Working with Frank

On the eve of a memorial symposium for Frank Moretti, some thoughts. Much of this was said more fully and immediately by Jonah. My attempt to get my arms around some of Frank’s career is online here, starting 39 minutes in.

Frank Moretti, 2006
Frank Moretti, 2006
There was much about Frank that was paradoxical, kept you off-balance, but his devotion to work was clear and unqualified. He’d often lumber through to work in the hours before or after his staff, half his age, had fluttered in and out. Sometimes his office door would wrench open and he’d affect surprise at the empty desks outside. “Mark, just you and me buddy, huh, you got a sec?” And so I’d be swept back into into his office, that office crammed with books and notes scrawled across oversized pads and cups of pens and piles of bottled water and a fitfully operational smartboard. Through any number of impromptu meetings my eye might run across the books, or other objects among them: snapshots of Frank with luminaries, his own paintings, his own photographs, signatures of baseball greats, or a few cartoons, one of which depicted a corpse with x’s for eyes being lifted away: “This man was talked to death.”

Frank loved to talk. It was typical of him to dive into his library mid-sentence, flip through annotations, and recklessly — convincingly — raise the stakes. Was this about a website? You were actually discussing constructs of mapping, scientific rhetoric, the terms of survival. Had a new idea? Well here was a Virgilian prolepsis by heart, Latin spot-translated. He would guide your gaze to that book, say, right up over there, weave into discourse a new reference and half-assume you knew it. Often this was was flattering, implicating. Any number of academics, administrators, funders, graduate students would come stumbling out of Frank’s office with a larger idea of themselves — and it was time for the next meeting.

He excelled at sizing up people’s motivations, and knew just how to charm. A perceived lack of character or initiative, though, left Frank restless, unable to forego a swipe at surface constructs.  He liked to push on any such surface, ironize with dabs of social theory or antiquity or university politics or geopolitical injustice. Often he somehow bundled these together as chords in some sort of showoff jazz. If, as occasionally happened, there could be no response, he’d pivot back to the pedestrian with a wave of his hand: “Anyway.”

It was intrinsic to his executive directorship (a title he snapped down like a trump card from time to time) that he could corral staff over and over again to talk strategy — to hazard reinventions of education, research, medicine, philanthropy, libraries with whatever insight youth, a new degree, technical ability, or sheer instinct might bring to the table. At these meetings he often urged others to take the initiative. He was a champion of agency, but found over and over that nobody would pick up the phone, connect the dots, work overtime, close the deal like he would.

I was with Frank for five years. During those years my desk was outside his office, within a tractor-beam zone several others, over the years, had fled to find peace. Because if there wasn’t a meeting, or even if there was and Frank wanted to deploy you for some reason, that office door was likely to wrench open:

Oh hey Mark, you got five minutes? You got 30 seconds? Could you come in here just a sec and take a look at this? Mark, two minutes? Mark, I want you to meet… Come in here a second, Mark, I’ve been describing your… Mark, are you busy? I’m trying to show this and I can’t get it to… Oh Mark, there you are, I was telling X that… X, I want you to meet a real humanist… X, I want you to meet a real librarian… Oh by the way Mark, I was just showing X your project and I think you should… Hey Marco what was the name of… did we ever hear back from… are you going over to… did you give X a yell yet … when will you see… oh X, before you go I need to present to you… I want you to meet… don’t get up, don’t get up… Oh hey Mark you’re still here, is everyone else gone? come in here, I want to show you … Mark, you’re a literature guy, have you seen… Oh hey Mark, you’ll enjoy this… Hey, Mark, before you go can you pound on my door I forgot my goddamn keys again… I’m going over to see X talk, are you free?… I’m heading out, you need a ride home? Hold on, Christ … I have to take this call… just a sec…be right there…

The zone was no place to enforce or even defend your own time and rhythms. Yet I learned to trust it. The zone led into teaching appointments, funded initiatives, trips across the world — good work in a new field. Frank asked for loyalty, offered protection, looked out for betrayal, practiced the improbable patience of the chronically impatient. He had a knack of looking you at you intently while flinging out an idea or reference, fixing you with deep eyes. His paradoxical energy, his love of complexities, were all right there in real time, right with you: as he talked he was taking your measure, empathizing with you, imbricating you, flattering you, challenging you, and maybe watching if you’d let him get away with it all. In this way he was not exactly paternal, not exactly the godfather.

Teresa hands Frank a comb during a 2009 dedication of his bench in Morningside Park.
Teresa hands Frank a comb during a 2009 dedication of his bench in Morningside Park.
He loved and channeled insurrection. “I’m just a frightened clerk of the empire” he’d say, confronting bureaucratic restriction or hedge. Rules, limits, procedures were for those actually frightened. From his scholarly cocoon he pushed at the university, losing battles but winning or outlasting wars. He cared enough to risk, he had grown his organization through the booms and busts, he had persevered. A personal network strung across a career through several businesses and educational institutions that had cycled repeatedly through Columbia. Resources marshaled, favors traded, opportunities opened in the academy by — as he sometimes put it — the people who call New York City a town. Another of his favorite words: “orthogonal.”

In the world of educational technology, he was by turns a champion and the bull in the china shop. He would rail against “tool myopia”; his own gadgets would get dropped, lost, destroyed; his interest in, say, simulation environments or analysis platforms or videotaped activities could drift to the limits of such representation; staff presentations of projects might draw fire from him for days. Frank got things done through the continually applied force of his personality, intellect, and a well-honed sense of opportunity — not by punching a clock or following a protocol or working through code or performing any kind of archiving, updating, quality control; he knew people did all this and could nod to that, but these weren’t his mindsets. Instead he insisted his staff meet him on the ground of higher purposes, social transformations. If someone would not do this — ultimately a matter of spiritual, not intellectual, temperament — his attention moved on.

But he would be back. There was something relentless about the man, including his faith in students, and to work with him was to be his student. You both knew you were in this human situation together, the scene of instruction in a high stakes and ever-doomed world, day after day. It was always about teaching. He always had one, often two classes he was actually teaching on the side, or summer reading groups he’d form with staff, and in these he’d conduct a slow march through thick theory, savoring complexity. There were days when he’d notice me carting around Sophocles, say, en route to my own class and say: “you know, you and I, we should really team-teach the Core sometime.”

When I finally moved out of the zone into my own office, Frank was my first visitor. By then it wasn’t at all easy for him to move around, it was when he was driving down from Riverdale to campus less and less, between periods in the hospital. He embraced my new opportunity and, sitting in front of my books for once, made it ours. He’d been working out a long term vision — out came a new chart. We would continue this conversation, up in Riverdale or on the phone from Beth Israel, no matter the medicine slurring his speech, until he could hold out no longer and was gone.

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