the college essay – and dyslexia

I think I must have been waiting for an excuse to write about dyslexia, and I’ve finally found one.

Perhaps you saw Rebecca Schuman’s piece in Slate, The End of the College Essay. Schuman argues that the college essay in general education classes has run it’s course. Students hate to write them, professors hate to grade them. If you saw the article, you may have also seen the 800+ responses, many vitriolic.

I was disappointed not to see a more useful conversation evolve.

The question to be discussed is not whether Rebecca Schuman hates her students (of course she doesn’t) or whether we should ban writing from the college classroom (of course we shouldn’t). The piece opens discussion about the college essay as an effective means of student instruction and evaluation in the gen-ed classroom only.

Why can’t we talk about that?

I come to this conversation from a very specific place: as a tutor and advocate for dyslexic learners. I admit, despite my personal infatuation with essay writing, the idea of evaluating student progress through means other than the college essay makes my little dyslexia-advocate’s heart leap.

Dyslexia is a language processing disability that affects 20% of the population. Dyslexic learners struggle with language based skills such as reading, spelling, speech development and word retrieval. They also find grammar and organization challenging.

Are you thinking perhaps a student like that doesn’t belong in your college-level class? You couldn’t be more wrong. The most important thing to know about dyslexia is that it does not correlate directly to intelligence. Stated more simply: very smart people can and do have dyslexia.

Furthermore, by definition, dyslexia comes with gifts such as creativity, imagination, diplomacy, entrepreneurial skills, and athleticism (ever wonder where the “dumb jock” stereotype comes from?). Many dyslexic learners also have gifts for math and science which can make them talented physicists, engineers and inventors (just the kind of person who shows up in a 200 level literature class and states: “I hate reading” on the first day).

In a society (and especially in a classroom) where written language dominates modes of communication and evaluation, dyslexic learners are less able to demonstrate their intelligence. They can be misunderstood as “dumb” or “simple” when quite the opposite is true.

Dyslexics have brought us the light bulb, the telephone, the theory of relativity, the art on the Sistine Chapel, and the governance that helped lead the Allied Powers through WWII. Check out these famous people with dyslexia. I wonder how many of them could put together a five paragraph essay?

For dyslexics, organizing an essay, a paragraph, or even a sentence can be very difficult. This is because people with dyslexia often think in pictures. Of course, language is linear. When an idea appears in your mind as a three-dimensional image, how do you flatten that out and line it up in a row? And is a linear format the better way to convey a three-dimensional idea? A picture tells a thousand words, after all.

What does all this mean for the dyslexic in your gen-ed classroom? For many, response papers, term papers and written exams are the worst ways to demonstrate knowledge.

My 16-year-old son has dyslexia. He reads fluently on grade level, remembers and comprehends vivid details from the text, and has excellent analytic skills. Despite his dyslexia, I think his gifts are literary. I love talking about books with him. During his English class discussions, he’s the star. But when asked to write papers or give written responses to questions, he dumbs down his vocabulary to avoid spelling unfamiliar words; he leaves out pertinent details to shorten the labor of composing, and he simplifies his ideas and insights to avoid struggles with organization.

I think my son should continue to practice his writing skills. Just because it’s a relative weakness for him doesn’t mean he should avoid it altogether. While he will continue to hone this skill, however, it will always be the less accurate way of evaluating his knowledge of a subject.

The college essay is just one form of communication. The idea that we might consider additional ways of communicating in the gen-ed classroom does not sound that radical to me. Several years ago, I heard dyslexic author Jonathan Mooney speak at a special-ed conference in my area. He argued that visual literacies are replacing reading and writing as primary modes of communication in our society. Consequently, he said, we should not force our symbolic code on picture-thinking dyslexics at all. He feels that by doing so, we are limiting them. Stunting their creativity. Crushing their esteem.

No reading or writing instruction for twenty percent of the population? That is a radical idea, and it’s just the kind of ahead-of-his-time, out-of-the-box thing I would expect a dyslexic learner to say.

We don’t have to go as far as Mooney right now, but given that modes of communication have changed so dramatically, and given that we have known for a decade that dyslexia and its gifts affect one fifth of the population, why not consider Schuman’s question: Is the college essay still appropriate for the gen-ed classroom? In other words, should essay writing be a gateway skill?

