The CEA Forum
Summer/Fall 2008: 37.2
AN ASSISTANT ENGLISH PROFESSOR'S PERSPECTIVE ON THE PROFESSION
Mentors and Tormentors
I grew up under the regime of an older brother who knew no mercy. At four years and, on average, fifty pounds my senior, he was not only older but also much, much bigger. He was, moreover, relentless and ruthless, and if the circa 1980-version of him were here right now he would read that line and give me that furrowed-forehead smirk that said, Don't be a dork! Nobody says “ moreover. ” He was big. I was little. He had thick fingers, wide bones through the wrists and ankles, and a broad but somehow angular chin that he would bury into the long, thin muscles of my back. He would punch me in the shoulder or bump me off balance or burp in my face. He would flick my ear from behind with a loose, deadly motion of his ring finger. And, not surprisingly—though I was surprised by it every time—he would bring me to my knees with a quick and random shot to the groin once or twice a day. He was, in essence, Scut Farcus of The Christmas Story fame, and I was Ralphie (without the BB gun).
Why do I lead you down this long, painful stretch of memory lane? Why begin with such an oversized, made-for-Saturday-afternoon-TV hook? And what does any of this have to do with the general focus of this column, which is to say with being an assistant professor of English trying to survive and maybe even thrive in higher education?
As the title suggests, this piece is about those people in our professional lives commonly referred to as “mentors,” some of whom, unfortunately, might more accurately be described as “tormentors.” Having had the good fortune of experiencing both kinds of colleagues in the recent past, and having grown up under the tutelage of a true artist when it comes to torture (one who now happens to be a very good friend, a guy who recently granted me the honor of performing the marriage ceremony at his wedding—another column, that one), I want to take this opportunity on the eve of coming up for tenure to offer to those relatively new to academia a guide for determining the answer to the age-old query, friend or foe?
First, it should be noted that tormentors in professional environs are much more difficult to spot than are their counterparts on the home-front or out in the wild. They might be older and seemingly easy-going individuals, entrenched in the university's systems and history and at peace with staying the course until retirement arrives like an approaching shore; or they might be early-middle aged, intense and ambitious Caesar-like characters who woke up a few years back and realized that they had become tied to an institution which they would have never dreamt of attending as students thirty years earlier, at the time when they were on their way to becoming famous somehow for something. They might even look like your friendly neighborhood mailman from when you were a kid, or like the local pharmacist up there behind the counter in the clean white coat, the Stanley-Milgram figure lurking in the background of your world waiting to go to work on your psyche. Or, they might just look like the neighbor lady with the appliquéd sweaters and the sad husband, the woman who has lived on this block for thirty years, thank you very much, and does not want your kids on her lawn or you in her social circles. In short, these tormentors could be anyone—
—that sounds pretty paranoid, doesn't it? But, speaking from experience, I can tell you that having one's own tormentor can lead to some significant changes in outlook, even if one doesn't look all that different on the outside. In fact—and normally I wouldn't admit as much to anyone but this is dead paper and a great relief to my mind—I'm often in pretty rough shape, psychologically speaking, by the time I get home. In truth, I fear that I'm becoming a veritable Dorian Gray in the final scenes or, worse yet, one of Winesburg's passive, pathetic grotesques, my thoughts fixated on this person/problem/issue more often than I care to admit. (And what's with these bars on the windows?)
Anyway, enough about me and my situation: let's get back to you and your potential problems, the ones just down the hall or the others waiting for you in that meeting later this afternoon. The key here when it comes to distinguishing allies from enemies pertains to assessing the nature of a relationship, not between you and a colleague, but instead among you, the colleague, and the institution you have in common. This is confusing, I know. So, let's return to similes for a second to see if we can't clarify things a bit.
Like an older sibling with whom you share a room or, worse yet, like a cruel old woman with whom you share a house made of candy, those who have the most potential to inflict harm on us are those with whom we share common space and implicit purposes. More to the point here, those who have the greatest opportunity to torment are those, ironically, in the best position to mentor. Don't forget this. It's very important.
Once you think you may have identified the problematic person (or, persons—ooh, poor you!), you will want to note signs of torture and symptoms of a potentially unwholesome relationship, one that could eventually undermine your career efforts and aspirations. In higher education, such examples of torture are, again, often subtle; and, oddly enough, it is this subtlety that makes the persecution that much more insidious. Simple questions along the lines of, “Were you at the meeting on Tuesday or were you working from home again?” or, “Leaving already, eh?” or, worse yet, “You're daughter's sick again ?” and seemingly innocuous comments such as, “Haven't seen you around much,” and “Wow!—you're done with your grading already? It takes me at least a week, but I guess that's because I write way too many comments,” neatly reveal germinal, though not yet official, concerns about your efforts and commitment to the college. These questions represent a kind of hazing, and they tend to undercut any confidence that you might have reclaimed after going through the gauntlet of graduate school. Nonetheless, whenever possible, ignore these remarks and all that they suggest and just keep smiling, keep working, keep saying “Yes,” and, most importantly, keep your thoughts to yourself—if Ralphie gets tangled up with Scut after school, Ralphie loses his job, his career, and his version of the story, while Scut continues to be tenured.
