The liberal arts building of any university is easy to spot. Locate the oldest part of campus, given away by the commemorative plaque that pays tribute to the historical significance of the original college and its mission. It may have been a teacher’s college started by the state with a land grant, in which case the university would still boast several thriving departments related to the field of education, but the school would have long ago adapted into an institution with far more exciting fields of study, like TV production, or entrepreneurship. The name on the plaque will bear the pride of another era, so that in the South the school may have been Dixie College, or Lee College, and snooping around the old buildings one might uncover dated iconography: a statue of Jefferson Davis, or crossed sabers in bas relief above the entrance to the ROTC building. The liberal arts building will be found among these middling originals, including any domed, pillared, or steepled structures, though the liberal arts building will bear no accouterments. It will be a rectangular pile of bricks no taller than three stories but very likely only two. As a division of the university devoted entirely to ideas, all liberal arts has ever needed were classrooms. The offices of liberal arts professors will be scattered across campus, though the offices of the liberal arts departments — English, History, Philosophy, Foreign Languages, Art History — will be found on the upper floors at each end of the building. These offices are where students will try to get their schedules changed once they’ve discovered that they should have heeded the warnings on RateMyProfessor, because their teacher really is an insufferable bore. At the beginning of the semester this line will be out the door and the mild liberal arts professors will have to say “Excuse me, excuse me,” both in going and coming as they make their way to the copy machine.
One can look through the tall windows of the liberal arts building at any time of day, because the thick aluminum Mad Men-era blinds will have slats missing or one may be permanently raised, with the cord broken off a decade ago and no way to bring the blinds back down. Look through the square panes of antique glass with the window trim covered in a thick shell of a century’s worth of layers of brown paint, to mismatched desks, an unused broom closet, a darkly varnished wooden lectern, like looking in at the sanctuary of a long-abandoned Puritan church. There might still be chalkboards with the painted message in the top right corner, a remnant of the nineteen-eighties that says, “No smoking,” and the wooden floors creak as the famished unshaven cleric of the cult of ideas paces back-and-forth in his corduroy jacket with suede elbow patches, something he got for himself that he wears like a prop. In the winter, the room is overheated by the giant radiator nestled in the back, and a window will be open. The window will also be open in the summer, because the air-conditioning unit retrofitted against an outer wall can’t handle the high ceilings, and so it’s better to hope for a breeze, even when it’s hot outside. The number of students in the room will be in inverse proportion to the professor’s age. The older the professor, the less populated, most everyone preferring the desks in the back. The earlier in the day it is, the younger the teacher, the room filled to capacity, not because the students wanted to take the class or admired the reputation of the professor, but because they were required to take the class, with the course listing referring to the teacher as “staff.”
The single twenty-first century addition is the LCD projector that hangs from the middle of the ceiling and is always on, for the faded light of the PowerPoint slides that accompany the lecture on Western history, more specifically: Bach history, or Vermeer history, or Wordsworth history, or Aristotle history, or Napoleon history. And whatever the students may or may not have read, and whatever the PowerPoint purports to organize and illustrate, the old fellow in the corduroy jacket talks and talks and talks.
Campus has expanded outward, with a modern chemistry building, an imposing nursing building, a physical fitness center complete with beach volleyball pits, climbing wall, every imaginable configuration of weight machine, indoor pool with water slides, and outdoor pool with row after row of ear-bud-listening iPad-reading sunbathing sorority and fraternity members clustered in cliques. There’s a student center bursting with express versions of fast food restaurants where students work and also stand in zigzagged roped-off lines, with flat screens that play music videos paid for by media conglomerates, and video billboards that advertise student government elections, recital concerts, and a comedian. This is the new center of campus, where the proud buildings are, like the giant new library, which is a building with row after row of always occupied computers in it, where the books on the upper-floors are only accidentally wandered into, the shelves occasionally moved around or cleared, heaps of the cloth-bound dust-collectors sold off in penny sales on tables set up out front. There are Wi-Fi hotspots in the quad that attract laptop worshippers with machines in laps, and a student strums a guitar near the bent I-beams of an abstract sculpture.
Back among the older buildings on campus, there’s a bell tower and a flagpole with an American flag. Travel with me back in time a decade and a half, and walk with me into the expansive corner office of the English Department chair, as he offers me the job I’ll labor at for nine years, a one-year position that renewed automatically, up to three years, at which time I would reapply for some bureaucratic reason, but they’d kept me on as a teacher for as long as I was willing to accept the insulting salary and baffling title of full-time temporary instructor. As a leader in the gang of liberal arts, the English Department chair was impressed that I’d gone to a Jesuit university and that, like him, I was from the Midwest. By then I’d had fifteen years of teaching experience, I had studied with relatively famous writers, I had a Ph.D. and a growing list of publications. What he was most impressed with, however, was that I had spent a semester in Rome, a time when I really could have steeped myself in the liberal arts, but, unbeknownst to my new boss, I mostly drank Roman wine, smoked American cigarettes, and traveled on a Eurail Pass.
