SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
February 3, 2019

School for Corpses, Part II: The Interview

 

A week and a half after cancelling my interview for a teaching position at a local art school, a week and a half of silence in which I’d written the whole thing off with a shrug and moved on to other projects, the interim chair of the Humanities Department wrote me an email, asking if I’d be able to meet with her on Tuesday. During our first go-round, I’d asked her for her address and office number four times, but she steadfastly refused to pass that classified information along, perhaps out of fear I might come up there and beat her up. This time she finally told me where I might find her. Good thing, too, as the building address did not correspond with the address on her electronic signature. It looked like she was serious this time. And if she wasn’t, I knew where to find her. So what the hell? Maybe I’d give the mainstream world another shot. That check sure would be nice.

            Way I figured it, one of two things was going on in this woman’s head. She either couldn’t find anyone to fill that class she’d originally offered me and was desperate to grab someone, however unqualified, who could be up and running in a week, or she was just trying to cover her ass to avoid a discrimination suit filed by a disgruntled cripple. Well, either way I’d be curious to find out.

            So around noon on Tuesday my friend Richard, who’d been the very apologetic intermediary in this whole misbegotten venture, led me from the subway east across Manhattan toward the Second Avenue administration building, up to the eighth floor, and down a twisting maze of whitewashed hallways to her office. Then he excused himself and headed down the hall to an empty classroom to read until we were done. We both figured it would be about twenty minutes, half an hour tops.

            She was a lively and articulate woman of about seventy, who shook my hand and apologized for what a mess her office was. After she cleaned off a small table we each took a seat, I folded up the cane, and she began flipping through a file.

            I heard her pull out two pieces of paper. “I have the CV you sent me recently,” she said. “And thanks to Laurie in the office I also have the CV you submitted in 2008. And I guess my first question would be . . . ”

            For the first forty-five minutes, she peppered me with accusing and dismissive questions about my lack of a graduate degree, my philosophy of teaching (she preferred the term “pedagogy”), and my apparently sudden decision to return to academia after nine years.

            Well, I wanted to tell her, given that Dr. Williams dropped dead a few months ago, and a whole bunch of professors were canned for molesting students, I figured there’d be a few openings with no uptight bastard to block my way. Plus I could use that regular check, Dig? I forget what I ended up telling her, but it wasn’t that.

            I hadn’t been on a real job interview since 1991. Given our earlier email exchange, I went in thinking “I am beyond her timid, lying morality, and so I am beyond caring.” I really didn’t give a fuck what happened. She’d yanked a supposedly sure thing away from me once, so if she did it again, fuck it. If, however, it turned into something, well, fine, whatever. No need to stress about it either way. That’s how I felt going up to her office, anyway, but damn if she didn’t already have me on the defensive.

            I parried her questions as best I could, offering an excuse for that lack of a degree that was both honest and plausible in academic terms. I made up a pedagogical philosophy on the fly, and told her (again quite honestly) there was nothing sudden about my decision to try teaching again—that in fact I’d applied to every goddamn school in town over the years. I’d only avoided this particular school because Dr. Williams was still alive and still chair, so I knew it would be a waste of time.

            She cast off my answers with a contemptuous and uninterested “Mm-hmm.” She pulled out my CV again. “I haven’t heard of most of these places you’ve written for. The Wall Street Journal, maybe, the Village Voice, the New York Post. But the rest I never heard of. And these books you’ve written, I suppose they’re all novels?”

            “A couple. There are also three memoirs, a short story collection, and one non-fiction.”

            “Are any of them still in print?”

            Fuck defensive—I was starting to get pissed. “Um, pretty much most of them, yeah.”

            Then in an abrupt shift, she suddenly began talking about the course she’d originally offered me a couple of weeks earlier, talking about it as if I was going to be teaching it. I began thinking my first guess was correct, that she couldn’t find anyone else to fill it, so was forced to resort to me against her better judgment. If that was indeed the case, it meant I was going to have to start in about a week.

