Katie Rose Guest Pryal
The hall of the department is a 1960s-era Bunker, molded of concrete and rebar, with tall, narrow windows to repel even the most determined activist. I watch my feet as I climb the lino-clad stairs so I don’t stumble in my skinny high-heels, bought specifically to match this suit. The suit is black, with pale pinstripes, more fashionable than the interview suit.
I’d always sworn I would never buy one of those.
Dr. Comp and Dr. Rhet sit in a conference room. He directs the composition program; she’s an assistant professor. I have a new doctorate in rhetoric and composition, the most marketable everyone on my committee swore to me. And it seems so, since Dr. Comp and Dr. Rhet want to hire me for this special position, crafted just for me or someone like me, for someone with special training in special disciplines. Plus, Dr. Comp says, it pays really well and comes with great research support. Sure it’s still a contract position, but the contract is multi-year, and the Department Chair is really committed to changing the lecturer paradigm.
Dr. Comp says, when I ask about the possibility for contract renewal, I promise we’ll continue to exploit you as long as you let us.
We all laugh.
I moved here for him, for Mr. Tall. Like many women before me, I traded some super-bright job offers for a pretty darn shiny one and a bungalow with the man I love.
In late April, I get a phone call from the chair of another English department to offer me a position at a school far away, one I applied for weeks ago. I say I’ve taken a job at the Bunker, so I’m not available any more.
He says, I’m not surprised. Talent like yours gets snatched up quick.
I feel a twinge, thinking maybe I’ve accepted a job that isn’t good enough, that I should have held out for something better.
Mr. Tall says he wants to take me to dinner near the Bunker. First, he suggests a walk around campus. He says, I’ve always loved this place at dusk.
A decade ago, my new institution belonged to him, a skinny kid with big round glasses. The coincidence across space and time suits my love of scientific anomalies. We stop outside my Bunker-to-be, and he pulls me into the foyer. We stop at the Board, black background with white letters, the long list of professors’ last names with digits beside indicating the small rooms where genius happens. Your name will be up there soon, he says.
He drops to a knee, holding something round and shiny. Now you’ll think of me every day when you come to work.
The syllabi are written. The readings selected and scanned. The bus schedule memorized. The keys placed on my keychain, the copy codes in my head. I am, I believe, ready.
My office, I discover, was painted pink and yellow, each wall a solid pane of color, by the graduate students who inhabited it before. Pink paint splatters the ceiling and the baseboards, yellow drips have dried on the desks and linoleum. I hang my four diplomas, hoping to distract visitors from the unprofessional colors with my professional credentials.
I visit Dr. Rhet’s office, professionally painted a refreshing green. She reassures me the department pays to repaint offices. You just have to ask.
I learn that, because I am a lecturer, the department will not pay to repaint my office.
Every time a student comes for office hours, there’s a funny moment when the shocking colors evoke an unintentional response, often pursed lips, or a sniff as though the colors emit a smell. Embarrassed, I lie, The walls will be repainted soon. Don’t worry.
I learn my office is to be shared. My office-mate is also a lecturer, one of the special lecturers like me, hired as part of the new model for fixed-term faculty. Each week, she travels far to teach here, so she sits in the office a lot, lacking anywhere else to go.
I decide I prefer the campus coffee shop for my office hours and buy a new desk for the spare bedroom in the bungalow to have a place to do my writing.
They’ve repainted the hallways of the Bunker. The windows don’t open, so there’s no fresh air. Near the mailboxes, I feel a bit lightheaded from the fumes. Dr. Cultural Studies stands next to me, fumbling with his mail, the same mail I’ve received, a tightly-packed tome of fliers, notices, and newsletters, each printed on a different shade of pastel office paper.
We stand, our rainbows in our hands, and I say, The paint smell sure is strong, don’t you think.
He says, without a sign of recognition in his eyes, You should just be glad they painted. Then he turns and drops his rainbow in the trash.
I wonder if he talks to all faculty that way.
I stand in the foyer of the Bunker, where Mr. Tall proposed to me, staring at the Board with its small white letters. My name still isn’t there.
[one year passes]
My name does not belong on the Board, I’m told, because lecturers are itinerant, and because to purchase more small white letters would cost the department too much money.
I’m going to have a baby in June.
I hide in the bathroom when I feel sick, armed with a slick pack of lies: I sure gained the newly-wed fifteen, or, Avoid the sushi in the Union today. It’s a little off.
Faculty meeting. A new course scheduling policy. All Faculty must teach one semester of Monday, Wednesday, and Friday courses each school year, no exceptions. Many groans emit.
Then, Dr. Twentieth Century says, her voice high and sweet, I don’t see why we can’t just have those lecturers teach three days a week. After all, they don’t have to write. It’s us researchers that should have the good schedules.
I remember some words my mother once said to me when I was in college. She said, You grow up to be a doctor, do you hear me? Don’t you grow up to be a nurse. At the time, I’d just declared an English major, so her words seemed a little strange.
Now I know what she meant. She’s been married to a doctor for thirty years, running the practice for twenty. But to some, she’ll always just be a doctor’s wife.
