself out, writing until three in the morning, knowing it’s not the best job, but you get it in. Then you wait around for two weeks and then one of us calls them. 

“Oh, yeah, it’s sitting around in my desk somewhere.” 

“Well, you asked for it.”

 “I know, but you’re not the only writers I’m dealing with.” 

Welcome to the world of publishing.


So you’ve also done lots of article writing.  Give me your one favorite piece.

            I decided that I wanted to interview 1950s television stars. The first one I lighted on was Will Hutchins, who played Sugarfoot. He suggested that I ought to be writing about    Montgomery Pittman, a director of 1950s television. I researched and interviewed Hutchins and Efram Zimbalist, who had written about Pittman himself. Pittman was a contract director at Warner Brothers, so he did probably every one of their television shows. I wanted to dig into this guy, who was unknown, and resurrect him and put him out there. 


Was Pittman alive at this time?

            No, he died in 1962, maybe. I called Efram Zimbalist [star of 77 Sunset Strip], who had written a memoir—his voice hadn’t changed much in 50 years, and I’d never heard a human being with that voice before. Unfortunately, he was suffering from Alzheimer’s. I asked if he stood by everything he’d written about Pittman. “Oh yes, I do, definitely.”  “May I quote you, then?”  “You may quote me, by all means, young man.”  So I did. I got a bunch of emails from people who said, Nice to see you recognizing Monte; he was quite a guy on the set.


I know that you’ve taught many sections of ENG 92 over the years because you’ve required your students to use the Writing Center tutors, and you and I have worked together. How have you kept your teaching fresh over the years, and how have you managed all of those papers?

            Three things.  First of all, you have to remember that even though you’ve taught it ad nauseum, it’s fresh for them. The way I do it is perhaps unorthodox. For remedial writing I use the analogy of teaching the piano. All of their writing is really finger exercises to create dexterity and a total sense of what’s going on. Thus, because I know what I’m going to say to them, I don’t prep. So it’s all spontaneous, it’s all their reactions. It’s their group questions—for instance, who can we write about for our admirable character?—that inform the whole class, and there are the individual questions that come when I walk around the room and chat with them. I really don’t feel that I teach; I chat with them. I probably see myself mostly as an editor. I ask them questions: why do you admire him or her? We talk. But you didn’t say that here; you just told me. Write it down. The second thing with remedial writing is baby steps. I remember a movie with Richard Dreyfuss and Bill Murray. Dreyfuss was a psychiatrist and Murray the obsessive compulsive who followed him up to Vermont. From Dreyfuss: baby steps, baby steps, so Murray walked around like this . . . [a cramped gait]. Another analogy is from the gym. Somebody goes to the gym and says, “I want to be tough in a week.” They knock themselves out on weights and run a hundred miles an hour on the treadmill, then don’t go back to the gym for a month. They’re sore. So you start out with baby steps, do range of motion before you even add pounds to the weights. Some of your tutors say that I let my students go wild sometimes; I let all the grammatical errors go and I just want content. Yeah, just baby steps.


You said that you see yourself as an editor. That sounds telling, given your background in journalism.

            Yeah, there’s never an ending to a story, but there’s a deadline. You’ve got to get something out there that’s the best you can do at that point. I say to students, sure, you could do this whole thing again. One of the things I like about teaching with computers is that students realize that writing is in flux. In other words, you can revise it as long as you want to. All deadlines are superimposed from the outside. I have to grade the papers. How? I do one class a day. During an office hour I might knock off some. Of course, you’re being professional, but you are knocking them off. Sometimes at home, if I’m tired, I might read five papers. I’ve noticed that students now drift more in ENG 92. At midterm they come back with unearned Fs and hand in a batch of back papers. I do grading incrementally. I can’t do more than about seven compositions and really pay attention to it. Then my mind starts wandering. So you’ve got 21 students; that means you’ve got three shifts during the day. Then the next day you do three more. That’s one of the reasons I’m retiring: I’m getting sick of shifts.


What are the most striking changes you’ve seen at the College in your time?

            Well, the buildings going up, of course. I can remember where CBI and Washington were. CBI was a flat plain, and Washington was groves of trees, landscaped a bit. The library was its own building. 


One more question.  I do remember you telling me once that as a graduate student in class you once threw a copy of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette across the room . . .

            I was an undergrad at UConn. Each of us had to make a report in a senior seminar. There was some kind of lottery with four Brontës to pick. I got the oldest sister, with a book that scholars had resurrected. I prepared my report for my night class, and I thought a way to catch their attention was to throw the book.


So if one of your students pulled that trick on you . . .

            I’d say, OK, and where’s the report?