Archive for June 8th, 2018

The Memory of My Martyrdom

amywink June 8th, 2018

This week, I received the evaluations from my Spring semester of my thirtieth year of teaching. A student, who had actually signed her name, wrote “You were FREAKING AMAZING” and thanked me for my help during her difficult time that semester. It was a beautiful thing to see and wonderful to know I had been help for her, as I hope I am always help for my students. But I also thought of the student who wrote “Dr. Wink Rocks” for the first time on my teaching evaluations for a Women’s Autobiography class I taught twenty years ago, and how I got fired because I was good.

This is not a beautiful story. I can’t make it beautiful. I can and have made it meaningful but the experience is one that can still rise out of my memory and assault whatever good and lovely thing I may be feeling and it can rise in the most unexpected ways at times when I have thought it was no longer powerful enough to do any damage, and yet . . . and yet. . . . there it is.

Lately it has been rising, despite my attempts to quash it, to move away from its power, to pile success-on-success to suture the damage. Perhaps it has been rising because I have begun to take more risks, which I had learned not to take. Perhaps it is because I have begun to tell stories about the experience, which I was counseled not to tell about at the time because I would make be labeled a troublemaker and likely never find a job (I never talked about it publicly and also never found a job). It is an experience that should not hold so much power and yet. . . .and yet.

As a writer and teacher of autobiographical narrative, I know in practice and in theory that the telling of a story, the sharing of a story, changes the way we think about our experience. I know we change the story we have been telling ourselves about our experience in our narrating of it as we create the meaning we want to keep. I know that there is power in taking my narrative into my own hands and telling it and I know that we can recover the self we lost by the telling of the story. But I also know we have to get to the place where we can safely tell the story. I have never felt safe enough to telling this story in public and I may never feel safe enough but I do feel now that I have to tell the story if for no other reason that to purge the memory of my martyrdom and turn the tables on the power the story has shake me.

In 1997, I got my first academic job, at the last minute in the summer (as if often the case) and I moved from Texas A&M, where I had just completed a one year “Post-Doc” appointment after completing my PhD in 1996. It sounds posh but it was just teaching 4/4 after teaching 2/2 and making some more money, about 19k that year, which seemed a huge increase my tiny graduate student stipend (here is the moment we can all joke about going into education because of the hundreds of dollars we could make). I was desperate and also lucky to have had an interview and gotten the job in the middle of the summer before the position started in the fall. So I moved east, behind the Pine Curtain, and I was happy to start. I found a charming rental house with wood floors and lovely windows and a new kitchen, and plenty of room for an amazing flower garden, which I set out to design. I was very happy to be starting on my career. I was ready to bloom where I was planted.

I had no idea of the snake pit I had entered and no one warned me. In fact, the chair was very encouraging and happily suggested I propose a Women’s Autobiography class for the spring. And I happily did: It was totally my thing and I was getting a change to do it! I also got to teach literature that fall, which I hadn’t been able to much of as a graduate student or a post-doc (when I was assigned Technical Writing instead of literature). My students wrote lovely evaluations on Rate-My-Professor about how I was teaching novels and they loved the class. One student thanked me for teaching Shelley’s Frankenstein because it helped him, a science major, love literature.

Then I learned that another professor who regularly taught that class had gone to the chair to complain and demand to know why I was allowed to teach novels in that class? Another professor came into my office, came around my desk to tower over me as he asked ‘Why don’t you like men?” I began to keep my door closed.

I made friends with a new professor, an young African-American woman teaching Children’s literature (she now holds a named Endowed Chair at a Research 1 institution) and a Basic Writing professor who had been there a while who took me under her wing and warned me of the character of the department. She had seen many young faculty drummed out for various reasons. Sheryl was also often in hiding. I was lucky to have found her. I called her Mulder and she called me Scully because we were in an X-files department and we could trust no one. It wasn’t exactly a joke.

By the end of that first fall semester, the chair who had hired me had been removed from her position and another chair would be taking over. Apparently, my proposal for a Women’s Autobiography class had shaken some kind of cultural foundation and was the End of Western Civilization as We Know It. Before she left her position, however, she told me she had approved my Women’s Autobiography class “because it was the right thing to do” and I suddenly standing on a ledge alone, a target.