What would it look like if, in addition to the oral evaluations Schuman calls for, students created power points, infographics, websites, even twitter streams? Perhaps they could develop one of these things in conjunction with an essay as an exercise in compare/contrast?

Like the essay, these other modes of communication require students to gather, comprehend and synthesize information. They ask students to present their arguments in a coherent and persuasive way. They all have creative and professional applications.

Together, a variety of assignments could enable all students to better demonstrate their knowledge while allowing them to show off the skills that come easily and to practice the ones that don’t.

I know Schuman’s piece was not at all about learning disabilities, but I think they play a part in the discussion. This is just my piece of the pie. The point is simply to continue the conversation Schuman started rather than to see it drowned out in a flood of reactionary comments.

If you’re interested in reading more about dyslexia:

I highly recommend the book Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz, M.D.

For a nice anecdotal overview of dyslexia in the business community see Coudl This Be teh Secret to Sussecc?

For news on dyslexia in higher-ed: Colleges Step Up to Meet Dyslexia Challenge

For research on dyslexics in higher ed, see this cognitive profile.

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post-ac in a book club?

I read an excellent book last week: The First Rule of Swimming by Courtney Angela Brkic.

The novel tells the story of a postwar Croatian family scarred by war, the terrors of Yugoslav Communism, and the familial rending of emigration. I loved it for its haunted characters, for the way its vacillating narrative flattens the space between past and present, for its sense of place on Rosmarina, an imaginary island so visceral that it becomes its own character, and for its study of an intergenerational community that, like the island itself, glistens and sustains, even as it oppresses.

I can thank a friend and her book club that I read this novel at all. By coincidence, I’d seen it weeks before in the bookstore where I didn’t pick it up because the jacket whispered “romance novel” in an unfortunate misrepresentation of the richness inside.

I have never been a member of a book club. In fact, I remember ridiculing such clubs as a graduate student. While I’m embarrassed to admit that now, I’m not surprised I fell into academe’s elitism as a young student eager to prove my intellectual worth. Eventually, those feelings dissipated and the teacher emerged. As a teacher, especially of learning disabled readers, I value any group that encourages people to gather in pursuit of their literary interests.

But does that make a neighborhood book club a good home for an ex-literature scholar like myself?

So far, I haven’t thought so. If I were making my living through literature – as a writer, a critic or a professor – and I interacted regularly with a professional literary community, then perhaps it would be fun to also read literature more casually with a group of friends, family members, or neighbors. But as an ex-academic, the prospect of a neighborhood club as my only outlet for discussing literary interests has always sounded demoralizing.

Consequently, I’ve drifted for years somewhere between communities of casual and professional readers–alienated from one group by training and the other by lack of affiliation.

It’s not all so terrible as it sounds. As I’ve discussed in how I lost and found my love of literature and independent scholar? not so much, until this year, time and energy for significant amounts of literary or scholarly reading have eluded me anyway.

For this one day, however, I sat in as a guest in the unfamiliar territory of a book club because my friend had invited our writing group to come and meet the author. It was a privilege to speak with the lovely Brkic and hear about the heritage and family that inspired her novel. I also enjoyed the group’s discussion of characters Magdalena and Jadranka, two sisters working through very different relationships to their Croatian community both at home and abroad.

Afterward, I found myself thinking about exile and community, and I couldn’t help but let my thoughts wander to my own exile as a literature Ph.D., made more keen by my participation in the group that night. In the loosest sense, post-acs make up a diaspora of our own: scholars scattered to the wind, isolated from each other and alienated from our academic roots in the university.

That’s a little dramatic I suppose, and hardly the wrenching struggle that Brkic describes, but still it’s an interesting way of thinking about post-acs because it suggests we should connect with one another to preserve and cultivate our common interests.

In the spirit of fostering that kind of community, I’d love to hear comments from others who have read The First Rule of Swimming (and I encourage you to read it!) or other works, fictional or not, about postwar Croatia and its diaspora. I for one intend to read the author’s memoir, The Stone Fields as a follow-up to a novel that peaked my interest about a culture and history I know so little about.

the art of complaining: an adjunct’s dilemma

I am a terrible complainer.

But I should clarify.

I rock when I’m ranting around the house about my kids’ messy rooms, fraudulent insurance companies or environmental desecration. But the complaints of an adjunct? This is a different and more difficult thing to do. If you hope to persuade your audience of an injustice that you have personally suffered, you’ll be better off if you can make them trust you, empathize with you…like you. Otherwise, they just might blame you.

