Rejection, Failure, and Self Reflection

My first panic attack happened during the summer before my second year (not my first, interestingly) of graduate school and adjunct teaching.  I was walking along 5th Avenue in NY and suddenly stopped breathing: there’s no other way of explaining it.  I responded with the usual Prozac and Psychotherapy, stopping the latter soon after realizing that the Psych Ph.D. was no smarter than I was (intelligence being a key factor in how I chose men, no matter what their relationship, at the time), and stopping the drugs as soon as I discovered that alcohol was cheaper, and quicker.

That was many, oh so many, summers ago, but ever since then I’ve gone through the depths of despair, so to speak, every single summer. Sometimes it happens in August, as it did way back when, but more often it happens in July, and now, it seems, it’s front loading to late June.   

I know other academics go through this, too (see PhD Me, for example): we are so focused on others and ideas (our own and others) for 60+ hours a week, 7 days a week, 10 or so months, that it’s not until the academic year ends that we have the time to breathe.  And while we are breathing we see the now pages long, 10 point font, to-do list we’ve been saving for just this summer, (everything from finishing the painting of the damned hallway, finally, to reading the dozens of books and articles we’ve saved for course prepping for fall term, to the reviews we promised to write, to the dinner invitations we still need to return, to writing up our own half-baked ideas we’ve been jotting down or blogging about informally all year), and naturally panic occurs.

It’s not necessarily rational: I do have more time now that I’m not teaching 15 hours a week, holding office hours 5 hours a week, grading and prepping 20-30 hours a week, and doing committee work several hours a week.  I’m teaching online, which requires only 5-10 hours a week, depending on the week.  I know the problem:  all the free time,  too much time to think, to dwell, to obsess. I must spend so much time working or just DOING STUFF during those 10 months of the year that I am successfully postponing any self reflection, any time for just thinking. 

Clearly, not a healthy way to live.

Thus the panic is happening earlier this summer than ever before, but at least this summer, I can attribute it to two specific events (or, more precisely, non-events).

The first: the rejection I received from NPR. Though they wrote to ME, asking ME to submit a revised “Three Books” essay. They have now rejected the revised essay with this pithy note:

“Thanks so much for your submission.  The essay isn’t really working for us, so we’re going to pass.”

To be honest, I really don’t love what I sent them: I struggled with turning something I originally threw together in 200 words into a 500 word essay. (Here I am writing a 1000+ word blog posting for god’s sake—I simply can’t write 500 words!) In the process, the heart and soul was whittled out of the piece.  But, despite actually agreeing with their pithy assessment, rejection is rejection, right?

And today, I’ve decided NOT to continue reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest even though I wasn’t so sure I’d go through with the whole Infinite Summer thing to begin with. I did read the first 63 pages (as per our assigned reading).  However, Dave Eggers’ 2006 foreword was perhaps not the best way to start the book: in it, he practically begs the reader to give the novel a chance. He starts well, noting that most readers of “literary fiction” like to read both easy to read fiction as well as challenging fiction, rather than either-or:

“These readers might actually read both kinds of fiction themselves, sometimes in the same week.”

Yes, that’s certainly true. I’ve just finished Kathryn Stockett’s The Help (definitely in the “easy to read” category—fast read, stock characters, happy ending) while also reading Infinite Jest and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth (the latter two in different subcategories of “challenging fiction”).

But then Eggers compares Infinite Jest to a

 “spaceship with no recognizable components…very shiny, and it has no discernible flaws…It simply is. Page by page, line by line, it is probably the strangest, most distinctive, and most involved work of fiction by an American in the last twenty years. At no time while reading Infinite Jest are you unaware that this is a work of complete obsession, of a stretching of the mind of a young writer to the point of, we assume, near madness.”

At this point, I’m thinking: oh great, one of those cult-followed novels that only those who wear black, black framed glasses, and carry their smugness like Linus’ blanket everywhere they go will appreciate this novel.   Then Eggers says that the expected age of a new reader of this novel that captures “the consciousness of an age” is 25.  Oh, he concedes that some more ancient readers, 30 or even 50 year olds, might be condescendingly reading the book for the first time, but basically, he assumes that like he was the first time he read the book,  the reader is a 25 year old English major, and, I assume, male.