And I taught the class. I remember my students even now. One young woman recovering from anorexia who was so brilliant and troubled but could not yet eat in public, who I wrote to for a while after she graduated to let her know the world was a better place with her in it as she pursued her career as a counselor for young women suffering from eating disorders. One young woman was recovering from a brain injury who invited me to her graduation party and gave me two lovely books I still have, as well as the lovely colored pencil drawing of a garden inspired by the work of Emily Dickinson. Another young woman made a small quilt as her project and I still have that–though she gave it to a male professor who then gave it to me when he left. I remember the young African-American woman who was so brilliant and did not yet know, until my class, who Zora Neale Hurston was or Alice Walker or Toni Morrison. I remember the young man who took the class “because it sounded interesting” and was unphased by being the only male student in the class. And I remember the woman who managed one of the hotels in town and who helped me get a free room the night I moved out of my house. I remember hosting them all at my house for an autobiographical food party and hearing the story of one young woman who brought pizza because her mother worked and would leave money on the counter for her and her sister to buy pizza for dinner. I have their photograph still. And I have a t-shirt with “Dr Wink Rocks” on it, copied from the evaluation my student wrote for the class. I did rock. I was really great. And people hated me for that.

I don’t wish I hadn’t taught the class because I loved teaching it and I doubt cancelling the class would have made any difference to what the rest of the faculty had decided was true about me, even though they never asked. I represented something they wanted to hate. I don’t really think their hostility was completely personal (since they’d done similar things to other people before I came and after I left) but it did feel personal and their hostility was palpable nonetheless. I quietly went into hiding and hoped I would get a job that helped me escape the worst (I did not). I worked on my book proposal, went to conferences, earned a grant to help with photographs I intended to use in a second book project. I applied for jobs. I tried to be quiet. I was quiet.

But when students like you as a professor, when they know you enjoy them, and they write reviews online that everyone can see, and they tell their friends your classes are really great, it is impossible to hide as well as I would have liked. When you earn a grant from an historical society housed at the university, word spreads and there was nothing I could do, except if I had done nothing, which was not the right thing either. I certainly did not intend to make the students hate me so I could be less of a target, but I did see some professors do just that. I, however, am not a chameleon. By the next spring, 1999, when I had to reapply to keep my Visiting Professorship, I was well-known in a way I didn’t know, one might say I was “infamous” though I kept to myself and kept my door closed. To my face, in my “interview” the faculty asked the right questions, seemed interested, reminded me of my successful grant, and asked about my publications. I wasn’t sure but it seemed professional. I had no other job lined up. I needed this one to continue. It seemed like it might.

But when I returned home after a weekend away, I had a message on my answering machine cheerfully telling me that they had not renewed my position, essentially that I was fired. It was May 4, my birthday. The semester ended in less than a week. A friend told me “they said it’s because you’re feminist. And the Women’s Autobiography class was the problem. Teaching the women’s diaries.” I was fired for teaching women’s diaries. On my birthday. I was 34.

Everyone suggested I fight the firing, bring in a lawyer, question the logic, talk to the Dean. And I did see the Dean, who quietly listened and as I talked with him I thought “He’s not going to do anything at all for me” and he didn’t. I did ask a lawyer: “Texas is an at-will employment state.” Fight said everyone who thought I had money, time, and a willingness to throw myself into a fire or onto a sword. Be silent said everyone who was already tenured. Don’t make it about feminism. Don’t ask questions. Don’t tell.

In between those voices, something said “this means you get to leave” and I was free. Free and horribly damaged. Sheryl leapt to my rescue and called her friend at a small university in Kansas and got me a job; my other young colleagues helped me send my vita as they tried to deal with their own horror; they took care of me in my shock, fed me even though I could barely eat. I will never forget them. When I drove out of town the summer, I felt like throwing my shoes out the window, as if to wipe the dust of that town off my feet, but that would have been littering. None of the people I knew then remained at that university.

I didn’t fully understand the damage that experience had done to my sense of self-worth, the problematic lesson I learned about being very good, which academics are taught to do, and being summarily punished for that. But that is what I learned and also that I was threatening in a way that I could do nothing about and that the only way to be less threatening was to be less visible, to be less, to diminish who I am. It was as if, without even knowing I was doing it, I sent my self into exile. I am trying to recover that self by telling this story, reminding myself that I was good and threatening and that was not a problem with me, but a problem with them. But there are moments, even twenty years later, when this memory can make me shake.

I have told my students I don’t look at Rate-My-Professor and the story of being fired for being good. They are appalled and uncomprehending. I am always slightly unnerved by knowing there are good reviews out there about my teaching. But I tell myself this is different. Now is different because I have held this job for fifteen years. I occasionally explain to people who are not academics how I was not rewarded for my hard work and excellence because the system does not reward everyone the same and is threatened by some who brings change. What I work at telling myself is that I was good and I was there for my students who needed me–and I think of all of those students in the Women’s Autobiography class and other classes– and I was there for my friend Sheryl who learned to take action on behalf of someone she loved and do something to make a change in an unfair situation.

Most days, that is enough to remember. Some days, it isn’t.