Thursday, December 3, 2009

Tenure-Track Tales, Part The First

When my husband and I finished graduate school in the early 1970s, the market for advanced degrees in his field (physics) and mine (Romance languages) had all but dried up. Students were into relevance rather than what was good for them, so quantum mechanics (and the math prerequisites) and French literature (and the language requirements) were not on their lists of exciting courses.

Twenty-eight years old, with two toddlers and two brand-new degrees, we decided that we would take the first job that appeared in a geographic area that offered any promise of employment for the other one.

I sent my resume to the South Atlantic Modern Languages Association in hopes of getting some interviews at their annual meeting, and was ecstatic when I got five responses. I left the children with my husband, flew to Atlanta, and checked into the hotel, feeling worldly and successful. I spent the next day in interviews. These were conducted by language department chairmen, elderly (to me) gentlemen who, after painting in detail their struggles with the inevitably barbaric administration of their university, gave vent to their appreciation not of my academic record, but my physical attributes. They said things like “Well, young lady, you certainly won't have any trouble attracting MALE students to your classes.”

How do you respond to something like that? On the one hand, the compliments meant that the guy liked me and might give me a job, which I and my family sorely needed. On the other, was this what I had slogged through a Ph.D. for? On yet another hand, hadn't I been taught from the cradle that a girl's first duty (well, second, after being smart and virtuous) was to be pleasing in every way?

So I did my best to smile and endure and ask the kinds of questions that would make me intellectually respectable. But through that long day I became more and more tense and uncomfortable. Then came my last interview. Amazingly, it was with a woman, a kind of wonder in those days, the chair of a large language department at a large southern university. And, for the first time that day, we talked about languages, and literature, and my ideas about a liberal arts education. I felt weak with gratitude and relief.

I got some offers out of that awful day—one of them from the woman chair-- but they were all for non-tenure-track positions, given the sorry state of academia at the time. (A tenure-track position is one out of which, if you are approved after five years, you can only be fired for moral turpitude or acts of terrorism.)

One particularly oily chairman did offer me a tenure-track job in his department. He invited my husband and me to meet him at a restaurant in a neighboring state to discuss details. But he was so leeringly disgusting during the meal—did things like slide his hand down my back as he helped me out of my coat—that I told him my professional goals had changed. Besides, his college was in a backwater town in no need of physicists.

Meanwhile, the country was going down the tubes. The President was clearly a crook, gas was expensive and hard to get, and the price of tomatoes was going through the roof. That was when I planted my first garden—a row of tomato seeds right under the eaves of our rented house. Thirty little seedling struggled up despite all odds, only to be slaughtered like the Holy Innocents at the first torrential downpour.

Then a letter came from a liberal arts college in Maryland, inviting me up for an interview. Wonder of wonders, the letter was signed by a woman, the department chair! We left the babies with my mother and drove up. Maryland in those days looked like Vermont—rolling hills, prosperous farms, charming villages. I fell in love.

The department chair was not only a woman, but a Cuban exile who ruled beningly over a German who believed in—guess what—punctuality; a Frenchman whose wife packed a bottle of red wine with his daily lunch; a Russian bedecked in diamonds who taught French part-time; and some recent American Ph.D.s who believed in alternative (meaning gay) lifestyles and deconstructionism.

My predecessor had been a bi-polar Frenchwoman who used a cane, dressed exclusively in floor-length white tunics, and scared the students to death. I was welcomed with open arms. We moved into a “faculty apartment” carved out of the former slave quarters in the oldest house in the village, and my husband promptly found a job within commuting distance.

I plunged into my job teaching French and Spanish language and literature like a house on fire. This is what I had read all those books, written all those papers, fallen asleep in the library stacks, endured oral and written exams, defended my dissertation for! And in the worst job market since the Depression, it had all paid off.

At a college party a few years later, one of my German colleagues, well in his cups, told me that when I came for the interview, he and several others had happily voted for me. “This one's got good legs,” they told the Cuban chairwoman. “Hire her.”

7 comments :

  1. oh lord what a story!

    i'm laughing at the woman in tunics who scared the students.

    mayme, the russian woman i have written about, taught a russian-language class in duluth one semester. she apparently faced the class on the first day, looked out at the sea of students, and said, in her crisp english, "Within two weeks I will have you sweating blood!"

    the sea of students was a lot smaller the second day.

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  2. A Spanish proverb says, "Learning is acquired with blood." Seems to be a motif, doesn't it?

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  3. oh my GAWD. I mean, I realize I shouldn't be shocked. I know it was the 70s. But still, I'm shocked.

    (Although you are quite beautiful.)

    Sigh. Remember when Maryland looked like Vermont? It breaks my heart to go back there.

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  4. Indigo, I think that all those comments had more to do with the commenter's mindset than the woman's looks. Any young, healthy woman who didn't have three heads got them, alas.

    And yes, all that beautiful countryside, now covered in McMansions.

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  5. I've only been in Vermont once and don't know remember what it looked like so I'll take your word for it.

    This wasn't that school that teaches the classics was it? I just read a book about that school.

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  6. Dona, this was WAY before Vermont. It was in Maryland, not far from you. And are you thinking about the Great Books curriculum at St. John's College? That IS in Maryland, in Annapolis (but I never worked there).

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  7. Right -- I was thinking about St. John's College, but didn't want to say the name in case it was St. John's.

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