He apologized for the brutal course load I would soon take on and he suggested there was really nothing one could do with university administrators who were numbers people and who would never grasp the incompatibility of writing instruction and high occupancy classrooms. He lamented the unchecked growth of the university and he took down a rolled-up yellowing blueprint, some defunct architect’s vision of the university’s master plan. He unrolled the map between us and there in the new quad he pointed to the popular library, the carpeted central-air-equipped sprawling business building, the state-of-the-art computer sciences building, and a building that was represented there in outline but didn’t exist.
He said it slowly to let it sink in, “The new liberal arts building.”
“It never happened,” I said.
“It did not happen,” he said, and he rolled the blueprint up and put it back where he kept it on top of his bookshelf, evidence of a now unbelievable idea that had almost gotten through the budget committee before everything changed.
The department chair who had hired me would retire during my nine-year stint and a new hiring process would come with the new chair, so that my reapplication every three years was no longer a formality. I was suddenly competing in a national search for the job I already had, where abstract candidates from elsewhere created a better impression on paper, because, like the liberal arts building, I’d been around too long. I was too familiar and there was a certain indescribable funk about me. With the new regime came a required textbook for writing classes and a lot of talk about grade inflation. Each semester the grades I issued would be presented back to me on a graph that was supposed to adhere to a bell shape. There were English Department meetings where gray-haired professors said things like, “The gentleman’s ‘C’ has become the gentleman’s ‘B’,” and they voted not to let full-time temporary instructors like myself, a substantial minority at one-third of the department, have a vote at the insufferable meetings we were required to attend.
When the new department chair called me mid-June to let me know my reapplication had been denied, that I hadn’t even made the top twenty candidates for the position I’d already spent nine years in, I called the director of composition who was the chair of the hiring committee to see if there was something I’d done wrong. My novel had come out that year and, since I was a writing teacher, I had thought it would make me look good. If the hiring committee had been a tenure and promotion committee, the publication of my book would have cemented my place at this university, and I thought this year’s reapplication would be more of a formality than in years past. When I was told I wouldn’t be rehired, I was shocked, confused, and upset.
Over the phone, the director of composition explained, “You seem more interested in writing than in teaching.”
“I’m a writing teacher,” I said. “I teach writing.”
She said, “Won’t you be glad you won’t be teaching?”
“I’ve only ever been a teacher,” I said. “It’s the middle of June. No one is going to hire me.”
“But you’ll have more time to write.”
Everything on hiring committees is done in secret. They didn’t have to tell me anything. Except that, since I’d worked there for nine years, when I asked about the process, people were honest with me. I was told that I had apparently made the mistake of mentioning, on my reapplication letter, that despite a heavy teaching schedule of five classes per semester, because my classes were stacked on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, the job had made it possible for me to get writing done twice a week, and there were people on the committee who were unhappy that I should speak so bluntly. An idea can float in a committee because one person airs it, and everyone else, swayed by the truism, agrees. There was the sentiment that I was “using” teaching so I could write, as bizarre as that sounds, which isn’t at all like “using” a job waiting tables so one can write, or “using” a landscaping job so one can write, because the teaching of writing is directly related to the practice of writing, but somehow these colleagues of mine didn’t see it that way.
Believe it or not, there are a lot of English teachers who teach writing classes who don’t actually write themselves. They did. Or they wanted to. But they haven’t published and at some point they stopped trying. Sometimes teachers are hired for their potential, and sometimes, though they don’t live up to their potential, they have a way of sticking around.
The truth of the matter was that I had worked very hard to carve out time for writing while teaching nearly twice the number of students and classes as most of the professors on the hiring committee. And my writing life and my career as a teacher were suddenly in jeopardy because I hadn’t anticipated how someone might read one line of a reapplication letter that had until recently been a formality.
“He’s using teaching to write.”
“He’s more interested in writing than in teaching.”
“Now he can have more time to write.”
Tenure is going the way of the liberal arts building, a relic that’s out of fashion and hard to stick up for. What it’s being replaced by is made up on the fly. Teaching five classes per semester should kill the urge or the ability to write, except that it hasn’t. We knew that the numbers people who run universities didn’t really understand us and their influence has led to the death of tenure and untenable teaching loads. But when writing isn’t valued by English professors, anyone who wants to write is basically fucked.