            She pulled out the Fall catalog and read the official course description at me, then long passages from an email written by the professor who’d originated the course, then other emails from other instructors who’d taught it over the years. Nobody seemed to have a real clear idea what the class was supposed to be, though they were masters at burying this under a heap of important-sounding jargon. Then she read me a long letter from the new provost detailing what the new teaching style was going to be across the board at the school. That was mostly a meaningless flurry of jargon, too, with “hands-on learning” and “active learning” and “participatory education” at the top of the stinking pile.

            “Excuse me,” I interrupted. “But we’re talking about the cultural survey course that starts on the fourth, right?”

            “Yes, we’re talking about that now, but we won’t be talking about it later.”

            “Um, okay.” I had no fucking clue what any of this meant anymore.

            Then she continued talking about the mechanics of the class for a long spell before finally getting to the crux of the matter.

            “These are illustration and cartooning students, and it’s a given that you would need to employ paintings and photographs and other visual arts to accentuate the texts your reading. If you’re reading Frankenstein, say, you might want to show a slide of an old castle from the same period. You’d need to show them slides and take them to the image library. Their final project involves doing a series of illustrations or cartoons, which you would have to assess. So how would you do that?”

            “I wouldn’t,” I told her, and left it at that.

            After another forty-five minutes, she finally got what she was after, namely my admission I shouldn’t be teaching the fucking class because I’m blind and it would be stupid. Fine. Good. She’d brought me in for the interview, wasted an hour and a half of my time, just to give me the “no” she intended to give me from the start. She’d done her job and ducked that discrimination suit. Maybe the new provost would give her a cookie. I was about to say, “Okay, we’ve settled that. So I’ll be on my way now and we can put this whole ugly charade behind us.”

            I began reaching for my hat and cane, planning to just stand up and head for the door (if I could find the door) when she was suddenly off on another tack.

            “I want to hire you to begin teaching in the spring, if that works for you,” she said. “But we need to come up with a new course, something uniquely your own.”

            Oh. Well then. I stopped reaching for the cane. “All right.”

            “I’ve been thinking about you all week,” she said.

            “I’m sorry.”

            “In your second note you mentioned you were blind, and I thought, ‘Why didn’t you tell me that earlier?’ That’s the most interesting thing about you!”

            Wait, what? What the fuck did she just say? What the fuck was this? The “most interesting thing about me”? Apart from defending myself against her opening accusations, the bitch hadn’t let me get a word in edgewise, just kept yakking, so I couldn’t tell her anything about myself apart from what was on the CV, I couldn’t drop in passing, witty references to Hegel or Joyce, couldn’t regale her with sparkling tales of intellectual adventuring. She didn’t know a goddamn thing about me, and tells me to my face the fact I was blind was the most interesting thing about me? I wanted to clock her but good, just lay her out flat, the stupid cunt, then leave. I should have, too.

            I saw exactly where this was going. I was to be her Token Cripple, a sideshow act and a point of pride. Now she could check that “hired a cripple” box on her resume and pat herself on the goddamn back. Christ but the righteous types are the most deeply offensive of all. She’d never read a thing I’d done, knew nothing about me personally, but decided I could easily be defined wholly in terms of a genetic glitch. Fuck her. Next thing you know, she was going to say, “You must be awfully proud of Helen Keller.”

            By just sitting there, by not calling her on it, I had failed again.

            She kept talking, now explaining to me what Millennials were like.

            “The days of just teaching to the three kids in the front row are over,” she said. “You need to engage everyone in the class. And to do that you need to concentrate on the things they’re interested in. They want to hear about the modern. Modern things are what they know and what interests them.

            I was still seething in my molded plastic chair, but wanted to point out the Modern Age had ended sixty years ago. In fact she was more than a few Ages behind the curve.

            “They’re very interested in the Self. They’re always taking selfies, right? So you need to appeal to that. And they’re very interested in social media and podcasts.”

            In other words, I thought, the idea is to pander, and pander hard, to teach them things they already know, and know a helluva lot better than I do. The idea of trying to challenge them with something different, something they didn’t know already, is an archaic notion to be discarded. Yeah, no wonder we’re all so fucked. Might as well just burn down the libraries.

