'Talking Out of School'

December 4, 2008

In Talking Out of School: Memoir of an Educated Woman (Dalkey Archive Press), Kass Fleisher reviews her education and her career in college teaching -- without holding back criticism of herself or academe. Sexual politics, class politics and academic politics all figure prominently. The following excerpt is from a section in which she recalls her years as an adjunct. Spoiler alert/warning: There is explicit language throughout the book -- including a few choice words in the excerpt that follows.

1998. I’m adjuncting, and have precisely one friend on the faculty, the guy who got me the gig. We have lunch together every week and we’ve had precisely one argument in the entire span of all our lunches, about a relationship he had with a student once. He tells it as a personal horror story. She’d been bright, talented, precocious -- and ultimately unstable. She filed harassment charges against him, he spent good money to hire a lawyer, he was forced to detail to his department chair some embarrassingly intimate details...

... and the chair let it go. When the university affirmative action officer agreed that the relationship had been consensual that the relationship made sense given consent the charges were dropped.

He comes to my office one day, disturbed. One of his older-women graduate students has written an angry letter, distributed to the chair, the vice-president and the president -- by way of demanding her tuition money back -- complaining that he swears too much in class shitpissfuckcuntcocksuckermotherfuckertits. The chair of the department does not inform him that he and the big boys have received said letter. The chair sits on the letter for a week or two and then, without conferring with the instructor, conducting a hearing, or even remembering (apparently) that grievance procedures have been established and printed in the faculty handbook, he writes my friend a formal letter of reprimand, stating that he’ll be subject to “disciplinary action” if ever another such complaint arises.

“She may, with some justification,” the chair writes, “formally bring a charge of harassment against you.

“Copies of this and the student’s letter will be placed in your personnel file.”

To sabotage your tenure review next year, the letter does not say.

Unlike the chair (apparently), my friend and I consult the faculty handbook and find that this letter indeed violates multiple personnel procedures...

... and further, that the only “disciplinary action” listed is termination.

Fuck, man. You mean you can lose your job for saying “fuck”? You call that fucking “ harassment”?

Shee-it.

A month later, when the instructor’s student evaluations come back from the students who remained in the tech writing course after the complaining student left -- 40 percent of whom are women -- he will get a solid 5.0 on a 5-point scale—unanimous enthusiasm.

The chair will never comment on this....

1998. “I will no longer tolerate,” the chair writes in his letter to my friend, “what can only be described as your insensitive, vulgar, and obscene language in the classroom.”

The colleague’s intent in a graduate-level, academic tech writing class (i.e., not a vocational training workshop) is not just to teach students how to type memos, but rather to challenge students to consider how they know what they know as tech writers. This can be achieved while they expand their knowledge of their field, which exists right in the oily hinge, right in the fishy craw of the intersection of higher education and the corporation. Given the mess such a collision must be, he and I agree, some form of institutional critique is vital, and this sort of three-dimensional, reflexive analysis can, over time, only make students better tech writers. To know your context is to know your work.

Like many of his grad students, the complainant is his age, and already works as a tech writer. For much more than his salary.

From the first class meeting, she’s been unwilling to question herself in this manner. She’s uninterested in engaging his “message.” She pronounces the first assignment “a waste of time.” She simply wants to be told what she needs to “know” in order to cough up a master’s degree and presto! get a still higher salary.

“Withdraw me from this class, and do not charge my account.”

My “vulgar, obscene” colleague has been working with a search committee all fall. The chair calls him the week of Thanksgiving break and tells him that he’s being removed from the committee.

When my friend asks why, the chair explains that it’s political. A colleague with opposing pedagogical values has demanded to be included equal time on the committee.

The work’s almost done.

“He’s making this demand three weeks before we interview candidates at the MLA convention?” my friend says.

The chair nods.

“He just up and got pissed off at this late date?”

The chair has no real answer for this.

“At this late date?”

“It’s about fairness,” the chair says. “It’s about making sure both sides are represented.”

The only added perk for taking on all the added work of reading 300 application files is that you get reimbursed for the trip to the hiring conference, the Modern Language Association convention that meets annually between Christmas and New Year’s. So aside from losing all the work he’s put into this search so far no credit = no merit raise, teeny as that would be the instructor will have to pay his own way to MLA, where he has naturally two interviews himself.

“Is this your way of punishing me for the problem with the student who doesn’t like fucking cursewords?” the instructor asks.

“Certainly not,” the chair says.

Students will blame the discomfort of a learning transition on anything they can find. My friend’s experience illustrates clearly that in academe, it’s OK for instructors to fuck students...

... you just can’t say “fuck.”

Bio

Kass Fleisher is an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Illinois State University.

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