Before starting my memoir in 2004, I read Ghosts in the Classroom, a collection of essays about adjuncting published in 2001. I thought it was an important book, giving voice to a subject that, at the time, was shrouded in silence.

Still, taken together, the essays wore me out. I didn’t doubt the stories of hardship and loss. I empathized with the writers, and I wanted the message to get out, but despite that, I found the barrage of negative experiences overwhelming. I knew better than to blame the writers for their predicaments, but I wondered, would readers outside the academy be so generous?

How do you tell a miserable story without making your reader miserable? Without inviting blame?

I saw this as the challenge of my memoir–a problem I set out to avoid from the beginning. To do so, I decided I would tell the story of the whole person, not just the adjunct. I would pack the hard knot of my adjunct misery in a box padded with personal and palatable things like motherhood, marriage and my passion for graduate school.

By making myself real, I would illuminate the university’s exploitative labor practices without sounding like a whiner.

While I’m confessing silly little fantasies, I should admit I also told myself that I would keep a positive face while adjuncting–that I would view it as a temporary situation to be observed and commented upon, but not internalized.

You know where this is going.

I didn’t get through the opening paragraphs before face-planting on each of those ambitions.

The thing is, I couldn’t see it. Over the years, the writing and editing of this book has occurred in isolation, in the narrow spaces that opened between tutoring, parenting and grant writing. That changed when I got into a writing group this past year.

And the crux of the feedback is: I’m a lowdown dirty rotten complainer. A griper. A whiner to the Nth degree.

How the heck did that happen?

These are my long-held first paragraphs, the ones I just cut. I wrote them in my communal office during my first day on the adjunct-job nine long years ago:

“Here I sit, in my office. My first teaching gig since the Ph.D. and I can’t silence the voice in my head: “don’t be cynical, don’t be cynical, don’t be cynical.” Rather than come across as bitter and negative, I feel compelled to wow people with my resilience. How deep did I dig to find that wellspring of optimism? Impressive, isn’t it, how I can make good from the bad; how I am professionally and personally gratified by the essence of teaching, how I can rise above the pettiness of my employment status? But a coffee stain lies splattered in a sheet down the wall next to my desk. It’s brownish, amorphous and large. Maybe it’s not coffee? I note other, darker droplets that resemble blood. Not blood, I’m sure, but even so, when I look at them, I feel a thickness in my throat. Revolted, I turn away, but they lure me back like a crumpled car on the side of a highway.

I could clean the stain off the wall—obviously. But I think of this as more of an experiment than a job—I’m not really employed here, am I? I fathom myself an observer—an anthropologist of sort—curious about this culture of part-time work that has grown like unwelcome algae in the Petri dish of academia. My research questions: how long will that stain remain on the wall? Do the custodians ever come in here? Will an over-zealous co-worker scrub it off in the enthusiasm of his or her first day? Or will it just fade away like the occupants of this office?

My eye follows the brown trail down below my table and the voice in my head makes way for bitter words like irony, hypocrisy, exploitation…cynicism. And there it is. What a goddamned disappointment that is.”

The crazy thing is that I was surprised when my writers’ group asked me why I was so bitter on the first day.

“Bitter?” I said. “Which part was bitter?” I thought I’d started off like a firecracker.

Then I reread it through their eyes and it looked quite different to me. Way more negative than I ever intended.

I had a few days of crisis after this revelation. Workshopping a memoir is a funny thing because critique of the writing can so easily feel like critique of the writer. We’re not talking about made up characters here. We’re talking about a real person with real feelings, and as the case may have it, real bitterness.

Was I just a negative and miserable old curmudgeon, dissing my work before I gave it a chance? And was this my persona in general? Complaining about my kids’ slovenliness? The dog smell in the carpet? Fracking? The Tea Party? The botched roll-out of Healthcare.gov? Was it all just me?

Time to take a step back.

I separated myself from the critique, but in saving myself, I couldn’t save the writing, which on closer inspection had enough whine coming out off it to make my dog howl.

I considered the advice of my writing group. They wanted to remove all of my lovely and bitter turns of phrase, all of my biting criticisms, all of my damning judgments. Things like: “I knew the university would treat me badly. What I didn’t know, was that I would begin to treat it badly.” I had cherished that line. (And how clever for me to figure out a way to share it with you here).