So I go into this book knowing that I am not at all the target audience. Not a good way to begin a novel when I have dozens of other novels,  novels that are practically begging a middle aged woman English professor to read them, waiting for me by my bed. 

So even though the novel is fairly easy to read (despite the endnotes, which do seem to be increasing with each chapter, unfortunately), and with characters who (sorry Eggers) DO resemble other characters in fiction, from Holden Caulfield way back to Tom Sawyer—and all those adolescent boys/men in between—and there does seem to be an actual plot focusing on different addictions, I just don’t want to keep reading. I have too much else to read. 

So, rejection and failure in one day.

But it has led to self-reflection. It’s summer. I do have a long to-do list, but hell will not freeze over if I ignore half of it. And while neither my rejection nor my failure will impact my career or my life in any negative way—no job or income depended on either—they have led me to reflect on what I really want to accomplish this summer.  And I’m happy with that.   I’ll let you know if I figure what that actually IS before August.

Sharing Is Caring

Annie's Office

At our little community college, with its small, mostly 1-2 storied, scattered multiuse (both offices and classrooms together) buildings over nearly 200 acres, the tradition is that full time instructors get private offices, while adjuncts must share. Yet, as is the sad state of academia nationally, while the number of full time instructors has remained stagnant for the last 15+ years, the number of part timers has increased dramatically. Thus, we have an office space issue: the offices (most at under 100 square feet) are too small to house 4-6 part time instructors at the same time.  And despite an increase of 7 new faculty offices by fall, we still expect to be short office space, particularly in our department, which has been tasked to add more classes (and thus more part time faculty) to meet increased demand. Hence the e-mail we all recently received with the treacly subject line “Sharing (Offices) Is Caring”:

FT instructors,

As I am sure you all know, we have a serious space crunch for offices around here. We are also in the process of trying to hire a few more instructors for this fall term since we are overwhelmed with enrollment growth. We are asking Full-Time instructors if they are willing to share an office with Part-Time/Adjunct. I know it’s not really anyone’s first choice but if you can work something out it would be extremely appreciated.

So far, no one has jumped on this opportunity. Keep in mind that unlike most university professors, we teach 15 hours a week, hold an additional 5 hours a week for office hours, attend at least one committee meeting a week, and many (though not all) of us use our offices to do prep and grading. So during prime hours (10am-4pm) most faculty are on campus, and in need of an office.

Many moons ago, before computers were part of the office décor, I was an adjunct. I believe I shared a large office (at least 150 square feet) with about 60 other part time instructors. I remember running from the subway to get there early enough (I taught evenings then as I continue to do now) to at least get a chair and a piece of a desk. I shared a single file drawer. I feel the pain of having shared office space. And  the 6 part time instructors who share the 90 square foot office next door to me now are crammed, rushed to make use of the ONE computer, and clearly unable to perform their jobs with the same comforts as I currently have.

So I’ve volunteered to share my office in the fall with a part timer, who happens to be my husband, who also happens to teach at the ungodly hour of 8am, well before I arrive.  That’s not exactly selfless of me I know, but I’m guessing some of you fellow academics understand?

in Just

[with apologies to e.e. cummings]


in Just
finals week      when the campus is snow-
luscious the stressed out students

cry and heave     far     and    wee

and tiffanyandryan come
straggling into my office with
deadgrandmother and lostthumbdrive stories and it’s
finals week

when the campus is drunk-wonderful (on thoughts of spring break)

the joy-less
professor down the hall drones at me
far    and  wee
and brittanyandchase come stoned to the final

from snowboardingandpartying and

joy-less droning

professordownthehall  whines, yet again,
“Can I have a minute of your time, Annie Em?”



Fridays in Academia

It’s Friday and our campus is effectively empty on Fridays. Well, there is the eccentric Economics professor just letting out his class at 1:50pm, but really, he’s the lone non-Science/Allied Health professor still teaching a MWF class. Otherwise, my mostly small-classrooms- and-very-small-offices-single-hallway-1950s-building is blessedly quiet on Fridays. The Science building, however, having to make use of the labs 12 hours a day to fit all the students into labs, is very busy, but they are the other side of the quad and out of audio, eyesight and physical contact.

