On 9-11-01, I was in the second week of my first semester as a college teacher. I was a second-year Master’s student. I hadn’t even realized that we got to teach in real classrooms with real students as part of the whole “I am now an important person with Big Thoughts” grad school experience. But there I was, a happy twentysomething, teaching my heart out. I wanted to be one of those cool, youngish teachers that all the students can really relate to, you know? I was pretty thrilled about everything.
Here are some of the things I got when I became a T.A. for the department the week before 9-11-01.
- A department mailbox. With my name on it. Seriously, this made me giddy. Sure, my mailbox was in a separate section with the adjunct boxes (that should have been my first clue that “T.A.” was just another name for “adjunct”). But having a mailbox was the first piece of capital that made me feel like an apprentice member of the academy. It was the first installment of my symbolic wage, a powerful incentive that keeps many people in the academic game in the absence of fair monetary compensation.
- Occasionally, students would call me “professor.” I would be completely bowled over by the whole ego-inflating absurdity of being called that when I didn’t even have an M.A. degree yet. I didn’t correct them.
- A bookstore order form. I know this one is kind of silly, but I was practically dancing in the streets to find out that I could order whatever texts I wanted for my class, and the students would have to go to the campus bookstore and buy them. Woot! I remembered buying books when I was an undergraduate. It was always exciting to go in the bookstore and see which books, among the thousands that lined the shelves, I would be reading with Professor So-and-so that semester. And now I was Professor So-and-so, provoking that same sense of wonder in my students. What could be better? I did not need any further evidence that time passes and that there is justice in the world.
- My own classroom to be brilliant in. Granted, my classroom that first semester was tiny with no window. I did not care, though, because I got to walk in there as the teacher. It was all good. It would all work out. I could get used to this.
- Membership in a faculty assessment group. Grading papers! I was actually really excited about it. I couldn’t wait to read my students’ writing and give them thoughtful feedback, which they would then use to write even better papers. Then, twice per semester, I got to meet with other instructors, including tenured faculty who were teaching the same course, and compare notes on the assessment process. Which students deserved an ‘A’ and which students should fail and whatnot? These were crucial questions that we would discuss together as colleagues. (Actually, looking back I’m not sure what the assessment groups were supposed to accomplish because most of the time we just sat around shooting the breeze for a couple of hours, then we filled out some department forms and went home. But that didn’t matter, because I WAS A MEMBER OF A FACULTY THING!)
Ah, those early days in the department assessment groups. My enthusiasm embarrasses me now. I noticed at the time that many veteran adjuncts seemed less than thrilled to have to be there (and more than a few tenure-track folks seemed annoyed too). They all looked exhausted. Some didn’t seem to like their students all that much, and a few even made fun of students’ awkward sentences and grammar errors with a kind of wild relish that I did not understand. I admit to being confused and a little annoyed by this attitude. If you don’t like teaching here, why don’t you leave? If you don’t like students, why are you a teacher? That’s what I thought back then because I was naïve. Granted, some of this was the folly of youthful idealism in general. And I still don’t like it when teachers make fun of student writing.
Ten years later, I know that I was being hoodwinked into not thinking of myself as a laborer who was delivering a product to the university for pennies on the dollar. All the little extras (a mailbox!) gave me the false impression that I was a proto-member of an academic community of scholars and teachers. Just as I had been a student before becoming a teacher, I would one day be a faculty member who looked back fondly on my days as a T.A. That’s how the world works, after all.
As for those long-term adjuncts with advanced degrees, I didn’t give them much thought. Perhaps they were not as ambitious as me? Perhaps they didn’t want it as badly as I did? Many of them said they were writers, so I assumed they wanted to be adjuncts so they could have flexibility. That’s right! These adjuncts were an itinerant, low-wage labor force on purpose, for art! That made sense.
Whatever the case, I never, not once the entire time I worked as a T.A., thought to myself: “In a few years, that will be me.” See, it just wasn’t possible. It could not happen. I was right where I needed to be doing the things that I needed to do. I could feel it. That’s how optimism informs delusion.
So that’s where I was, psychologically and physically, on the morning of 9-11-01. I was giddy in my new “job,” drunk on the possibilities of a bright, limitless future doing what I was meant to do.
Then, during a class break, I went into an office down the hall. Someone said, “An airplane has crashed into the World Trade Center.” We all went outside. Smoke billowed from across the river in Lower Manhattan. The air already smelled like burned metal. And it would smell like that for days.