what’s in a title?

Since I quit adjuncting seven too-short years ago, I haven’t had much need for a title. I’ve worked as a grant writer and as a tutor, primarily as the latter. My tutoring business grew quickly through word of mouth, so I found myself already barring the door and screening my calls before I ever had a chance to set up a website or offer anyone a resume.

As I’ve begun to develop an online presence in recent years, however, I’ve had more and more need to describe myself in writing, especially as various websites and publications have requested short bios.

Even though a bio can be an important means of introducing yourself, it’s not the same as a resume. Meaning, it’s not the best place to list your various degrees. Bios can be brief, direct, quippy, and clever; they rarely trespass on the verbose.

When people want the short version of a story, they want the short version of a story. Meanwhile, that’s not something I’ve ever excelled at. It’s taken me 80,000 words to describe what happened to me in the university. In one hundred words or less, how do I say that I came alive in the language of literature, that literary and cultural theory gave me the vocabulary I needed to make sense of my own thoughts, that I have a gift for teaching that the university helped me develop, that I excelled in my classes, published my research, and earned high marks from my students, but that the university is corporate and greedy and misguided about education, and that I gathered all my courage to leave what I loved because I didn’t want to go down the rabbit hole with it?

I told you. Nary a quip in sight.

Further complicating this story is the fact that most people outside the tower know very little about the university’s infatuation with contract labor. All of us ex-academics, we are like wounded war veterans milling among a populace that is oblivious to the war. In bios and on resumes, I am supposed to make myself sound as amazing as possible. But how can I tell my story of heroism when no one knows of the fight? Without that context, my status as an outcast phd can carry negative and inaccurate implications. Did I fail? Did I get fired? What kind of crazy would quit after all that work?

I used to think these possible interpretations by others were what kept me from advertising my credentials openly. Now I think the root of my denial lies perhaps in my own answers to those questions. Deep feelings of shame embedded by the university suggested to me that by quitting, I had proven that I was crazy and I had failed. It took me almost a year of writing before I mentioned my academic past on my other blog, small house, big picture. Even then, my profile only alluded to my research in a vague and dismissive way. For over a year, I didn’t mention my adjunct work at all.

Now that I have a greater need to describe myself in writing, I have come to see that I cannot erase ten years of professional development if I want to accurately represent my training as a researcher, writer, teacher, and intellectual. Consequently, I began to account for those experiences by describing myself as a “former college-level English instructor.”

That doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

Other professionals have nice tight words like “attorney” to sum up their academic and professional endeavors. With that one word, a lawyer communicates the pursuit and completion of an advanced degree as well as the implication of gainful employment.

“Professor” is the word that can do this for me.

Except it can’t.

Or can it?

For years, I have taken for granted that I cannot use the word “professor” to describe my university teaching. Even in conversations I have avoided the word. Instead, I’ve said things like: “I used to teach English in college.”

Imagine if a lawyer said, “I used to represent people in court” instead of “I was an attorney.”


Of course, all this silliness comes from the university and it’s refusal to call me “professor.” Instead, it asked me to answer to “instructor,” “adjunct,” “part-time staffer,” or “term employee.” At the time, I understood that these words and phrases marginalized me–that they diminished my work in an effort to justify my poor working conditions.

What I didn’t understand was how much I had internalized that marginalization. What I didn’t know was that almost a decade later, I’d find myself first avoiding the fact that I’d ever earned a phd, then ultimately stumbling over “college-level English instructor” in my not so quippy bios.

It’s not just the awkwardness of phrase or the evidence of internalized shame that needs to be addressed here. By so obviously avoiding “professor,” the phrasing diminishes my role, wrongly suggesting to mainstream professionals that I do not have the credentials of a professor–that I did not do the job of a professor. It takes more than the quip out of the quip, it takes the phd out of it too.

Ironically, as a matter of protest, I refused to go by “professor” when I worked as an adjunct. Students wanted me to be a “professor”–whatever that meant to them. I wanted them to know they paid for one and didn’t get one (at least not a university sanctioned one).

