One afternoon Nancy Buckley came to observe me teach the creative writing class. Observation happens to not-yet tenured faculty on a regular basis, an old prof comes by to see if the youngster is having too much fun. I usually got observed once a year, but observations can happen more often if the senior faculty wants to give you shit—Devon got observed a lot by Courtney and Tee and Nancy, eight times in her first year, and I think six times her second year, and at least twice her last semester. Nancy gave me my first observation, a terrifically negative one, and afterwards I usually got Old Earl or Bart to watch me teach, and they were fine with my work.
Nancy was already in the classroom when I got there. She was sitting in the corner, surrounded by notebooks, and she sort of squinted and half-smiled at me, like she was up to something. I shrugged. What the hell. I wasn’t expecting too many compliments from Nancy, anyway. I was teaching a class outside my area, a class Nancy felt like she owned. Also, Nancy was an idiot who idiotically thought I was an idiot.
I got behind the podium and switched on the computer and the projector, and when it warmed up, I started the class. I introduced Nancy to the students—who turned around and squinted at her suspiciously, like she was up to something—and then I went over the schedule for the coming week, and then we started discussing the student story.
And—it turned out that the student story that day was actually kind of interesting. It had the potential to be sort of good. Written by a kid named Keith, the story was about some high school boys, who, as part of an initiation, break into the local petting zoo after hours and pet the wallaby.
I glanced over at Nancy and saw that she was seriously pissed—pale, with her thin lips drawn in a line. Nancy was the kind of a stiff prude who always radiated sheer disgust at anything having to do with bodies—and I guessed wallaby-petting must have sounded totally vulgar and masturbatory to her.
Well, that was her problem.
Keith, the student, wasn’t being vulgar. He was earnest and thoughtful about his little story. It was based on something that had happened to him in high school. There wasn’t anything dirty about it, nothing to snicker about, just a kid trying to tell a story about something had happened in his life. The problem with the story was that nothing actually happened: the boys hung around with the wallaby and then went home.
“But that’s what we really did at my school,” Keith said. “We broke into the zoo and we petted the wallaby and then we went home.”
“Right,” I said. “I get it. But I think you might need to have something more actiony happen in the story—it has to be better than real life, you know? You need some action, you need some conflict.” I looked around the room at the students—at Nancy. “So, tell me—what can you do with a wallaby?”
“Kill it and eat it!” a skinny tousle-haired farm boy said—I could never remember his name.
“Take it to the movies!” a girl named Jazmin said.
“Feed it a carrot,” a boy named Jared said.
“See?” I asked Keith. “You can do a lot with a wallaby.” Again, I looked around at everybody—I looked even at frowning pissed-off Nancy. I said, “Okay—everybody get out some paper and write down a list of ten things you can do with a wallaby! Then we’ll come up with ways to make a story.”
The students got busy writing. Nancy was writing, too, her thin brown lips pursed in concentration.
After class, Nancy came over and squinted up at me. She asked, “I can’t remember—are you always so informal with the students?”
“Sure,” I said. “I guess so.”
“You might not want to disburse your authority like that,” Nancy said.
Nancy stared at me silently.
“Well,” I said, “at least we solved the story’s wallaby problem, huh?”
“Tom,” Nancy said gravely. “Marsupial sex is not the problem in this class. I’m afraid that you were the problem in this class.”
The next day I found an envelope in my department mailbox. Inside the envelope was Nancy’s class observation notes.
Thank you for allowing me to visit your ENGL 255 “Intro to Creative Writing” class. I found it very interesting.
You began the class by asking how the students were doing, which is sometimes appropriate. However, you followed this up by telling the students how you were doing, which is never appropriate. It is important to keep a rigid distance between yourself and the students; anything less than that will erode your academic authority. Never mention your life, such as it is, to the students.
Once your “pleasantries” had ended, the class turned to actual academic business, discussing a student story entitled “Petting Zoo.”
The story, which I was not allowed to read prior to class, seemed to contain many grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors. No mentions of these errors, if they existed, were made in class, thereby damaging the student.
The student’s story was filled with ugly sexual innuendo, mostly centered around a marsupial. This innuendo was quite unsettling; yet it seemed to amuse you. Need I say that the university classroom is no place for marsupial sexual innuendo?
Apparently, I do need to say so. Because following the discussion of the student story, you forced the class to write their own fantasy sexual marsupial innuendos. I observed that several students were visibly upset at this command. Marsupial sex has nothing to do with creative writing and was a bad educational experience for the students.
Overall, I was very disappointed in your teaching. I am surprised that you have made so little progress in your teaching over the past four years. Your “chattiness” and “devil-may-care attitude” are damaging to your students and corrosive to your colleagues and to the values of the entire English Department.
However, I do understand that you are new to teaching creative writing and that you are not familiar with basic creative writing pedagogy. I am attaching a list of books I expect you read by the end of the semester.
In closing, I do want to thank you for helping the Creative Writing Program with this ongoing emergency by taking over the late Dr. Shepherd’s class, and thank you, too, for helping with the department to the best of your abilities.
Nancy Dulmage Buckley, PhD
Professor of English
Southeast Kansas State University
The Skype interview with Midwestern.
