Ann Arbor, August. I am packing my “relo-cube” with the contents of my one-bedroom apartment. Proust had madeleines, I have a scratched dining table my father owned in his grad school days; boxes of poetry books signed by their authors; end-tables my mother painted and decoupaged with pressed flowers; a red Schwinn road bike gifted to me by a friend; photos of my mother and father and grandmother, each at twenty; a print of Klee’s “Angelus Novus” my brother bought for me in Jerusalem; and, toward the end, lone shampoo bottles and boxes with labels like “printer/ pizza peel/ scraps of fabric.”
Despite a year-old agreement with my partner that we’d move together “wherever I got a job,” I am done with my M.F.A. and jobless and moving to live with him in Brooklyn, where I never wished to move. “Leah Falk lives in Brooklyn” is a sentence I did not want ever to have to put in a contributor’s bio – it felt like a cliché, a naïvely conceived dreamscape for hundreds of artists who didn’t realize that New York had become too recognizable, too expensive for them to live out their dreams. But as a fiction writer friend reminded me before she made the same Michigan-Brooklyn move a year earlier (in the words of The Goon Show’s Spike Milligan): “Everybody’s got to be somewhere!”
And so I am stuffing toiletries into bags that once contained sheet sets. I am renting Zipcars to take paper bags of dishes to Goodwill. I am eating tuna sandwiches from the deli down the block standing up at my kitchen counter. I am taking walk after walk to say goodbye to Ann Arbor’s bulk food stores, its running trails along the Huron River, its chicken coops, its starry night sky. Days before the cube is due to be picked up, I receive an email from the English department at my university. They offer me the opportunity to teach three courses in the coming semester—a semester that begins in two weeks.
As in many humanities departments across the country, in ours graduate students teach an average of a course per semester while they complete their degrees. When we finish, many of us apply to work as adjunct instructors, or lecturers. Michigan treats its non-tenure-track faculty better than many places I can think of: despite anti-union sentiment in Lansing, the state’s capital, both graduate student instructors and lecturers are unionized; they receive excellent health benefits, help with childcare, and most enjoy a strong sense of community within their departments. Historically, many finishing M.F.A. students there have applied for, and gotten, work as lecturers after their degrees for at least a semester.
This past year, due to a quagmire of right-to-work legislation and games of chicken between the state government and its flagship university, a hiring freeze was in effect when most brand-new hires might have expected an offer letter in their mailboxes, back in May or June. Most of us did what any job candidate is advised to do when his prospects look less than hopeful with an employer: we moved on. In August, I didn’t know what I was moving on to, but I had, weeks earlier, decided not to wait around for the email that popped into my inbox just as I slid the lock closed on my moving cube.
Nevertheless, it took me two days to write an email declining the offer. Why? I had already begun this blog, and had had countless conversations with other writers whose view I shared that adjunct work was not the means to the life we wanted: creative, professional, economic, or otherwise. But I couldn’t shake the feeling, as I pressed “send,” that I was leaving something important behind, making, in the words of G.O.B. Bluth, “a huge mistake.” Lately, I’ve been considering where exactly that feeling comes from.
In two important stages of my life, childhood and college, my models of working people were all professors. All of them. My father was a professor, and his best friends were, too. They taught subjects ranging from chemistry to law to history to engineering, but dinner party conversations clustered around higher education, student performance, and administrative issues. These were men and women whose daily habit was knowledge for its own sake – even those whose academic research often had direct bearing on the private sector.
Besides being my parents’ friends, these people were in effect my second extended family: we were at their Passover and Thanksgiving tables, they babysat us, we attended each other’s families’ weddings, bar mitzvahs, and funerals. On Saturdays, my father and his friends, sometimes accompanied by my brother and me, followed a run in the city parks with coffee and bagels, as they had for almost thirty years.
I didn’t follow any of these people into their fields, but in a sense I did follow them into higher education: I wanted to reproduce a working atmosphere where being surrounded by challenging ideas was normal, where creating new knowledge was the source of workplace collaboration and celebration. And I followed my teachers, too – the next adults with whom I had thought-provoking conversations about learning and writing and art were my college professors.
But many of these adults worked in fields where, if they hadn’t worked in academia, they could have turned to industry. Others, like my English professors in college, entered the academy at a time when adjuncts didn’t make up nearly two-thirds of the workforce. If they taught in creative writing programs, they had often earned Ph.D.’s in English, before the M.F.A. became first the standard terminal degree in the field and then, like a wartime currency, slowly dwindled in value.
So when I declined my university’s offer, as I had to, because there was a cube full of my stuff and a person I loved and a city I hadn’t ever meant to live in awaiting me, I wasn’t just declining a one-semester position (although it was possible that was all it would be) and the opportunity to teach a course I had designed. I was acknowledging that in order to find the things I cared about – people who valued ideas, people who wanted to continue learning their whole lives, work that used my skills in the service of values I held dear – I might have to look elsewhere. That universities – institutions that surrounded me as a child, that helped build my conversations, my education, and my family – might, for my generation, might not be the only place, or even the best place, to look for those things.
(I stole the title of this post from Grace Paley.)