Damn!  I am aggravated.  I don’t need aggravation.  It wears me out.  And I am aggravated by one of those things—I should  by now have developed a tougher hide—that makes me aggravated to be aggravated about.

But I am walking from the parking lot to the the computer room to run some stuff off for my classes that start in a couple of days, and I bump into this guy I have known for years.  Most all of our socializing has been of the parking lot walk and talk variety with few varaitions.  But he’s ok and I like him to the extent that I know him.  So I ask him how many years has he been coming out to the university to get ready for the first day of classes—because clearly that’s what he is doing too—and he says 36.  And you, he asks.  26, I say.

And then he goes on to talk about how much better he has had it than me, what with his being a tenured faculty person who gets to teach literature and pretty much whatever literature he wants, and he wonders how I have stood teaching one thing—writing and being told on top of that what kind of writing to teach—for 26 years.

And the guy does have it better.  He’s about five years older than I  and wasn’t apparently bothered by the draft and finished his PhD in 1968.  Those were the glory days.  Even thought he graduated from nowhere U, his advisor wrote letters for him to three places.  And all three wanted him.  Back then you were a shoe in.  And he got tenure and teaches four classes a year while I teach 8, and gets sabbaticals which I don’t and never will get, and makes at least twice as much as I do, probably 20 thousand more than that.

So I go run off the stuff I was going to run off, and driving home realize that I am aggravated by my talk with this guy.  And it’s hard too because I know he was trying in his own way to show some sympathy for my “plight.”  So why am I aggravated?  It’s the tenure thing I guess.  He got it and I didn’t and as far as I can see he is and was no more qualified to get it than I was or am.

He got it and I didn’t because of timing.  That’s all and the fact that it is makes the whole thing seem accidental and contingent.  What’s that old song, “Born to late for you to notice me…”  .  And then there’s the fact of tenure itself—that it exists and functions as a sort of invisible wall or divide between those of us who have it those who don’t.  He can just sort of assume that I have had it hard because I have been a teacher of writing and he gets to teach literature and he loves doing that, of course.

And assumes I would love it too and must feel terrible that I don’t.  When if the facts be known, I don’t know how people who teach literature these days can justify their existences.  They really aren’t doing diddly—though I am honest enough to admit that I might have preferred the diddly that they are doing to  the diddly I am doing. It’s a more prestigious form of diddly.

So I am aggravated and as usual not about one simple thing but about a whole complex of aggravation.


In any case, I was so upset by all the people being fired, and feeling myself as if I were one of them and not rehired, as was in fact the case, led me to perceive that my grasp of reality was off a witchdoctorbit.  I had of course known that for a very long time, given my seven years in the hole, and the results of the MMPP saying I was a danger to myself and others, and getting out of the draft because I was nuts.  But with my new self-terminating one year contract, I would be making something like 18,000 dollars in the upcoming year (this was 1981 maybe) so I could afford to seek the assistance of a professional.

So not only was I the first person in my family to get a PhD, I was also the first to seek the help of a psychotherapist.  The two things are not unrelated.  Working class people do not seek the assistance of psychotherapists, though they will take meds if they have a doctor who prescribes them, but a shrink—that’s a different matter.  As one working class friend put it, he could never go to a shrink because doing so was just too self-involved and self-indulgent.  That’s how I felt about it too.

And going to a shrink seemed as if you were sort of officially declaring that you were a nut.  If you didn’t go to a shrink, you could think that, while you were nuts, you were not really nuts, just sort of psychologically off your feed, or maybe a bit moody, you know, or perhaps given to the “blues.”  Hell, lots of people feel like crap till the day they die.  That doesn’t mean they are nuts.

But this shrink thing didn’t make any sense unless you accepted, at least provisionally, that you were nuts.  Why else would you go to see a shrink and pay that shrink money to talk with you unless you were nuts.  I took the whole thing too seriously I guess.  I hadn’t been raised middle class, and didn’t know that for some middle class people going to a shrink was more of a lifestyle choice like buying a BMW or something.  I didn’t know that some people—way up there on the social and financial scale—were not ashamed or embarrassed to go to a shrink but actually competed with each other as to who had the most famous or expensive shrink.

So not only was going to a shrink a lifestyle choice—to help you over life bumps or to help you maximize your potential and become self-actualized—it was a status symbol.  But these people most went to righteous Freudian guys where you went like three or four times a week and paid an arm and a leg to do it.  For me getting a shrink was not a lifestyle choice.  I was not concerned about self-actualizing my potentials but about falling off the face of the earth.  Also I couldn’t afford a status symbol shrink.  I needed a bargain basement Wal-Mart sort of shrink.

