Artifacts of a Personal Nature: Interview

Interview with Barry Mauer: March 25, 2012

 by Charles Robinson
Photo by Charles Robinson

It was spring break and a few minutes past noon, yet I had already ventured through a deserted college campus and scaled three floors of the castle-esque Colburn Hall and walked the perimeter to the back of the building. Unfriendly concrete structures and windy hallways gave way to doors that led to more hallways and doors that led to offices. Taking my first right, I came upon a row of closed doors. Their owners, professors, were undoubtedly sipping on mimosas, watching their offspring ritually bathe in resort pools somewhere, or napping in hammocks in the shade of their back porches.

A few doors down, however, I came upon a dimly-lit office. Entering the room, I found rows of bookcases and a desk behind which a dusty-haired man was brushing his teeth. He looked up at me in embarrassment, but regressed to laugh at the awkwardness. Turning my attention to the bookcases, and allowing him some privacy to finish brushing, I laughed too. I noticed Franz Kafka, Shakespeare, The Critical Condition, and The Case of California. His shelves were a jumble of everything new and old, interesting and monotonous. He had epics, cult classics, and academic textbooks on either side of the room, floor to ceiling.

Once he was finished, I offered my hand to re-introduce myself and he complimented my Salvador Dalí shirt.  I quickly settled myself into a chair, eager to begin the interview. I tested out my recording device while he nervously settled behind his desk, recalling me from his theory class the year before. As he twiddled his fingers and his eyes scoped his computer for whatever he’d been working on beforehand, I took note of his boyish air. I was unfortunate enough to sit furthest away from him when I took his theory class, so I never realized how piercing his eyes were. Yet, they had a friendly, charismatic encouragement in them, inviting you to profess any idiotic or chaotic revelations. His jean shirt casually emphasized his unknowing sense of style.

I offered running downstairs to grab him a cup of coffee from Starbucks, but he declined. I discovered why when I spotted a silver tea kettle on top of his file cabinet.

At first glance, Barry Mauer’s demeanor could indicate seasoned wisdom, and his features could mislead someone from guessing his actual age. But the University of Florida graduate had only received his Ph.D. from U.F. in 1999, after more than a decade of school, trailing from the cold terrain of Minnesota. Two years between his B.A. and his M.A. were spent dabbling in the film industry. As he put it: “I wanted to work in film, primarily, or at least I thought I did. And then I realized I really didn’t want to work in film; it was very unpleasant. Filming in the winter in Minnesota is not fun.” No argument there.

Growing up in Montréal, Mauer’s parents exposed him to a lot of art, music, and literature. He recalls how they would read to him all the time. They were interested in what was happening in the world, so he just sucked it up like a sponge. Concerning his career-long determination and professorial godliness, he can only attribute it to having had some great teachers, starting in elementary school and so on. Incidentally, both of his parents were teachers—his mom was an elementary school teacher and his dad, a university professor. In his own words, “Teachers who encourage love of learning…you can’t beat that. And if you don’t have a mentor, trying to get the inspiration, let alone learn the methods and learn the field, I can’t imagine trying to do that.”

Years later, after graduating with his B.A. from the University of Minnesota in 1990, Mauer had worked with a mentor named Tom Conley, who’s now the chair of foreign languages at Harvard University. Conley recommended Barry submit his undergraduate thesis to publication, which he did. It was initially accepted, but then the journal never materialized. Mauer attributes this dilemma as “one of the things about academic publishing; there’s no money in it, and because people do it out of love and a sense of obligation, things can go wrong.” That piece, interestingly, sat on his computer for twenty years or so until a colleague was putting out a book on film sound and he submitted it.

Evidently, Mauer didn’t take that first experience as rejection. He was accepted and then nothing happened, so he felt like it wasn’t his fault. It did feel daunting, he recalls. He worked on that piece for two years, and when he couldn’t cross the finish line, he began to believe, “This is really not my line of work.” He was “lucky,” as he puts it, to have avoided rejection, in general, though. His first two pieces, coming out of grad school, were both accepted right away. It wasn’t until his third and fourth pieces that he really faced rejection. As many published writers will advise about rejection, he found it valuable to look at the comments, if they’re available. Mauer admits to being far more rejected with grants than with journals. Some journals have a 99% rejection rate, so he advises inspiring academic writers to be prepared in that case and have a host of journals to look at. “Start with the top one, and if you’re rejected, move on to the second one. It’s better to get your piece out there than not.” No truer words were spoken.

Moving on to happier memories, Mauer recalled the most appreciated project of his career: “The Found Photograph and the Limits of Meaning.” This essay, now the subject of its own internet blog, has been widely circulated and praised. The essay materialized out of a “bizarre habit,” while walking his dog near and around his home at Columbus Avenue and 26th Street, Minneapolis, Mauer would come across and, later, search for all sorts of different photographs, littering the streets: “studio portraits, industrial photographs, art students’ photographs, medical photographs, and press photographs.” It was no surprise to me that Mauer was a fan and collector of photographs. His office was packed with photos of roosters, sharks, seagulls, an old poster of Leadbelly, and the Folies Bergère. In the distance, atop another of his file cabinets, sat a picture of himself, smiling, and his beautiful wife, Claire.

But “The Found Photograph and the Limits of Meaning” became what it did because Mauer faced major pressures to publish, as a professor. At U.C.F., in order to obtain tenure, professors must publish a peer-reviewed piece or book once a year for six years. Although he had to “publish or perish,” Mauer spoke so fondly of the photographs he found, wondering why the universe offered him so many “artifacts of such a personal nature.”

