Tracking Tenure by U-Haul

John M. Gist

My hope from my youth, where were you and where had you gone?

—Augustine of Hippo

My first escape from tenure was easy. The second time, not so much.

It all started when our family of four—husband, wife, middle-schooler child, and family dog—loaded up a U-Haul and drove from the Chihuahua Desert of New Mexico to Western Carolina University in picturesque Cullowhee, North Carolina. The Great Smoky Mountains. The pungent smell of ramps. Funnel spiders taking the place of tarantulas. Dogwood trees. A tenure-track position: assistant professor of English. Career.

Well, it didn’t actually start there. After grad school I worked on and off for several years as a desktop publisher, a freelance editor, a postal worker, in a newspaper production room, and, finally, as an adjunct English instructor. Pressure to get a “real” job, imagined or not, weighed into the calculation to move across country into a situation unknown. Even back then it was common knowledge that tenure-track positions were on the decline; with the Walmartization of the academy, adjuncts and graduate students were positioned to bear the brunt of the course loads. I was lucky to get the offer.

Nearing what would become our new hometown, we exited the four-lane highway and stopped at a convenience store to ask for directions. The clerk, a rangy blonde girl with acne and a thick Southern drawl, said something about going left at a church and taking a right some seven miles further down a two-lane road. As we walked back to the U-Haul parked next to a magnolia tree, our son Shawn reading a book in the cab with the dog at his feet, my wife Wendy started to cry. I asked what was wrong. “Where are all the rocks?” she countered. I didn’t know how to answer. I wasn’t even sure which way was south.

Despite my ignorance, I climbed the ranks rapidly at the university, bought into the faculty motto, “We’re here for the students,” and, by fall of the second year, was appointed Director of Professional Writing. Wendy and I attended dinner parties where fried chicken, barbeque, mashed potatoes and gravy, collard greens, cornbread, and peach cobbler were served. Conversation at these affairs (which were too formal by my reckoning—fancy clothes and the intermingling of expensive perfumes) centered more on posturing our own egos than how we were helping the students learn. We were, after all, either tenured or on the track, a feat becoming more and more against the odds. A celebration was in order, but somehow it didn’t feel right, like winning a foot race against an opponent suffering from the flu. I felt relieved when it was time to go home.

We lived in a prefab house situated on the side of a green hill overlooking the Tuckasegee River. The house was personalized with a screened-in porch and wooden rocking chairs from which to enjoy the river view, red cardinals, and Smoky Mountain mists. Shawn and I took up fishing as a pastime, our fly-lines arcing over coursing waters between crowns of trees bursting gold and rust and orange, the filaments of fishing line scintillating with sunlight as if they were hairs fallen from the heads of gargantuan angels.

I assembled a basketball hoop on the asphalt driveway, and the family, along with some neighborhood kids, played Horse until fireflies, like mini-miracles, traced invisible messages in cursive over the dusk. Paradise.

Then, at dawn in late fall, under a chill Appalachian drizzle, a man who lived in an apartment complex further up the hill left his Toyota truck—the wipers sliding back and forth over the windshield—idling in the parking lot to retrieve his forgotten thermos of coffee and steal one more goodbye kiss from his wife. The man did not think to set the parking brake before staggering to the front door of his apartment. The truck rolled across the parking lot, eased front first over the kudzu-choked embankment, picked up speed on the steep slope, tearing through red clay into the sopping dark soil of what would become a garden of orange tiger lilies in spring, and, tires spraying bits of mud, smashed through the screened-in porch into our dining room.

Dust sifted from the ceiling through the half-light of dawn. It was around the 9/11 terrorist attacks and at first, the memory of the Twin Towers burning fresh in mind, Wendy thought the house had been hit by a plane. I considered praying and realized I had forgotten how. The truck, having smashed to pieces our large oaken table, came to rest in the middle of the dining room, the windshield wipers flapping at full speed, the back of one of the porch rockers parked on the dented hood. A stack of student papers that had been sitting on a corner of the table, graded but yet to be entered into the gradebook, were scattered over the white tile floor: a chaos of language. Just moments earlier, Shawn had been eating oatmeal, bananas, and soymilk. What if he had lingered over his breakfast? The family dog, an Australian shepherd with bad nerves, was nowhere to be found. The poor nelly sniffed her way home some twelve hours later, twitching and whimpering in a brume-like dusk. I never did figure out where she had gone to abate her terror.

