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Down in the Dirt, v146
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Tenured Gal

Anita G. Gorman

    Dr. Susan Lowry Shenstone looked at her client from across the mahogany desk. “How can I help you?” she purred.
    “I just don’t know what to do. My life is a mess. I don’t know where to go from here.”
    “Tell me about it.”
    “I always wanted to be a college professor, and I worked so hard to get my doctorate in English. And by the time I finished, at the age of 35, there weren’t many jobs available. I applied to hundreds of colleges all over the country, to places I had never heard of, and then I finally had five interviews, one by phone, one via the internet, and three in person. I did get a job, at Lower Beaver State College right here in Tattletown, Pennsylvania. And I pretended to everyone that Lower Beaver was my first choice! I don’t think they believed me.”
    “Well, at least you had a job, and you probably taught some interesting courses.”
    “Oh, please. In my first semester I taught four beginning writing classes, with 28 students in each class, making a grand total of 112 taciturn and ill-prepared freshmen. With one initial writing sample, eight essays, and one final exam, that meant 1120 pieces of writing per semester demanding inspection and critique. Add to that a semester-long journal kept by each student and I, Clara Cooperschmidt, Ph.D. (newly minted) realized to my chagrin, dismay, and general depression that I would be slogging through 1232 pieces of writing during my first semester. But no, it gets worse. I also had passing acquaintance with the rough drafts of my ill-prepared charges when I scheduled writing workshops and group work and counseled nervous students who showed up during office hours to get my opinion on their latest creations. You know what my tenured office mate does? She schedules her office hours at 7 a.m. That guarantees a tiny trickle of students climbing up the stairs to visit her. Why don’t I do that? Because the Chair would notice and because I hate getting up that early.”
    Dr. Shenstone was playing with her pencil. “All right, the job during that first semester was tedious, and you worked hard. Were there any interesting moments?”
    “Interesting? Oh, yes. Outrageous would be a better description. How about this? One time I started reading a student’s paper, and it sounded just too slick; I thought that maybe he had purchased it on the internet. I picked a telling phrase from the paper, typed it into a search engine and, bingo, there it was on a site that sold papers to students. I was happier than Sherlock Holmes at the end of a solved mystery; I could have danced a jig. So I accosted the student. ’This was plagiarized!’ I shouted at the great big sports-minded freshman, as I stood on tiptoe in order to wave it in front of his face. ’I found it on the internet.’ ’Oh,’ said Jason, ’the girl who gave it to me didn’t say she got it from the internet. I thought she wrote it herself.’”
    Dr. Shenstone smiled and then looked grave. “Well, you survived the first semester. Wasn’t there anything worthwhile about the second semester?”
    “You mean the fraudulently named Spring Semester? Do you know when spring arrives in Tattletown, Pennsylvania? Around finals week. Anyway, I was hopeful about the second semester since I now had three writing classes and one introductory literature class. That seemed like heaven at first, until I realized that the three second-semester writing classes now had to produce research papers, and research papers involved the tedious process of guiding students through topic selection, notes, outlines, proper documentation, rough drafts, and final masterpieces. I guided them through the process partly to prevent plagiarism, or at least minimize it, but there were times when I thought all of my students were thieves, stealing the ideas and the words of anyone in their dorms, their families, in libraries, or on the internet. One day I was so fed up that I yelled, ’I am against capital punishment—except for the heinous crime of plagiarism. And those who take the words and ideas of others and pass them off as their own should be executed right out there on the quad by a firing squad composed of English faculty.’ They thought I was joking. But I was only half joking—I hate plagiarism!”
    Dr. Clara Cooperschmidt paused for a long sigh. “The literature class intrigued me at first, but then I found out that a total of 48 students—all that the fire marshal would allow—would fill that classroom to overflowing. Forty-eight students named Heather and Jason and Josh and Michelle, and I knew I would never learn all their names. Sometimes I made notes in my grade book to help connect names and faces. “Little Orphan Annie” or “Shirley Temple” or “Vladimir Putin” or “Sidney Poitier” might help me distinguish a few, but it would never work for all 48; too many of my students reminded me of no one in particular.”
