After making a quick dinner, washing up, disentangling a prescription snafu with the pharmacy, and picking up some library books for Dr. Mishkin, I got to the bar around eight pm and located Oak and Beasley in a booth under a glassy-eyed deer head wearing a Vikings cap at a raffish angle. “You made it,” Oak cheered as Beasley raised her wineglass to me with an unexpectedly friendly smile.
“Sorry, I had to run some errands,” I said, sliding in next to her.
“We were just comparing notes,” Beasley said. “Who has the most dysfunctional department? I submit mine has the edge, given French and Swedish have conspired to seize all the best class periods. It’s nearly impossible to engage students after lunch, and eight in the morning is an impossible time to teach, especially when you have to commute from the cities. The traffic gets worse every year.” As she spoke, fumes of wine wafted toward me, and her gestures were extravagant enough to make her glass slosh dangerously. “All due to resentment because their programs are facing extinction. The only language students want to take is Shpanish.” Yup, she’d definitely had more than one glass.
“But in the history department we have epic battles over the soul of the discipline,” Oak said. “There’s Javier, who wants to decolonize the discipline, glaring across the table at George, who won’t let go of a curriculum based on the Western tradition. What’s English like?”
“I’ve only met one faculty member so far, and he’s a serial groper. Do I win?”
“Not even close.” Beasley was loud enough that some men dressed in camo looked over at our booth, alarmed. “I’ll see your groper and raise you a plagiarist.”
Oak exchanged glances with me and said “Have you eaten yet? We could share some appetizers.”
I wasn’t hungry, but I nodded. Something was clearly needed to soak up the alcohol, but as the server took our order Beasley waggled her glass for a refill.
“So these epic history battles,” I said. “Sounds like an opportunity. Maybe your department could start a sideline in reenactments. Like, George could build a trebuchet and Javier could, I don’t know…”
“¡A las barricadas!” Beasley drew herself up to belt out the opening bars of a revolutionary anthem, but Oak held up a warning finger.
“No singing. Also, no reenactments. George is a hundred years old. He couldn’t fire a trebuchet if his life depended on it. Besides, he would call it catering to entertainment culture. He is a staunch defender of lectures. I’m too much of a temp to be a threat, but that doesn’t stop him from sneering at digital humanities. He may not have kept up with the field, but he knows his era is over, and he’s a master of passive aggression. Which—you’re new to Minnesota. You’ll soon figure out what Minnesota Nice really means.”
“It’s not, like, Canada? Everyone saying ‘oh gosh’ and being cheery and helpful?”
Beasley giggled. “Oh, you poor, dear child.”
They proceeded to explain local food and customs to me as we consumed baskets of fried stuff. The onion rings were familiar, but they made me try deep-fried cheese curds and sauerkraut balls as part of the initiation.
I didn’t like the food, but I found myself enjoying the company. Beasley had shed her starchiness to release a wicked talent for barbed wit. Oak was smart and funny and added helpfulness to the mix, patiently explaining facts of college life that the real Maggie would probably have understood without asking. My experience with higher ed was limited to one semester at a community college that bore no resemblance to Magnusson.
Besides, It had been a long time since I had a chance to hang out. I was friendly with some of the staff at the coffee shop where I had last worked, but we didn’t socialize after we clocked out, and my roommates had been less than friendly. Conversation with Dr. Mishkin over dinner was fine in its own way, but being in a bar, getting to know people closer to my age, it stirred something in me I hadn’t felt for a long time. A kind of belonging. A chance to let my guard down.
But as they compared notes on what they had planned for their courses, I began to feel nervous, as if I were an understudy about to be pushed on stage without a copy of the script.
“I am so not ready for this,” I blurted out. Maybe it was the beer. I had carelessly let the server bring me a second, and getting buzzed in public suddenly seemed really stupid.
“Me too,” Oak said. “I’ll be finishing my syllabi the night before classes start.”
“I have that part done already,” I said. Maggie had left a collection of documents on her beat-up laptop, material she had been so excited about handing out to students. “It’s me that’s not ready. Like, how do you remember all their names? What do you do on day one?”
“As little as possible,” Beasley said. “No point, until the musical chairs is over.”
Oak must have seen cluelessness in my expression. “The first week is always a little chaotic, since students can change their course schedule up through the second week. Someone decides philosophy is boring, so they join a class their roommate says is easy. A seat opens up in the bio class another one needs because they’re convinced they’re going to be pre-med, so they take that slot and drop your course.”
