January 27, 2019

School for Corpses, Part I: The Set-Up


Nine years ago, Richard, a friend of mine who teaches Humanities at a local art college, asked if I could fill in for him while he took a semester-long sabbatical. I told him I’d be happy to, especially considering the class in question was titled “Civilization and Its Discontents.” It was only one course one day a week, I needed the check, and above all else couldn’t resist the delightful irony of being a blind guy at an art school. Although it was more exhausting than expected and I bitched about it endlessly at the time, in retrospect teaching that class has evolved into a good memory, and according to Richard the students were happy with the way things went. I was proud to learn that, thanks to that particular class, I was responsible for sending at least three students off in very, very bad directions. So I’d done my Job.

            About halfway through the semester, the chair of the Humanities Department, a Dr. Williams, decided he had a beef with me based on a small technicality, a simple glitch in my paperwork. He kept riding me about it, but I just lowered my head and ignored him. The semester was almost over, it was too late to do anything about it, and the class was going well. So what was the big deal. Right? I finished the class, collected my last check, and went on my way.

            A year or so later, with work making itself increasingly scarce once again, I dropped Dr. Williams a friendly note asking about other teaching opportunities for the upcoming semester, and received an academic Fuck You in response. So I guess that was that. He never even learned that I was teaching Manson and The Unabomber in that class, which was probably for the best.

            Then a few months ago there was a bit of folderol at the art school, with a number of professors being fired or resigning abruptly after a mountain of sexual misconduct charges came to light. Then Dr. Williams unexpectedly dropped dead, just like that.

            “So . . . you’re saying there are a bunch of job openings, then?” I asked Richard after he told me the news. At first he thought I was joking, but when I made the joke for the fourth time he finally got the hint. It would be nice once again, I thought, to have something akin to a regular income, and with that stiff pain in the ass Dr. Williams out of the way what with being dead and all, maybe I actually stood a chance.

            Richard honestly didn’t know what the chances were, certainly couldn’t promise anything, but suggested I sketch out a proposal for a new Humanities course and submit it to the interim chair, a woman named Margaret. Margaret, he told me, was very reasonable, but also very straight and very Catholic. That didn’t sound promising, to be honest, but it was a good thing to know and keep in mind.

            Okay then, that afternoon I sat down and sketched out an idea for a class I thought might be fun. It was only a slight variation on that “Civilization and Its Discontents” course I’d taught earlier, but cooler. Also, as far as the general structure went, I was able to remedy a few mistakes I’d made first time around. I made a point of using a bunch of snazzy academic terms like “hegemony” and “discourse” in the outline, and included at least a few of the tired usual suspects (Plato, Freud, Machiavelli, Thoreau) in the syllabus to sneak it past the dusty old traditionalists. Then I turned it in.

            Not surprisingly, it was rejected pretty soundly with another academic Fuck You. I figured yet again that was that, and it was no big deal. I’d tried.

            But then three weeks later and quite out of the blue, I received a note from Margaret late on a Friday afternoon. The note began:

Dear Jim,

While I cannot offer you the course you have proposed, I can offer you one section of HPD-3050/3055, Culture Survey I and II, a two semester required course for the Cartooning and Illustration students . . .

            Well I’ll be damned. Goodness sakes. My bank account was deep into the red zone once more, the past year finding me in the toughest economic straits I’d experienced in years, so the timing was perfect. Besides, how could I resist the irony of not only being a blindo at an art college, but one teaching would-be cartoonists and illustrators to boot? The potential for sit-com antics was boundless.

            I would have nothing to do with their actual artwork. This was a Humanities survey course with an emphasis on literature, philosophy, history and film. The class met once a week on Tuesday afternoon, which was perfect, too. The course had a predetermined theme that changed every year, and this year’s theme was “Location as Character.” That was so damn vague and broad as to be absolutely meaningless. It narrowed things down, pretty much, to every novel ever written and every narrative film ever made, meaning I could run wherever I wanted with it. I could devote the entire class to Gilligan’s Island if I wanted. The whole prospect was getting better and better. The only downside was that the semester began in three weeks, meaning I’d have to get a move on. Well, I had nothing else lined up at the moment, nothing major anyway, so no sweat.

            She asked me to send her my resume, which I did, then I got down to work. I recalled from nine years ago there’s a helluva lot of paperwork and computer set ups and other assorted arrangements to take care of before the first day of class, So might as well start running now.

            That weekend I worked out a year-long syllabus divided into three sections. I mixed in a few canonical works to keep the heat off, along with a few things by minority writers and women to placate the p.c. cops, but also included Burroughs, Hubert Selby, Jim Thompson and Pynchon, and films ranging from Lost Weekend and Soylent Green to Damaged Lives, Stroszek and Wise Blood. Fucking great course, you ask me. Then I began composing the lectures for the first three classes as I waited to hear back from the interim department chair.

            Her response came on Tuesday, and I could immediately sense the shift in tone.

