In a rather unexpected turn of events, the university that let me go has asked me back for this academic year. Is it risky? Yes. Am I doing it? Also yes.
When my contract ended in the spring and no further work was available for me at the university I’d taught at since 2013, I felt pretty despairing about the whole thing, even as I tried to keep an open mind about the future. I knew it was possible that they’d get enough incoming first-years that I’d be asked to take over a few sections of a seminar, but it seemed unlikely… and besides, I knew that if I got my hopes up about it and it didn’t happen, the devastation would wreck me all over again.
So I tried to relax a bit over the summer (tough to do in a pandemic). I threw myself into a few assorted writing projects, notably publishing this piece at The Wrangler (an online journal devoted to narrative & storytelling) about when Fairyland rejects you, drawing parallels between my experiences and some of the fun escapist fantasy lit I was reading at the time. I took and taught online dance classes to stay active and sane. I donned a mask to go to the farmers market and cooked a lot.
I was not expecting the offer to come back and teach, but when it came, I said yes. I hadn’t figured out the next steps of “What do I want to be when I grow up this time around?” and working a job with a decent salary and benefits seems a hell of a lot better than not working right now (though to be clear, I’ve been offered a full-time one-year contract; I would’ve said no to an adjunct contract, because I’m not risking my life to be on campus if I’m not at least offered health care in the process…oh and fun story there, I’ve been trying to get on state health care since the middle of May without any luck due to, I dunno, bureaucracies being overwhelmed right now or something…it’s actually quite frustrating though I’m grateful that any health conditions I have are mostly managed easily because I know for some this would be a total crisis situation).
It’s been a bit of an emotional rollercoaster too; unlike my colleagues who stayed employed all summer, I got to take a break from the flurry of emails and planning and Zoom meetings to discuss how to handle teaching in a pandemic. Weirdly, I felt a bit left out and isolated, knowing I was missing out on all that. Now I have to leap in and play catch up, but at least I had 2ish months without having to think about all that stressful stuff. However, it came at the cost of feeling utterly rejected and exploited and having to work through those feelings. I feel grateful that folks at the university were advocating for me to get this job, but at the same time, it’ll come with significant health risks since my classes are mandated to begin as face-to-face even if they move online at some point. So, mixed bag.
The good news is that my university is very into health precautions, so it’s looking like both students and professors will be masked at all times and social distancing will be enforced in classrooms and throughout campus. Personally, I feel pretty safe when all parties in an interaction are wearing masks, so that helps me not feel overly neurotic and anxious about the whole thing. I cannot imagine returning to work in conditions where professors cannot require that students wear masks, as I’ve heard is the case in some state schools in the South.
The other good news is that the last time I taught First Year Seminar, I’d chosen the theme of “Fairy Tale, Self, and Society” since professors get to choose any topic to serve as a lens through which to teach basic “welcome to college” skills: reading, writing, public speaking, critical thinking. So while I’m going to rip the guts out of my syllabus and redo it with an emphasis on updated texts with more relevance (Decameron, anyone?!) and ensure that it’s easy to transition content online due to, ugh, everything, I still get to be in the classroom teaching folklore topics, which is pretty much what I’ve always wanted.
Having already gone through a lot of the grieving process, I’m hoping that I can accept this position and work it with open eyes, knowing that it may only be for a year and trying to be okay with that. In an ideal world, things kinda get back to normal (unlikely, I know, sigh) and the hiring freeze is lifted and I can get on a multiyear contract with the type of job security and stability I’ve never had and really crave. In the other scenario, at least I have a bit more time to plan my escape route before next May, and a bit more time to build up savings to serve as a financial buffer while I transition fully out of academia.
I feel for the teachers who are nervous to reenter the classroom, and I know there are so many more risks involved teaching, for example, in elementary school where kids are packed into classrooms and/or too young to understand masking and social distancing. I don’t know that it’ll go much better at universities nationwide, and I still wish we had the political leadership to make a call and stick with it for the sake of public safety, and to use institutional power to help individuals stay home and be healthy rather than capitulate to the demands of capitalism, but that’s just not where we’re at right now for a variety of infuriating reasons.
So this news has thrown my life into disarray, in a mostly-good way. The contract is signed, I’m catching up on online teaching/learning techniques, and I’ve got a little over a month to prepare before the semester begins. I’m pretty confident in my teaching abilities – one colleague called me a “master teacher” and I am still glowing from the praise – so I think I can handle this, but wow if it isn’t all very whirlwind and fraught as well as bringing me a breath more stability and purpose to get me through upcoming months.