I don’t know why it took so long, perhaps because the indoctrination is deep, and because I left it to ferment untouched for so long, but it finally dawned on me to quit dancing around this word. I changed my ready-made bio, as well as my About page over at small house to read, “former adjunct professor.” I don’t know or care if that’s acceptable in the academy or not. My inclusion of the word “adjunct” is enough to keep me honest, and I need this word “professor” to communicate my education and experience to professionals in the mainstream. In the tweet-sized language of today, it tells them that I earned an advanced degree and taught college students as a qualified expert in my field. It also avoids the confusion conferred by words like “instructor,” “term” “staff,” and “adjunct” while returning the dignity they took away.

For me, it puts one more little piece of the thing to rest.

a reckoning at the library

In an effort to save both trees in the forest and space in the house, I’ve been trying to borrow instead of buy my books. Unfortunately, the public library doesn’t always cut it, so I decided to renew my visitor library card at our local university. It’s a pretty familiar place. I earned my MA from this school and eventually worked there as an adjunct after the phd.

As an esteemed alumnus, I get a discount on the card. That’s a fair trade, right? A 50% discount ($50 annual savings) for me, in exchange for the thousands I spent taking their graduate classes–which, in turn, prepared me to teach GenEd English classes at a 75% discount for them. I wonder how many years of visiting-library-card-savings I’ll have to accumulate before I break even?

But really, I’m not here to gripe. It’s all about the library today. When I go in there, I remember why the university held me captive for so long. I can smell the ideas that linger on the shelves; I can hear them scratching at the dust that gathers like fleas about their necks. They’re waiting for me to come and collect them, I know it.

Of course, the time came during the phd when the library began to feel like a dungeon–a place where I sat hopeless, shackled, and plain old missing so many beautiful spring days. The sun beckoning on the back of my neck, the breeze wafting just so, the blue sky singing, and I’d disappear through those doors under the weight of some drummed up deadline. Why did I take it all so seriously!?

When I walk into the library now, it feels fresh and promising again, the way it did in my early graduate school days. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that I can ride up on my bike, drop off my books, and ride blissfully off into the dazzle. No deadlines. No obligations.

Well…there was one small obligation today. After I renewed my visitor’s account a few weeks ago, the librarian discovered a fine left over from my last account. She informed me of this today. It seems I owe late fees on the books I borrowed during the final weeks of dissertation writing…nine years ago! For a minute my heart stopped. How many thousands would I owe now? I prepared to run, lamenting my decision to lock up my bike.

Shockingly, the total came to only $25. That couldn’t be right, could it? Of course, I didn’t argue. I figured I would count it toward the years of “free” teaching I did for them.

I took out my wallet to pay, then thought to ask: “Could you tell me: what were the books?”

She printed out the list. And there they were, as if time hadn’t passed: Emile by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Pictures of Innocence by Anne Higonnet, and Ronald Reagan the Movie: And Other Episodes in Political Demonology by Michael Rogin.

Michael Rogin. Once a name I muttered regularly through gritted teeth in my sleep, and I wouldn’t have remembered he existed if you’d asked me yesterday. I had used these books while finishing my introduction and conclusion (two chapters that I wrote at the same time – a great little trick if you’re still dissertating!).

Looking at the names now–so foreign, so familiar–I couldn’t figure out what I felt. Nothing? Nostalgia? Sadness? Anger? And how surreal to be standing here paying this fine so many years later. What would I have said if you’d told me when I dropped those books victoriously into the return bin that it would be nine years before I would return to this place that had been my home, my prison?

I think it would have been a devastating piece of news. In those weeks after my defense, I don’t think my feet ever touched the ground. I knew the job prospects were grim, but I let myself enjoy it anyway. I celebrated not only because I’d finished, but also because I really cared about my research on the trope of childhood innocence in American literature. Things had come together so well in the final weeks, and I believed I had written something that truly contributed to both American literary scholarship and to perceptions of national identity in the–

blah blah blah blah…

Yes, I really did feel those things, and maybe they were even true, or would have been if I’d contintued my career. But I didn’t, and perhaps nine years is enough time to come to terms with that, to recognize that things have turned out for the better. Perhaps nine years is enough time to be able to pay the fine with little more than a laugh, an eye roll, and the gumption to call it even.