Being around more middle class people I had heard a few of them—fellow graduate students or visiting lecturers—mention having gone to a shrink for this or that.  They didn’t seem embarrassed by it but then they always went for something pretty specific—like, my mother just died, or I was having a lifestyle transition.  Me though I knew I looking for a bargain basement shrink because I was nuts.


One morning in May or early June I walked into the English Department mail room and there’s an official letter in my box that says, “We are happy….”  When they start off like that usually firedsomething good was in the letter, and there was because they were happy to offer me one of those self-terminating contracts for the upcoming year.  A couple of other Visiting Lecturers were in there checking their mail too, and one, a lady I liked, opened her letter and turned red and put her hands over her eyes and walked out, and another guy gave a grunt, sort of like he had been hit in the stomach, and walked out.

Turns out their letters had not started with “We are happy…,” but with whatever words people use as the lead into “You are fired…”  Over fifty percent of the Visiting Lecturers—and there were a good 30 of us by that time—had been fired.  And nobody knew why either because the Department with its four years and out rule were under no obligation to tell you why you were fired.  Hell, they had done more than they were legally required to do by just telling us we had been hired.  Or fired.

And for weeks nobody could look anybody in the eye because nobody knew who had been fired and who hadn’t and it was too damn awkward to ask, unless the person happened to be a friend.  Because whatever the reason might have been for the mass firing, everybody knew that somebody had sat in an office, made a list of the Visiting Lecturers, and then drew a line between the hired and the fired.  The hired being good enough to continue; the fired not being good enough for whatever unknown reasons.  So if you told somebody you were fired, you were just a loser, and if you told somebody you were hired, you probably were a kiss-ass suck up who had cultivated the right connections or fucked the boss.

I spent hours talking to the people who had not been hired.  I couldn’t leave the place. On the way out to the parking lot, I would walk by the office of a fired person and lean in and ask them how they were doing, and end up sitting there listening to them lament and both of us chewing things over to figure out what had happened for hours at a time.

 I began to realize that something was out of whack in my response to the situation.  I really didn’t feel good about getting rehired; I honestly didn’t feel any sort of secret glee or inward sense of superiority.  I felt terrible.  Maybe it was the survivor syndrome or something.  Like everybody on the airplane dies in the crash, but you and you go around saying, “Why me, Lord?”  And given my complete lack of self esteem or self worth that was a hard question to answer unless God was just an arbitrary jerk.  This event precipitated a form of life-crisis that led me to seek the aid of a psychotherapist.

 As it turns out though, the event was a non-event.  Everybody by the middle of the summer was rehired.  As it turned out, the money for funding us was slow coming down the bureaucratic pike.  Whoever the boss was knew the money was more than likely coming down the pike.  But we were Visiting Lecturers so nobody had to explain anything to us, and firing a bunch of us was a good way to remind everybody: your contract is self-terminating.

Visiting Lecturer

I was lucky while I looked for work elsewhere to have a full time job as a teacher of writing at a university.  I was not a true faculty member—one with tenure and the right to vote on issues of faculty governance—but something called a Visiting Lecturer.  In the academic manual this position cyclopswas described vaguely in a couple of lines.  Actually none of us Visiting Lecturers were Visiting, so what “visiting” really meant was temporary.

NThe university started using this position a great deal in the early 80s because they had become tenure “heavy.”  The problem with tenure, for the institution, is that a huge chunk of money is locked into one person for the entire working life of that person.  If you are tenure heavy you have too much money locked in too far into the future for too many people, so that the university is like a giant with shackles around its ankles.  It can’t move without falling all over itself.

So to achieve a degree of fiscal flexibility, the U. started hiring temps on year to year contracts.  That’s what a Visiting Lecturer was.  A temp.  We were given what were officially called, in the letter telling us we had a job, “self-terminating” contracts.  Self-terminating.  Sort of like a contract that commits suicide at the end of a fiscal year.  In practice, this meant that at the end of a year you were to assume you had been terminated, unless you heard otherwise.

One was not to expect a letter indicating one had been terminated or certainly nothing to explain why one had been terminated.  Rather one was simply to assume one had been terminated at the moment one signed the contract.  If one did not receive a letter saying one had another self-terminating contract one was simply to disappear into the sunset.

Also the Visiting Lecturer was to understand that after he or she had received four such self-terminating contracts one was terminated.  The fourth contract was the terminal self-terminating contract. When one’s fourth contract had terminated, one was to pack up and disappear into the sunset because no further contracts would be forthcoming.

Why four years and not five or six years?  One might ask if one has one of those self-terminating contracts.  Legal things we figured.  Six years is about the point where most people who are on a tenure track get tenure or not.  That’s the typical “probationary” period.  So we figured that they picked four because it was not six.  Six would make the Visiting Lecturer position resemble a tenure track position, and that might be misinterpreted by, say, a Court of Law as implying the possibility to permanent employment.  So four was the rule not six, and this became known among Lecturers as four years and out.

