I Have Made a Huge Mistake: A chronicle of my first week on a job I never should have taken
It is the week before fall semester begins, and I sit alone in the middle of a large auditorium at a small private college that has recently hired me to teach English. The rest of the faculty is catching up with each other after the summer break, but I don’t know anyone to catch up with yet, so I sit by myself as I wait for the Provost to take the podium.
Ninja-like, a senior English professor appears suddenly beside me. We’d met at my interview, but I’ve not spoken to him beyond that. He glances nervously side to side and behind himself, twice each, and then swiftly takes the seat next to me. Without introduction, he begins speaking to me under his breath, but he looks straight ahead as he does so, like in a spy movie when an informant meets someone on a park bench.
“Listen,” he says. “I’m on your side. But you need to know that there are land mines everywhere in this place. The dean is completely opposed to you. You really ruffled a lot of feathers with that Rick Perry crack. I agree with you, but there are a lot of Trumpsters around here. I’m here to help, but just remember that there are some people at this university who are probably invested in your failure.” And with that, he gets up and walks away.
I almost laugh. I’d known an hour into the first session of the first day of new faculty orientation that taking this job had been a huge mistake. The “Rick Perry crack” the professor referenced referred to an off-handed comment I’d made earlier about the potential of employing the text of Perry’s campaign ads to teach students about logical fallacy. I wasn’t even trying to be controversial. I was just trying to be funny. And anyway, it was Rick Perry.
Earlier in the day, the Vice Provost had kicked off the session she headed by distributing to the faculty a Xeroxed article titled “The Top 7 Ways to Engage with Students.” It was published in 1987. Then she told us to break up into groups (“break up into groups”!!) and discuss our favorite ways to engage students. I started to laugh, because I thought she was joking. Then I thought maybe it was some sort of experiment. Then I thought maybe my nightmares had come true and I was teaching high school again. Then I thought maybe I was on an episode of Punked.
I looked around the room desperately, silently pleading with my new colleagues to somehow tacitly confirm my bewilderment. The guy next to me, who was also new and who had for some unimaginable reason come here from Georgetown, just shook his head sadly. Weren’t we supposed to talk about publication agendas and how to access our conference presentation budgets? How to find campus resources and secure visiting lecturers? The benefits package? It turned out we were not going to talk about any of that. We were going to focus on “student success,” which was, according to the president, not only our number one priority, but in fact our ONLY priority.
It didn’t take long to figure out that “student success” was a euphemism for “don’t fail anyone, no matter what.” The term “customer service” was invoked multiple times without apology or shame. The President also suggested that one way to ensure student success is to allow students to take a test as many times as it takes them to get a good grade. That’s how we can help them succeed. Well, yeah, I guess. Kinda depends upon how you define “success,” but yeah. Prior to the student success speech, the President had introduced his wife to the faculty as “my love, my rib, my everything.” His rib??!! At this point I physically turned to look for hidden cameras. Everyone just smiled and clapped, though, as The Rib stood and waved to the audience.
Toward the end of the day’s sessions, I glance at Georgetown again. He appears to have completely checked out and is hunched over a legal pad. He is writing the alphabet over and over again. It seems, to me, a reasonable response to most of what has occurred here today.
It’s the Thursday before classes begin, and the entire student body is gathered in the field house. The new freshmen are seated in the center of the cavernous space, with the full faculty seated behind them. Both sections are flanked by upper classmen seated diagonally on each side.
A Catholic priest (Why is there a priest here? This school has no religious affiliation) leads us all in a prayer for good things in the upcoming school year and then commands everyone to repeat “Lord help us” after everything he says. At one point he likens the college President leading students and faculty into the academic year to Moses leading his flock through the wilderness. We then all recite the Lord’s Prayer.
When Moses himself takes the microphone, he delivers a cheesy and clichéd pep talk featuring multiple sports metaphors, and wraps it up by having students say, “When I get knocked down I’ll get back in the game. When I get knocked down I’ll get back in the game. When I get knocked down, I’ll get back in the game.” They chant this perhaps eight or ten times.
Then the Provost takes the stand. She directs students to stand up and turn around to face the faculty. This is almost comically awkward. I feel bad for the students and try to smile at them, encouragingly, but quickly realize that’s even creepier when some of them start to desperately avert their eyes. We continue to stare each other down while the Provost tells the students (in a deeply weird and melodramatic voice) that “These faculty are here for YOU. They want you to SUCCEED. And they’re going to challenge you like you’ve never been challenged before. Sometimes you’ll think you can’t take it. They’re going to take you places you’ve never been before.” I cringe. No, we’re really not, I want to say. We’re just regular teachers. It’s just college. We’re not going to make it weird like this. But clearly, the appropriate-academic-interaction ship has sailed out of this place sometime prior to my arrival. I give up and look down at my feet. The poor freshmen are finally permitted to turn forward again, and they do so quickly and with obvious relief.
But then there’s a “pinning ceremony.” This consists of several upper classmen coming over to the new freshmen and affixing pins to their shirts while a song that either is Christian rock or that just shares the lame musical attributes of Christian rock plays in the background. For the duration of the song, the Provost leads the freshmen through a pledge that states, “With this pin I commit to graduate in four years. I am now part of the University family for life.” You would be surprised how many times it’s possible to repeat these two sentences over the course of one song. The whole thing is made even more absurd by the fact that each freshmen is wearing a brightly-colored t-shirt with a beagle on it, which is the university’s mascot.
The ceremony finishes with the Provost reading (aloud, and in its entirety) Dr. Seuss’s Oh the Places You’ll Go. “Lord help us,” I think.