I probably gained my PhD by telling a story about catfish. This is a little convoluted, but it involves an organic farmer, an Auburn student, my dissertation director, who had not allowed any of her students to graduate in 23 years, and a galvanized tub full of catfish. I really like a good fried catfish.
So we found ourselves in central Illinois, at the beautiful University of Illinois, where we were surrounded by literally hundreds of thousands of acres of some of the finest farmland in the world. It really is farm heaven. UI paid me ten grand to go there, with a University fellowship, so there is that also. When MJ went to the financial aid office, they looked at her transcript, and said, “How many scholarships do you want?” She graduated Phi Beta Kappa.
My fellow grad students thought I was insane when I said I was asking Dean —- to be my Dissertation director. She was infamous for her denying student’s dissertations, and degrees. I just said that nothing can stop a charming Southern farm boy. It didn’t hurt that she was the general editor of The Norton Anthology of American Literature, which is something of a good thing to have on your CV..
At any rate, there was a good deal of tension between us, as I am something of a stubborn farm boy as well. I strategically decided to let her make all the big decisions about my dissertation, while I insisted on making the ones that actually mattered. Then I met the organic farmer, an old hippy, at the Urbana Farmer’s Market.
He was the coolest dude I had ever seen. He had the good fortune to inherit an enormous farm right out side of Urbana, and chose to turn the whole thing organic. His vegetables were some of the best I had ever eaten. We became friends as soon as he found out I had grown up on a farm. Then his brother came back for the summer, from Auburn U. in Alabama. Enter the catfish.
I asked the old hippy why his brother had gone to Auburn, instead of UI or Cornell, which are probably the best Ag schools in the country, and he said that he had gone there to study aquaculture. He wanted to introduce catfish farming to Illinois. I did my best to not laugh.
I didn’t know that the joke was going to be on me. One Saturday, right after the brother came back from Auburn, I found that they had a giant galvanized tub full of catfish–live catfish. Once again, I tried not to laugh, but the old hippy said he and his brother had to go do something, and left me to run the booth, and deal with the locals, as I had sold produce since the age of six. He told me to push the catfish.
The punters were fascinated by the tub of catfish, but none were ever going to buy any. One finally asked me:
Punter: “What are those?”
Punter: “What do you do with them?”
Me: “You could make them pets, but most people fry them and eat them.”
Punter: “How do you do that? Do you fry them whole?”
Me: “Well, you normally clean them, and then fry them.”
By now a crowd had assembled, to hear this combination interrogation/ lecture.
Punter: “How do you clean them?”
Me: “The best way is to cut through their spine right behind the head, and kill them. Then you nail them to a wall, like a barn wall, through the head, and skin them. You don’t scale them, you skin them with a pair of pliers. Don’t forget to take out the guts first.” The whole crowd went “ewwwww.”
Punter: “Can you just nail them to the barn while they are still alive?”
Me: “You can, but they’ll grunt at you while you’re doing it.” The crowd thought that was really funny.
We all had a good laugh, and as expected, nobody bought a live catfish.
Then I turned around, and there was my Dissertation Director, in her PJ’s, robe. and fuzzy slippers. She lived across the street from the farmer’s market. She had obviously heard my entire lecture, as she had an abject look of horror in her eyes. She had to be thinking, what kind of barbarian have they sent me? A guy who nails fish to a wall?
I just smiled at her, and kept selling veg.
After that, things were different. She took my side during the preliminary exams, after one of the members turned out to be a total hole. She also took my side during my dissertation defense after another prof questioned my main tenet. So after 25 years, she finally allowed someone to graduate.
Thank you, catfish.