So what am I doing in my office on a Friday? Yes, there are few faculty members around, but each Friday there are some of us scattered all over campus in our offices or in conference rooms.  If any of them had a day like mine, they came in for a morning meeting (since there are few classes on Fridays, Fridays are now de-facto meeting days), and then they decided they might as well go to their offices to clean off the desk or get some prepping done. 

My plan was to grade quizzes posted in Blackboard, but, alas, the Blackboard gods have decided that, no, dear, it’s just not the right time to let you access those quizzes. And, since it is Friday, the campus Blackboard guru is out for a long lunch, so I sit here, not very patiently, awaiting the guru’s return so that I can kill the gremlin inside Blackboard (as insidious as the chatty Paper Clip gremlin in Word) who refuses to allow me access to my students’ quizzes.   I could actually clean my office, but blogging just seems more productive at this point and while in this agitated state of mind.

Interestingly, the meeting I went to this morning was the Renovation Taskforce: one of our aging buildings is due to be renovated to create more office and classroom space and I am one of the 2 faculty members on the “team”.  The fun part of these meetings with the architects is the HUGE cultural disconnect between their world and the academic world (at least the academic world of a public community college).  At our first meeting a few weeks ago, the architects were a bit surprised to learn that rather than a faculty lounge, we make due with a closet-like workroom with a copy machine, table, fridge and if really adventurous, a coffee pot.  No “lounging” for our faculty. Today, the architects came back with their initial drawings of the 4 offices that they believed could be created in this particular space, offices ranging from 230 to 290 square feet. The dean gasped (she wants 6-8 offices if possible) and we had to explain to them that most faculty offices are around 100-120 square feet, and that when we said “comfortable” we were thinking that 120 square feet would be divine (since my current office is about 80 square feet, 120 would be more than divine).   I could see the pitying looks pass between them when we showed them the size we had in mind.

I’m in my office 6-9 hours 4-5 days a week while school is in session (though some of that time is, of course, in the classroom): the potential for an office that is 120 feet, with maybe an accent wall that was not institutional yellow?  This is worth a Friday on campus. 

Now where is that Blackboard guru?

Sunday Night Musings

When I first started graduate school,  I immediately started having panic attacks. It was clearly not ideal timing, but something about taking classes and teaching (since my en route Ph.D. program “allowed” us to teach our own composition classes at the same time we were taking classes) gave me both the space and the elevated stress level to suddenly act out against my life-long horror of Sunday nights.

I had the space, since unlike the 9-5 jobs I had for the years between undergraduate and graduate school teaching 2 composition classes and taking 2-3 graduate classes gave me more “free” time.  And you can guess why, as a new instructor, I had the elevated stress levels. I loved teaching immediately (almost more, to be honest, than my graduate seminars), and I felt fairly confident in my graduate program, but the stress of living in utter poverty in addition to the change in career probably were beyond the stress of any other transitional period in my life.

So, like any good New Yorker I found myself a therapist (one with a Ph.D., thank you very much) and he proceded to bore me with the usual Freudian blah blah blah about my life (I had no trouble applying such an analysis to literary characters, but hearing it applied to my own life made me dismiss psychoanalytic literary criticism quite quickly–perhaps too quickly, but that’s for another posting). 

He did make two comments (in addition to explaining how to get bumped to first class on airlines–though his advice on that aged quickly as the airline industry changed) that I never forgot (and it’s been 20 years):

1. He said that because of my struggles with my childhood (blah blah) I would probably not be able to finish the Ph.D. program (well, I did, in record time–though, admittedly, I’m not quite sure how much of that was reverse psychology); and

2. He said that although panic attacks on Sunday nights are not uncommon for many people, perhaps I have panic attacks on Sunday nights because that’s when I was sent to the “babysitter” for the week (long story).

Well, that was an observation worthy of his $80.00 an hour though I still stopped seeing him soon afterwards. 