While I saw their points, I felt frustrated by my original question: How do you tell a story like this without alienating the reader? I could feel my neck getting hot as we discussed it around our computers because some of this felt like the old totalitarian pressures of grad school that dictated we take everything with a smile. No one said it out loud but as a graduate student I knew: never let them see you sweat. No doubt this pressure lay at the root of my feeling that I should “wow people with my resilience” as an adjunct.

I had to remind myself that my writing group didn’t want to silence the story, they just wanted me to tell it in a way that didn’t make readers hate me.

I needed to complain and be likable at the same time.

Part of the problem is my personality. I don’t have flair. One of the “characters” in my book answered almost every one of our adjunct dilemmas with a laugh and a flippant “fuck that!” which only made me like her more. Why couldn’t I be brazen and shocking and charming?

Instead, I’m so…serious? reserved?

Whatever it is, I can’t change that shock-value complaints don’t work for me. I’ll never be that person who makes you laugh with the F-word, so I have to find another way. As I floundered around, one member of my writing group said, “get rid of all the value judgments! Just tell your story and let the reader decide.”

That is some brilliant advice.

Readers don’t want to be told how to feel about something, they want to be inspired to draw their own conclusions.

So I’m back at the drawing board. So far, I’ve excised all of the opinions, ruminations and condemnations from the first quarter of the book. I cut everything from that opening section but the story of the coffee stain, which I rewrote.

I feel liberated, like I’m uncovering something shiny from under a heavy pile of dead leaves.

How ironic that after years of teaching my students to “show don’t tell,” I’m finally figuring out how to do it myself.

let the train run: on quitting and regret

Are you a post-ac waiting to happen?

I have to admit, I don’t envy anyone standing on that precipice. The decision to abandon academe remains the most difficult of my life–one marked by distress over the years spent, grief for the future lost, and resentment for the few who succeeded.

So many questions: had I wasted ten years of my life? Had I tried hard enough? Would another year make a difference? If I left, how would I reinvent myself? What would happen to my scholarship? My intellect? Me?

All of those questions haunted me, but only one question terrified me:

What if I changed my mind?

At any time, if I choose, I can add or drop students from my tutor schedule, give up vegetarianism, repaint my house, divorce my husband. I can even pursue the business marketing career for which I trained twenty-five years ago.

But I cannot return to the ivory tower.

Quitting academe was like jumping off a fast train. I fretted that as it careened into the distance without me, I would realize my mistake. With my research molding and my connections dissolving, I would wonder, “can a person catch a fast train on foot?”

If the idea of banishment from your life’s work has you paralyzed somewhere deep in the library stacks, I can offer you this one bit of comfort:

I have never felt like chasing after that train.

Not once.

And I am not someone who has settled easily into a new career.

My decision to quit came at a time when my kids needed me more than I’d anticipated. To better contend with the challenges of ADHD, dyslexia and specialized diets, I decided to work as a tutor. It paid well and it allowed me to be more available at home.

After years of sacrificing family for work, I didn’t mind turning the table for a time. I knew that I wouldn’t tutor forever. I knew my children would grow, and I would want more.

Now, with the kids clamoring up to the edge of the nest, it’s time to reinvent myself again.

Of course I get occasional pangs for the academic life I could have led. But those are different from the deep and unsettling regret I feared.

The thing about “changing my mind” that I never considered during all those agonizing months of indecision: I can’t sit around wishing I’d kept something I never had. In other words, going back would mean returning to a job search, not a job.

I have no delusions that more time on the market would have brought success. I quit in 2006, a time when my rejection letters claimed I’d competed with 400 other applicants for the job in question. From what I hear, things only declined after that.

By the time I left the market, I had grown weary of the futile sacrifice of family and self. I could no longer see the logic of working for pennies. I had begun to reject the idea I should feel small despite my many accomplishments.

Since escaping those dilemmas, I have never second guessed myself. After all, who ever looked under the sharp edge of a boot heel and asked, “How can I squeeze myself back under that thing?”

So, if you have found yourself in a similar place, I can tell you, don’t be afraid to get out from under, make the leap, and let the train run.

independent scholar? not so much

Over the last winter holidays, my son and husband went to Florida for a soccer tournament. I stayed home with Olivia, enjoying a week of rare quiet. The weather, with its curtains of grey, asked us to stay inside. My students, happy for a holiday break from tutoring, asked me to stay home. And Olivia, having just turned 12, asked me to give her some space.

