And then we’re snapping at each other over something stupid, something insignificant and not worth the emotion, but we have to spit these emotions out. Swallowed emotion is a slow poison. So the first minor annoyance that crosses my path, or her path, opens a flood gate of frustration, fear, and exhaustion. We’ve learned to cut it off before it goes too far, before we say things we feel about our situation, displacing them onto each other, before we say things that can’t be unsaid. I retreat to the living room, to my pile of books. My first marriage, a bad one, taught me how to hide in scholarly work. She retreats to the shower. She’ll untangle and wash her hair, a mass of gorgeous tight curls, a task that usually takes an hour. After a few minutes, I’ll hear her softly crying, trying to be quiet, trying not to make me feel worse than she knows I already feel. But I can always hear her, and start crying a little myself as I walk toward the bathroom, shedding my clothes, to ask if I can join her in the shower. She whimpers softly, “Sure.” And I take her in my arms, she takes me in hers, and then she’s sobbing, and then I’m sobbing, and we’re both apologizing. And she says, “I’m just so tired.” And I say, “I know. Me, too.”
Although I no longer have a classroom, or a university to exploit me for my teaching labor, I’ve found that some of my former students are making it difficult for me to quit being a professor. In fact, since I announced my intention, my goal, to never work in academia again, some former students have taken it upon themselves to tweet, email, chat, and text. They intend to stay in touch.
They ask questions about the world, about life. They ask about books or poems that I think might help them cope with mounting disappointments. I feed them short stories and poetry and essays and articles about politics, history, philosophy, art. Then I fool them into writing every day, into challenging what they’ve been reading, in long chat or text conversations with me. My virtual “office hours” sometimes go on until 3AM with one student on text, another on IM, and another engaging me on Twitter or Facebook.
Two of them have already asked me to help them with their writing. They’ve always wanted to be writers, they say, but they never thought they were smart enough. And they have never told anyone but me that writing has always been their secret dream.
After all, how could they tell people that they are writers in their hearts, or worse, poets? How do they just announce that to the world? What if someone mocks them? What if people laugh at them? What if they just suck and always will suck? What if they just aren’t good enough to be real writers, real poets? What if? What if? What if?
And some of that probably will happen, to be honest—the mocking and laughing at least. It happened to me, still happens to me. But I’ve evolved into a very thick skin. It was a painful adaptation, but I finally don’t give a shit who accepts that I’m a writer and a poet. I’m a writer and poet because I say I am.
As for teaching people how to write, I’ve only learned this much about writing in all my years: there’s no such thing as good enough or smart enough. There is only working hard at your active reading, every day, and trying to write something, every day, that you’d be afraid to let someone else read. Then you have to muster up all of your courage, and let someone read it.
And I’m not charging my former students for any of this,
so please check out:
Let me start by saying that I just taught the two best Literature courses of my career. I finally managed to pull together my life experiences and my knowledge, to be the focused, integrated, and sincerely honest voice that I’ve always wanted to be in front of a classroom. And I successfully related everything from Sophocles to Hamlet back to current events, world affairs, global politics—to things that could happen in any of our lives, many times enhanced by personal stories of how literature helped me navigate the darker roads of my life. I wanted to make my students feel the themes of the syllabus in their own experiences.
So, for example, if you just don’t get the bind that Antigone’s in when the new King forbids the burial of her slain brother, try this:
Imagine you’re at a peaceful demonstration against something awful—killing the environment, whatever. Your family is with you. It’s a nice day. You’re making a political picnic out of it.
Out of nowhere, there’s a raid on the demonstration. Seems the guy who owns the land you’re demonstrating on doesn’t agree with your politics.
Suddenly, a cop runs up and just starts smacking your mother with his nightstick. Over and over. Three or four times. Then he pepper sprays her in the face and starts dragging her away. It happens in seconds. Your mother is in shock. Injured. Sobbing. Reaching out. Calling your name.
Now what? Do you bow to the authority of the cop, the King, or are there obligations that go way beyond all that? That’s what Sophocles is asking you. What do you think? Should Antigone bury her brother, or obey the King and let her brother’s corpse rot in the street? What would you do?
After that, everyone in the room had an opinion.
I was looking forward to honing these teaching techniques, my poetic pedagogy, in my one Lit course this Spring, but I’m suddenly unemployed this semester.
