JW: The top of the page says that I’ve been filling in for you as you jumped into the “refreshing tenure stream” and headed towards Louisiana. You’ve arrived in your position as Assistant Professor at McNeese State University. Is it refreshing?
OC: To be treated from the start as an equal, a valued member of a team working toward a common goal, by warm, smart, caring colleagues, is to receive a gift you’d only peered at through the toy store window, standing in a cold rain in your castoff clothes, while Daddy’s children from his other marriage ran through the well-lighted aisles and helped themselves to candy necklaces from the bins.
Even in the most mundane ways, a change in scenery, a little more pay, and something as goofy as a title can give the feeling of entirely new life. It’s comical.
JW: I wonder if we’ve both gone soft, because I feel similarly. I’m doing essentially the same work as the last dozen years, but because it’s in a new place it feels different, energizing. It’s nice to not be aware of the baggage every school has to carry around.
Am I wishing for a willful ignorance? Maybe.
OC: But what’s soft about feeling good? About getting something you’ve wanted, including a little dignity, and being somewhere with better energy?
JW: I can’t help it, I’m Midwestern. We’re not really programmed to admit we want things, and getting them feels like a cruel joke in advance of the ultimate disaster. Feeling good risks disappointment. I know you and I have talked about my great uncle, Allan Seager, who was a writer of significant reputation in his day.  He was compared favorably with Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway at the beginning of his career. Needless to say, he’s been almost entirely forgotten, except for a grand nephew who tries to mention him in print every so often.
His favorite quote was from Job 5:7, “Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward,” and I tend to hold a similar view, for protection, if nothing else.
OC: Well, sure. But see, you grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. Way down in Southern Illinois we were all, like, Song of Solomon instead: “How beautiful you are, my darling! O!, how beautiful! Your eyes are doves.”
And they’d say, “O! no you didn’t.”
And we’d be all, “I liken you, my darling, to a mare among Pharaoh’s chariot horses.” And everybody started feeling good and getting loose, and then we’d say, “Your cheeks are beautiful with earrings, your neck with strings of jewels. We will make you earrings of gold, studded with silver.” Afterwards we’d all go to Popeye’s. To hell with disappointment.
JW: So what is the common goal? That sounds flip and I don’t mean it to be, it’s just that, you and I have both been at this game for awhile now, and while this feels like something I, you know… we don’t talk about it all that often. The words I hear when there’s talk about what we do are “sustainability,” “fragmentation,” “redundancy,” “yield.” (Did you know Bain Consulting has done a brief on the “financially sustainable university" ?)
Is that what we’re talking about?
OC: Sorry, I snorted Shiner Bock out my nose.
No, I don’t mean yield, whatever that is. The common goal, I feel after my first weeks here, is to serve each other and the region with mutual respect; to encourage each other to perform to the best of our abilities; to be part of the bigger community; and to develop a whole life.
I haven’t detected even background radiation of the inter- and intradepartmental antipathies we left behind a few weeks ago, the R1 insularity, or the flagship droit du seigneur that comes from being the main engine of the local economy. I do have my eye on Prof. LeJeune, a specialist in folklore here, who seems altogether too nice.
JW: But there is a hostility in the air towards higher education, no? Our gobbling up of tax dollars and tuition moneys so we may retain our sinecures latched firmly to the public teat. As employees of public universities, are we not more “taker” than “maker,” to use a simultaneously hoary and recently occurring formulation?
OC: Hey, listen, anti-intellectualism is rampant, even within the creative writing field. But Lake Charles clearly admires and respects its university -- one sees newspaper articles, booster signs, license plate frames, bumper stickers proud of graduated children, well-attended football games -- and that’s in what I’m coming to think of as proper proportion to the bigger culture here of a U.S. port and petroleum hub, borderland with Texas, the town’s thriving and often quirky small businesses, and the bayous, lakes, and Gulf that give such pleasure to the locals. Cajun Louisiana is known to value families and children, good food and drink and music. People take their time; even in administrative offices there’s an expectation of making conversation before business gets done. Is it any wonder the campus atmosphere is pleasant?
JW: One of the things you sometimes hear when people can’t get jobs or afford their present circumstances is that they should “move,” except that moving is not easy, right?
