"More than machinery, we need humanity."
I don’t always read my undergraduate college’s alumnae [do stop checking my Latin, though I’ve never studied it, I promise all the feminine declensions are correct] magazine, but I do occasionally check the class notes and such at the back. The other day I flipped into the current issue, which had been sitting unread on my dining table for a couple weeks, before tossing it in the recycling.
“Patricia Skarda,” it said, in the faculty section of the obituaries. And my heart stopped.
Patricia Skarda, professor emerita of English language and literature, Sept. 2, ’14. Highlights of Pat’s versatile scholarly career include a highly successful co-edited anthology of Gothic short fiction and poetry and a set of distinguished contributions to the Modern Language Association’s indispensable “Approaches to Teaching” series. Her courses were among the best known and most heavily enrolled in the English department. Her “Romantic Poetry & Prose” became a stop on almost every English major’s intellectual itinerary, and she won the college’s Senior Teaching Award in 1986. She devoted herself to the Smith chapter of Phi Beta Kappa and to the college’s alumnae, giving countless lectures to Smith clubs around the country. Pat will be remembered as a teacher utterly committed to guiding and nurturing the whole person — to doing the transformative work at the center of the liberal arts mission.
Donations may be made to the Smith Fund or to the Professor Patricia Skarda Memorial Fund, a new fund that supports student-centered activities in the English department. Specify the name of the fund when donating online at smith.edu/giving/fund_ways.php
Since I have more space than a 2×5 column, I will go on.
Pat Skarda was one of my spinster aunt role models. Born at the kick-off of the baby boom in 1946, she was the archetype of that particular kind of semi-liberated woman produced by the mid-twentieth century. She never married. Instead, she came to Smith College, one of the remaining women’s colleges, in 1973 as a newly minted professor (in under the wire, before the neoliberal reorganization of academe really got going), and spent the rest of her career — no, her life — there. She taught until 2013, and in those forty years witnessed so many changes to the academy, and to women.
Among her students, of which I was one, she was known as a strict taskmistress; you wouldn’t dare miss class without the relative’s death certificate or your hospital discharge papers in hand. (A classmate whose mother did actually die that semester received unending personal support from her.) Her strictness, though, was only in support of her students; her classroom rules funneled us into successful learning. Aside from a teacher, she was an educator, if you will notice the difference. While certainly making strides in her subject matter, Pat advanced the field of higher education, and was decorated for her effort.
Pat was petite, and held more energy and fire than you’d think she could contain, which somehow aligns just right with my internal vision of such women. She smoked long, thin cigarettes, and, years after Smith had banned smoking in campus buildings, there would always be the faint smell of smoke emanating from her office on the first floor of Seelye Hall. Her office, with its tall windows, its carpets and tea cart. Tea is very important at Smith, you see. Though it no longer requires gloves and pearls, the eminently civil tradition remains, every Friday afternoon across campus.
One year Pat was the faculty liaison for my house. I don’t know how we won the honor, as she was always in high demand. But we got her. We’d invite her to tea, and sit in the deep chairs in our parlor — a silent study room during the rest of the week, but returned to its original designation for Friday teas — and listen to her tell us about her many years at Smith, and what she thought of all the changes she’d borne witness to.
She thought, among other things, that raising the legal drinking age from 18 to 21 was the worst thing that had ever happened to academic discourse. She was of the opinion, in the way of mid-century intellectuals, that it loosened the tongue and spurred ideas and connections that might otherwise be lost to young scholars, so that an academic evening would be so much more productive if slightly soggy. Of a man who contributed his name to a campus building (but which building at this juncture I cannot recall) she recalled the man himself — she said that the man never drank water in his life, and he would find it a travesty to hold events in his honor, such as the one we were attending when she told me this, while drinking sparkling water and fruit juice. Not all her opinions were Modern holdovers; reflecting on a young relative’s eating disorder, she expressed the suspicion that such things were rampant among young women in her own time, but were called only by the mild titles of diets and reducing and slimming, thereby hiding the disease therein.
I recall that a campus group wanting to publish an erotica magazine, a move then en vogue among a late third wave trying in vain to escape institutional structures of patriarchy, tried to enlist her to be their required faculty liaison; I don’t know what she said, though I have my suspicions, but in any case the magazine was never made. Despite her righteous existence, students thought her bold enough to perhaps support such outlandish ventures. And next to all this, Pat was a devout Catholic with a proactive religious life; the Church and Smith, along with her family and her hometown of Clovis, NM, were the lodestones of her life.
Without a partner or children, a nuclear family, of her own, the Smith community made up a large part of Pat’s family. With us, she marked holidays and the passage of time. In my years at Smith, she lived in an apartment on the border of the campus and downtown Northampton. She’d invite all her students for a party at the end of the fall semester, an ecumenical Christmas party of sorts. There were piles of food, with an emphasis on seasonal New England treats such as mulled cider and donuts (and you could just feel that she wished she could fill the crystal decanters on her piano with brandy and scotch, and mull wine for us instead of cider). We’d all decorate her Christmas tree, and among her ornaments were many sent to her by previous students who had gone on to travel the world. If you stayed long enough for things to clear out a little, someone might sit at the piano and we’d gather round to sing carols. The picture of Pat attached to this post is from one such party, which I attended, in December of 2005, which Quinn Collard, fellow Smithie, has allowed me to use.
With the passing of Pat Skarda, and with the fading of her generation of academics, we are loosing ground. Pat’s life would be nearly impossible for a new English professor today, who would instead probably spend her years shuffling from one underpaid, part-time, temporary position to another, likely uprooting herself and moving cross-country several times, never feeling stability or being able to form community. My memories of Pat — at tea, in her large office, inviting students over, gossiping about what had happened at the faculty club — are the remnants of a version of higher education that, instead of being extended to all, is being rooted out, so that no one may intrude on pleasures that were once reserved for certain classes of people; that is to say, academe is feeling the axes of neoliberalism harshly, turning our colleges and universities into factories producing slightly-better-than-mediocre intellects and some of the bigger cogs in our exploitative capitalist machinery, rather than anything deserving of the word “higher.” And, yes, it was at my dear Smith College that I learned such analysis, though not necessarily from Pat. Which only emphasizes the importance of higher education, for every member of the community, be they young women who go on to be punky librarians such as yours truly, or the educators who devote their lives to the development of other people’s minds, as Pat Skarda did.