That email was finally the last straw. No more adjunct professor work for me, thanks. I’m officially exploring other career options, something not so blatantly exploitative and flippantly disrespectful, please.
Teaching college has kept my mind young and sharp, and I will very much miss having access to curious young students, to classrooms for my literary rantings, but at least I went out on a teaching high—in my opinion—and not many academics can honestly say that. In the end, I’m proud of my ten years of college teaching, and I really think I did some good, but I also know when I’ve just had enough of something. End Chapter. Done. So, that’s that.
From now on I’ll just teach in my Twitter classroom. I’ll meet you there, my 21st Century Social savvy students. Word.
As for the rest of you, thank you for reading along. #njpoet
for my most generous new patron,
Ms. Chiara DeLucia
MARKETING FRIEND: “So how would you define the #njpoet brand?”
ME: “I’m just trying to help my friends figure out ways to reach their goals, helping them in any way I can—letters, Twitter endorsement, all out social media campaigns, word-of-mouth networking. Whatever. Otherwise, I’m reading, tweeting, listening to alterantive media, producing my blog posts, and writing my first of hopefully several Kindle books.”
MARKETING FRIEND: “Ok. Ok. That works. That’s a pretty good pitch.”
ME: “It’s more of a Zen Buddhist approach to honestly engaging in social media and blogging, really. Kinda like a good karma network based on compassion, empathy, a good sense of humor, and a humble method of pratical teaching. It’s more of a social media life philosophy than a pitch. An attempt at Buddhist Right Livelihood, ya know?”
MARKETING FRIEND: “Jesus, they were right! You are fucking great at this! That’s a great pitch! Brilliant! Jesus, Charlie!”
ME: “Haha! Ok, then. Thank you. Thank you very much, I always try my best when I pitch.”
The true poets must be truthful. ~Wilfred Owen
I received a new email from my former student, and it seems the full-time professor described in last night’s post is indeed the full-time professor who needed my World Literature course at Kean University next semester.
Flashback to last Friday’s email:
Your assignment for ENG 2403 is being cancelled because a full-time faculty member needs it.
Here’s what my former student had to say in his latest email:
Mainly it’s because his one class was cancelled. He failed to realize that level class requires students to apply for special permission…and basically nobody signed up for that.
Now he’s got the World Literature course, because he couldn’t fill his original class.
It’s happened before, a tenured professor makes a class up…and nobody signs up for it, so the class gets cancelled and that professor gets World Lit.
Did you catch that, fellow citizens of our bogus meritocracy? He screwed up, so I lose.
That’s how it works, right?
I graded papers for 16 hours, with bronchitis and a fever, to get my grades in on time. I had to just keep working after last semester ended, after the paychecks stopped coming, because there was so much work to finish up.
Then this full-time professor accidentally made the registration for his course too difficult, so the students avoided it, so I lose my $3,750 salary for the semester. He failed to fill his own course with students, so they cancelled my course assignment and gave it to him. And he willl definitely be paid much more than $3,750 to teach it.
Seriously. This is my life.
for the adjuncts
For those who haven’t read about it on Twitter and/or Facebook, Kean University cancelled my employment contract for this semester. Ten days before the beginning of Spring classes, I received this email:
Your assignment for ENG 2403 is being cancelled because a full-time faculty member needs it.
That was it. My needs, the needs of my family, don’t matter. Of course, this is ordinary. Now I’m supposed to just roll over and shut up, hope that they offer me a course next Fall. Shut up, or you’ll never be rehired again.
Welcome to U.S. Academia. Most of our professors live in a state of sustained economic terror, and it’s never anybody’s fault. Of course not! You can’t blame Dr. Yadda Yadda. It’s just the way the academic system works in Bless America.
So I was tweeting about this all weekend, because I really suck at just rolling over and shutting up, and a lot of people were retweeting. Some were even tweeting their own outrage, especially about the pathetic salary of $3,750 Kean planned on paying me to teach a World Lit course in the first place.
That figure makes most people audibly scoff, then almost vomit when I tell them that my students pay around $1,250 each to take my three credit course. With an average class size of about 30 students, that means Kean University makes roughly $37,500 from my labor, while I get $3,750, a little over $800 a month after taxes, until May. Then it’s no pay until September—if I’m rehired. And since this employment arrangement technically makes me an independent contractor, I can’t collect unemployment. I’ve plannned my financial life six months at a time, scraped together a life, for over ten years now. Every few years, the bottom falls out completely, just like it did last Friday.