OC: Right. Those with power or resources have always blamed those without for their own misfortune. You hear bootstrap narratives in every recession and depression: Move to the big city, where all the jobs are, and get a job as pool hustler so you can send the money home to Carterville. Move from the city to the countryside, where they have all the jobs, and grow healthy fresh kumquats to send to your family left behind under the El tracks. Make art from ruined plasterboard, clean tombstones for wealthy families, start a glove factory. Hopeless advice. The only thing they really want you to have is a sure sense of your defeat.
Of course, when I was young and unattached I could throw some clothes and books into a duffel and go. It wasn’t hard, it was a lark, and I imagine some newly-degreed and -employed academics have this experience.
And of course if you have money -- your own or somebody else’s -- moving and many other annoyances must be tolerable. I don’t imagine these folks  suffer overmuch when changing jobs.
But if you work in a field not known for high pay or big relocation funds, if you have dependents, or someone in the family is gravely ill, moving can feel like domestic disaster, and sometimes it really is, depending on your definition of the event and ability to recover from it.
JW: In your case?
OC: We sold Churm House, in Illinois, quickly and got a good price for it, which we felt to be a minor miracle in a bad economy. After that, things got harder. In fact, my anger at our treatment by a multinational bank, for whom we did everything asked for two months -- which was often contradictory, impossible by their own rules, undefined, or repetitious -- before they finally, lazily, deigned to give us a mortgage on a new house, won’t let me speak of it rationally.
Technically, we were homeless in that time, though not on the street or in shelters. And we had resources, even if that was mostly credit cards, which ate our profits and threatened major debt. We were hemorrhaging money and never knew if the end was even in sight. My mother-in-law, who’s with us, has Stage 4 cancer. My wife didn’t have her job yet. Our cars looked like the Joads’ truck and had to be emptied and repacked every time we moved to new housing, since they were so overloaded we couldn’t get the family pets in. We were told that our sons couldn’t start school because we had no address in the district where we were buying the house. We couldn’t even open a bank account without an in-town, non-PO Box address, which meant paychecks that did come in, sat uncashed.
I really was homeless for a time as a teen, and this was an uncomfortable reminder. But seeing my children in a semblance of risk did much worse things to me. My little Wolfie said at one point that we could all go to the mall to ride the escalators since they were free, he was pretty sure.
For this father, it’s a quick bus ride from there over to Eat the Rich.
In the end, the crazy-desirable opportunity that this position represents -- going on the tenure track in a highly ranked MFA program -- will have cost my family the equivalent of a nicely appointed, new Ford Fiesta. I couldn’t have foreseen more than half of those costs, and that’s exactly why “just move if you don’t like your job” is, at one level, patently absurd. What if we had had no resources? Or this job had not been a known quantity with supportive people waiting for us? What if, instead of wanting better jobs, we had simply needed work of any kind, had heard there was work to be had, and made that jump on faith?
JW: I’m reminded of what Barbara Ehrenreich confronted in Nickel and Dimed, a book from which I remember assigning an excerpt in my first year of teaching, back when we met at Illinois. (Liberal brainwashers unite!) She showed how working class Americans get stuck in hand-to-mouth (or worse) living because of things like security deposits for apartments, money that is impossible to save, which puts them in hotels, which are expensive and makes it even more impossible to save, rinse and repeat.
OC: Exactly. If anything Ehrenreich didn’t go far enough -- refusing to ride public transportation, for instance, for comfort’s sake, and severely limiting the length of time she let her experiment go on -- which skewed her experience. In reality poverty is a cumulative misery, and under its weight people continue to sink deeper.
Let’s be clear: I’m not suggesting we’ve been living in poverty. But an unusual problem we encountered in our move is that, unlike much of the country, there’s work to be had here, for carpenters, bricklayers, CDL drivers, petroleum techs, casino workers, and others, so there’s not much rental housing available, and none for a family of five with pets, who needed -- we hoped -- only 30 days rental before closing on a house. We were in hotels for a couple of weeks, then in an extended-stay place, in the next town over, for what looked to be unmarried men who work the rigs, refineries and chemical plants. It wasn’t a pretty place.
JW: Our remaining readers may not know that I was educated graduatedly at McNeese State, so I understand. But the sight of those refinery lights in Sulphur, just across the I-10 bridge from Lake Charles, is about as pretty as you can imagine.