Needless to say, I took the day off from work. Neighbors, many of whom we had never met, delivered mac and cheese casseroles, biscuits, fried chicken, and rhubarb pies in flowery china wrapped in foil. The kindness of strangers. We were lucky. Though no one was physically hurt, not even the dog (though she never recovered psychologically), it could have just as easily gone otherwise. In the back of my mind, I wondered if God was trying to tell me something. A warning? Or was I being paranoid? Either way, there was nothing to be done. I went off to work the next morning. The rhythm of teaching might serve to restore stability of mind.

In the classroom, whenever a lull in discussion occurred and the students stared blankly, refusing or unable to carry the dialogue forward, I unleashed Nietzsche, that most dangerous philosopher, to provoke a response. An unsupervised reading of Nietzsche had caused me to drop out of high school and, later, led me to the university through a desire to plumb the depths of German philosophy. Without fail, the spontaneous unfurling of Nietzsche in class—whether it was his contention that not everyone should be allowed to learn how to read or the ramifications of the death of God1—ignited student discussion. After class, feeling pleased as I walked through the parking lot to the old Chevy van we had pulled behind the U-Haul from New Mexico, the fact that so many of the twenty-something students drove newer vehicles than my own, many of them factory fresh, nagged at me. Though my classes were popular, something felt off-kilter, as if I was doing something wrong while somebody, hidden from view, watched.

Spring came and I began fly fishing alone on the Tuckasegee (Shawn was busy with sports and friends). Not alone, really, as the sounds of civilization—traffic along the two-lane road that mimicked the course of the river, the passing laughter of kayakers, the drone of helicopters, or the sigh of airbrakes on a school bus—were ever-present.

One night, in the cruel month of April, I awoke with a patchwork of red welts on my legs. “There’s something wrong,” I whispered.

Blinking sleep from her hazel eyes, Wendy attempted to locate the cause of my distress.

A low-flying plane vibrated the darkness.

Vision clearing, Wendy laughed. “Poison oak.”

I didn’t think it was funny. In the depths of wilderness—Alaska, Wyoming, Montana, Arizona, New Mexico—I had never been poisoned.

By summer the hills were closing in. The place was too green, everywhere humid and green. Too many tiger lilies. The absence of dry air, bare-rock cliffs, and high desert vistas stretching to the horizons alienated me further. Wendy felt it, too. Shawn was still young enough to adapt and went about his business as if in a green dream. Wendy and I were too old, though just in our thirties. We suffered a strange strain of myopia: in the Desert Southwest one can, in general, see for miles and miles, but the Appalachians are a network of hollers and hills, and more often than not it’s impossible to see further than the next bend in the road. Claustrophobic paranoid green. Hills closing in. I couldn’t take it.

One Sunday afternoon while surfing the Internet in an attempt to ward off malaise, I happened upon an editing position for a small press in the Pacific Northwest. The company was located on the Oregon coast, so at the very least, I imagined, I would be able to gaze out over the open waters of the sea. On a whim, I applied for the job. The owner, after a two-hour phone interview, offered me the position along with a generous relocation package. I jumped at the opportunity. Why not? The university administration had just cut the philosophy major due to lack of interest. The lack, I complained to my colleagues, was due to a steady decrease in tenure-track jobs across the humanities; the degree was not deemed economically viable. How, in good faith, could I continue to work at a university where the philosophy department was more relic than cornerstone? Tenure be damned. We packed up a U-Haul and drove as far west as we were able.