Many of my colleagues from middle class backgrounds really didn’t understand this self-terminating contract in an elemental way.  They thought it was unjust.  I didn’t think it was just or unjust.  Just the way it was.  The boss is the boss and you are not.  It’s simple really.


I wasn’t a total idiot, I guess.  I knew when I started working on the PhD that the job market in jarvisliterature had changed radically. Colleges and Universities just weren’t hiring as they had in the 60s and early 70s.  I am no economist so I can’t say why this happened.  But maybe it had to do partly with the baby-boomers.  I was one of those and, while perhaps the percentage of persons with PhDs in lit. had not gone up, the raw numbers had gone up because the baby-boomers were a huge generation.

So supply exceeded demand and demand too had lessened.  I don’t know why that was either, but I think it had to do with two things: the Arab Oil Crisis, and in California the tax payer revolt.  I think the Arab Oil Crisis shook the economy to the core.  We were vulnerable and spending accordingly became more conservative.  And in California and eventually the rest of the country the tax payer revolt, as it was called, undermined the funding base for public colleges and universities.

At the time though, I figured I would give it a shot and maybe I would be the exception to the rule.  You never know.  I guess everybody who plays a long shot thinks he or she will be the exception to the rule.  I wasn’t alone at least in thinking I was special.  At one convention I remember this guy, who had written a book already, and who was, at the time of the convention, on a Fulbright Scholarship teaching in Yugoslavia, I think, when it was still Yugoslavia.  In any case, he had applied to numerous places because his book had just come out and, though he had not received a single letter for an interview, he flew half way around the world from Yugoslavia to San Francisco just in case a letter had been sent and he had missed it because he was living half way around the world. But he didn’t have a single interview.

I learned the hard way that they call it a rule because it is a rule and the word “exception” indicates something pretty rare.  I didn’t turn out to be one in any case.  And while I had some inkling that larger things like the economy were not under my personal control, I tended to feel that my inability to be an exception was, well, my fault.  Work hard, keep your nose clean and you would move up.  But it wasn’t happening.  I concluded that I had to be in some way deeply flawed.

In light of my previous nervous breakdown and advanced state of neurosis, this was really easy for me to think.  I had done something wrong or I had failed to do something right. Or maybe I had just plain been cursed from birth. So I did what I could and read and wrote articles because I thought that if I could get a few things published maybe that would make somebody somewhere pay attention to me.  So for maybe five years that’s all I did in my “spare” time, read and write, write and read.  Then I would send off what I had written and it would be rejected.

Doing this I managed to increased my rejection rate astronomically.  Not only was a being rejected for job interviews, the articles I was writing so I could be rejected for job interviews were also being rejected.

London Fog

The job market scene was pretty strange.  I was unfamiliar with it. For one thing you had to have clothes.  All the other jobs I had got, except for the one at the department store, had required only that a person show up not naked.   But the interviews for jobs at the big convention required that a person dress up.  Well, actually I suppose you could have turned up wearing jeans and a t-shirt but you would not have made a favorable impression.

Fortunately Aunt Susan, as part of her attempt to recognize my accomplishments and make my mother feel like a piker, had bought me some clothes.  She had bought me a suit, but it was a real 70’s thing and not right for the interviews.  But she had got me shoes and a shirt or two and a belt, and I went and bought a jacket and some slacks so I looked OK.   But OK was it.  I didn’t and don’t know anything about clothes but I could tell that some of those people at those conventions were really, really dressed up.  They looked sharp and the clothes weren’t cheap. For some reason, the conventions in NY were the worst; people had these wonderful looking overcoats for the colder weather.

Not that how I dressed made much difference since mostly I stayed holed up in my room for the duration coming out only for an interview or to walk around whatever city I was in.  And for that I wore the usual.  I hadn’t traveled at all, except from the south to California and that was when I was ten years old.  I had been on a jet plane before for some reason, so that was not completely new.

The first convention I went to was in NY.  To save money I took the red eye.  That was one huge plane with hardly anybody on it.  I didn’t sleep a wink and arrived before dawn at Kennedy.  I didn’t know how to work the subway so I got on a tram that deposited me at the Port Authority.  It was freaking dark.  And the only people around were bums, so I started looking and found a spot where taxis were hanging out,  and got in one and told the driver where I wanted to go, and acted like I knew what I was doing though that was the first time I had been in a taxi.

The hotel was the Hilton, and of course, when I got there, my room was not available; I was a bit startled since I was not completely familiar with check in and check out times.  I didn’t know what I was going to do, till a clerk said helpfully they could store my stuff till my room opened up around 11.  So there I was at around 7 in the morning, dead on my fucking feet, with five hours till I could lie down.

