As final papers and exams loom on the horizon, so comes the return of another, happier Columbia tradition: that week where you get to read about your professors’ preferences on cheese and oral sex. Actual Wisdom is back in all its elegant, awkward glory, and kicking it off is Barnard’s own Anne Prescott. Let her teach you about the Renaissance, educating the famous, and being happy in general. 

Anne Prescott

1. Justify your existence in 30 words or fewer.

Impossible. Good kids? God’s decision to make my paternal sperm join my maternal egg? Love for Barnard and Columbia students? Pretty good scholarship and prose that can avoid pedantry? Mystery.

2. Your claim to fame (what makes you special?):

I say yes when people ask me to do things–unpopular at school, I say yes too often (they want me, they like me, yea!), so I’ve been president of The Spenser Society (lifetime achievement award), The John Donne Society (prize for an essay), and The Sixteenth Century Society (hard work) and I’ve written a couple of books and more essays than anybody should, but at least about such entertaining folks as Rabelais and Marguerite de Navarre. A reputation for being a pushover. Also students who have gone on to glory—Mary Gordon, Anna Quindlen, Ntozake Shange (when she was Pauline Williams), Jhumpa Lahiri, Jane Leavy (author of a bio of Sandy Koufax)… and many others who are wonderful in their own way, often as professors and scholars, and with some of whom I sometimes have drinks or lunch.

3. What’s your most valuable or unexpected college experience?

As an undergraduate, discovering people like myself, especially young men, so getting married and dropping out of Harvard; learning to write—at Barnard. At Columbia (grad school) I missed the big shock that came a year after I began full-time teaching—the events of 1968. Wow.

4. What’s the craziest student excuse/extension story you’ve heard?

Having a suitcase with the laptop stolen off the baggage claim at LaGuardia. Of course it could be true. Moral: back up.

And here’s a true story. My late husband, a book critic, told Ralph Ellison, just to make conversation when they first met, that my students would sometimes demand extensions because, e.g., a relative had died. The great African-American novelist, who was also a professor, would have none of this, and told my husband, “What I say is, ‘Son, I’m sorry your dad has passed; finishing this paper will sure help you pull yourself together.’” I haven’t got the guts to say things like that, but I’m not Ellison.

5. Would you rather give up oral sex or cheese? 

Oh, I think oral sex (but which kind? Who is doing what and to whom? And which kind of cheese? And after all, cheese may have more calcium than….—and calcium is good for bones at my age. Or did you mean the other kind of oral sex? Make the guy do the work…).

6. Back in my day…(i.e What has changed since you’ve been at Columbia?)

I think that things come and things go. When I began teaching I’d have hesitated to assign some of the texts I now teach. I now have openly gay or lesbian students—in 1959 when I began grad school that was unthinkable. Then years later not that’s not so much the case, and now my gay/lesbian colleagues and students can even get married if they like. When I was a student Barnard women weren’t allowed to leave campus in shorts. And we have far more “minority” students. Now I can get papers and exams electronically, to say nothing of e-mails asking for extensions or complaining about grades. Amazing! Texts I study are often available on the Web. Columbia College takes women but Barnard is still here. Somehow interest in the Renaissance has survived (in 1968 I had doubts). Political radicalism has, alas, faded. Students are even smarter, even more attractive. There are more women profs at Columbia (a fellow student at Columbia was one of the first, or the first, to teach Lit. Hum., to the horror of one of her professors. And yet so much as stayed the same….Then there’s grade inflation, but that’s another story.

7. Three things you learned at Columbia:

1) To love the Renaissance even more, 2) Teaching is thrilling (I taught while at Columbia), and 3) Women can write about the history of science, as witness the work of Columbia’s Prof. Marjorie Nicolson; a teaching assistant for a Harvard course on that topic had told me, when I asked about this, “just because you’re getting an A in this course doesn’t mean you can compete with young men—yes you can! I’m now collecting material on Renaissance almanacs and calendars, remembering Prof. Nicolson as I do so.

8. What’s your advice to students/academics/the human race in general?

Seize the day; if possible, find work you enjoy; love thy neighbor–even students, even professors! Remember that the universe may care for us and in return treat our earth lovingly.

Anne Prescott via