Which leaves me alone in those stacks, so stuffed to brimming with words and theories and stories, to explore them at will, freed by the gift of nothing owed.

it wasn’t a conference (thank goodness), it was ‘Listen to Your Mother’

I love the idea of an academic conference: like-minded folks gathered to feed off one another’s knowledge and enthusiasm. Great!

But the reality of it? Not so much.

In my first experience, I presented with a panel of fellow-students from a rhetoric class. Our session occurred on Friday afternoon, before the keynote. Three people attended. Had I really paid all that money for registration fees, lodging, and travel so that I could stand at a lonely podium and listen to the sound of my voice travel unfettered over the cheap and dirty carpet of an unpopulated hotel meeting-room?

I marveled at how nervous I’d been for what turned out to be an exercise in the ridiculous. To rub salt in the wound, a professor of mine presented my ideas as her own in a different session the next day. I listened in stunned silence as her lying cheating voice rang out over the thrumming of my heart.

She didn’t look at me once.

I made three additional conference presentations in my esteemed career. The others were better attended, but still, I’d say I never had more than 30-40 people in a session. Regardless, I’m not sure that it matters. Academic presentations, with their poor delivery and dense verbiage, don’t really aim to inform. Where are the visual aids and the eye contact? Where are the PowerPoints people?

The academy cheapens conferences by emphasizing quantity over quality. Like the imperative to publish, the imperative to present funnels scholars into the conference circuit like Sneetches lined up for a turn in the star-on machine. They come, in large part, to get their bellies stamped.

I actually have no complaint about the jargon, or the theory, or the nit-picky citations of the scholarly work I did. I loved all that stuff. The problem isn’t the work itself, it’s the perpetual isolation of the scholar–the fact that this work so rarely gets translated to the mainstream. The imperative to publish and present keeps scholars from participating in less formal venues.  It also creates a glut of scholarly work–more than the scholars themselves could ever consume.

So who’s it all for?

Certainly not the public. Ironically, unfair university hiring practices could help to blur these hard-drawn lines between academics and the mainstream. As universities shed new Ph.Ds. like so many flakes of old skin, they force intellectuals out into the real world where they have no choice but to mingle and work–in numbers. That is interesting!

Of course, I’m one of those folks.

I’m happy to say I haven’t given a conference presentation in something close to ten years, but I did get up in front of an audience to make a very different kind of presentation this past weekend. I read a four-minute piece called the boys next door in the DC production of a show called, Listen to Your Mother. It recounts a conversation I had with my teen son about rape culture, college parties, and friendship.

I didn’t need a bibliography or the Chicago Manual of Style to pull it off. I didn’t use any jargon. I didn’t cite Foucault, Derrida or even Freud in the telling. But I’ll say that even with years of scholarly untraining in the art of public speaking, I did make eye-contact, and I did invoke my audience (no PowerPoint, however!). I wish I could say I was spectacular, but before long, a video will emerge. I’m afraid it will tell its own story, whatever that may be.

Despite having rejected so much else about academia, however, you can bet that when formulating my ideas about this piece, I drew on the things I learned in graduate school. Theories about discipline, the gaze, the unconscious, and a healthy understanding of oppressive binaries such as good/bad, male/female, virgin/whore and agent/object.

I hope that doesn’t surprise you. Although university life serves up its fair share of humiliations, the departure doesn’t happen like a layoff. The provost doesn’t force you to leave your files locked in cabinets while he/she escorts you out of the building like a criminal. You get to take the knowledge with you!  In fact, you can’t help but do so, right?

