Archive for the tag 'Carolyn Doty'

Living in the Shadow of Affirmative Action

January 24th, 2016

Perhaps because I am not Caucasian. some friends and colleagues have been asking for my opinion on the broiling brouhaha over the whitewashed Oscar nominations for 2016.  To one such query, I replied cryptically, “People should stop whining, and just get on with it.”   Not surprisingly, my politically incorrect response was met with uncomfortable silence.  Truth of the matter is, I have kept quiet about my own encounters with affirmative action for thirty years.  I have managed to “get on with it,” but I think perhaps the time has now come for me to tell my story.

Up till the mid-1980s, I was content to be a “lecturer” in the English department at the University of Kansas, because the half-time appointment gave me a lot of time to pursue my own writing.  However, being on half-time also meant that mine was not a tenure-track position, that there were only a limited number of courses I was allowed to teach, mostly classes in Freshman/Sophomore Composition & Rhetoric,  with “Introduction to Drama” occasionally thrown in as a reward.  This went on for a number of years, and then an opportunity presented itself in the mid-1980s.  There was suddenly an opening for a creative writing position in the department.

Although I was known at that time primarily as a playwright, having written nine plays, one of which had been presented at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and two of which had been produced Off-Broadway in New York, I had also already published a collection of my earlier, prize-winning short fiction.  Out of curiosity, I asked the chair of the department if I should apply for the creative writing position, because I could teach playwriting as well as fiction.  “Why not?”  he smiled amiably.  “You have all the right qualifications.  Besides, it would make Affirmative Action happy.”  Although I was startled by his remark, I tried not to dwell on it.  So I applied for the position, submitting all the necessary documents required—samples of my work, reviews from the press, student evaluations, letters of recommendations from peers and colleagues, etc.

Weeks went by. I heard that there were a lot of applications from all over the country, but that the committee in charge had narrowed down the list of candidates to six, who were all going to be interviewed at the MLA convention in December.  My name was not on the list, but I was told that I was still being considered.  “Should I go to the MLA convention in Chicago?” I asked.  “No need,” a member of the committee reassured me.  “We know all about you and your accomplishments, so there is no need for us to interview you.”

At the start of the spring semester in January, the department was told that two of the applicants who had been interviewed in Chicago were being invited for campus visits for further scrutiny and evaluation.  No more was said about my application, so I simply assumed, quite correctly, that I was no longer being considered.  The two candidates who were brought in were Carolyn Doty and Tom Lorenz, both of whom were novelists.  When their campus visits were over, the department was overjoyed to learn that the administrators in Strong Hall had been so impressed by both Carolyn and Tom, they had decided the department could hire both of them, even though only one position had been advertised.

Another couple of years went by.  After I turned 44 and had given up all hope of ever teaching anything beyond Freshman/Sophomore Composition & Rhetoric, with “Introduction to Drama” occasionally thrown in as a reward, K.U. had a new chancellor, Robert Hemenway, who was very concerned about the lack of diversity among the faculty.  He sent out word that anyone of color who was already on the periphery at the university, should be brought into the fold quickly, bypassing the usual national search.  The same English department chair who had encouraged me to make Affirmative Action happy, now took it upon himself to champion my cause with the new chancellor.  Thus, in 1989, I stopped being a “lecturer,” and became a legitimate tenure-track professor at K.U.  Another lecturer with whom I had been friendly, a lesbian from Australia who was also a novelist, confronted me at a party shortly afterwards and said drunkenly, “I may be the right gender, but my skin is the wrong color, and my eyes are the wrong shape.”  I don’t know how many others in the department shared her opinion.

So that’s how I was hired, in my mind not because I was good or because I had invaluable experience to offer my potential students in creative writing, but because I was a person of color whose presence on the faculty would prove that the University of Kansas was a colorful oasis.  Feeling very much like a second-class citizen, I was determined to prove my worth by working harder than anyone in the department.  In 1989, when all this happened, I convinced my good friend Grant Goodman to fund not only the first Asian-American Festival at the University of Kansas, bringing in an astonishing array of Asian-American artists and scholars for a week-long celebration the likes of which has never been rivaled at the university, but also the creation of English Alternative Theatre (EAT) to produce the plays yet to be written by my future playwriting students.  Sometime in the early 1990s, Carolyn Doty took me aside and said, “Stop doing so much.  You make the rest of us look bad.”  In the intervening years, even though I have won every single teaching award the University of Kansas has to offer, it never seems enough, because the feeling of being a second-class citizen has never gone away.

