Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Accidental Academia

The following is a short story I wrote recently based on an interview I had with an English Lit professor at my college.  Turning the essay (that the assignment required) into a fictional short story was a huge risk, but one that turned out much better than I could have imagined. My hope is that this story can give others insight into the possible emotional and personal challenges that face those on the path towards a future in academia. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Tatiana by Sky Sloderbeck

Accidental Academia

The Intervention

The artificial light from the computer monitor cast a blue hue on the face of the woman hunched before it; her fingers traveled swiftly over the keys, the light tapping sounds muffled by the sound of the shower in the nearby bathroom. Every few seconds, she would snicker quietly to herself as she thought about the possible reactions her roommate might have to her news. Susan has been wasting herself since finishing high school. Wasting herself, working as a waitress and at other odd jobs for three years when she could have been in college, she thought to herself, She needs this, this... intervention.

“Intervention,” she chuckled. “Kind of an apt term.”


The voice surprised her; she’d not realized that the shower was no longer running and the subject of her intervention had just entered the room. She managed to keep herself from startling at the voice; instead of turning to her roommate, she hunched herself down even more over the computer keyboard. She was certain that there would be a look of guilt on her face, or a look of satisfaction, or both. “I was just talking to myself,” Christine murmured.

“You’re always doing that. I swear college is making you crazy.” Susan laughed quietly as scrubbed her hair with the towel, blithely unaware that her future was about to change.

The immediate response was a soft snort of displeasure and a sharp clack of a nail against a keyboard key. As Susan went about her mundane morning routine, Christine stared at the computer screen, excited to broach this subject with her friend, but at the same time, wondering exactly how to bring it up. After all, you just don’t start the day with Hey! How’d you sleep? Oh, by the way, you’re going to college. She wasn’t Susan’s mom, after all, but she loved her friend and knew that this was something she really needed to be doing.

After a few more moments of silence, she turned and watched Susan with the hint of a grin on her face. Susan, perhaps feeling the steady gaze, glanced up to see Christine looking at her with that look. She knew that look and a slender eyebrow arched. “You just did something bad and got away with it.”
“Well, you can say that.” It was hard for Christine to keep a straight face, or a closed mouth, and she smiled widely. “Remember when I said I would fill out the FAFSA for you and you agreed that if you got enough money, you’d go to college?”

Susan had gone back to getting ready for work, but at that question turned back to her friend and chuckled. “Yes, I remember. I told you it was no use.”

Pushing away from the computer desk, the wheels of the chair endeavoring vainly to cut through the thick pile of carpet, Christine screwed a frown onto her face and adopted a defeated look. “I know. Well, I got the results back and with the EFC you have, it looks like you have no choice…”

“But to keep doing what I’m doing,” she said. “I know.  The idea of college sounds great; you talk about it all the time, but really, it’s not for me. I’m okay with that. I’d never planned to go anyway.” Susan wasn’t defeatist in her tone, just matter-of-fact. After all, college had never been on her list of things to do after high school; she just wanted to experience life.

Christine recovered from the interruption as if Susan had never even spoken. “… no choice but to pick a school. Your EFC qualifies you for maximum assistance. Your schooling’s going to be paid for.”

“I told you s… what?” She had went back to dressing, but with an incredulous look on her face and bent over mid-motion to tie her shoe, she was suddenly frozen in place, trying to decide if she’d heard Christine correctly.

“You’re going to college!” Christine launched out of the chair and bounced over to Susan, grabbing her hands and pulling up upright. “You’re going to college!” She repeated as she forced Susan to dance around the room with her.

Susan, with a shocked look on her face, celebrated with her friend, but inside, she was still trying to process the news. Me? In college?
The Epiphany

     She shoved the books away from her in a huff and then glared at them as if they had been purposefully trying to confuse her. “I’m going to be a Marine Biologist,” she said reproachfully to the indifferent texts. Unfortunately, she could not deny the fact that the books that she had so callously pushed aside were dear to her: early American women authors, British women authors, critical essays, and biographies of female writers. These were the books she devoured when not cramming for the next big science exam; these were the subjects of the classes that she took “for fun.” She thought she had it all planned out, but now she was only confused again.

She sighed and stood up, casting a last, longing glance at the books before pacing the room. Her thoughts were awash in conjecture: Do I just stick with it? I’ve been back and forth between jobs; I can’t do this with my education. I really love English lit. Maybe I should switch? But two years knocking out classes and preparing for my Marine Biology major… wouldn’t I be wasting that if I switched majors now?