I became a doctor. But I’m still a nurse. Except nurses get paid more and have better job security.
My textbook proposal is accepted by a publisher. They send me a one thousand dollar advance. I sign my contract at a bistro with Mr. Tall, and he takes my picture with the pen in my hand.
The lecturers form an advisory committee and ask for promotion procedures. We want a senior title, with senior pay, and five year contracts. We form a listserv, start a newsletter with meeting minutes, and begin to plan.
Our push seems to be working.
My belly is starting to show, and I’m worried. I also majored in Women’s Studies, so I can recognize my fear as an old one, one felt by working women for decades — that our bosses will resent the pregnancy, the promised leave from work (right there in contractual black and white), and the distraction that a child brings.
I’ve made friends with another lecturer, Dr. Cool. She’s been in the Bunker for sixteen years. She invites me to sit in her office. It’s hers alone, and it’s bright, with pictures of her grown children on the walls.
Is your name on the Board? I ask her.
No, she says, and it really makes me mad.
I tell her I’m pregnant. It seems she already knows. She says, Honey, you should tell everybody. Then they sure as heck can’t fire you.
I tell everyone.
I tell our new chair. She reassures me that not only will I have a job when I get back from parental leave, but that she’ll do all in her power to make it as good a job as she can. She tells me she is happy for me, and I believe her.
I sign a form that gives me a semester’s paid leave in the fall, and I’m really happy I work in the Bunker.
An announcement to all lecturers: Due to budget shortfalls, all lecturers will be placed on one-year contracts for the foreseeable future.
We are reassured, however, that the department — the tenured faculty — will do all it can to protect us.
All faculty receive a golden-yellow announcement in the mail, asking for proposals for University-funded small research grants, given to the most promising research projects proposed by any faculty member.
In boldface, like a black eye, the form letter says, Adjunct professors are not eligible, nor are lecturers, instructors, or others of non-professorial rank.
I wonder, if the grants are truly based on merit, why they choose to exclude certain members of the faculty.
I think of high school, when I was a young player on the junior varsity volleyball team. During a preseason scrimmage against the varsity squad, we kicked their butts. Our ever-pragmatic coach simply admitted his error and traded squads, placing J.V. players on varsity and benching his former starters. Ignoring their protests, he told them, You just need to play better, folks.
I’m starting to wonder about the meaning of merit in the Bunker.
My son comes six weeks early. His skinny, premature form lies in a plastic bin, tubes and wires tracking to machines that blip and flash. For one week he sleeps in that bin, and I forget the Bunker, the Board, the pink-and-yellow office, Dr. Cultural Studies and his disregard, Dr. Twentieth Century and her naive insults. I think, If my baby comes home safe, nothing else will ever matter again.
I sit by his bin and grade final papers for my four writing courses. Grades are due in two days.
Home with my son, enjoying generous parental leave, I feel like a hypocrite. Sure, no one dreams of growing up to be second-class. But, I tell myself, second-class academia is better than most jobs.
The state budget is getting ugly. Our new chair comes to a lecturers’ meeting, where we’re finalizing our proposal for the creation of a senior lecturer position. She says, The budget has been deeply cut. It’s not certain that you will all be rehired next year.
Suddenly, the promotion and retention proposal we’ve been debating, revising, and debating seems pointless.
After the Chair has left, a lecturer says, We sure got put back in our places. The lecturers were getting uppity.
The senior lecturer promotion proposal comes up for a vote. Due to budgetary constraints, the bits in the proposal about higher pay and longer contracts are excised. After six years of teaching, a lecturer can put in for a promotion to Senior Lecturer. At least the title will be better.
At the faculty meeting, I point out what appears to be a mistake in the paperwork. It says all tenure-track faculty can vote on lecturers being promoted to senior lecturer. I think, a first-year assistant professor who hasn’t even passed third-year review shouldn’t be able to vote on a veteran such as Dr. Cool. That’s absurd.
I raise my hand and the chair recognizes me.
I say, Shouldn’t this say “tenured” faculty? Do we want assistant professors to vote on senior lecturers? Do we really think that all Assistant Professors are a higher rank than Senior Lecturers?
The room, stuffed with sixty faculty members, is silent for a moment. Then, Dr. Linguist turns around to look at me, except she doesn’t really look at me, just toward me. She says, Yes they are. I’m sorry, but that’s just the way it is.
The chair nods. The motion passes.
I go to the departmental office. One of the administrators has been holding my son during the meeting with the sure hands of a grandmother. His small body is draped across her, his fist tucked into his mouth. I see my small boy lying on her chest, sleeping, and I shut the office door and cry.
I come to the Bunker for the new semester, returning to teaching after a semester of leave. My textbook is in production. I did it all on my own, with no help from the Bunker. I’m proud of myself.
I walk into the Bunker’s foyer, and the Board is down. Dr. Cool walks up to me and says, Our names are going up. It’s gonna happen today.
I say, Is it silly that I’m so excited about this?
In a world in which we always lose, we have finally won something. I snap a picture of my name — well, Mr. Tall’s name — on the new board, using my cell phone, and send it to Mr. Tall.
He writes back, It’s finally official.