When I finally decided to retire in 2010, there was a great deal of controversy in the English department as to whether another playwriting teacher should be hired to replace me.  By then, Carolyn Doty had died, and Tom Lorenz argued very persuasively that there were more students interested in fiction writing than in playwriting, so it was more important to hire someone in fiction.  The new chair of the department was caught in a dilemma, and she asked me if I knew of any young playwrights of color who could be hired the same way I was hired back in 1989, bypassing a national search, so the department could have its cake and eat it too.  A former student told me about Darren Canady, a young African-American playwright originally from Topeka who had moved to New York but who still had strong ties to Kansas. I put forth his name, and he was hired after a whirlwind campus visit and interview.  Darren has not kept in touch with me since he was hired five years ago, so I have no idea how he feels about the way he was hired.

But, back to the broiling brouhaha over the whitewashed Oscar nominations for 2016.  I have yet to see Chi-Raq or Concussion, so I have no opinion about whether or not these movies or anyone involved with their creation should have been nominated for any Academy Awards.  Having lived all these years in the shadow of Affirmative Action, forgive me for thinking that the brouhaha is brouhohum.

Farewell, My Lovelies…

May 10th, 2011

On the afternoon of 9 May 2011, the English Department of the University of Kansas gave a festive “milestones celebration” in the North Gallery of the Spencer Research Library for three of its new retirees, presided by Chair Marta Caminero-Santangelo, and organized by Administrative Assistant Robert Elliott.  The retirees (Mike Johnson, Jim Hartman and I) were expected to say a few words. Here’s what I prepared for the occasion.

Many, if not most, of the people here know me as, until recently, the one and only person who has been teaching playwriting in the English Department since 1989, the same year I founded English Alternative Theatre to nurture, develop and produce the plays being written by my students.  But, my history with the department goes all the way back to spring of 1969, and not many people here know how I came to be at KU, so I thought I might share the story with everyone present.

These days, if I am filled with feelings I cannot begin to describe when I’m watching the hit television series MAD MEN, it’s because I lived through the same exciting period in the 1960s as an advertising copywriter for J. Walter Thompson in the Philippines.  Many of the ad campaigns that I worked on had won various industry awards, and my colleagues in Manila thought I was “good enough” to make it on Madison Avenue in New York.

Thus, travelling on just a tourist visa, I left for the United States with my hefty portfolio in June of 1968.  To my disappointment, after they looked at my portfolio, the people at J. Walter Thompson in New York said that, ironically, I had too much experience.  They were only interested in hiring cheaper, beginning copywriters.  They suggested I try my luck with employment agencies, which I did, and they in turn told me that I could lie about my experience and start at $18,000 a year, or else I could sit and wait for a $30,000 job to open up at one of the ad agencies in the city.  Not wanting to sell myself short, I chose to wait.

Day after day, I sat by the telephone, waiting.  Nothing.  Six months went by, and I began to worry, because my tourist visa was running out.  I had only two options.  I could be deported as an illegal alien, returning to Manila with that damned portfolio, my tail between my legs, or I could exchange my tourist visa for a student visa.  And then I remembered that, back in 1964, I had met a peripatetic historian from the University of Kansas, who had been in the Philippines first as a soldier during World War II, then as a Fulbright scholar, then as a frequent visitor in the course of his academic research.  Although I did not have any of my college transcripts from Manila with me, I turned to Grant Goodman to convince the registrar at KU to accept me as a foreign student.  And, believe it or not, that’s how I ended up in Lawrence, Kansas.

As a side note, two weeks before I left the East Coast for the Midwest, the telephone finally rang, not once, but twice, with lucrative job offers from The Wall Street Journal and from Alka-Seltzer, both of whom were starting their own in-house agencies, and they were interested in someone with my background and qualifications.

Too late.

