Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Move Over, Daddy: Professor Aurelia Plath's University Teaching Career

“Sylvia Plath’s father was an entomologist and professor of biology at Boston University. Her mother was a shorthand teacher” is how biographies commonly explain it when Aurelia Plath’s job is mentioned at all, although she taught for 29 years at the same university. says that after Otto Plath’s death in 1940, “Sylvia’s mother went to work as a teacher.” End of story. Less vague, from “Aurelia Plath taught advanced secretarial studies at Boston University.”


At Boston University, Aurelia was Professor Plath. Sylvia Plath called her that in one letter, but only one. [1] Aurelia Plath’s New York Times obituary calls Aurelia an “associate professor.” Yet no Plath biography or archival materials, including Aurelia’s own writings, answered the question: Professor of what?


Seeking information about Aurelia’s work life -- territory entirely unexplored -- I knew only that B.U. hired her in 1942 to establish a medical-secretarial program and teach it. Her employer, Boston University’s College of Practical Arts and Letters, closed in 1955, and B.U.’s College of Business absorbed it. Sounds disastrous, but in fact Aurelia got promoted. Sylvia wrote Ruth Beuscher in 1962 that her mother had lost her job. [2] Is that true? And besides Gregg shorthand, what did Aurelia teach? Can we have any sense at all of how Sylvia Plath’s mother spent most of her days?


I found out, thanks to Boston University archivist Jane Parr, who scoured and photocopied B.U. General Catalogue annuals. Meet the other Professor Plath:


1942: Instructor in Secretarial Studies

1947: Assistant Professor of Secretarial Studies

1957: Associate Professor of Secretarial Studies, College of Business Administration

1971: Associate Professor of Secretarial Studies, Emerita


But really, now: How demanding could secretarial studies be? It’s not as if it was a real discipline like Otto’s, or taught anything serious, right? Here’s a sample of what Aurelia taught, from the 1967-68 Boston University General Catalogue’s course listings, with my commentary:


SE 203, 204. MEDICAL SECRETARIAL PROCEDURES. Prerequisite: SE 102, 104, 131, 134.  


-Prerequisite SE 102 was Shorthand II; SE 104, Typewriting II. From the B.U. School of Medicine, Professor Plath brought Drs. Alice Marston and Matthew Derow to teach SE 131 and 134:


SE 131. Human Biology for Medical Secretaries. Background in anatomy and physiology for the secretary in the physician’s office. Lectures and demonstrations using skeletons, dissections, histological slides, films, and other practical material.


SE 134. Bacteriology for Medical Secretaries. Survey of the principles of bacteriology. Application to the fields of food, nutrition, and medical diagnosis.


-After acing those courses, you may enroll in Professor Plath’s 12-credit two-semester course:


SE 203-204. MEDICAL SECRETARIAL PROCEDURES. Development of secretarial skills, with emphasis on accuracy and speed in transcribing from shorthand and from recording machines. Use of office machines, including the IBM Executive typewriter. Medical terminology and transcription of medical case histories and correspondence. Practical problems in office and records management, including filing systems.


-The medical-secretarial student then faced SE 232, which Professor Plath might have coordinated, but others must have taught:


MEDICAL SECRETARIAL LABORATORY. Lectures and demonstrations in hematology, clinical pathology, tissue pathology, and clinical chemistry. Lectures and library research in areas related to the present-day practice of medicine. Field trips.


-I cannot prove, but I will bet, that Professor Plath taught also the course SE 419, limited to senior students in the Business Education division:


SHORTHAND METHODS LABORATORY. Perfection through practice of the basic techniques of teaching shorthand, such as blackboard shorthand writing, introduction of principles and brief forms, and dictation.


-Aurelia’s boss at that time was Donald G. Stather, Professor of Secretarial Studies and Business Education; B.S. in Ed., State College at Salem; Ed.M., Ed.D., Boston University. He supervised an all-female faculty of five.


Then, in the 1969-70 General Catalogue, the College of Business Administration announced:


The programs in Secretarial Studies have been discontinued with the last entering class in September 1968. Students presently enrolled in the program should consult the Division of Secretarial Studies for curriculum requirements.


The end was near for what must have been among the most rigorous of medical secretarial programs. In 1970, Professor Plath was age 64, one year away from mandatory retirement. B.U.’s pension plan for profs was 20 percent of their salary. [3] Lacking the money to retire, Professor Plath hoped for five more years of teaching work at Cape Cod Community College, where she taught secretarial studies from the autumn of 1970 until 1973. Then Professor Plath asked for and was granted time off to edit Letters Home.


[1] SP to ASP, November 22, 1962, refers to Aurelia as “Professor A.S. Plath.”

[2] SP to Ruth Beuscher, September 22 and 29, 1962.

[3] ASP to Hilda Farrar, April 20, 1970.

A favorite piece of Aureliana: B.U. President John Silber’s letter promoting Aurelia into joblessness, with Aurelia's correction of his Latin.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

The Makings of a Great Woman Poet

“She never gave her mother much credit for anything. But just as she wrote both for and against her powerful, overbearing father in her poetry, so did she write for and against her emotionally absent mother.”


“From a young age she had dreamed of the literary immortality . . . held out as a possibility for her if only she worked hard enough for it.”


“In her letters home, she sounded like a typical boy-crazy coed.”


“She had an idea of what a conventionally popular college girl should be and do, and she was determined to fit that mold even as she aimed to break molds in her writing.”


“This year I have continued working at both poetry and fiction. I hope to grow more skilled at prose forms and I keep discovering how much more I need to learn about poetry.” 


“Interestingly, for someone who would achieve international acclaim as a poet, she describes herself as ‘Continually beginning the Great American Novel.’”


“her opaquely smiling mother . . . . fell short as a mother and role model for her sensitive, high-strung daughter.”


“Once again she could present herself as the perfect daughter, a model of talent, hard work, thoughtfulness, and girlish insouciance. It was a persona she had adopted a long time ago. She was sick of it, but it wasn’t easily set aside without a replacement of some sort. Pleasing and impressing [parent] was practically a full-time job”


“She envisioned her future as a writer and married woman with steady resolve and little idea of the difficulties the combination would entail.”


Quotations above are from the biography of poet Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath’s contemporary and her poetic rival. The Power of Adrienne Rich, by Hilary Holladay, was published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday in November 2020.


Like Plath, Rich (1929-2012), was a child prodigy with an ambitious parent; the daughter of a scientist/academic; earned prizes and honors, impressing her college profs as “the most brilliant student I ever taught”; after graduation attended not Cambridge on a Fulbright but Oxford on a Guggenheim; used a Ouija board; had a boyfriend confined to the TB sanatorium at Saranac Lake, NY; entered the Yale Younger Poets competition (Rich won it in 1951); had a first-reading contract with The New Yorker; built a network of big names; married, had children, and supported her brilliant husband’s career. In the 1950s Rich met Plath, who was three years younger and envied Rich to the point of nausea. [1] They did not become friends. Yet how alike their formative experiences were.

[1] Sylvia Plath to Gordon Lameyer, letter of July 28, 1955.