Nearly 300 people attended this year’s Listen to Your Mother Show. That means I addressed more people in those few minutes than I did in all four of my conference presentations combined (and I’m pretty sure we could throw in my scholarly readership as well). Not only did I get to share my ideas with this much broader audience, but I also had the chance to learn from them and my fellow cast members.

Motherhood has long been the thorn in the side of feminism–the thing we have forever struggled to reconcile with our ideals of equality and independence. We can theorize, expound, and pontificate about this dilemma at feminist theory conferences and in feminist journals, but that won’t be enough. We’d also be wise to round out our research and “listen to [our] mother[s].”

I felt so privileged to share the stage with a group of people brought together, not by our varying degrees or professional credentials, but by our desire to share our thoughts about motherhood (thoughts that are surely also informed by our varying degrees and professional credentials). From stories of what happens to the body of a childbearing or breastfeeding woman, to what happens to the heart and soul of a parent who loses a child, to struggles with the race and gender stereotypes our kids face, to the recognition of the humanity, vulnerability and power of our own mothers, to struggles with anxiety, the “empty nest,” the shape of the family, and the gender of the “mom,” to the downright hilarity of the mundane, this show brought not just the joy and pain of motherhood to life, but the very philosophical and intellectual aspects of parenting fully into light.

If we want mothers to enjoy equity, respect and independence in our society, then our first step should be to truly understand what motherhood means.  “Giving Mother’s Day a microphone,” as Listen to Your Mother aims to do, takes a big step in that direction, and I was so honored to be part of it (and not cloistered in a conference room somewhere reading monotonously for 25 whole pages to nobody but a blank wall!).

Listen to Your Mother shows occur in cities across the country every spring.  Check out their main page for a show near you!  

you just miss the sex

I’m always the last to know.  I attribute it in part to my introvertedness.  I don’t get out enough.  I don’t network.  I don’t (or didn’t) blog enough.  Actually, I’ve been blogging for about a year and a half, just not here.

Since I last graced the threshold of a classroom (as an adjunct) in 2006, I’ve been almost completely cut off from university life.  Looking back, that seems rather a traumatic occurence.   At the risk of sounding like an old lady remembering the days before the telephone, I have to say: “We didn’t have blogs back in my day.”–at least not the easy user-friendly kind that any old fart can start.

It took me until 2011 before I started a blog of any kind, and it’s taken until now for me to think about writing a blog about life after academia.  Doing so prompted me to poke around for similar websites and I’ll tell you: if I thought I had an original idea, I was wrong!

I’m sorry to see so many people suffering their way out of the academy as I did, but I have to say I’m also happy to see a support community forming–something I desperately needed when my academic friends (caught similarly without tenure after graduation) scattered to the wind like dogwood petals just past their bloom.

The forty-eight hours I’ve spent perusing these websites has helped me to better understand the juncture I’ve come to, including this professor never project I’ve begun.  Most of the blogs I’ve looked at so far are written by people who only recently abandoned their academic lives (with or without degrees).  They focus primarily on the transition: how to leave, how to get a different job, and how to survive the vast array of feelings associated with those challenges.

It seems obvious, but reading about their experiences has helped me to see that I’m in a very different place.  Ironically, I think the start of this blog marks the end rather than the beginning of that transition for me.  You see, Professor Never is the title of the memoir I’ve written about my journey from corporate ladder climber to adjunct professor.  I’ve preoccupied myself with this endeavor off-and-on since I graduated (which is way too long, but that’s what kids and work will do to a writing project).

Today, the book still needs editing, and I still need an agent.  Nevertheless, I’m ready to move on–to stop writing about the process of becoming “professor never” and start writing from the perspective of simply being “professor never.”

Many of the blogs I’ve looked at so far started around 2011 then petered off, probably becoming less relevant as the authors (hopefully) found jobs and became less preoccupied with their past academic quandaries.  For those who have kept writing, I found an interesting thread.  Many are employed in “good jobs”–making decent enough money, not feeling overworked or otherwise exploited, and not regretting their choice.

They don’t complain.