I had dropped out of school after two years of college in Manila because I was bored with my teachers, but now I felt I was ready to reenter the groves of academe.  Had I gone to work for either The Wall Street Journal or Alka-Seltzer in New York, I would not have had the joy of studying with, among many others, Ed Wolfe, Ed Ruhe, Ed Grier, Paul Kendall, John Bush Jones, Jack Oruch, Max Sutton, Hal Orel, Beverly Boyd, George Worth and Jim Hartman.  I would not have formed lasting personal friendships with, among others, such wonderful colleagues in the department as Carolyn Doty, Bud Hirsch, Mary Davidson, Mary Catherine Davidson, Jim Carothers, David Bergeron, Geraldo Sousa, Amy Devitt, Dick Hardin, Bill Scott, Bob and Dorice Elliott, Marta Caminero-Santangelo, Brian Daldorph and Phil Wedge.

When Grant Goodman himself retired from the History Department 22 years ago, he let it be known that he did not want to be presented with an autographed 8 x 10 glossy of then-KU Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs Judith Ramaley, a position which, incidentally, no longer exists in Strong Hall.  I’ve never met our new Provost, so I don’t think there’s any danger of my receiving an autographed 8 x 10 glossy from him.  Truthfully, I am quite happy with all the pictures in my mind’s eye, of everyone I’ve named, of everyone here today, to say nothing of all the wonderful student playwrights, actors and designers I’ve been fortunate to work with through English Alternative Theatre, to remind me that the journey has been worthwhile.  Indeed, it has all been more than worthwhile.

These days, given the economy, I’m thankful I never got into the habit of reading The Wall Street Journal, so there is no reason for me to imbibe the “plop plop, fizz fizz” of an Alka-Seltzer.  Actually, I’ve never in my life ever had an Alka-Seltzer, not even the mornings after the nights of heavy drinking after some of our more memorable and sometimes even deplorable departmental meetings.  I hope I live long enough to tell all the steamy stories on my website at

Thank you for the memories, one and all, everyone.  A special thank you, too, to all my friends and colleagues who have given so generously to the KU Endowment Association for the annual Paul Stephen Lim Asian-American Playwriting Award which has been established by the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.

Empty Chairs at Empty Tables

November 2nd, 2009

It has been a while since I’ve updated this section of the website.  The plan, originally, was to pay tribute properly to friends and colleagues who have contributed to my own personal growth, not only as a writer but also as a human being. The list seems to grow longer every time I wake up in the morning.  Sadly, there are just not enough hours in a day for me to write and share personal stories about each and every one of them, many of whom I continue to miss fiercely, some on a daily basis.

I hope to retire soon from teaching, and will have more time to devote to these absences in my life.  Meanwhile, I am naming this entry after Jim Erdahl’s favorite song from Les Miserables, his favorite musical, which I am glad we were able to see together on Broadway before he died.  My friends…my friendsI see them all, taking their places again, one by one, the way they did in years gone by, when there were no “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.”

My friends…my friendsReynaldo (Ronnie) Alejandro, Robert Anderson, Sam Anderson, Nobleza Asuncion-Lande, Lyndsay Boynton, William Burroughs, Mike Cherniss, Tony Cius, Dick Colyer, Jolico Cuadra, Jack Davidson, Jed Davis, Pio de Castro, Carolyn Doty, Victorio Edades, Carroll Edwards, Jim Erdahl, Bob Findlay, Jean Gagen, Elaine Goodman, Grant K. Goodman, James Gowen, Ed Grier, Chez Haehl, Dennis Helm, Bud Hirsch, William Inge, Ken Irby, Judith Joseph, Bob Kahle, Clay Kappelman, Nick Katigbak, Paul Kendall, Eartha Kitt, Mark Knapp, Clay Kappelman, Glenn Kappelman, Tom Klavercamp, Joseph Kuo, Mandy Labayen, Carl Lande, Chuck Lown, Arthur Miller, Kaye Miller, Fusa Moos, Jack Oruch, Jim Pearce, Terry Moore, Charlie Oldfather, Maura Theresa Brennan Piekalkiewicz, Shirley Rea, John Roderick, Ed Ruhe, Amby Saricks, William T. Scott, Jim Seaver, Ken Smith, Eunice Ebert-Stallworth, Ilse Steinhardt, Andrew Tsubaki, Anne Turner, Jane Van Meter, Grace Wan, Josh Waters, George Wedge, Max Whitson, Ron Willis, Theresa Windheuser, Ed Wolfe.

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