In “honor” of the impending first anniversary of “Thesis Hatement,” I’ve decided to “treat” my readership to a long-ass behind-the-scenes tale of how it came to be.
Zweiter Teil: Approach Barn; Place Tinder
Continued from Part I…
For my sole campus visit of the 2013 season (and ever), I had been a finalist for a tenure-track job at another university in Ohio.
The visit—to which I drove myself using a borrowed car, nearly skidding to my demise on unplowed roads during a snowstorm—had been an unmitigated disaster, despite a kind group of colleagues. This was largely due to a teaching demonstration that in retrospect might have been a setup: not only did the students not know I was subbing in, but none of them seemed to understand any German (“Where’s our REAL FRAU?” they demanded, in sexist English, every time I implored them to do something). I had known my goose was cooked from fifteen minutes into that fateful class, during which we were supposed to be studying (per the Real Frau’s syllabus, which it seemed the students had never seen) the great Austrian poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal. I felt a particular and highly ironic affinity to Hofmannsthal that day, as his most famous work is a short story called the Chandos Letter, in which its protagonist loses all ability to communicate effectively. The Letter was emblematic of the Austrian “Language Crisis” (Sprachkrise), which happens to be my area of research expertise—I just never thought I’d be having one of my own at the worst possible time.
On nearly every other day of a teaching career that now spans more than a decade, I have been a confident, sprightly, fun and compelling pedagogue, whose students I usually have so deftly in the palm of my hand I can make them do anything, from staged readings of The Physicists (Die Physiker), a highly allegorical cold war play about a bunch of Swiss mental patients, to German karaoke (80s music only, obviously—Falco’s “Der Kommissar,” Nena’s “99 Luftbaloons”). On the one day it counted, in front of the entire faculty and twenty of the surliest, German-hatingiest future Paul Ryans I had ever seen, I choked. It wasn’t just my worst German class of all time—I’m pretty sure it was the worst German class of all time. So I was expecting rejection. When it came—and not because I tanked my teaching demo, but because they hired their inside candidate anyway—I realized I had nothing to lose. I emailed Kois that it was a go. He offered me $250, which was $250 more than I had earned from the reams of meticulously researched academic articles I’d been churning out for the past three years.
Before I submitted for publication what at the time I called “Academic Barn-Burner 5000,” I sent it to three people whose opinion I value far more than my own: my former dissertation adviser, who to this day remains a fervent supporter and whom I love like a vampire loves his Maker on True Blood (or, as I liked to call it, The Eric Naked Show); my father, whose life motto is Don’t Burn Your Bridges; and, finally my most stick-up-his-ass colleague, whom I’ll call Karl-Heinz. My adviser wrote back that I should be given tenure just for having the balls to commit all those truths to paper. My dad said it was darkly funny, rather hyperbolic, but judicious and honest. Karl-Heinz spent an entire week lobbying for me to not to submit it—but not because it wasn’t true, simply because someday a search committee would Google it, and they would be mortally offended at my suggestion that academic employment was anything but a just and functioning meritocracy. “The Internet is forever!” he concern-trolled, Teutonically.
I replied that I had no intention of submitting myself to the ignoring of a search committee ever again, and he said: But what will a search committee say about that? I was reminded of the most darkly uproarious scene in Kafka’s The Trial, in which bumbling defendant-with-no-charge Josef K. finally gets the good sense to sack his useless attorney, Huld, and Huld basically tells him, Well that’s all fine and good, but how do we proceed on your case? Nobody I worked with, and none of the rest of my academic acquaintances, seemed to understand that even though it felt like a death to leave the only world I now knew, I was done. I needed to do something that would prove beyond any doubt that my academic “career” was dead before it began. In Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, the title character recounts the gruesome practice of puncturing the hearts of the recently deceased, which had been performed on his own father when Malte was a child. This was ostensibly to prove once and for all that deceased persons were deceased, so as to avoid burying anyone alive, apparently a common practice until the late nineteenth century. Of course, the practice also ensured that even if the “deceased” had been alive, he wouldn’t be anymore.
My academic barn-burner would be the needle through the heart of any future attempts to go on the job market. The academic hiring cycle transpires according to a strict timeline: listings appear in September, applications are due in November, interview requests trickle in (or don’t) all through December, conference interviews in January, campus callbacks (or not) in February through April, offers (or not) in late spring. The process eats up most of the year, leaving only the summer months to mend the self-esteem (and, usually, relationships) of the candidate before it all starts again, and at the end of every cycle I always wrote a note to myself, with the ostensible purpose of preserving exactly how miserable I was, so as to discourage myself from subjecting myself to the whole rigmarole again. But I never read them—instead I just listened to my former faculty, who insisted that this year it would be different, because I had PhD in hand; this year, it would be different because I had a highfalutin post-doc; this year, it would be different, because I had a book under contract. And every year, I believed them—they were my mentors! They had the blue flower clutched to their very bosoms!—and went out there again, only to get buried alive. This year, I would poke straight through the heart the job market (and my own meschuga expectations) had already killed, so as to prevent it from ever trying to beat again.
More Drang and yet even more Schum coming at you tomorrow.