Dear Jim Knipfel,

From your CV, I see that you are a freelance writer and have taught only sporadically and briefly - including at SVA in 2009! Teaching can make very heavy demands on your knowledge base, your time, patience and creativity. Are you sure you wish to teach? I also see that you have a B.A. in philosophy but didn't complete your graduate program. This is not crucial; freelance writers do not need M.A.'s. But I do wonder what unique abilities and knowledge you have that will translate and work well in the classroom and if you finish projects.

      I am willing to interview you, and I have some available time this Thursday. Among other things, I will want to discuss what you will teach (there is a basic menu of readings from which to choose) and how. Teaching is an art composed of both content and delivery. What are your approaches to and theories about student learning?

            Wait, what? “Finish projects”? Did she think I released a bunch of unfinished books? What the fuck was this? “Willing to interview me? She’s the one who offered me the goddamn job! What a condescending fucking twat! I may not have a fancy degree, but from what I’ve heard I could out-philosophize damn near everyone on her faculty.

            As I decided to go back to that syllabus to trade out Paradise Lost for Amputee Times and some Nazi porn, I somehow managed to stifle my annoyance long enough to write a shockingly cordial note back, answering a number of her concerns and promising to discuss others in more detail when we met. Oh, but I was smooth, even as I envisioned slamming her head repeatedly against a blackboard while reciting the opening passages of The Aeneid in Latin.

            I also mentioned, which I hadn’t bothered to do before, that I was blind. It’s always a risky move, particularly when you haven’t signed a contract yet, but I figured I shouldn’t surprise her with that on the day of the interview.

            I closed the note by asking what time she wanted to meet, and where I might find her. The signature at the bottom of her email included a building address, but no room number.

            Her response arrived an hour later.

Because of the nature of the Culture Survey course, however, we should instead talk about your expertise and the possibility of developing your own course for 2019-2020. There are several characteristics I look for in an upper-level elective:

      (a) student-centered (active student engagement). Courses should not be dependant (sic) on instructor lectures.

      (b) student writing as a means to improve student knowledge ("writing to learn").

      Please let me know if you are still interested and available

            Wait, so am I or am I not supposed to start teaching in three weeks? Was she just yanking that one out of contention altogether?

            Then it occurred to me that she was backpedaling, and backpedaling fast. Morgan suggested Dr. Williams had sent her a message from beyond the grave. “Maybe a picture of you with the words ‘NO! NO! NO!’ scrawled on it mysteriously slid out of a file and landed at her feet.”

            Others, however, thought it was more likely she’d read something of mine and got scared. She was both straight-laced and Catholic, after all. It wouldn’t be the first time I lost out on a teaching gig because some fucking tight-assed and humorless department chair went to the nosy trouble of reading something of mine, immediately deciding I was “too dark” for those delicate, simpering young people of today.

            Well if that was the case, Christ, at least Williams had the decency and intestinal fortitude to tell me straight out what his problem was instead of wasting everyone’s time with all this goddamn passive aggressive pussyfooting nonsense. Drives me fucking nuts.

            Though of course now that she knew I was blind, that added a few new and unpleasant wrinkles to the scene. If I’d been nothing more than a monster who wrote nasty and ugly things it would’ve been simple—she could just say no and be done with it. But add blind on top of it, and she was in a real pickle. She didn’t dare say anything, right? I might file a discrimination lawsuit or something. Give the school and her a real black eye, even more than all those student-molesting professors. What she can do, however, given that she’s only interim chair, is kick that old blind can down the road a ways. Do her civic duty by interviewing me for something that wouldn’t start for another year, which likely meant someone else would have to deal with me and worry about ADA compliance when the time came. I wonder if she thought she was being shrewd, when it was clear to me she was simply panicking.

            I was starting to get a bad feeling about my prospects. Still, after confirming the interview on Thursday and asking her yet again where I might find her office, I went back and edited those three lectures for the class I was apparently no longer teaching, and made some minor adjustments to the syllabus, just in case. I was still foolishly counting on the job, running through the clear and persuasive arguments I would make during the interview. As the minutes and hours passed, I came to suspect the interview was never going to happen, and for once it wouldn’t be my fault.

            Thursday was another one of those endless August beasts, humid with temps around ninety. I wasn’t relishing a trip into Manhattan, and I didn’t have an office number for this woman, but I was still preparing for the interview. Something in my head kept telling me something was going to come of this, that even if it started next year I would get a job out of these people whether they liked it or not. Just give me ten minutes with her. Ten minutes is all I needed, and I’d have her all turned around on the issue of my perceived incompetent monstrousness.

            Then she wrote and cancelled, as I knew she would. She never had to tell me directly why she had no intention of hiring me. There was no explanation at all. Who knows? Maybe Morgan was right about that sign from beyond the grave.

            I guess the simple and oddly comforting lesson in all this is that I really do have no business trying to infiltrate the straight world.


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