When I was a freshman in college at Miami U. of Ohio, I rushed a sorority and joined it -- Delta Delta Delta -- even though I didn't really "believe in" sororities, and often made fun of them. I just wanted to see if I could -- me, nerdy preacher's kid who needed braces and couldn't play bridge -- because in high school I'd been the outsider, never one of the "popular" kids. To my astonishment Tri-Delt took me and for a year or so I paid my dues and even "went active," hanging out at beer bashes, taking diet pills to stay skinny, and acquiring a collection of mohair sweaters and A-line skirts.
But then I "de-activated" -- again, I think now, mostly because I could. I could say that the girls of Tri-Delt wanted me -- with a 4.0 GPA, I helped prop up the chapter's much-prized average. I was proud of that. Back then saying "no" was a rare act of power for me, and it did me good to spurn the girls of Tri-Delt when I'd had enough.
And now I've just gone into strangely similar territory.
I thought it might be possible to become part of another club: the professoriate.
Maybe at heart it's a club I don't want to join. And maybe, at 60, I'm way too old and life is too short to play another Tri-Delt game.
Whatever. At some point in the past few months, I convinced myself that the fact that I'd written a novel, published dozens of poems, essays, reviews, articles and stories, won some prizes here and there, re-organized and wrote large hunks of UM - Flint's recently successful Self-Study document for re-accreditation, received the 2008 Teaching Excellence Award, chaired a significant search committee, taught 780 students in the last five years and countless hundreds more in 14 different courses over the past 16 years, designed three Green Arts classes, created two graduate classes from the ground up, taught three students who won Hopwood Awards for writing at the UM, organized and facilitated visits by a half dozen visiting writers, wrote columns for East Village Magazine that are read by more people than read almost any poetry magazine in the country...well...I thought that would be enough to get me into the club.
I thought I might get to be a professor.
Universities, as most people know, are hierarchies -- caste systems based in part on whether you've attained the dire-sounding "terminal degree" in your field -- usually the Ph.D. It takes eight or ten years beyond high school for most people to get a Ph.D., and at the end of it, usually they've produced the notorious dissertation that's supposed to be the biggest hurdle of academic achievement -- a book-length research or scholarly project. All this, obviously, is a major life commitment. And if and when they get a job -- no small feat these days -- they're subjected to another long series of hurdles, often mediated by geezers long past their productive years, many of whom have become embittered, pointlessly pompous and sadistic. It all seems far from the ideal many of us cherished about "higher education." It's not an easy life.
What I am, in contrast, is what UM calls a "lecturer" -- one of the 200 or so folks on the faculty who teach more sections for far less money than the supposed Brahmin caste, those who are tenure-track or tenured. In exchange for my larger course load and smaller salary, I am not required or expected to do research or publish, though as what's called a "Lecturer IV," the highest status available to me, I get a three to five-year contract -- no small matter -- and I am expected to deliver service, keep up in my field, and serve on campus committees.
Like many of my "lecturer" colleagues, my path into academia has been unconventional. I started out with a bachelor's in journalism, worked as a reporter for a while, went into the Peace Corps, then came to Michigan for two years of graduate school -- in social work. With my M.S.W. I came to Flint for a job at a non-profit counseling agency, and then decided I wanted to return to writing. So I picked up a low-residency -- but competitive -- M.F.A. at Warren Wilson College while continuing to manage a program for about a hundred of Flint's most down-and-out street wanderers. With the writing degree under my belt, I started teaching part time at UM - Flint, and that was 1993. I was hired full-time in 1998. I'm grateful for this job, which allows me to write, talk about writing, read writing, and of course, teach writing for a salary that has gradually increased to a base pay of about $44K over the years. That M.F.A., by the way, is considered the "terminal degree" in my field, creative writing. But clearly I came to academia through the back door, and I've never struck the proper attitude of deference. I've got a mouth on me and frequently don't honor the fences that divide the various categories of livestock in the teacher corral.
In my department I can't vote on certain things; at commencement line-ups I'm always sent to the back of the pack; and as I mentioned above, I teach more classes and get paid much less than my tenure-track colleagues. But I have the support of a union, the UM-wide Lecturer Employees Organization (LEO) which has valiantly negotiated two contracts for me and the other members of the bargaining unit, and they're embarking on a third round of bargaining this spring.
Despite all this, my vanity florid, and getting to a point where I wanted...hmm...practical acknowledgement, I allowed myself to get sucked into trying to join the Brahmins. There's something about being consigned to a marginal slot in the hierarchy year after year that gets undignified and makes a person feel sort of wild. So when the department got approval for a new post -- a tenure-track creative writing job, and I seemed to meet the qualifications, I decided to give it a shot.
But the big kids decided not to let me interview for the position -- the post will bring in somebody new to do what I've been doing for many years. And I've been ticked off, furious, livid.
The main problem is that they wanted a secondary area in something I don't have: Queer Theory, Feminist Theory, or Genre Studies, for example; pedagogy in English Studies, Digital Humanities, or Composition/Rhetoric in postcolonial rhetoric or the rhetoric of gender, race, and class. Whoa.
This is code for Ph.D. graduate training far from my duke's mixture of social work, journalism, Peace Corps, poetry in bars, sticky divorce and, in general, the messy dramas of 30 years of eking out daily life in unglamorous postcolonial Flint, Michigan.
My secondary area of expertise, unfortunately for my dream of the professoriate, is the humble freshman composition, the low-status branch of "comp/rhet" devoted simply to trying to teach first-year writers to write. What was I thinking?
The more I think about it, the more I suspect I should appreciate the freedom my non-tenure track position affords me, if I still get to teach the classes I've been teaching. But I'd have really liked the academioids to see my value and invite me into the clubhouse. Of course, this usually isn't how the world works. It's not hard work that the world recognizes, especially delivered by an impertinent crone like me. I'm hopeless for the job. I've got gay friends of course and a few theories about them, for example -- but I have to face it, I can't tout Queer Theory inculcated by the dons.
Over the years I've rolled my eyes at the memory of how I fought to get into Delta Delta Delta, only to sneer with the privileged knowledge of an insider once I arrived. Yet here I have been in recent weeks, practically an old woman, struggling to get a chance to do it again.
I don't even believe in tenure -- or, at least, the kind of pointless hazing that goes with the tenure process these days -- and even with that being pretty clear for me, I wanted to be "one of them." I wanted one more fight, seduced by the dignity-bruising aphrodisiac of somebody trying to stop me.
I guess I'm not far from my Tri-Delt days after all.
But at least I still have a job, and tomorrow I get to go back into the classroom -- without tenure worries to distract me -- and talk about writing with two classes of interesting, almost impossibly lively students. I could do worse.
Not a hero
4 years ago