She turned her back on the books and looked at a framed photograph of a sun-bleached brunette with a smiling, tanned face, standing against the backdrop of a cerulean ocean. She remembered the day that picture was taken, so sure that this would be her life after college; a life filled with the sun and the sea. It was this moment that a strand of hair fell in her face, tickling her as if to distract her from the romance of the image, and, after she pushed it aside in aggravation, she looked back at the picture and noticed something that in the year since the picture was taken, she had missed: Her smile did not touch her eyes.

The picture held her riveted as a realization washed over her, simultaneously filling her with the joy and fear that comes with a revelation, and there was still doubt, as she had nothing in her childhood to foreshadow this growing passion; she was never read to and she was never a reader. She turned back to the English literature books on the table and then reached down to touch one of the well-worn covers. She did not need a mirror to see that the smile growing on her lips was also touching her eyes, and she did not need a lovingly pushy roommate to say what her heart already felt. She grabbed her backpack from the chair and headed purposefully out the door; she had received her epiphany, and it was time to switch majors.

The Reality

     “Hermeneutics: The study of interpretation theory; can be either the art of interpretation, or the theory and practice of interpretation. Oh, well that’s a big help,” she mumbled as she rubbed her temples. As she looked again at the word she had circled it in the literary theory text, the dictionary on her lap began to slide towards the floor; she snatched it back into place and looked at the clock. This was her second all-nighter of the week and was quickly becoming par-for-the course.

“Hermeneutics: The practice of coming up with the longest possible words you can in order to sound smart.” Her study partner wearily laughed at her own joke as Susan rolled her eyes at the woman, but both of them knew that the humor was necessary to keep them both sane.

“I never realized that getting my MA would be so much more difficult than getting my BA,” Susan mused.
“Yeah, they work us hard. As much as I hate to admit it, though, it’s going to be worth it. You’ll see.”
Susan never really got over her study partner’s name: Scarlett. With her friend’s soft, Southern accent and gentle, Southern charm, she could almost imagine the optimistic blond woman saying, “After all… tomorrow is another day.” Scarlett’s presence was soothing, and one Susan welcomed.  Susan never realized how hard graduate school would be: the overwhelming amount of work that she had to complete, the all-nighters that she had to pull, and the new language (of academia) that she had to learn. She smiled in response to Scarlett and went back to studying, using her dictionary to look up the unfamiliar words she’d circled in the text.

They worked in silence for a while, enjoying the support and encouragement they got from each other just by studying together. As the night wore on, she felt an angry growling in her stomach. She tried to avoid it, but it kept her so distracted that she found herself reading the same paragraph repeatedly and yet never comprehending it. Finally, she gave into the siren cry for food. “I’m going to make myself something to eat. Did you want anything?”

Scarlett shook her head and mumbled an apologetic, “No, thank you.”

Susan put her books aside and headed into the kitchen, opening and closing cabinets and peering into the refrigerator. She always thought it was amusing that people would open up the refrigerator repeatedly in the same visit to the kitchen, as if they expected something new to magically appear, and now she was doing the same thing.  Finally, she decided on what she knew she’d have to eat in the first place, ramen; ramen was the staple of college graduates across the country, she was sure of it. It was hard not always having the money or time for dinners out with friends, even with the reduced tuition and teaching assistantships, but Scarlett’s words echoed in her mind, “It’s going to be worth it. You’ll see.”

Upon silencing the angry rumblings in her stomach, she was able to focus on her work. Even after being subjected to the rigorous program, watching days blur together, and trying to figure out how to balance it all, she never lost her love of literature and she never doubted her decision to study English Literature. She and Scarlett would make it through this semester and the next and the one after that; more immediately, the stress of today would be gone tomorrow. After all… tomorrow was another day.

The Homestretch

     As she shouldered her backpack, she was struck with a sense of finality; this was the first day of her last year of grad school. If all went as planned, her dissertation would be completed and she would be defending it in a few short months. Her eyes traveled to a photograph framed and hung on the wall, the last picture of her and her mother together. Her mother had come to be her cheerleading section at a conference where she was presenting a paper and the picture was precious to her; not only was it their last photo together before her mother had died a few months later, it was the first picture Susan had of herself presenting something pertaining to her degree. She wiped at the moisture that had dampened her cheek, murmured, “I love you, mom,” and headed out the door to class.

