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The road not taken

Karl Zender ’59, PhD, started his career with a degree in physics from Case and ended as a professor emeritus of English. How did that happen?

The mailing label on the copies of the Case Alumnus that appear in my mailbox reads “Karl F. Zender, ’59 PhD.” The label does not list my major at Case, the university where I received my PhD, nor my field of study. My major was Physics. I earned my PhD at the University of Iowa in 1970, and my field of study was English literature. On the transition across those 11 years hangs, as Shakespeare would say, a tale. 

I have many fond memories of my time at Case: freshman beanies; Robert Shankland, chair of Physics, explaining why a pitched baseball really can curve; the friendships I formed on campus and in my fraternity, Theta Chi, where the other members included Donald Knuth, who even then was on his way to becoming a world-renowned expert in computer science. 

In retrospect, one of the most important of those memories is of a course I took in the second semester of my senior year, an elective in American literature, where I first read William Faulkner’s The Bear. Along with many of my classmates, I found the stylistic difficulties of the story baffling. Yet something about that story (in which the central character, Isaac McCaslin, learns of his family’s shameful history) must have planted a seed, because in the subsequent 60 years I’ve returned repeatedly to reading, and writing about, Faulkner’s fiction. 

While at Case, I’d earned almost as many credits in math as in physics, so it seemed to make sense when I graduated to take a job with IBM, at its Cleveland office, where I, too intended to enter the field of computer science. Yet for a variety of reasons, not the least my father’s death in November of that year, I found myself adrift and desperately unhappy. So I quit my job at IBM, took a part-time job at Standard Oil, down in the Flats, walked across the fence to WRU, and was introduced to Shakespeare’s plays by a charismatic professor. I earned an MA in English, then the PhD at Iowa, and moved on to a career in teaching and literary research, first at Washington University in St. Louis, then, since 1973, at the University of California at Davis, where I am now Professor Emeritus. 

The philosopher Kierkegaard observed that we live life forward but understand it backwards. In looking back, it’s important to avoid imposing a false clarity on an experience that at its inception may seem ill-formed and chaotic, and, in my instance, was opposed by friends and family. They had difficulty understanding why I would walk away from a promising career and instead begin study in a field where, as the joke has it, you major in learning how to become a barista. 

In nonetheless making this choice, I found support in a similar decision by Jim Kincaid, who also was an enrollee in that seminal course in American literature. Jim, who majored in electrical engineering and was a genuine BMOC, also crossed the fence to WRU, earning an MA there, then a PhD at Ohio State, both in English, followed by a distinguished career, culminating in a named professorship at the University of Southern California. 

I’m confident that Jim would agree that our shift in fields was by no means a clean break. I’ve carried away from my years at Case a number of benefits — an analytical cast of mind, a skepticism about the universality of the right-brain left-brain dichotomy, an appreciation of the elegance and the artfulness of a well-made proof in mathematics. I’ve taken away as well the ability to use myself as an example when I tell students, uncertain about their futures, that the road they first walk on may not be the one they later find themselves traveling. 

Thank you, Case, for these benefits, and more. 

Karl is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of California, Davis. His most recent book, “Shakespeare and Faulkner: Selves and Others,” was published in 2021 by Louisiana State University Press. 

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