I think, however, that I detect an undercurrent of boredom in many of them.  I get that.  I can feel that same specter creeping in around the molding of my own door.  When you first start working, the novelty of relatively fair pay amazes you.  The free time that embraces you like an old friend on weeknights and weekends dumbfounds you.  When the December holidays arrive for the first time without paper deadlines, grading deadlines, or the shadow of the MLA Convention darkening the winter cheer, you think you’ve really hit pay dirt.

In many ways, you have.

Eventually, however, the tread wears thin on a job that fails to satisfy your intellectual needs.  It doesn’t mean you want back in the ivory tower.  In fact, when you think about your old lover, the university, you remember him as a selfish and abusive prick.

So no, in your boredom, you don’t miss the lover.  You just miss the sex.  And the beauty of that?  You can get it elsewhere: at the library or on the internet, for free, and without a dossier to boot.

“you don’t have anything if you don’t have stories”

I know I just posted 1,131 words on how grief severed the cord between me and fiction, but if you must know the truth, I am prone to these crises.  In fact, they linger around me, like a nagging cough I just can’t shake.

Onset began in graduate school.  I would often become so engrossed in the politics of a thing, I would forget the thing (the book – its craft, its rhythm, its aesthetics). Two hundred pages of dissertation dedicated to this art form we call literature and nary a word on aesthetics.

Quite honestly, I’m surprised I got away with that.

Occasionally, that nagging cough would evolve into a full-on cold.  At those times, I would question my path, asking between tissues and sneezes: What am I doing? Why not study political science or sociology, or foreign affairs? Literature is not real – and so, not relevant.

Then a student would tell me “I love this class,” or “This class changed my life,” and the groove of my train wheels would click back onto the track with a clunk.

Literature matters.  I knew it, even if I couldn’t always explain why.

About a year ago, I realized that my literary hiatus would not end on its own–I found myself standing on a lonely platform, waiting for a book train that wasn’t coming.  If I wanted to get down the tracks, I decided, I would have to do it myself. So without any real interest, I went to the library. I did read a few books: Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, and Julia Alvarez’s Saving the World among them.  I read, but not with fever or purpose, or love. For example, I renewed the Alvarez multiple times, even returning it and checking out a different copy to extend my time because I couldn’t get through it. So sorry Julia!

Even reading Carol Shields’ Stone Diaries, an acclaimed Pulitzer Prize winner, I found myself thinking, “meh, not sure why this matters.”  Oddly, I just googled Shields’ name to double check the spelling, and one line of a New York Times book review popped up.  It said, “The Stone Diaries reminds us again why literature matters.”

Is that a sign or something?

It must be, because when I finished Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior about a month ago, I found myself overwhelmingly reminded of something so important: the great power of the imagination.   I think Einstein planted this seed a year ago when I read his biography and learned of his infatuation with creativity and imagination.  He believed they mattered above all else, saying things like, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

I’m pretty sure I felt something flutter in my brain when I read that.

Flutter turned fittingly to “flight” when I read the Kingsolver.  What was it about Flight Behavior that woke me up? For anyone concerned with climate change, it’s no secret that a decade of misinformation from the fossil fuel industry (among other groups) has successfully derailed efforts to educate the public about the current threat to our global health.  We cannot effectively manage the environmental crises we face because of the vast disconnect that exists between scientists and the doubting public.

Kingsolver addresses this problem.  Flight Behavior intertwines the plight of a small rural town with the plight of the monarch butterfly, localizing the vast implications of climate change and, ironically, making them feel more real and more intimate than Bill McKibben or James Hansen have ever managed, despite their very valiant and nonfictionalized efforts.

While the rest of us can’t figure out how to communicate about this crisis, Kingsolver sticks a scientist, Ovid, and a 20-something high school educated mother from Appalachia, Dellarobia, together on the side of a mountain and asks them to talk to each other.

Why didn’t I think of that?  The result is just brilliant.