Given that Scut is, in fact, tenured, and given the security and relative comfort he enjoys, one might wonder from where the ire comes. My guess, based on my experiences as a younger brother of thirty-nine years and as an assistant professor for the past five is that a handful—and certainly far from all—of our potential mentors are hesitant to give up their reign over us and our energies. Whereas my brother was fond of saying such things as, “While you're up, will you grab me the channel changer?” Or, “Hey, will you loan me few bucks and I'll have Mom pay you back?” our senior colleagues pose strikingly similar questions, such as, “If you get a chance this weekend, could you…?” or, “If it's not too much to ask—and I know you're busy, heck aren't we all?!—do you think you could take care of that stuff for the subcommittee and maybe email it out when you're done?” To be sure, these truly rhetorical questions are already answered for us by virtue of our situation: we are tenuously tied to the institution, and we must prove to those posing these questions (superiors who become equals if and only if we are granted—with their requisite help—tenure) that we are team players.
For the record, I am. (Of course “the record” of which I speak is not the tenure portfolio, which will make no mention of this issue, as I am happy and content and want nothing more than what I have been given.) Honestly, ask me to do anything, and I will do it. Move my office out into the quad? OK. You bet. Pick up that filing cabinet over my head? Sure. Teach only that class for the next ten years? I'm on it. Attend that meeting with those people for eleven hours on Saturday? I would love to….
These are the answers I should've given. And they are the answers I gave for the first four years, until that fateful day when I didn't give these answers anymore. And since that day, my life at work has been different. I have been on guard, waiting for that flick on the ear, that punch in the groin, that random, half-concealed threat in an email that knocks me to my knees. (I'm guessing that you, my authorial audience member trained to read between the lines, can piece this one together without needing me to implicate myself further here.)
I have been watchful and careful. I have availed myself of every opportunity to show that I am on board and totally committed (which suggests that maybe I should be, in the clinical sense). A veritable Stephen Covey, I have followed many of the habits of highly successful people and, in this vein, made still more deposits than withdrawals (at a time when, mistakenly, I thought my account was fairly brimming). And as the epigraph from The Princess Bride implies, this situation and my response to it hasn't necessarily been all bad. Paranoid, perhaps, and, I think, justifiably worried that something drastic might soon my way come, I spent the last academic year (a brutally long chronotope, as it turns out) working like I have never worked before. I answered every email that every student sent, regardless of the hour or the nature of the online missive. I read and reread and graded and re-graded drafts, worrying unreasonably that I needed better-than-excellent student evaluations in the worst way. I applied for grants. I submitted papers. I attended conferences and wrote and revised and refereed essays for various and sundry publications. I stayed up late and got up early. I said “YES” before people even finished the question.
And now, as I sit here writing this before turning my attention to my tenure portfolio, I realize just how much I managed to get done, driven as I was by the specter of my (tor)mentor. Maybe he has been a blessing in disguise. Who knows? My brother still claims quite a lot of credit for any success that has come my way, often arguing that he made me tough with all that punching and tackling and teasing.
P.S. Those who read the edition of this column titled “Admitting to a Marathon” will recall that I ended with a plea for help, asking anyone with experience writing or editing a book to please come to my rescue. I was at a standstill with the project, one withering on the vine after I had solicited over thirty essays and ineffectually harassed just as many publishers. In response not to the column but to an email I had sent to the contributors, one author, Prof. Michelle Loris, responded enthusiastically. She picked up the project, put it on her shoulders, and selflessly carried it to its conclusion. She secured the manuscript a publisher, and then, as if that weren't enough, she spent several weeks reading every draft I sent to her (often on incredibly short notice). She gave generously of her time and her brilliance and expected nothing in return. And when it came time to publish, she refused to be considered a co-editor, saying that it was my project and my book. She was, without question, the definition of a mentor, and I honestly hope that I will some day soon be in a position to do for somebody else what she did for me and my career.
Colin Irvine is an assistant professor of English at Augsburg College, where he specializes in American literature, ecocriticism, and English/education methods. He says, "I am interested in talking in and through a column to other professors about various issues related to teaching freshman and sophomore-level courses. I'm also interested in exploring issues related to what it means to be a non-tenured assistant professor of English. My hope is that I could touch on serious, significant topics pertinent to these subjects in a sincere, insightful, and, perhaps, original manner."
Return to Table of Contents