By chance, I had just bought a book, The Renewal of Cultural Studies, edited by Paul Smith. It caught my eye first because the contributors include two of my former professors, but the subject also intrigued me. It addresses the apparent need for Cultural Studies scholars to regroup: to better walk the tightrope that would define the underlying assumptions of their discipline without succumbing to the rigidity of those assumptions. I wonder if a self-consciousness about that conundrum, set out so early in the work, isn’t itself the definition of how to do cultural studies, but regardless, for me, the work promised a review of the current state of the field. I was curious. What had transpired without me?

When I left the academy seven years ago, I did it with the intention of continuing my research. I thought maybe I’d even be an “independent scholar.” I wonder if we all tell ourselves we’ll do this, or if some people walk away with the intention of never looking back, never ever cracking another academic book. I thought I’d regularly browse the CHE; I’d subscribe to a few choice journals; I’d read selected texts.

Nada.

Well, I do read the Chronicle, but I admit there was a chunk of time where I couldn’t even manage that. I threw myself instead into researching dyslexia, ADHD, and anxiety so that I could better assist my kids as well as my students. I spent hours in the kitchen learning how to cook gluten/dairy/egg-free from scratch for Olivia. I found myself again writing into the wee hours of the morning, this time racing to meet grant (instead of academic) deadlines.

Depending on my mood, reading scholarly work felt laborious, frivolous, luxurious, or even ridiculous. I didn’t have time for any of that. Without the professional imperatives to publish or teach, I couldn’t make that kind of reading a priority.

What really surprised me, however: when I did try to engage with things academic, I found the reading to be painful and isolating. I had been trained to weigh in, either as a student, as a teacher, or as a writer. Without a classroom, a reading group, or a research project, I had no where in which to express myself.

I discovered that I had been silenced.

Yes, technically I could have written papers for journals and conferences, but realistically, for a mother of school-aged kids with two unrelated part-time jobs, that wasn’t happening. For all intents and purposes, I had lost my academic voice. The voices of others, ringing out in classrooms, in journals and in books, simply reminded me of that. Their ideas prompted questions I couldn’t ask, reactions I couldn’t offer, revelations I couldn’t share.

I couldn’t take it.

So I turned my back, happier to pretend those voices didn’t exist.

I don’t know what prompted me to do it, but I started poking around on the internet last fall to see if anything new and interesting popped out at me. That’s how I came across The Renewal. Soon after purchasing it, the circumstances randomly arose which gave me the time and quiet I needed to actually read it.

I sat, just as I always used to, curled in the corner of my couch with a cup of tea, and cracked the binding. I didn’t expect to have a voice anymore. I didn’t expect to weigh in. Instead, I read with the distance of the curious, a thing afforded me, I suppose, by the years that had passed.

I admit, however, that I cringed when I got to the chapter written by graduate students. I could so easily imagine their glee at the coup–their names would appear in an anthology! But really, my envy dissipated quickly into a sort of sickening feeling for them. Perhaps they will become professors who benefit from fair and satisfying working conditions. Perhaps they already have. Regardless, that’s not the case for most grad students, and I know all too well how quickly the victory of publication, which feels so momentous when it happens, can dissolve into irrelevance on a hypercompetitive job market.

So yes, I am still capable of these unhealthy feelings, but my gratitude that the JIL doesn’t concern me anymore ultimately won out. I shut the door on the weird combination of envy and pity that stood, arms folded, on my stoop and simply read their piece and others with a burning interest I hadn’t felt in a long time.

I didn’t get to hash over the essays with anyone. In fact, I didn’t even finish the book. The holiday passed, Steve and Gareth came home, schedules took over. Although The Renewal sits hopefully on my nightstand, it’s not the book I choose when I stumble into bed at midnight after helping Gareth with geometry homework or reading with Olivia for an English project due the next day.

No, I don’t choose it. But you know what? I don’t shelve it either.

I am no longer an academic. I have never been an independent scholar. But I am still an intellectual. I just live in the real world where these scholarly endeavors that can light me up so consistently, feel oh so much like a privilege I still cannot afford.

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.”

Ridiculous.

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.