“Everyone thinks they’re destined to be doctors,” Beasley said bitterly.
“Until they flunk the midterm,” Oak added. “But you won’t have as much churn. They might swap out sections, but first years all have to take composition.”
“Because they weren’t taught to write basic English in high school. It’s so depressing,” Beasley wailed. “Did I tell you my Brazilian literature course didn’t fill? I couldn’t get even six students to sign up.”
“At least you got a three-year contract with a full schedule,” Oak said. “Last spring I taught at four different schools. This semester I snagged two classes here and two online for Metro State.”
“I’m still an adjunct, though. It’s so unfair,” Beasley said, aggrieved. “Several university presses have shown interest in my dissertation, and I have publications in the top journals. Yet here I am teaching Spanish 101 to coddled children who only take it to check off a requirement.”
“Maybe this way you’ll have more time for your research,” I said to cheer her up.
“That’s not how it works.” She glared at me. “Trying to teach students who have no interests beyond partying and sports is soul-depleting. Just you wait. They’ll hand in papers they cut-and-pasted from the internet and spend all their time in class sleeping or fiddling with their phones.”
“That’s an exaggeration,” Oak said, hoping to reassure me. “Sure, Magnusson students like to put on an air of cynicism, but deep down they’re scared. Especially in that first semester, they’re terrified of failure, and the social pressures are massive. Give them a chance to write about things they care about, make sure your assignments don’t come off as busy work, and don’t worry about it if things go off schedule. Consider your syllabus speculative fiction. Things always come up, just roll with it.”
“That sounds like a good approach.”
“It’s harder for Harriet. She has to get through the material so her students are ready for 102.” She made a sound that combined hysterical laugher with a sob before stuffing a handful of cheese curds into her mouth. “With a writing course, you just have to meet them where they are and help them improve.”
“Good luck with that,” Beasley muttered through cheesy mouthful.
“You’ve taught this course elsewhere, right?” Oak asked.
Maggie had. “Yeah, but… not like this.”
“You’re trying out something new?” He said it like it was a good thing.
“Completely new. Like, I have this big assignment. It’ll run the whole semester using, what’s word for it? A lot of little assignments that build up to one big final project?”
“Yeah, that’s what…” What Maggie had said. “That’s the word I was searching for. They have to produce a podcast. I mean, not a real live one, but they have to do some background research and write up a script and create show notes with sources. I don’t know if it’s going to work. They’ll probably hate it.”
“Why? It sounds great.”
Maggie had thought so, too. I could hear her voice suddenly, describing it to me in the car as we drove west, heading toward Minnesota on that misty morning when her life ended. “This podcast, it’s going to be called Curious Campus, inspired by some NPR show,” I said, my words sounding strange. Not my own. “The students are supposed to come up with some question about the college and will interview people for answers. Like, how much food goes to waste in the campus cafeteria, where did the names of the buildings come from, what was dorm life like for students when the college was founded. Questions like that.”
“I’ve got one for them. Why does the Economics department get to call itself part of the social sciences when it’s really just a business major?” Beasley waved her empty glass for emphasis, her mood growing darker. “Why does the administration say we can’t afford tenure lines in foreign languages when we consistently bring in more tuition dollars and cost the college less than physics?” She craned her neck, looking for someone to bring her more wine.
Oak ignored her gloom, zeroing in on my insecurity. “Talk to the college archivist, Zoe Chen. I’ve already scheduled several class sessions with her so students can work on local public history projects. She’s full of good ideas, and students dig doing archival research.”
“Thanks. I’ll do that.”
“Why not make it a real podcast? It would be cool for students to learn editing and production, and they are so much more motivated when there’s an authentic audience involved. I can help you with the technical stuff.”
“I can handle the tech, but these are kids. I mean, technically they’re adults, but I don’t want require them to put stuff out in public. It’ll embarrass them in few years, and besides, there are too many creeps out there.”
“It’s obviously unpolished work, but in my experience students are comfortable with being out in public thanks to social media. A lot of our class projects end up online and we haven’t had any problems.”
“You’ve been incredibly lucky, then.” It came out more sharply than I intended.
He looked abashed. “And privileged. Sorry. I’ve had a few skirmishes on Twitter, but men don’t face the same risks as women.” He paused, seeming to look for the words to ask a question I didn’t want to hear, when Beasley decided to take charge of the conversation.
