actually in the trenches.


i met with my old english professor today. i'd felt bad for not having seen her for over a year now, despite the fact that she works just two buildings over. i went in there, and i knocked on the door. she said she just had to find one last thing, and she sat at her computer while i sat on her chair, silent. i looked around at her books. a lot of jane austen, a lot of african-american novels. her office was very dark and victorian.

when she had finally found what she was looking for, she turned to face me. she said, it's too bad about the whole grad school thing. but you know, you can use that as leverage. what do you mean, i inquired. she said, well, you could apply to other schools and say that while you've been accepted to wherever you've been accepted to, you're holding out to explore other options. she said, don't say, oh, they didn't give me any money, so i'm applying elsewhere. use rhetoric. that's how the dominant culture, the people in power work. they use rhetoric all the time to get what they want.

she had such fucking high hopes for me, and it made me hopeful for a second. here she was talking about applying again to other schools, better schools, and all this time i had been thinking about how i'd probably just pack it all up, move back in with my parents, get a job at barnes & noble (if i was lucky) and wait to die. she made it sound like i could be somebody, that i, too, might one day have a tenure-track position, a dark office cluttered with books and ironic action figures depicting dead authors. that i might actually have a place, a career in the elite business of academia.

use rhetoric, she repeated. play the race card if you have to, she said. i do it sometimes, and it's worked well for me, she said. you know me, she said, i always get what i want, and i've used rhetoric my whole life to get me where i am today. she was successful, i thought, her being the only african-american tenured faculty in the entire english department. maybe this whole rhetoric thing was no joke. she went on to talk about t.c. boyle, o.j. simpson's son, stepin fetchit, usc, dave chappelle, maya angelou, and other black folk. i could do nothing but sit there and nod, say, uh-huh and right.

she told me about how i could even get an undergrad to help me with my grad school application. she said, look at dr. c--, she has her student interns research all these literary journals and see where her work might have the best chance of getting published. her students do the research, proofread her poetry, heck, they even lick the envelopes, stamp 'em, and send 'em off! you know, it's a daunting task. you work full-time. you don't have time to research all these different schools, all these faculty and different schools, and publishers. get someone to do that stuff for you!

i can do that? i was dumbfounded. all of a sudden, it made sense. i thought back to literary journals like tin house, glimmer train, other voices, and i always wondered about all those faculty members from various universities who got their work published in those issues. they probably had their students do a majority of the work for them. how else was it possible? there simply aren't enough hours in the day. sure, she said, you can do that. anyone can. sometimes we get people not even affiliated with the university and they ask if an undergrad can help with them with a project.

it's good experience for our undergrads, too, she continued. while they help you out, they get the experience of knowing what it's like to apply to graduate school, getting a resume and cover letter together, how to research the best schools to apply to, all that stuff. yeah, i said, i wish that had been available to me as an undergrad. she continued: and you'd actually be a better person to talk for an english major than someone like me, you know. because you're actually in the trenches, applying now, as opposed to when i applied way back when to get my masters. a lot has changed since then.

she showed me her new dog, and then we parted ways. i walked away feeling like yes, i am in the trenches.

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