    Dr. Shenstone was writing on her notepad. She looked up. “What about the non-teaching duties? What were they like?”
    “Oh, lots of fun! My tenured office mate, a full professor, rarely went to department meetings. I knew I had to attend every single one and volunteer for committee work if I wanted to get tenure. That first year I signed up for more committees than I could handle: Social, Assessment, Curriculum, Newsletter, the Committee to Explore the Need for Additional Committees— whatever. And I ran for university-wide committees, hoping to get one of those coveted seats. They had real elections with ballots and quasi-poll watchers; I was even elected! And I eagerly suggested that my department sponsor a regional conference on literary theory, and, of course, I, Dr. Clara Cooperschmidt, ended up doing most of the work. And I went to other regional conferences—couldn’t afford to travel far—and gave papers that were spinoffs of my dissertation so many times that I wondered how long I could pretend to be doing something new when I was just rehashing old stuff about Elizabeth Inchbald. And how long would it be before someone important noticed?”
    “Ah, that must have been a worry for you,” Dr. Shenstone said.
    “Putting together my tenure file after a few years of this tedium was another nightmare that led to insomnia, a malfunctioning printer, and the expense of both money and time. Student evaluations had to be in there. Oh yes, students who stared at the question, ’Is there a syllabus in this class?’ were allowed to answer ’No’ and have those results tabulated, even though a piece of paper clearly labeled SYLLABUS in oversized capital letters sat in their folders or back in the dorm room or had been tossed into a wastebasket. My tenure file also had to include evaluations from my so-called peers, evaluations from people I didn’t like particularly well, but people I had to smile at and defer to and amuse when they visited my class. And when they came I knew which ones preferred regular seating and which faculty wanted the students in one big circle or chatting with each other in small groups. Oh, yes, I gave them what they wanted. And I almost broke my back carrying that three-inch binder filled with evaluations, my curriculum vitae, syllabi, conference papers, and letters from various department heads thanking me for filling out some stupid forms. I mean, why thank someone who is just doing her job?”
    Dr. Shenstone nodded. “Indeed!”
    “So there I was, having finished my tenure application and tired, so very tired of grading and committees and smiling and deferring and attending sports events and graduations and advising students who had no idea why they were at Lower Beaver State College in the first place. Then yesterday I heard the mailbox bang outside of my little rented house on Maple Street; it’s all I can afford on an assistant professor’s salary. When I heard that mailbox, I knew I would soon know my fate. There it was, an official letter from Tarleton Cyrus Tarkington, III, president of Lower Beaver State College, which would soon become Lower Beaver State University without having gotten any bigger. What a joke. And guess what? Old Tarleton was telling me I had tenure. I now had a pass to lifetime employment, a permission slip for playing Solitaire in my office like the tenured guy across the hall, my ticket to more pay and less work. From now on I can smile when I feel like it, swear when I want to, never go to another football game, and call in sick when I need a mental health day, even though, truth be told, I have to be at Lower Beaver only three days a week, unlike people in that real world out there.”
    “That doesn’t sound so bad.” Dr. Shenstone smiled.
    “But it is bad. It’s awful. Now I have to start all over again. I have to write a book. I have to go to more conferences, national conferences, not just regional affairs. I have to get articles published in obscure publications. I have to serve on more committees. I have to teach four classes a semester and grade all those papers. I have to advise students. I have to pretend to like my office mate and the guy across the hall.”
    “You seem to be contradicting yourself, Clara. Moments ago you told me that from now on you could do pretty much what you feel like doing.”
    “Not if I want to become an associate professor. Not if I want to become a full professor. Not if I want Professor Emeritus written on my tombstone. I’m going to have to do all of this stuff over and over again. Thank you for your time. I’m going to buy myself an ivy plant. It seems like the thing to do.”

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