She had taken a lot of time off between her different college ventures: first the three years between high school and college, nearly three more between getting her Bachelor’s at the University of Cincinnati and beginning the Master’s program at Miami University, and then another two before going back to Miami to pursue her PhD. The break she had taken this last year near the end of her journey in the graduate program had been the most difficult; it was not a period that she used to do odd jobs or work in her field, rather it was a period to mourn.  Now, though, it was time to finish what she had started; it was time to get her PhD.
“And then, after I had done all of the participant testing and compiled the results, he had me help on the paper itself. And you know what? He never even credited me for anything!” The nameless man’s complaints reached her ears as she walked past him on her way across the quad to the class she was teaching. Susan looked at Nalah, a student in the MA program for English Lit who had come to the United States from Jerusalem. Both women rolled their eyes.

“I think we are lucky,” Nalah said, “Our professors are wonderful.”

Susan nodded in agreement, “Yeah. They’ve been great in making sure we don’t take on too much.”

“They are very supportive, too. I hope I can be as helpful and supportive when I start teaching.”

“We’re already teaching, Nalah,” Susan grinned at the other woman and then nudged her with her shoulder, “And you are very supportive. I’ve heard your students talk about you. They love you.”

Nalah beamed, but her cheeks reddened at the compliment, “Yours love you too, you know.”

“I hope so.” Susan inwardly smiled, though.  She was surprised how much she had come to enjoy teaching.  She had always been shy and the thought of teaching a class terrified her. Her first two years of teaching while in the program were two years that she could safely say she hated, but she had to admit that she learned a lot from the experience. Once she realized that she didn’t have to know everything and could learn along with the students, it made teaching much more rewarding and enjoyable.

The women walked in companionable silence to the building their respective classes were in and as they got closer, Susan realized that the same nervousness that had always plagued her when teaching a new class was present, but there also was excitement. Six years ago, she was unable to imagine herself teaching, but today she was eager to share with her students what she had learned and what she was still learning.

“Have you been thinking of what you would like to do after you get your PhD?” Nalah’s soft voice intruded on her thoughts as they ascended the stairs and headed into the building.

“I want to teach. I heard there may be an opening soon for a Visiting Assistant Professor here.”

“I thought Miami did not hire their own graduates?” The door slammed shut behind them and Nalah stopped in the hall, shrugging her heavy backpack up more securely onto her shoulder.

“I can’t get a permanent position here, no, but they will hire their own graduates for temporary positions.” This was a reality Susan had been struggling with for some time.  One of her close friends had finished her graduate program in English Literature and had applied to over 200 schools only to get a job at one teaching English composition, rather than the literature that she had studied and trained for. She continued, “I know competition for the job will be fierce, but if I can get it, it will be great experience and I will be able to work in my field while I look for something permanent.”

Nalah nodded, “I still have many years left. I hope there are more opportunities by then.”

Susan didn’t want to discourage her colleague, but the fact was the need for English Literature professors fluctuated. There were no guarantees that there would be work for Nalah or even herself after they finished school. The best they could do was to excel in grad school and make sure that any jobs they took while getting their degree or after obtaining it didn’t leave gaps in their resumes; it would be much harder to get a job as an English Lit professor if either of them fell out of the academia loop for too long.

She smiled at Nalah, “Don’t worry about that now. Just keep up the amazing work you’re doing and you’ll get the job you want eventually.”

Nalah’s face took on a serious air and she asked cautiously, “Susan, would you do anything differently if you could?”

The question was one she had asked herself many times, and it felt good to be able to share what she’d learned with someone who was new to the graduate program. After a brief pause to collect her thoughts, she said, “I would have been honest with myself about my passions, and I wouldn’t have taken so many long breaks between high school, college, and grad school. But honestly, Nalah, I have no regrets.”

Nalah looked relieved; she had often questioned some of her own decisions, but to hear that someone else had as well, and yet was about to get her PhD, was heartening. “Can I ask one more question, Susan?”
Susan glanced at the clock then back at Nalah, “Sure.”

“Was there ever a time you hated grad school?”

People often report that their lives flash before their eyes when they are about to die; their heartaches and triumphs are laid bare before them as they take that last breath. Susan imagined that it was much like this moment. Nalah’s simple question stirred up a flurry of memories and emotions that twisted through her like a cyclone: the confusion that assailed her before she switched degrees as an undergrad, the practical poverty of a grad student’s financial condition, the sleepless nights, the stress of the comprehensive tests, the fear of teaching, the endless research and writing for her dissertation. When the winds died down and the dust settled, she provided Nalah with the most truthful response possible: “I loved every minute of it.”
Then she smiled a smile that went all the way to her eyes.


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