“Enough about teaching. Have you given thought to how you’ll keep up your research agenda?”
“I need an agenda?”
“Silly girl. You must set aside time for writing. Be strict about it, otherwise students will take up all your time. They’re voracious little bloodsuckers. Do you have any articles underway?”
“Uh, not at the moment.” I felt a sinking feeling. “Nobody told me I had to write articles.”
“It’s not expected of adjuncts,” Oak said.
“It’s expected of scholars,” Beasley said firmly. “The life of the mind, it’s what gives our lives meaning. Besides, if you ever hope to get a real job you’ll need publications. I’d be happy to mentor you. What would you say was the key concept of your dissertation?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t read it.” I only realized when it slipped out and they started laughing how stupid that sounded. “I mean, I got so sick of it, I haven’t looked at it lately.”
Two beers was definitely a mistake, but luckily Beasley decided I had cracked a hilarious joke and gave me a playful shove. “You’re a hoot.” She shoved me again, harder. “Let me out, I need to visit the loo.” I stood to let her out of the booth. We both watched her weave her way unsteadily toward the restrooms at the back of the bar.
“Oh boy. Is she planning to drive home tonight?” I asked.
“Ouch,” Oak said, wincing as she careened off a booth. Oak gestured for the purse she’d left behind on the bench we shared. “I’ll drive her home,” he said, taking the bag from me and finding her keys.
“Are you sure? Do you need me to—”
“Nope. We’ll take my van and I’ll give her a ride back to campus tomorrow. I have a place to crash in the city. It’ll be fine.”
“Okay. Thanks. Listen, um… Thanks for the ideas. I’ll definitely look up that archivist. Zoe Chen is it?” He nodded. “Would you have time to get together before classes start? Take a look at my course materials?”
“I’d be happy to.”
“I don’t know why I’m so anxious about this. It’s not like I haven’t taught before.” Actually, it was exactly like I’d never taught before. I barely had experience being a student in a college classroom. It had sounded so simple in theory. I had ready-made handouts and a schedule that spelled out what would happen each of those hours for the next fifteen weeks. How hard could it be? Or so I had thought. Now I had a growing sense of dread that on day one the students would see right through me.
“Let’s get together. How about tomorrow afternoon?”
We settled up our tab and Oak turned on the charm to coax Beasley to leave her car overnight and take a ride home in his vintage VW. His charm offensive worked so well that she shook off her gloom and became gaily boisterous. As we steered her to the exit, she began to sing off-key. “El bien más preciado es la libertad!” Her voice faded as he helped her into the passenger seat of his van before they drove off into the night.
“Where’s Beasley? Sleeping it off?” I nodded at her empty chair as I entered our office the next afternoon.
“She’s spending the day in the library,” he said.
“I hope she’s grateful you gave her a ride.”
“Not so’s you’d notice.”
“Very. Turns out she lives with her parents. She’s totally humiliated that I found out.”
“Why? I mean, singing loudly in a redneck bar, yeah, that’s embarrassing. But living with your parents? A ton of people do that these days, with rent so high.”
“I know, but she maintains this public persona of being a serious, successful academic. Her folks seem really nice, but that doesn’t matter. She thinks at thirty-seven she should be financially independent. Don’t spread it around. She’s really sensitive about it, I’m not sure why.”
“Context collapse.” He looked puzzled. “Like online, people have different identities depending on who they think they’re interacting with. Then their grandma gets into their Facebook and things get all messed up. For her, it’s the boundaries between her college identity and life at home collapsing.”
“Ah, makes sense. Let’s take a look at your stuff.”
He pulled the battered wooden chair beside my desk around so he could look at my laptop as I walked him through the material Maggie had prepared. He was impressed with the Curious Campus pseudo-podcast assignment and pointed out ways I could change some wording so students wouldn’t perceive the multiple check-points as busywork. Apparently busywork was the deepest of insults to college students. They should work in a coffee shop someday with a boss who’s always watching for slackers, ordering employees to fill salt shakers and give the trash cans another scrubbing whenever things were slow to prove you were worth your minimum wage.
“Okay, that helps. I guess I’m ready,” I said when we’d fine-tuned all the documents.
