Elizabeth Samet holds an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a Ph.D. from Yale, all in English literature. So she’s hardly the type you’d expect to find teaching cadets at West Point.
But Samet accepted a position there in 1996, to the surprise (and, I suspect, consternation) of her academic colleagues. She found surprising rewards and revelations, which she chronicles in her book, Soldier’s Heart.
I can’t help wishing Samet had written more about her everyday life as a West Point professor. She seems to have a large teaching load — 4 English comp classes her first semester — although classes are small. And anyone who’s taught in a business school (where students frequently disappear for interview trips and mental health days) might wish for a class “marcher” who takes attendance and makes sure absences are punished with “hours” of walking the Area.
As a career case study, Samet seems remarkably well-suited to this seemingly odd career choice. Her father’s Army service made his college education (and ultimately her comfortable childhood) possible. Samet herself is the product of an all-girls’ high school in Boston, where she gained confidence that served her well in male-dominated environments. She describes herself as athletic and physically active,
Like much of the literary fiction she teaches, Samet’s book combines rich writing with the absence of a linear plot line. She talks about her job interview, then veers off into detours that move us several years forward. The last two chapters get more philosophical than I would like: Samet is an expert on literature and teaching, not war.
I empathized with her efforts to talk to students who come to her with unanswerable questions. When I was a professor, I would feel inadequate and refer the students to what I considered more appropriate, helpful resources. In contrast, Samet struggles to help students work through questions like, “Should I stay in the Army?” and comes up with some pretty impressive insights.
Because she hasn’t taught anywhere else, she may not realize that students typically expect more nurturing from female professors than from their male counterparts. I was pleased to say that she openy acknowledges she’s pretty hard-nosed and businesslike in class. On September 11, it was business as usual, because, she said, she doesn’t know how to help in other ways. She’s not a psychologist. She doesn’t pray.
With 10 years of teaching at West Point, and now a full professor (I googled her on the Internet), Samet has become thoroughly indoctrinated — or, as she might prefer to say, a fully accepted member of the military tribe. She identifies with military values and feels uncomfortable with many civilian environments.
Yet in the end, she’s still a civilian. And I wonder if she ever feels as though she’s got a foot in both worlds, like a New Yorker who’s been transplanted to a small midwestern or southern town.
For some thought-provoking ideas about career choice, Soldiers Heart is recommended. If you’ve read the book, and/or if you have first-hand experience with military service, academic careers and/or military academies, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Just click on the “Comments” link below — no need to register.