So I went out walking and looking for a place to eat and I found a deli with lots of small tables and people sitting around reading the paper and eating bagels and drinking coffee, so I went in got a paper, a bagel, a coffee and sat down.  I liked the place.  It was well lit and warm. I folded up my overcoat and put it over the back of a chair.  I hadn’t noticed that other people were hanging their overcoats on racks by the door.  When in Rome do exactly what the Romans do because when I went to leave I saw somebody had stepped on the tail of overcoat and left a long black mark on the London Fog my aunt had bought for me.

God, this must have been 1982.

The Job List

So seven or eight years during the 80’s and some too in the 90’s, I went out on the market lookingsupplydemand for a job in lit.  The process started in October.  That’s when the biggest professional organization for people in lit, the Modern Language Association, put out the job list.  Every college looking to hire somebody from Harvard to Podunk U would send in a little description of the kind of position they had open and it would go into that list.  The list wasn’t free by the way; you had to pay money for the wretched thing.

The first edition of it would come out in October, another in November, one in December, and one would come out in June.  The first two usually had pretty much the same job listings.  A few new ones would appear in November, but mostly the November list had fewer openings because many of the colleges that had listed in October by that time would have closed their searches.  So the October one was the really important one.

I would get it in the mail and I wouldn’t be able to look at it for several days.  I had to steel myself and then I would go through it looking for jobs for which I might be qualified.  I would circle the ones I thought I might be qualified for and then I would go through the list again and write letters of application to the places I had circled.  This was onerous work.

Then you sent the letters off and sat there and waited.  Sometimes I never heard from some of the colleges at all.  Mostly I got rejection letters.  Rejection after rejection after rejection.  But sometimes I would get a letter saying that the college would like to interview me at the big MLA convention held each year in the week right after Christmas.  These conventions were held in cities all over the USA in Chicago, or NY, or San Francisco or Washington D.C. and a couple of times in other places.

I had to pay for the plane tickets and the room where I would stay at the convention.  So if I got an interview I had to decide whether it would be worth it to spend all that money to go to the convention.  Usually, I was so desperate, especially when I first started looking, I would go even in the college I was interviewing for was at the end of the known universe.

Then I would go to the convention and be interviewed—a couple of times I had three interviews at one convention—the week after Christmas, and then I would sit and wait to see if I would be called to the campus for an interview there since most colleges would invite at least three candidates for on campus interviews.  Sometimes I had to wait clear into March before I heard that I had been rejected by all of the places that had interviewed me.

Maybe a half dozen times over the years, I was invited to an on campus interview, and then I would wait to hear if I got the job.  Twice I was not notified until June.  So over a decade the guts of my year were eaten up emotionally by the waiting and anxiety attendant upon the job search.

As I have previously said I had no idea what I was getting into when I became an English major.

Rags to Riches

I had thought that, taken together, these entries might constitute a “success story” in the Great raggeddickAmerican tradition of rags to riches.  Not, certainly, an epic or grand one, like Marilyn Monroe coming from nowhere to stardom and then suicide;  more minimalist, surely, but nowhere to somewhere, at least.  But that’s hard for me to maintain when I consider my point of departure not a “nowhere” but a very distinct and particular somewhere in time and space.

But that place because it is in time is no longer what it was: the very rural south after WWII.  The last time I visited I had a hard time recognizing the place; changes are occurring at an accelerated rate.  Not far from where we lived now sits a monstrous Wal-Mart distribution center.

And the place where I was going, well, for a very long time I really had no idea where that was.  I just moved along as I could doing my best to stand on my feet.  And when things settled down a little and I aimed to get the PhD and got it, things did not turn out as expected.  Back in the late 60s a person could have walked in with a PhD from anywhere tech and got some fairly decent offers for a job in lit. But by the time I got mine the market for PhDs in literature had collapsed.  With that the place you had been graduated from became all the more important, and I had graduated from a university that at that time was probably not ranked in the top 50% of graduate schools in literature.

Also the time had come for institutions of higher education to hire women.  I think this was the right thing to do, but being male the trend didn’t help me any.  I went out on the market, wrote letters of application, went to conferences, was interviewed, was called to campuses, was interviewed and nothing over the next ten years turned up.  By that point, the very concept of a PhD in literature had changed substantially.

I wanted a job at a small liberal arts college.  I would have been an excellent teacher at one of those places, involved and concerned.  I might having students for four year stretches have developed significant relationships with some few of them and reaped the rewards eventually of that in respect and honored memory.  I would have read too and written on literature, and I would have enjoyed that.  And I would have reached the holy grail of tenure.

So maybe this isn’t at all a rags to riches tale.  My nowhere is somewhere and my somewhere vanished before my eyes.  So that in the years since receiving the PhD I have gone on pretty much as I did before, moving along and trying to stay on my feet.

Continue reading Rags to Riches