When asked about his creative process in academic publication, Mauer stumbled upon where to begin. “Well, there are two approaches,” he started. The first concerned having an idea started and searching for a venue. The second dealt with having a venue but searching for the material to try and create something for that venue. If Mauer knew of a venue, then he might search for something he’d already started. “You know, it’s like being a cook in a kitchen,” he said to me. The idea is to prep a lot of things, or to have a lot of material that’s already started. Then certain things are on the back-burner and other things are more developed. Mauer claims to almost never start something from scratch. His material either “grows or splinters” from other projects.

His career has also allowed him to meet incredible individuals. In Minnesota, he was “spoiled rotten” by mentors like Wlad Godzich, George Lipsitz, and Réda Bensmaïa, all of whom he claims to have never known their true importance until later in life. An old friend of Mauer’s, even, invented the “Magnetic Poetry Kit” right out of college and became a millionaire.

But Mauer can also remember several cringing encounters with “supposedly important” people at conferences. One significant conference introduced him to “the new Gutenberg,” Jay Bolter. He approached Bolter, and the professor complained about being stuck in a panel with a bunch of grad students when he’d rather go listen to more important people in another room, to which Mauer replied, “Well, I’m one of the grad students here.” Mauer appreciated the excitement in the work of grad students over the cynicism of “big deals” with attitudes.

That appreciation of young and invigorating material most likely stemmed from his earlier years, when he, as well as 4 or 5 other students started his high school’s newspaper for “disaffected students,” Jail Break. That same newspaper, and several modifications of it, was present in more than thirty high schools until 1983. That early experience introduced Mauer to collaboration.

Some years later, Mauer was working on a 10 page project with several other professors. When the project breached completion, they informed Mauer that they only wanted to use one paragraph he’d written. He still received co-author credit, and he has never felt out shadowed or undermined when projects like those occurred. Mauer simply appreciated attaching himself to some senior faculty professors who had contacts.

Claire, Mauer’s wife, is a former professional writer for “corporate America” and practically Mauer’s toughest critic. They’ve co-authored a screenplay, entitled Channel Switchers. Interestingly enough, they write from the same computer. So I had to ask, “How do you feel about artists marrying artists, writers marrying writers?” He laughed and quoted John Cage, who famously said, “The best way to learn music? Study Duchamp.” He warned that the best kind of cultivation, romantic or otherwise, branches from outside of your creative sphere.

Forty minutes into our conversation, Mauer and I connected with our love of print publication. But of the dawn of digitalism, Mauer believes that the opportunities for making use of digital media are huge, although most of the uses so far have not been very good. He commented, “There’s been degradation, in terms of the public sphere’s ability to think critically or focus attention, and I think it’s largely due to the distractive and hyper modes that people are in when they use digital media.” The same goes for how he’s seen the competition for publication change. Competition’s become easier as online opportunities have expanded. Regretfully, print opportunities keep shrinking. There are so many forums to share material on and receive free feedback, that the internet’s constructive in that way.

Mauer has been teaching since 1992, beginning on his first day as a student going for his M.A. “I was a hopelessly bad teacher,” he jokes. He walked into his classroom with only two lesson plans and nothing strategized beyond that. His goal was to have students read material that was critically challenging.

He still receives emails from former students, usually beginning with “I don’t know if you remember me…” One student, in particular, thought so much of Mauer as a professor at U.F. that he told his father, U.C.F.’s Professor Charlie Hughes, to ensure he get hired. And U.C.F. it’s been for Mauer since then. What Mauer claims as a “necessary part of his career,” he works so hard in teaching that he’s allowed very little to no time for research, but he has no regrets. In fact, he’d rather dedicate his time than sacrifice his teaching.

Teaching is very rewarding, he claims, but it also presents worries about the future of thought and literature. What Mauer hopes for future creative writers is that they deal with the paradoxes in creative writing, mostly concerning its historical context. Essentially, creative writing is a historical accident; it only became an academic topic with the rise of new criticism. Literature, before, was just entertainment. Then new critics emphasized the need for understanding literary methods, which transcended into almost biblical scholarship. This created a significant gap between “ordinary readers and academic readers.” He implores the future generation of writers to think along with films, T.V., and pop fiction. He thinks we need to move toward “a kind of hybridity and collaboration,” to encourage blending.

What’s missing in today’s generation of students and writers, according to Mauer, is a core academic discipline. He’d rather that students ask the “why” about everything. Why do you publish? How do you publish? What is scholarship? Why does the academy care about certain kinds of writing and not others? Why are we writing these kinds of essays? Why does the institution ask for this?

More importantly, Mauer’s become frustrated with the lack of encouraging critical thinking. Today, there are constant attempts being made to undermine the teaching of evolution, sex education, and nationalistic mythology. His daughter, funny enough, couldn’t last more than six weeks in public school because the supposed “gifted program” she was a part of was restricted to one hour a day. She was allowed to heighten the frame of her critical mind for only 60 minutes a day. This is what schools have adapted into as a result of politics. But as difficult as teaching can be, Mauer swears that his chosen profession proves more rewarding than frustrating.

A real tribute to society and scholarship, Barry Mauer has developed himself and his ambitions over the span of a long academic writing career and an even more laborious career in education. For all that he’s given to the students he’s affected, all he asks in return is that they continue and fine-tune the literary legacy that he’s encouraged and fallen in love with. So I gathered my things after more than an hour of inspiring conversation, thanked Mr. Mauer, and left his tiny office, brainstorming how I can contribute to the future of writing.

One thought on “Artifacts of a Personal Nature: Interview

  1. I am so grateful that you wrote this piece. Barry Mauer’s unnatural absence from the Internet has left a hole in me for the last five years. Where is his writing online? Where are his ideas, if not online, in this digital age? What has he created in recent years? Where is his next album, Alaska? Is he happier now? In your next interview please ask these very important questions.

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