When the press suddenly folded (the owner fell victim to internal family strife) just one year later, I phoned the department chair at the university where I had taught as an adjunct and asked about employment prospects in my old New Mexico haunts. Despite the fact that the humanities were being deemed more and more irrelevant by the marketplace, I still believed that they were the foundation of an authentic college education. I wanted to get back into the mix. I was in luck. The department chair offered me a position teaching part-time. Anxious to get back to the classroom, it didn’t bother me much that I would have to pay for the move out of my own pocket. We had gone too far west, it seemed, and it felt as if I had developed a case of rickets under Oregon’s gray skies. I craved sun. We loaded up a U-Haul—Shawn was becoming expert at loading moving vans—and headed south.

Within two years the adjunct position developed into a tenure-track opportunity. The administration granted a total of four years toward tenure, two for the time spent in North Carolina, two for time served among mesquite and roadrunners, creosote and desert hares. I resurrected philosophy courses that had long lain dormant and reinstituted, in all of my classes, the practice of strategically deploying controversial Nietzsche selections—asking, in usual Socratic fashion, if his nihilism, brought on by the death of God, had come to define contemporary culture—in order to incite debate. Dead gods provide fertile soil in which the seeds of deliberation take root. My student evaluations soared.

I had it made. So why, the year before I was to go up for tenure, did I take a leave of absence to teach at Diné College on the Navajo Nation (presumably to research underprepared students)? I don’t know. Shawn had graduated from high school and joined the Air Force. Our Australian shepherd had just died from a wasting disease. Maybe the house felt empty. Maybe I was sick of apocalyptic dust storms strangling the sky. Whatever the case, I was feeling restless again. Wendy, too. Perhaps the red sandstone walls of the Canyon de Chelly and the rocky ruins of the mysterious Anasazi, or maybe a reprieve from civilization (the nearest Walmart, in Gallup, New Mexico, was some seventy miles to the southeast of the college) would settle my nerves. Once again, we loaded up a U-Haul (significantly more difficult without Shawn’s help) and, with a new blue heeler pup to keep us company, headed toward the Colorado Plateau. I drove the moving van, Wendy our used Pontiac Vibe. Always on the move.

We stopped for the night at a La Quinta Inn in Gallup, where the U-Haul we rented was stolen under cover of darkness. Just like that. Wendy called the cops while I stood looking out the hotel window at the yellow light of dawn spilling over the red hills to the north. The New Mexico State Police located the truck some three hours later near a ranch called the Bar-J, close to a would-be town named Thoreau. The officer who found it, a Navajo man with a kind smile and pocked cheeks, showed me photos of the crime scene on his smart phone. Our kitchen table and two chairs had been set up in a field behind the van, as if the culprits had sat in the darkness, among the sage and wild wheat, playing cards and sipping whiskey under a star-littered sky. The officer informed me that a tow truck driver had loaded the U-Haul on a flatbed and hauled it to Thoreau.

The thieves took everything they deemed of value—firearms, an upscale Vitamix, food processor, tools, the fireproof safe containing our birth certificates and social security cards, a brand new computer—and left the rest—clothes, photo albums, a leather couch, our bed—tucked neatly in the back of the U-Haul. Another sign? It felt like it.

We had a choice: either turn back (I was certain I could return to my old teaching position) or press on. After retrieving the U-Haul from Thoreau (the door to the cargo area wired shut), we stayed one more night in Gallup. In the morning, all but stripped of the identity imposed by material possession, we decided we had nothing left to lose. Under the aureate light of a late summer dawn, we drove north into the reservation of the Navajo Nation.

Just as we arrived in Tsaile, Arizona, one of the English professors at Diné College took ill. I was asked to stand in and teach her Native American literature course to a room full of Hopi and Navajo students. They were kind to the bilagáana. We learned together. Through their instruction I gained a greater understanding of the Diné way of seeing the world, an aesthetic that emphasized beauty as harmony. I taught a fifteen-hour load that left me exhausted by week’s end. The students quickly became dear to me and so I refrained from exposing them to Nietzsche, that destroyer of metaphysical artifice. Mine was not the tongue to deliver that news, not to them. Instead, we compared Native American works with those of the Basques (being Basque myself, I had some knowledge of their literary offerings) and other indigenous cultures that struggled to maintain identity. The year whizzed by.

