Prof-iles: The rebellious child learns to run the distance

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Photo credit: Jian Bautista

For most people, choosing a college means looking at variables like acceptance or cost. For Toby Widdicombe, a UAA English professor, choosing Cambridge University was part of being the rebellious child.

“I went to Cambridge University for my BA and an MA, and I did that for what I think is a funny reason looking back on it,” said Widdicombe. “I come from a very academic family, and so my father was an academic, my mother was an academic, my two brothers were academics, and they went to Oxford University. I was the rebel in the family, so when it came to university… it was rebellious [to chose Cambridge] even though it’s only ninety miles down the road from Oxford. But the real reason I did it is the funny reason, that one of my brothers failed to get into Cambridge. I thought I would show him who’s the smarter member of the family, and he’s sort of forgiven me for that.”

For Widdicombe, coming from an academic family had its advantages and disadvantages. An advantage was that his parents would take him to exciting locations, like Shakespeare’s birthplace to see his plays, but having academic parents meant Widdicombe was very particular in choosing his field.

“I studied English because I didn’t want my father to tell me how to do science, and I didn’t want my mother to tell me how to do history. My mother, in particular, would have absolutely told me how to do history,” Widdicombe said.

At the time, Widdicombe says his father was one of the half-dozen best known respiratory physiologists in Europe, as well as a professor at Oxford University. He believes his mother would have taught at Oxford as well if she hadn’t had three kids to look after.

Widdicombe does have a great deal of passion for English, and his plan is to write a good example of every book an academic in his field could write. So far, Widdicombe has authored and coauthored numerous books on Shakespeare, he’s worked on several distinct projects about Utopianism, and he is in the process of getting a contract to write a book about Tolkien.

Widdicombe has a very noticeable English accent, but he’s been in the United States since he attended the University of California for his Ph.D.

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“I had always read a lot of American Literature, and I thought it was wonderful, and I thought, so I’ll come to the United States and learn about American Literature, from the Americans, and then go back and teach the English all about American literature. Didn’t quite happen that way, and there’s lots of reasons for that. One of them is, I was so naive. I thought that the American Ph.D. was the same as the British Ph.D. —that it took as long — the British Ph.D. took three years, an American Ph.D. takes six. By the time I kind of realized this little detail, I was like, okay well, I’m kind of enjoying California. I fell in love, and I got married, so it was kind of like, well, why do I want to go back to England?”

Widdicombe went on to teach at the University of Santa Barbara for six years before realizing he wanted to find a professorship position where he could rise through the ranks. To act on this ambition, Widdicombe moved to New York to teach at the New York Institute of Technology.

“I didn’t like it there, and you can tell one of the reasons I might not like it was because of what the students said the acronym meant. The acronym is NYIT. It stands for Next Year I Transfer. Isn’t that sad?”

Like those students, Widdicombe did find a way to transfer, but as a professor and to UAA. At the time, UAA had advertised for a generalist in literature, and Widdicombe was hired for the job.

Widdicombe said he loves his job as a professor, and he counts his dedication to the occupation as his greatest achievement in life, but outside of academia, one of his greatest passions is running long distance.

“I went through something of a midlife crisis, for whatever reason, and I started to put on a little weight, and I wasn’t totally happy with turning 50,” Widdicombe said. “I thought, well, I’ve got to find a way out of this, and so I started running. I sort of haven’t stopped since.”

Widdicombe, who is almost 62, has run around 30 marathons in 20 different states. He has run the Boston Marathon twice and has qualified for the marathon six times, he’s run numerous ultra-marathons, and he even was a part of putting together a 49K in Anchorage for the 49th state. Running is an enjoyable experience for Widdicombe now, but as a boy he hated running distance.

“I started out saying, I want to run just because that’s a good way to lose weight,” Widdicombe said of the beginning of his running journey at age 50. “The first time I ran was in my neighborhood, and I got halfway through it, and there’s a hill. I’m not totally enjoying myself, because I’m not fit, so I get halfway up the hill and I start walking. Of course, there is an opportunity to say, I’m just going to carry on walking the rest of this, or I am going to start running. So I vividly remember telling myself, and I’m English so there’s this sort of vulgar expression that I use. I said, ‘Bugger this for a lark, I’m going to start running again.'”

Widdicombe translated the phrase to mean, this is stupid, and as a man in an academic profession, stupid things are not things he likes to deal with. So he kept running. He ran his first marathon in 2006, and Widdicombe said he was not prepared for it. Before the marathon, the most he had ever run in one session was eight miles, but he remembers telling friends that, “I’m going to get by on raw talent.”

Widdicombe’s talent might not have been athleticism, but perseverance instead, because ten miles into the marathon, he pulled a muscle behind his knee. With 16 miles to go, he decided to continue, even if he had to walk the rest of the race.

“I get to the end of the race, and I am really happy that I finish, and I say, “That’s the last bloody race I run,”’ Widdicombe said. “Anybody who likes these long distance races is an amnesiac, because five minutes after that I say, ‘OK, I’m going to have to run another one of these. This was too much fun.'”

Widdicombe has a lot to look forward to in the future; he has a book on Shakespeare that’s scheduled to be completed by the summer of 2018, and Widdicombe hopes to run in all 50 states. Sometimes the rebellious child in the family learns to run the distance, and for Widdicombe, that journey has brought him to a tenured position as a professor, the position of author and even as an editor for Utopian Studies.