Something about the look in his eyes made it hard to answer. I was suddenly buried under my own context collapse. Who was I fooling? I knew less about college than the kids who were going to face me on Monday. Sixty-eight of them. Every one of them would see right through me. I would be busted, and then what would I do?
He winced sympathetically, then rose, on a mission. “Don’t tell Harriet, but I’m going to raid her tea supply. Sit tight.”
I rubbed my face with my palms as he fetched her electric kettle and headed for the bathroom to fill it. Oak was reassuring and helpful, but it was far too easy to let my guard down around him. Time to take a lesson from Beasley and construct an impervious public persona. By the time he returned I was able to give him a brave smile. “I’m fine. Really. Just the jitters.”
“Happens to me every semester.” He clicked on the kettle and flipped through our officemate’s tin of tea bags. “English Breakfast? Earl Grey?”
When the water boiled he filled a cup that had a map of the Iberian peninsula on it and handed it to me. He took the student chair again and blew on his own mug. “What was your T.A. experience like?” I looked at him, my mind a blank. “Did you get a lot of support? Like, did your graduate program include a course on teaching, or were you expected to figure it out on your own?”
I wasn’t sure what T.A. stood for, but I had an answer anyway. “I had zero preparation.”
“Oof. But that’s not unusual. At least you have some experience under your belt.”
“Sure, I’ve taught composition at several places,” I lied, scrambling to remember Maggie’s resume, “though none of them were full time jobs like this.” I hoped he wouldn’t ask me what places they were. I should know Maggie’s work history by heart, but my thoughts felt scattered. Maybe that accident had done something to my brain. Usually I handled my cover stories like a seasoned spy, whole histories at my fingertips. But then, I had made those identities up. I didn’t spend a few hours in a car with them before they had to be extracted from it in pieces.
“That syllabus proves you have all the right instincts,” Oak was saying. “You’re a natural.”
You hear that Maggie? He thinks you’re a natural. “Doesn’t feel like it, but that’s kind of you to say.” I did my best to give him the smile Maggie would have given him.
He didn’t return it. He was frowning, studying me thoughtfully. “How’ve you been feeling?”
“I mean, since the accident. Did it…” He looked down into his mug, as if looking for tea leaves to read. “Judging from, you know,” he pointed to his own head. “It looks like you got a pretty serious bang on the head. Did it affect your memory?”
I felt embarrassed for a moment, before I realized he’d thrown me a lifeline. “It affected everything. I don’t even feel like the same person. And some things are just… missing.”
“God. I’m sorry you’re having to go through this.”
“Like with teaching. I feel like I’m starting from scratch.” And now I had a medical excuse, sweet.
“Are you seeing a doctor?”
“The docs say I’m okay, and I feel fine. I’m just worried I don’t know how to do this job anymore. Don’t tell my boss.”
“Course not. Look, once you get into the classroom, it’ll probably be like riding a bicycle. You have a great plan for the whole semester. And you’re not alone. I’ll be here. I’ll help in any way I can.”
I felt myself withdrawing into a safe corner, hidden behind a sunny smile. He was such a nice guy, which made him a risk.
The smile didn’t work this time. He still had a little frown tilting his right eyebrow, a concerned twist to his mouth. Even more reason to be cautious around this guy, he could tell when I was putting it on.
“Right, my turn,” he said at last, briskly. “Do you have time to look over my syllabus? Something you mentioned last night made me wonder if I’m giving students enough of an intro to privacy. This project they’re working on, they’ll be adding content to a public website. I’ve always given students a choice whether to put their names on it or not, but we never really discussed the risks and they’ve always opted to use their real names. I’m thinking I should have a unit early on where we talk about how online harassment is unequally distributed and use examples of historians who get trolled. Maybe you can help me cook up an activity for gaming out how to handle online attacks.”
We were deep in discussion when Beasley arrived. For a frozen moment she looked at me and then at Oak. He gave her a secretive nod that seemed to reassure her. Her dirty secret was safe. She sailed to her bookshelves and plucked two books. “I’ve been asked to contribute a chapter to a book on Brazilian postmodernism. Of course, the library lacks the most basic texts on the subject, but at least it’s a quiet place to write. I’ll be proposing a completely new interpretation of Clarice Lispector’s work, which should shake things up. ¡Adelante!”
“¡A las barricadas!” I murmured as she retreated to her safe place, academic identity reestablished, and Oak turned his laughter into a discreet cough.