No, it’s not real, but Kingsolver helps us believe that it could be.  She portrays Dellarobia as uneducated but intelligent, eager but trapped.  Conversely, Ovid is educated but uncommunicative, committed, but helpless.  Kingsolver throws them together, allowing them to form an unlikely friendship and a mutual respect.

With the help of their tenuous friendship, Ovid tells Dellarobia about carbon particles per million, greenhouse gases and melting polar ice.  Later, she tells him, “You guys aren’t popular.  Maybe your medicine’s too bitter.  Or you’re not selling to us.  Maybe you’re writing us off, thinking we won’t get it” (321).  In response to Ovid’s suggestion that her people simply turn their backs on what frightens them, she responds with certainty, “My husband is not a coward,” (322).

Kingsolver removes us from a public discourse that has grown hysterical in its panic and vitriol and helps us to imagine what it would sound like if two people from these opposing camps spoke to one another openly and respectfully about what matters to them.  She shows us that the people in these two camps need each other.  She helps us see a stark reality: to save ourselves, we must dispense with judgment on both sides.

I could not have imagined these conversations on my own, and I’d say Kingsolver’s portrayal has changed my judgmental view of climate deniers because I can see myself in Ovid.  I share his inability to understand the viewpoint of those in Dellarobia’s community.  Of course, Dellarobia is imagined, but her portrayal is reasonable, interesting, and completely unfamiliar.  Consequently, I found myself listening to her, and hearing her, right along with Ovid.

This is the kind of book you finish quietly, setting the volume carefully on your lap and exhaling in a long and thoughtful breath.  It left me feeling hopeful about our chances of bridging this gap between academics and regular folks.  I also felt inspired, for the first time in a long time, by a work of fiction.

I knew without question that this book mattered, and suddenly, I wanted to read again—in earnest.

With nothing new on the shelves and no time for the library, I scanned my bookcases for something interesting enough to reread.  I chose Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony because I am still scarred by the memory of being asked about its ending during my oral exams.  Having forgotten what happened (in my usual form), I had no choice but to admit, “I don’t remember it.”  Happy to finally fill in that blank, as well as to recommit myself to reading and valuing works of fiction, I settled in on the couch with my book and my tea.

I must be onto something, because I hadn’t passed page two before I came to this:

“I will tell you something about stories,                                                                           [he said]                                                                                                                          They aren’t just entertainment.                                                                                     Don’t be fooled.                                                                                                            They are all we have, you see,                                                                                        all we have to fight off                                                                                                 illness and death.

You don’t have anything                                                                                                    if you don’t have the stories.”

how i lost, and found, my love for literature

I earned my phd in American Literature in 2004, and I quit adjuncting in 2006.  Shockingly, it’s 2013 and I can count on one hand the number of novels I have read since I last departed campus in any official capacity.

What happened?

You might assume that I threw my hands up in disgust as I turned my back on the whole debacle, vowing to never touch a work of literary fiction again.

I didn’t.  In fact, I had no idea it would be so long before I would regain my interest in literature. I had no idea I had even lost it.

In retrospect, I’d say grief shouldered literature out of my mind’s eye.  Grief over the confluence of three things:  the failed job search, death, and learning disabilities.

As I said, I didn’t consciously reject literature because I failed to make it my career, but there must be some correlation, right?  There must have been some kind of defense mechanism, or perhaps just weariness of words, that turned my attention elsewhere.

Regardless, just months after I quit teaching, my daughter Olivia’s six year old friend was killed in a car accident, leaving me in a state of shock and grief that I’d never before known.  I opened my eyes the morning after her devastating funeral and stared blankly from my bed, unfocused and unmoving.  Fuzzied in my line of vision on the bedside table sat Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters. My book mark stuck out of it, somewhere in the first 50 pages.

It would never move.

This had happened to me before.  Were you teaching on 9/11?  As the first plane hit, I parallel parked my car in an illegal spot just off campus (what graduate student can afford legitimate parking?). I assumed it was a small plane and taught my 9:30am class without incident.  An hour and a half later, I stood in front of my second class listening to the local news on a portable pink CD player. I’d brought it to play the slave spirituals we were supposed to discuss that day.