My panic attacks eventually subsided though Sunday nights are still a bit fraught with emotion (despite knowing both the obvious and the personal reasons for feeling stressed on Sunday nights).  Tonight, I’m almost done grading final papers (admittedly, I could be done if I weren’t typing this, but I did need a break), and although I should be thrilled that I’m almost done grading and finishing up fall term, I’m feeling relentlessly stressed.   I have no where I need to be tomorrow,  and actually few appointments at all this week, allowing me to at least begin to clean up my office and prep for winter term.  But those emotions are still there and just typing them out is very useful (and you don’t need that Ph.D. in psychology to understand why). It’s also cold (frigid, actually) and snowy today, no sun and basically the start of what promises to be a long winter.  And yes, I’m sure it’s just having the space of not teaching that reminds me, that yes, seasonal affective disorder on top of a personal history of Sunday night blues have ganged up to make you feel lousy right now.

Or at least I did until I typed all of that out;-)

View from my bedroom window on a snowy day in December.

View from my bedroom window on a snowy day in December.

FAF (Friday at Four) and Food Fiction’s Feast

Today is the last day of classes for fall term before finals week  (not that most of us actually have classes on Fridays, but you get my drift), and today at 4pm is our informal department FAF (Friday at Four).  FAFs used to be quite common for our department when I first arrived here nearly 14 (OMG) years ago,  but they were rarely well-attended by our mostly middle aging, parenting or caring-for-parents faculty. 

However, recently they’ve been better attended: as the unannointed FAF planner, I’ve reached out to faculty from other departments (fresh blood) and some of our new part timers find the FAFs the one place where they can see folks they rarely see at 8am or 7pm, or even at noon, since our department is unhappily scattered in four buildings around campus (and sadly will continue to be since the fine folks of our state have voted down another bond measure). 

I enjoy FAFs for the same reason, of course: collegiality is so important to me since my academic life is such a big part of my life.  Only during FAFs do I discover the details of my colleagues lives that I would never have learned from a hallway conversation.  I greatly value the opportunity to get to know something new about the people I will probably be working with for at least another 14+ years.

On another note, my Food Fiction class final “feast” is next Thursday (see earlier post on Books that Cook), and I’m looking forward to what should prove to be a yummy one. So far, here is the menu:

  • pita, hummus and babaganoush (a la Abu-Jaber’s Crescent)
  • pot roast (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant)
  • spanish rice and beans (Like Water for Chocolate)
  • soup (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant)
  • fried green tomatoes (naturally)
  • salsa (red and green) (Like Water for Chocolate)
  • assorted veggies for dipping
  • various breads, tortes and cookies
  • key lime pie (remember, from Nora Ephron’s  Heartburn?)

Expressing Thanks on Thanksgiving

I. From Ted Pease’s wonderful blog, Today’s Word on Journalism: I am reminded to be thankful for our literate president-elect.

“And so during these holiday seasons, we thank our blessings….”

-President George W. Bush, 2004


II. John Fea reminds us to be thankful in his article “The Forgotten Virtue of Gratitude”. The following passage resonates with me (and perhaps prompts the subject of a future posting here):

It is not easy being a college professor from a working-class family. Over the years I have had to explain the geographic mobility that comes with an academic life. I have had to invent creative ways to make my research understandable to aunts and uncles. My parents read my scholarly articles, but rarely finish them. My father is amazed that some semesters I go into the office only three days a week. As I write this I am coming off of my first sabbatical from teaching. My family never quite fathomed what I possibly did with so much time off. (My father made sense of it all by offering to help me remodel my home office, for which I am thankful!) “You have the life,” my brother tells me. How can I disagree with him?

III. Be thankful for married sex, according to this recent New York Times article:

Pastor’s Advice for Better Marriage: More Sex


Published: November 24, 2008

The Rev. Ed Young challenged husbands and wives in his flock to strengthen their unions through Seven Days of Sex.