At the start of summer, we loaded up another U-Haul and drove down through the pines, past Wheatfield Lake and the red cliffs lining the highway that flowed into the bustling town of Window Rock. No more rez dogs loitering outside our brick Hogan. No more feeding carrots out the backdoor to the community donkey. No more walks around Tsaile Lake with our blue heeler to watch the flashing white wings of pelicans in flight or to listen to the easygoing quackery of mallards and shoveler ducks paddling through slate-colored waters. I would miss walking along the shores of the lake or through the piñon pined hills surrounding the campus.

There was something spiritual about the Rez. While witnessing a juniper puff pollen in a tiny yellow explosion on the still air of a warm afternoon, or standing on a rocky rim gazing down into the Canyon de Chelly to observe ravens gliding next to walls of striated bloodshot sandstone, their black wings spangled with sunlight, I felt something long forgotten stir. My spirit sang there, and I witnessed the song rise above the steady hum of inner dialogue that had managed to drown it out for so long. Despite the heavy workload of the school year, I felt refreshed. But it was time to go. My leave of absence was over; the tenure-track called.

Back to the borderlands and classrooms filled predominately with Hispanic females, too many of them single mothers craving financial security far more than a liberal education. Nevertheless, they worked hard and, for a few, new worlds opened, leaving them breathless and yearning for more. Once again the words of Nietzsche sparked heated discourse. I was considered good at my job.

And I could not put off going up for tenure any longer; if I did, my contract would not be renewed. So, in an attempt to avoid the ordeal—why did I insist on equating tenure with fences?—I asked for a raise (the new hires in the department were coming in at a greater base salary than my own), was ignored, asked again with the same outcome, and, in protest, went on the job market. Within two months (as I put together the dreaded Application for Tenure and Promotion file) I was offered an editorial position at a research university. I would make 20 percent more in salary, and they offered three thousand bucks to relocate. A no-brainer. I accepted on the condition I start after the current academic year came to a close. I didn’t want to leave the students in a lurch. They agreed.

Some family members wondered why Wendy and I moved so often. Did we think the grass was forever greener? I told them that this was becoming the way of the world, the only means to keep up with inflation in the current economic environment. Higher education had become suspect, with colleges run like businesses and university presidents acting more and more like bank CEOs (including absurd salaries and golden parachute assurances). I was embarrassed by being associated with what many were labeling a scam: rising tuition, lower standards, more students in the classroom, over a trillion dollars in student loan debt with job prospects and starting pay seemingly always on the decline. I may have been rationalizing at first, but, as I continued the accounting, it hit, a clearing blow to the gut: the source of my discontent was a sense of guilt that, wraithlike, trailed me from teaching position to teaching position. Though I was free to move from place to place, it felt like a fugitive’s freedom.

The slogan, “We’re here for the students,” the fittest meme in the self-justification of higher education, came to haunt me. Too many young people waste their time attending college, partying and accumulating debt with no real goal in mind. How can I be there for the students when so many are coming to collect financial aid on the lure of future riches or simply to pay the bills and pass the buck? A university education, it seemed, right before my eyes, had been reduced to the pursuit of material gain, a false hope for shallow superficiality. I wondered if civilization was nothing more than one long testament to human vanity. And, if it was, why hadn’t I caught on sooner?

There is, however, always that minority who carry the seed of genuine intellectual curiosity and come to university seeking the heat necessary for germination. A few others are open-minded and astonished when their worldviews burst onto hitherto unknown fields of play. Three-quarters empty or one-quarter full? I stewed over it a week and decided it was time to come clean. I turned in a letter of resignation.

To my surprise, the provost called me to his office the following week, apologized for ignoring my earlier requests, and offered a 25 percent raise for me to stay on. I would be tenured and promoted. Catch-22. Should I stay? Could any good come from it? If I accepted the counteroffer, would I, in effect, be selling myself to the highest bidder?