Your assignment for ENG 2403 is being cancelled because a full-time faculty member needs it.
And I’m not alone. An estimated 75% of the professors in the United States live like this—the adjuncts, or “contigent faculty.” That sounds nicer. They treat us like disposable people.
Anyway, it was a great weekend on social media, sticking more to the positive points of this story. There were some friends from HuffPo and other publications retweeting, some popular radio personalities I know, a few radical journalists, and especially my friends and family who know damn near everybody in Northern New Jersey. They simply love to gossip. They’re word-of-mouth people.
[Click on the Image to Add Your Retweet Now!]
Many of my students from last semester were also out there tweeting and retweeting.
“This is bullshit!” and “Kean Sucks!” were some of my favorite moments from the storm.
This continued for almost 48 hours.
“That’s just criminal,” another former student responded.
Yeah, we made some noise. Not that the Union, New Jersey, university with the fraudulant, micro-managing President noticed. Not at all. But their Twitter presence is essentially dead, after all. This wouldn’t surprise you if you’d just spent three semesters listening to their full-time faculty discussing the Internet like intellectual refugees from the cutting edge of the 1990s. I’m sure more than one of them just now created a MySpace or nurtures anxious dreams of someday creating her very own website—maybe even one with a database! Or something….
But I suppose I shouldn’t pick on them for failing to keep up with the Internet, much less social media. After all, who has time to actually engage with the world when there are so many boring articles to be written about the world? They must be sure to keep a distance, to focus on this very important work. There’s rubrics to collect and quantify and pretend to interpret. I mean, someone has to publish something in those overpriced journals that no one reads. Just imagine what would happen to our world if most of those publications suddenly vanished. The horror. Dozens would feel the loss.
Back in 2014:
One of my former Kean University students, a bright young writer who kept in touch, emailed me detailed commentary, after each class, about his full-time English professor. Maybe it’s the same full-time professor who needed my course. Maybe it’s the same full-time professor who will now be paid a full-time wage for a course Kean was about to pay me only $3,750 to teach. I guess the course just has more earning power now that he’s teaching it. Who knows? I’m sure the official smart people have got it all figured out.
Let’s read what my former student had to say about this full-time faculty member, shall we?
“Our professor, DR. ___________, basically described “Song of Myself” to himself in class. He talked to himself, didn’t ask questions. He described the poem and Whitman as [a] libertarian approach to science and Industry, voyerism, engaging in the future through spirituality and materialism. He made the remark Whitman isn’t Buddhist because he isn’t passive but productive. And then he broke down each canto from 1 to 6, basically summarizing each one like he was giving a speech and trying to convince himself that what he was saying was right. It was a quiet class listening to a smart man tell himself he is smart.”
Now that’s a world class educator! Wow. What else can I say? It’s a good thing they replaced me.
P.S. This video is from February of 2012.
To date, President Fraud has not resigned,
nor has he been fired.
He’s probably gotten a raise since then.
everything on my résumé
I stood with my back against the wall, waiting for a train. My eyes scanned from man to woman to child, checking body language, facial expressions, looking for any signs of agitation, aggression, anger, rage.
Then the man in overalls and a flannel suddenly called another man, a chubby commuter in a tight gray suit, a “motherfucker!” His big voice boomed and bounced off the tile walls. The commuter scurried off, and then the shouter caught me watching.
“What are you looking at, motherfucker?” he howled as he started marching toward me, bounding with a limp, his arms waving—his chest, kidneys, and throat fully exposed.
“Do you got a problem with me, motherfucker?”
He was only halfway across the station then, limping faster. I still had plenty of time to casually raise my forearm, to just stand there in a solid stance, lean forward, let his own momentum bash in his teeth. Over in seconds. I’d probably only be bruised for a week.
But then he slowed down, stood in my face just a little too close. All bark, really.
“Answer me, motherfucker!” he screamed, that sour acid stench of a starving stomach on his breath. “Is there a fucking problem?!”
And I acted as if I’d just then noticed that he was even talking to me.
“Oh, I’m sorry, sir,” I said. “My mind was on another planet, trying to figure out how I’m gonna pay my rent. Crazy world. What were you saying? Can I help you with something?”