IV. John Updike: Laureate of bad sex

The author won a lifetime achievement award from judges of Britain’s Bad Sex in Fiction Prize, which celebrates crude, tasteless or ridiculous sexual passages in modern literature.  According to, “The 76-year-old American novelist was a finalist for this year’s Bad Sex prize for his description of an explosive oral encounter in his latest book, The Widows of Eastwick, but lost out to British writer Rachel Johnson.”   Read the whole story here.     (I’m thankful for and amused by the student who sent me this: he took my Intro to Fiction course last year, and was quite fond of the Updike story we read.  He used to want to be an evangelical pastor: now he wants to write.)

A Typical Academic Weekend: Frank, Oprah, Omar Sharif, Mrs. Frankweiler, and Me

It’s Sunday night and time to reflect on a weekend of reading, writing, and prepping for classes for the (thankfully abbreviated) week ahead.

It was one of those multitasking weekends that make me love my chosen career so please allow the almost cheery tone of this posting (knowing that next weekend I have many research paper drafts to review). 

I started this particular weekend on Thursday, cancelling classes and sleeping in after finally giving in to the night sweats and coughing that had been plaguing me for days.  After sending mass e-mails to the 50+ students I was standing up,  and the administrative assistant who would put notes on my classroom and office doors,  I fell back into a pre-menopausal sweat-filled sleep (with the dreams to match), more than making up for a night of no sleep. So I woke up semi refreshed and ready to work (in my sweats and with Yogi tea at my side).

The way I work is this: I lay out all of the projects I need to start or finish within a few days (in this case by Sunday night) and I work on one for a few hours until, needing a change of pace, I move on to another. This has both benefits and drawbacks. The benefits: I get everything I want to accomplish completed to the degree I need to, and I often make interesting connections between the various projects that may not occur if I were to attack them one at a time.  The drawbacks:  nothing feels quite done for days so I must be willing to suspend the need to feel that sense of satisfaction of a job well done for days at a time. 

For example, this weekend I needed to start and/or complete the following projects:

  • Prepare a short presentation on Diana Abu-Jaber’s novel Crescent, including a showing of scenes from Lawrence of Arabia, a film that is referred to in the novel-with a special appearance by Omar Sharif. Having missed class on Thursday, my hope is that students will finish the novel by Tuesday, and thus be ready to discuss it in its entirety. It’s my first time assigning the novel, which meant a lot of prep work but also the wonderful pleasures of hearing for the first time student reactions to and questions about it with each class. In fact, I received several “get well” e-mails from students in this class who also noted that they are “almost done” with the novel and can’t wait to see what happens with Sirine and Han. I scanned through the in class writing they had done on the first half of the novel, and was thrilled to see them engaging with the text in ways they didn’t do in September, and making connections with the other novels we have been reading. The result: a 6-slide Power Point presentation with links to Lawrence of Arabia, specifically the scenes with Omar Sharif and a list of discussion prompts that I don’t think I’ll need to get the discussion rolling on Tuesday.
  • Start reading either Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part time Indian or Loving Frank by Nancy Horan in preparation for a meeting I have in 2 weeks to discuss books that we are considering for our county’s community read project. The result: I couldn’t find Alexie’s book in the library or at any of the local bookstores, so I ordered it, and started reading Loving Frank. So far, at page 120, it’s a literary romance based on the true affair between Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney that I struggle to put down: it’s quite addicting. Not sure about it as a community read book, however.
  • Type up notes on research I have been doing on Oprah’s Book Club and begin to organize it so it at least starts to look like a presentation I will be giving in 16 days. The result: I now have a 28 page outline-for a 30 minute talk. Lots of editing and shaping still to do…
  • Reflect upon blogging and the appeal of reading blogs by people we don’t know. This particular project is one of those personal interests that may, someday, morph into something more scholarly-not unlike the Oprah’s Book Club topic. The result: I started a blog and I’ve given it a title that echoes one of my favorite childhood books: From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg.

So what connections did I make between all of these projects? Hmmm: the obvious topical connections would be contemporary fiction, popular culture, teaching literature and thinking and writing about it all.  The less obvious connections are still brewing in my head: in trying to formulate a clear analysis of how Oprah approaches contemporary fiction in her Book Club I, of course, thought about how I approach contemporary fiction in the classroom……

Alas, the rest of that idea is buried in my 28 page outline.