I had been so excited about that lesson.  Taking something that looks so simple on the surface and peeling back its layers of delicious complexity thrills any teacher, doesn’t it?  I’d introduce words and phrases like “double-voiced,” “dialogic,” and “intertextuality.”  We’d let them roll around on our tongues like so many sweet jellybeans clickety clacking together.

Instead, we listened to frantic journalists use cold metallic words and phrases like “bomb,” “war,” “terror,” and “death toll.”

When my classes reconvened on Tuesday, we talked about how the world had changed.  We wrote about our feelings.  We shared our stories.

By the next Thursday, I knew we needed to make Frederick Douglass matter again, but I remember looking at the book with a feeling of complete and utter disinterest.  Despite the fact that Douglass addresses similar emotions, our current grief, shock and terror made his work feel distant and irrelevant.

After 9/11, I regained my literary footing rather quickly—perhaps because I had 60+ students relying on me to help them move on, and I had a dissertation that refused to write itself, no matter how much I pleaded with it.

After Olivia’s young friend died, however, no such imperatives existed.  For over a year, it never even occurred to me to read anything literary.  Unfortunately, I would experience further tragic losses as time passed, keeping grief and reflections about mortality at the forefront of my mind.  In that context, novels felt frivolous and inconsequential. Literature felt indirect and inaccessible.  Instead, I busied myself with informational texts, reading about current events, death and grief, and a new preoccupation: special education.

My son, Gareth, was diagnosed with dyslexia in the year I graduated.  Consequently, the end of graduate school marked the beginning of my informal research on learning disabilities and the brain.  I read about multiple intelligences, different kinds of memory, visual motor integration, auditory processing, ADHD, sensory integration dysfunction (now sensory processing disorder), and multi-sensory approaches to education.  I’d learned enough by 2007 that I had a small business off the ground, tutoring dyslexic learners for 8-10 hours a week.

Inadvertently, however, I learned something about myself in all that research (isn’t that always how it is?).  No, I do not have dyslexia as you’d expect me to say (it’s genetic), but I do have a learning disability.  A shocking one, quite frankly, for a person who has earned a Ph.D. in literature.

I cannot remember the books I read.  I comprehend well, and come away with the larger message of a text (which works fine for informational readings on specific subjects).  With something like a novel, however, I come to the end with big picture messages, overarching plot points and impressions, but very little detail.

Why?  I learned from my research that most people visualize what they read—making movies in their heads that create memories.  I don’t see anything but words.  This means that unless I take copious notes and study them, I will not remember many details about a given book.  In the past, I had blamed myself for forgetting, always promising myself that “next time” I would pay better attention, and it would be different.  Now I understood that it wasn’t an attention or an effort problem.  My brain just doesn’t work that way.

While discovering a learning disability can be empowering, my initial reaction was grief.  Grief for my lost hope in the successes of “next time.”

With proper training and a lot of practice, I know I could develop my visualization skills.  However, having no time or money for that back in 2007 (or now), I found myself suddenly faced with a formidable question: why bother to read a novel if I’m only going to forget it?

I didn’t know the answer to that.  So I stopped reading.

And the years went by.

Since then, I suppose time has worked its magic, smoothing the sharp edges of loss in career, life, and learning, because suddenly, I find myself searching, when the kids have gone to bed, for that book.  Not Isaac’s Einstein: His Life and Universe that I plowed through last year.  Not Rothkopf’s Power Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government that I’ve yet to finish.

But a story.

I was thinking about this new (but very familiar) need and what it might mean as I read this month’s Harpers. Scanning the book reviews, I came across Tom Bissell’s review of Rachel Kushner’s Flamethrowers.  In it, he notes the “power of fiction” and how it can give you “the sudden sense…that you’ve been cleaved from some calamitously lost other half.  Seeing the world through another’s eyes, you are restored to what feels like full sight, and full thought, once again.”

Yes. That is what I’m looking for.