The prospect of loading the U-Haul tipped the scale. It was time to say no. No more. It came in a flash of insight brought on by the pressure of extended psychological stress: I had carried Nietzsche on my back for too long. Eureka! Since my teens I had been employing Nietzsche as a crutch to bastion myself against the abyss that his writings had ripped opened under my feet. Nietzsche, the great Yes-sayer, who, through his doctrine of perspectivism, led those who would follow down the path of abject relativism into a place void of the possibility of absolutes. I couldn’t take it. Not any longer. Not if I hoped to retain a vestige of sanity.

I yelled, “No!” and in that instant reclaimed an attitude that has for many become as empty as, “We’re here for the students,” a view similar to the one I held in the hope of youth, a conviction that the university serves as a cultural repository, a place where thoughts are exchanged freely and openly, a sacred space where human potential is unfolded. In other words, I wasn’t harming anyone by attempting to impart a greater understanding of what it was, is, and might be to be human. I have experienced the thrill of leading students, even if it is those precious few, on grand adventures into mental territories unknown, dangerous and exhilarating at once, bright peaks and dark valleys, and, in doing so, awakening in them the ethical dimensions of human being. Naïve? Yes. But I had no choice.

But can one choose to be naïve? I had to, for if I did not, Nietzsche, who was a seer on many levels, would once again prove correct:

I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism....For some time now, our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe, with a tortured tension that is growing from decade to decade: restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach the end, that no longer reflects, that is afraid to reflect.2

The university, or at least my naïve version of it, is a place where people are not afraid to reflect, the headquarters of the anti-nihilism resistance. Possibly Europe’s greatest contribution to the world, the university is the heart of Western civilization, the place where people gather to unfold human potential. If the function of higher education is reduced essentially to the pursuit of material gain (95 percent of underclassmen, when I ask them in the first week of class, admit they are in college primarily in the hopes of making big bucks in the future), Nietzsche wins. And, though Western civilization, fraught with horrors and false starts, suffers still from a control-freak psychosis that Nietzsche aptly diagnosed, the university has more often served as an incubator of innovation and free thinking, a place affording the individual the opportunity to bring to fruition his budding visions. I am obligated to do what I can—even if it is too little too late—to defend that legacy. Tenure is more than job security. It is a duty.

I accepted the provost’s offer. I am here for those students who pursue a greater understanding of their own humanity. A good number of others, I know from experience, will rise to the occasion once exposed to the Socratic Method. Many will fail. So be it. My faith in the vocation of teaching (if not in the current educational scheme) is restored. Call me naïve.

But what about faith in humanity? Can there be faith in one (the teacher) without the other (the student)? I am in the mood for further reflection. One can strive to be an effective teacher, but that does not guarantee the outcome. I cannot know with certainty that I have ever opened the way to where a student might realize his potential, and, even if I have, that the influence will come to bear down the road as years pass. No teacher can. Being human, I cannot place my faith in another human being, not even in myself (a cursory glance at the history books should suffice as evidence as to why). Where then can I store this newfound faith so that it is not just a lucid dream, here and gone, doomed to the realm of forgetfulness by the drunken babel of relativism? Where do dreams go upon waking?

The answer, strange as it seems, is that I am unable to place my faith in the university. In all the moving from place to place, the thousands of students and varying landscapes, I have come to understand that the answers to some questions are beyond the reach of human discourse. I pursue them among juniper and pine, ocotillo and mesquite, in the territory of javelina and the elusive mountain lion. The long-forgotten stir within experienced on the Navajo Nation, I have come to see, is a flicker of light above a boundless dark sea. Though I cannot answer for students the big questions that they must ask of themselves in the wilderness of their own being, I can help equip them for the journey so that they have the best chance at success. I take my job seriously. My faith, however, must reside free from the bounds of human voices, in rhythms that originate unseen from somewhere behind the stars.

I used to wonder, at the beginning of each semester, no matter where I was teaching, how my life might have been different if I had first come across Nietzsche under the tutelage of a competent and enthusiastic teacher rather than alone with only my inner dialogue as a guide. Not anymore. I am where I am. From that place there is no moving about.

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