            It didn’t take long to glean this woman had no idea what she was talking about, likely had never had direct interaction with a real Millennial, but had heard these words someplace. Then I found out where.

            One of the teachers at the school had written up a handy-dandy eight-page point-by-point guide to teaching Millennials, which this woman now read aloud to me. It was kind of sad, really. She was just the interim chair, was under a lot of stress, and was panicking more than a little. She had no idea what the hell she was doing. As she spoke faster and faster, I began to sense she was at the breaking point. But dammit, she still wanted to be able to lay claim to a Token Cripple. Then that got me wondering if, like so many righteous types, she was just incredibly uncomfortable in the actual presence of an honest-to-goodness feeb. And I was sitting right there in her office. If I’d been black, she’d probably be trying to give me five and saying “my man” a lot. These people are such pathetic hypocrites.

            She then, in her own incoherent way, began outlining the sort of course she thought I should be teaching.

            Things start to get a little fuzzy here. There were a lot of buzzwords: “modern,” “active learning,” “Millennials,” “The Self,” “orality,” “pedagogy,” and several I forget, though they were lifted directly from the emails and assorted other things she’d been reading aloud. It’s been my experience that people who use a lot of buzzwords not only have no idea what they’re talking about, they also tend to repeat the words over and over in the vain hope they might clarify something.

            “It’s about the modern, right? And the Self. The modern self within the context of active learning and writing-to-learn. And it’s focused on the modern. The modern world. And The Self. They’re very interested in The Self. And podcasts.”

            “Sure, I know what you mean.”

            She was saying something about how oral traditions were re-emerging, then said, “I don’t think you should exactly call the course MAGA, but I suppose you could.” Then she was talking about the founding fathers and Ben Franklin, and I had completely lost the thread.

            “What you need, though, is a theme. A real theme. Do you have any ideas?”

            “Um, let me think about that one for a day or so. I’ll get back to you.”

            I don’t know how long it all went on, this torrent of buzzwords and non-sequiturs, but they were all apparently pointing toward my teaching something or other beginning in the spring. What’s more, she was talking about it as if it was an open-ended position.

            “You teach this one for three years and we see how it goes. What the enrollment’s like. If the numbers are there, at that point we’ll add another course.”

            Finally she said something that made sense, and something I’d been waiting for some such person to admit for a long damn time now. “I can overlook the lack of an MA. I think all you’ve done, all your research and experience has more than made up for it.”

            “Well thank you,” I said, even though I knew she wasn’t talking about the books and all the other writing and research, but my being a big fat cripple, which was far more impressive.

            “I think the students could really learn something valuable from your experience,” she said.

            “Uh-huh.” Where do I even fucking begin with people like this? I don’t. Just let them go on believing I have superpowers.

            I finally limped out of the interview, dazed and exhausted, having been instructed to sketch out a few course ideas and send them to her within the week. She needed to have a solid course description by the following Tuesday so they could sneak it into the course catalog in time. Then it would all be a matter of seeing how many students signed up.

            Only later did it occur to me she’d never mentioned a salary. I knew it wouldn’t be much, but still. Maybe she thought that with my being a cripple and all, I wouldn’t need anything so banal as a “salary.” We cripples are too noble to worry about such trifles.

            I went home, still fuming about that crack she’d made, and sketched out five possible courses, referring to blindness only vaguely and tangentially in one, not a one mentioning “The Self,” but a few of them citing the word “nihilism” repeatedly.

            After turning them in on Friday, four days ahead of schedule, I began thinking this might be her master stroke: Invite me in for a real interview and thus do away with any discrimination suits. Get me to admit aloud that I was incapable of teaching the course she’d offered. Actually offer me a job contingent on my creating a course that met her criteria. Then, upon deciding none of the ideas I’d submitted were a good match, send me packing as she’d always planned, this time with a clear conscience.

            Guess I’ll find out soon enough.

 

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