He stepped back, startled a little, suspicious, then tilted his head and asked if I could please give him some money to buy something to eat. I gave him the $3.00 I had in my pocket. He grabbed it and ran off without saying thank you.
Every therapist I’ve ever sat with has pegged me as hyper-aware, hyper-conscious of my surroundings, always sizing up my environment, always braced and ready for violence.
“Think of it this way,” one particularly tactless mental health provider joked, “it’s like a superpower your father’s unpredictable violence gave you.”
And that’s kind of true, I suppose. The empathy and compassion I taught myself.
Happy New Year!
I always know when I’m listening to someone who has never been the victim of real life violence. The untouched talk tough TV movie talk, so sure that they would do this or that if someone ever tried to blah blah blah, as if real life violence squares off and announces itself.
“You, there! You and me! Right now!” Choreographed fight scene commences.
Ridiculous. Too many movies.
I’ve been the victim of real life violence, and this is what I remember about it:
“What the fuck just happened?! What the FUCK just happened to me?!”
Real life violence comes out of nowhere, irrational, for no discernable reason. Real life violence makes no sense. It shocks you, overwhelms you, blind sides you. It’s unstoppably sudden. What you experience consciously is the dreamy immediate aftermath, the bewildered questioning, if you survive.
Just before the violence, in the fractured second before it explodes, you’re consumed with your own thoughts, your own desires, like we all are most of the time. In fact, I guarantee if we could somehow interview the deceased, ask them what their last thought was just before a mass shooter riddled them with freedom bullets, I’d bet my last dollar you’d hear common thoughts like:
“What am I gonna have for lunch?”
“I feel so fat in these jeans.”
“I’m so tired. I can’t believe how tired I am.”
We can only hope that more people than our jaded minds can imagine met their deaths thinking, “I can’t believe this. I’m really in love.” What a way to go.
And if you’re one who believes that a gun in the hand of a grade school child would make a real life difference, if you cling to these movie fantasies of rugged individualistic nonsense, you should strive to realize that the only way we have ever defended ourselves against real life violence is by forming and nurturing large interwoven communities based on love, mutual respect, empathy and compassion for others. The only way to save ourselves from real life violence is to render all violence absolutely culturally unacceptable, obscene.
But, of course, you could instead spend your life preparing, bracing, being ever vigilant, ever on guard and armed, always ready to defend yourself and your family against violence with more violence. You can think like that, living hyper-defensive, hyper-aware. That’s your right, but that’s also called PTSD, my friends, and you should really get some help for that.
Last week I told my students that I used to be suicidal. We were thirty minutes into discussing Kafka’s Metamorphosis and, as is my teaching style, I was pulling from my own life to flesh out the story.
“Does anyone else know what it’s like to wake up as an insect?” I asked the class. “Anyone besides me….”
The students, half way through habitually shaking their heads no, snapped into the present. Wait, what? Besides him? What?
That’s when I confessed my diagnoses—major depression, suicidal ideation—and immediately moved to dispel the misconceptions about my disease. Even the students who usually fall asleep were leaning in, listening.
“Depression is not just a deep sadness,” I said, “it’s a physical illness. When I was in the middle of my two major depressive episodes, I had no sense of taste—all food was bland—and everything smelled like sour garbage. Depression changes everything about how you perceive your world, about how you perceive your self, about how you perceive the point of your living.”
I saw some of the students nod with recognition, pulling on my heart.
“And you can’t think your way out of it,” I added for those nodders, “not when it’s your thinking machine that’s broken.”
Then I spent a few minutes discussing the thing about depression non-depressives never seem to understand: the lack of emotion, the numbness even in the presence of something as joyous as a simultaneous orgasm. I used to weep after making love, forced to realize that there was no escape, not even in the arms of the woman I adored. Nothing could make me feel. That’s when I wanted to die the most. That’s when I started making suicide plans.
“And not feeling is difficult to describe with a language invented by emotional beings,” I concluded, transitioning from professor to writer, “but waking up to discover you’ve suddenly become an insect, that’s a damn good metaphorical start.”
The class ended a little late, the students filed out, some still wide-eyed, shaking their heads. A few stayed behind to tell me they understood, they felt the same way, but they never knew what they were feeling was depression. I sent them, one by one, to the psychological counseling center their tuition pays for, located two floors below the classroom we were standing in. None of them knew it was there.
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Thank you, sir.