Monday, January 14, 2013

Letters Never Sent, Part 2

Dear Young Yolanda: 

Hello again!  How are you enjoying your first year here?  You know, I have a certain grudging admiration for you.  You are so fresh-faced, so full of hope, despite your trailing, hopelessly unemployable academic spouse and your criminally low salary and the fact that you have just left Perfect College Town (with its three Indian restaurants and two independent theaters and public library that lends Kindle books) for this crappy shithole at the ass end of nowhere.  There you are, burbling over with endless enthusiasm for “student-led” everything. You so want to “engage meaningfully” with them.  You so want to “fill them with a love of learning”.  You so want to “tap their natural intellectual curiosity”. 

You are so very, very screwed.    


Dear Savior Steve:

You make less than I do but you are always cheerful, and your students adore you.  Despite your obvious physical handicap, and your partner’s repeated bouts with a rather aggressive form of cancer, you never complain.  You are loud and brash and funny and smart and I hear you lecturing from my office down the hall.  You also talk about the color of your underpants in faculty meetings.  I love you. 


Dear Underrated Ursula: 

No one wanted to hire you but me and Savior Steve.  We saw your innate value.  We saw past the pulverizing nervousness and the attendant physical tics you displayed during your campus visit.  We paid no attention to the students at your teaching presentation that said you were “awful”.  You were the lowest rated by the students, but we knew why they thought that.  They rated you poorly because you asked them questions.  You prompted them to think.  You did not merely read your scholarship or treat them like ten-year-olds, as the other two candidates did.  The fact that the students did not like being prompted is not your fault, and we saw that too. 

So, go away, candidate who obviously wanted a position at a research university. Go away, candidate that seemed bubbly and accomplished but was just fishing around for another offer to leverage a raise from their current institution (you can’t hide from me, candidates who are just using us to get a leg up where you are). 

Because we’re hiring Underrated Ursula. 

Much later I found out we had been your only hope.  It was us, or abandon academia.  You were in your last months of a 3-year appointment with no hope of renewal, and no job prospects at all in your future.  I did not know your situation at the time, but when Savior Steve and I swayed the rest of the committee, and you were hired, I felt like we had accomplished something very important for all of us. Yes, the rest of the department was dubious, and confused.  You were not what they thought you should be.  They thought you odd, and addled, and they rolled their eyes.  We were supposed to choose someone else.

Last year you received tenure.  You have proven yourself to be one of our most devoted, intelligent, highest-rated, and hardest-working colleagues.  In addition to that you’re a genuinely pleasant person.  I’m pleased to have you around, and even more pleased to have had no small part in securing your presence here. Thank you for proving I was right about you. 


  1. “tap their natural intellectual curiosity”.

    They actually are curious about some things ... just not anything on the syllabus.

  2. Wonderful.

    I'm so glad that the "student-led" everything is something that bugs other people.

    If the students lead, then what the fuck are we doing here? I mean, I do have a quote from Robert Frost ("I am not a teacher, but an awakener") on my door, but that's only part of my teaching philosophy.

    And I love the word "burbling". So evocative.

  3. Really enjoying these "Letters never sent". The part about UU is so good. I wish I had Steve's fortitude.

  4. Stella thank you so much for sharing these. I got goosebumps when reading about Ursula.

  5. Every school should have someone advocating for the Ursulas of academe.

  6. I was Ursula. Last choice in my first job, second choice in my current job, which I got in my final year on the market. Full prof now with two books and a slew of talks at fancy places (I say these things not to be all braggy but just to say I think I was a good risk, in the end). I have never forgotten the people who advocated for hiring me.

  7. Would that every department had its Steve and its Ursula. This is a very moving tribute to them both--and I suspect they will find ways to throw a rope to Yolanda as she discovers just how screwed she really is.

    Thanks for some good news, Stella.


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