I set up to Skype from my office at home through my iPad and I sat the tablet on a stand next to my desktop machine, in case I needed to use the big computer to look up something. I cleaned my office, especially the area within the camera view, and stacked in the background some interesting books--Moby-Dick, Gravity’s Rainbow, Infinite Jest, Richardson’s biography of Emerson, The Fire Next Time, hoping to impress the interviewers. I shaved, I put on a good shirt, a tie, and a navy blazer, I locked Fuzzhead in my bedroom, and I was more or less ready.
Just after two pm, the screen blinked and a man appeared, a friendly-looking sandy-haired man. He asked, “Hello? Am I coming through?”
“Yes,” I said, kind of loudly. “I can hear you—see you.”
“You’re coming through, too.” The man nodded. “Tom, I’m Paul Lampland. How are you today?” He was speaking a little loud, too.
“I’m good,” I said. “Staying busy.”
“Great!” Lampland said. “We might as well get started, okay? Let me move the computer so that you can see the rest of the committee….”
The screen jittered around as Lampland panned the computer. He went—I guess—around the room, introducing each member of the committee, and they all said, “Hello, Tom!” at their introductions. I almost immediately forgot the names of everyone, except for one of the women, Buffy Whitacre. When the camera panned past her, Buffy Whitacre’s skirt was kind of hiked up, showing a long slender thigh. Was that—deliberate? A good sign? A bad sign? Or just a human thigh? I had no idea. I blinked and then it was gone and Lampland’s face filled the screen.
“So, Tom,” Lampland said. “We were very impressed with your job materials. Can you perhaps tell us a bit more about what you’re looking for at Midwestern State?”
And we were off. The questions were pretty basic, really quite similar to the ones we were going to ask of our Southeast Kansas job applicants—How do you teach 19th Century American Literature? How do you teach 20th Century American Literature? Do you teach Ethnic American Literature, or just Old Dead White Guy American Literature? Do you lecture or do you facilitate discussion? What kinds of technology do you use in your classes? Just basic questions asked to get an idea of who I was and what I believed and if I was an asshole or an idiot or a jerk or something. As the questions went around the room, I learned to identify the questioners—pensive-sounding Bruce Wolfson, cheerful-seeming Barb Simon, leggy-sounding Buffy Whitacre. And I think I handled all the questions pretty well, until Buffy Whitacre’s last question. I squinted into the iPad screen. Buffy tugged at the hem of her skirt, and she asked, “So, Tom, tell me—what was the nicest thing a student has ever said on one of your evaluations?”
And I was—stumped.
“Wow,” I said. “That’s a tough one.”
“I hope that’s because they said lots of nice things!” Buffy said. I heard everyone in the room laugh.
I actually couldn’t remember anything remotely positive that a student said, ever. I mean, over the years positive things had been said—quite a few positive, I guess—but all I ever actually retained was a student once calling me a “self-proclaimed know-it-all,” or others calling me lazy, or pompous, or aloof (Tee called me into her office after the last aloof, shaking the paper at me, saying “See? See? Everybody says so!”). I remembered those comments because they were all more or less true. But what was—positive? Then I thought of Devon. There were a lot of nice things to say about her—at least I had nice things to say about her.
“Well,” I said. “I guess—one time a student said, ‘Dr. Holt loves being in the classroom. Even when he’s sick he loves being in the classroom!’ And—I guess that’s true.”
“Wow,” Buffy said. “That’s a great response—I wish a student would say something nice like that about me.”
I thought—Yeah, me too.
The next say after class I was heading back up to my office when I was intercepted by Nancy.
“You need to come with me,” Nancy said. “We’re having a meeting of the hiring committee.”
“What?” I looked at my phone. Nothing on my calendar.
“It’s an emergency meeting,” Nancy said. “Courtney is very upset.”
Well, then. I looked down the hall at my closed office door—my sanctuary—and then I pushed past Nancy and headed on down to the department conference room, where I found Courtney and Ted waiting. Nancy came in and sat with them. The conference room was long and narrow with a row of windows that looked out to the tops of dead leafless trees. I sat across from the writers, with my back to the window.
“I just want to say that this is a catastrophe,” Courtney said. “Eight of our top ten candidates have dropped out.”
I pulled some papers out of my briefcase. The top ten candidates—Courtney had compiled an imaginative merging of the lists Ted and Nancy and I had sent her and had ranked them according to her own weird Stalinist standards.
“Why?” Nancy asked.
“Apparently,” Courtney said, and paused. I looked up at her. “Apparently, bad things are being said about us on the internet.”
“What?” Ted sounded shocked. He never went online—he could send an email with an attachment or sometimes Google something, but he was basically afraid of the internet.
“Bad things!” Courtney said. “Sexual harassment. Vile slanders.” Courtney bent forward and stared at me. “Tom, do you know anything about this?”
“About—sexual harassment?” I asked. “Hell, no!”
“Are you sure?”
The fuck. Goddamn Courtney asking me that.
“Why are you asking me that?” I asked. I think I sounded angry—I was angry.
“Because—these slanders, they were very similar to what Devon said on Facebook.”
“Oh, fuck me,” I said. Nancy flinched. “A lot of people saw what Devon wrote—and a lot of people agree with her.”
“Do you agree with her?” Courtney asked.
“Well.” I paused. Thought about that, took a breath. “Well, look—Devon thought this place was a fucking prison. But, you know, look at me—here I am, still in the prison, doing my fucking job.”
“Just barely,” Nancy said. Whispered—but I heard her. Bitch.
“I don’t know,” Courtney said. “There’s a Devon connection somewhere. That slander is just vile—we lost our best candidates because of her.”