OC: Yeah, at night it’s like the “Fairyland” dream of the ex-con Wayne Hoobler in Breakfast of Champions. Anyway, the place we were staying was…tidied, each afternoon, but not once cleaned, not even the toilets, and I played guessing games with my kids about what the kumquats on the walls and ceiling really were. Every morning I used the brush on the end of my windshield scraper to wipe the ash and soot off our minivan, and every night I cooked for five on the two-burner stove in the efficiency kitchen with its little fridge that wouldn’t stay closed, so I was always sniffing food to try to determine it if it had gone bad overnight. Finally a friend of the program stepped in and very generously donated a small but lovely in-town vacation home for our use, and about 10 days later the bank got off its swollen ass and gave us the loan. We didn’t know if it would go through for sure until the day we closed.
The point being, even that extended-stay place, the cheapest and grimiest and furthest-flung of our paid sojourns, cost us a month’s rent every week. Again: What if we had been not working for a university and a library, or not in well-paid refinery jobs, but at McDonald’s, or for a lawncare service, or as adjuncts with 5/5 loads at three different colleges around town, for a total of $14,000?
But never mind. The world’s richest woman says, as she sips the cocktail of disdain and guilt, to stop smoking and drinking, and you’ll be rich too . I gave up smoking years ago. Can I be half-rich now?
JW: You may. How did you see yourselves before?
OC: Charmingly, I usually saw us as no different from any other junior faculty family. It was charming I thought so because financially we were different. Things got pretty dicey for us in the middle years of the decade we were at Illinois. My wife’s job as a program administrator at the uni got phased out, and there were no other jobs anywhere, it seemed, even in the clerical pool. We’d moved there for her job, and now it was gone, while I still had my fulltime adjunct position, which was supposed to lack security (and did, for all those let go in the Great Adjunct Purges of ’04.). Weird.
We talked about leaving, taking a chance to do something else, making it an adventure, maybe even going abroad, but how far could we have gotten on what we had, and where would we have gone? I loved teaching there, and it was, relatively speaking, one of the better adjunct deals in the country, which is to say I was paid half of what junior faculty in my field were paid. So my wife decided to do a fulltime master’s in something practical, while I kept working, and after graduation she eventually got a rewarding new job in a middle school in town. Before that period was over we had accumulated a lot of debt, and our house badly needed work we couldn’t afford. I identify closely with people in the news who’ve said they were one bad event from foreclosure. But we were very slowly working out of all that.
I was told I could have stayed indefinitely, that I had a kind of de facto tenure, as far as hiring was concerned, through seniority. My own feeling—and I had observed more cycles of adjunct history there than the administrator who told me that had—was that all it would take to put my job, and therefore my family, at risk again would be a change of administrators and a quick revision of the hiring rules. Not the likeliest scenario, but maybe instead of senior lecturers with the most time in the classroom being staffed first, the first people hired each semester would be grads of their own program, so they could get teaching experience to go on the job market. If the department ran out of sections, there’d be nothing you could do.
Or if, let’s say, a tenured faculty star acted publically like a turd, and a guy wrote about the incident somewhere, then maybe the little turd would walk around trying to get the non-tenured guy fired. In one of the hypocrisies of the tenure/adjunct milieu, it could happen.
Mostly, and I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, I didn’t think much about pay or where we fit on the socioeconomic ladder. I did my job enthusiastically, did it well, I believe, tried to be a good colleague and departmental citizen, and went over to my kids’ school to walk them home each day.
Now of course we are, as I believe they say in the South, squatting in high cotton. But I’m constantly reminded of how many adjuncts are genuinely among the working poor in America, one of the shames of higher ed, which as a system claims to be invested in human worth, dignity, and self-realization. Many lofty ideas are professed in the presence of disenfranchised, contingent labor.
JW: And yet, somehow conservatives think we’re all socialists.
OC: Okay, so I was reading something on LBJ’s Great Society only yesterday. But it was late at night, and I figured everybody was asleep. Have you told anyone else?
JW: My lips are sealed. It’s just between you, me, and the Internet.
Part 2 will be appearing soon. In the meantime, there's always Twitter @biblioracle. John will send your responses to Churm via telegram.