Sunday, October 16, 2011


The other night I went to a dinner party for a friend's was like being in a movie set without having dressed for the occasion. But I wasn't an extra nor was I kitchen help, much as I would have liked that role.

There were many speeches given, glasses clinked. And I found myself standing up to comment about the birthday woman and also about another guest. This brave event brought up, naturally, many nighttime rehearsals of what I might/should have added. So now I'll elaborate.

The general conversation had come around to UMass, a very interesting place to teach with students who I considered quite remarkable. Those who had been involved there certainly praised it lavishly. They were all more prestigious than I am, which doesn't mean I wasn't an effective teacher, but perhaps I wanted to speak about a different type of experience.

At any rate, there I was, standing up at this long, elegant table, speaking about having moved up here from a tenement in New York for my first teaching job at MIT. I have learned enough over the years to realize that it was important to mention my one coup to this particular audience -- teaching at MIT. And to say that after my three years were over, I was like a barking seal, waiting for sardines to be thrown my way, little jobs (I don't think anyone there could understand what that's like, single parent, having to earn a living catch-as-catch-can) when I was offered a night Photo I class at UMass.

Obviously one class wouldn't have done much and I was so dumb that I didn't know I had any chips that I could have played, hadn't heard of CAA (College Art Association where one hunts for jobs)....didn't know how to look for another one so it was as if I'd been cast adrift in Brookline, spending more than half my income for that apartment so my daughter could go to that particular school for that particular tutoring).

But the point of this was that by the next fall, I had been slid from one evening Photo I class into a tenure-track position which is entirely illegal!

And that the fellow who had performed this leger de main (sp?) couldn't undo it. (I don't really understand why, if he'd been so free with the rules, he couldn't just drop me off the cliff as he'd done to the man teaching full-time previously. But he couldn't.)

So, there I was, much to his distress.
And that's where I met the woman whose birthday we were attending.
And the man, who happened to be Dean when I was up for tenure, was sitting two seats away from me.

So I could take the chance/opportunity of telling the story of my tenure case which took a very, very, very long time to go through the College Personnel Committee.

The woman who had come to my aid, who decided I was worth helping, was from the Woman's Studies Department. She combed my long, required statements for any sign of self-deprecation.

(This is what I forgot to say at that dinner much she helped me and how hard a time she had convincing me that self-deprecation is not allowed in making a tenure case. A person must be sure-footed, positive and never weigh possibilities or elude to the fact that one isn't terribly important.

Of course, I think self-deprecation is perspective. A sense that no one is all that important, even people deemed extremely important, and that the game is usually rigged, there are ghosts in closets and there's always the strong possibility that someone who would have done as well just happened not to have had that opportunity...we can move into discussions of economic and class differences, educational and economic opportunities, race and gender quite easily from here...)

But anyway, I stood there talking, and muddled on to the point where I'd gotten really tired of waiting for the process of my dossier passing through that Committee which seemed very hopeless and tedious. Why not go back to working in the Women's Shelter? Didn't pay as much, longer hours, perhaps I wouldn't be as effective as I was in teaching, but why not go back, I thought.

And wrote a note saying that the whole promotion process felt like being pushed out on an iceberg with a rusty tea kettle and a hairpin. (there were means of collecting water and spearing fish, I assume...) And I was finished with it. Or some other phrase that to any sensible person would have read as the fact that I was resigning.

But I'd passed the committee on day before they received the note. (I passed because they leaned far to the left and knew that I did also...)

And the Dean, having received their reccomendation and my note, called me, asking about the iceberg, the tea kettle, etc,. and I explained that it was a letter of resignation (perfectly obvious, I thought) and he said, "Well, let's just consider it a blip on the radar."

That was very nice of him.
And actually very good for me. And perhaps good for students.

Of course, he hadn't remember this.
And probably other people at the dinner were surprised when I managed to reveal that the Chair, who so hated me, would leave faculty meetings in a rage, saying "Fuck you...".  He had, actually, a lot of fun in his role...quite a bit of power and a grant outlet for his temperament.
Folks with PhD's don't seem to have as volatile temperaments or at least I haven't met any that do.

Any rate, the guests did laugh when I ended it thanking the former dean for my pension

and my friend, whose birthday party I was attending called me the next day to talk about the remarkable event (very elegant speeches and much high praise and laughter, a gorgeous setting, sparkling everything,) so I gather that I'd acquitted myself adequately, managing to be amusing enough.

But damn, I wish I'd remembered the phrase self-deprecation and to thank the faculty member from another department whose hard work allowed me to survive.....

at any rate, I had my Spanish lesson at Target today...
and am now aided and abetted by a dear heart who encourages me to find more sticks...


  1. Sardines, bone-in, recommended for their calcium.

    O, those little jobs. I shudder when I think of them.

    xo from Mim who has given up barking

  2. that's not really self-deprecation, melissa. as you describe it. if you say it's a matter of perspective--and youre right--then i would guess what was being discouraged in a consideration of tenure was your tendency to express that by downplaying your own talent and skill. that's very different than having a broad, more political view of the way academic privilege works. it's just as valid an expression to think that you have as much right as anyone else to receive tenure; you paid your dues, even though you seem to think you didnt pay them in the "right" way. if you were not up to a teaching position at MIT, say, then you would have been booted. so what if you got your foot in the door with help. the same thing happened with me, because i got a job working at Harvard. i felt like an imposter, but i came to realize that in that particular game, i happened to get dealt a good hand of cards in that round. why deprecate my skill? same as you at MIT. so maybe it was luck. why shouldnt it have been us, that one time, who got the luck? you know i say this because i have an enormous amount of respect for your intelligence, your work ethic, your creative drive, your morality, your artwork, your writing, and your value system. chances are, other people have the same regard, even some of the crustaceans who bestow academic kudos. what's left to deprecate?

  3. wow, Susan...
    what a lot to think about...