Humiliation: Professor Style

Yesterday, after teaching, I spent $280 on a university parking pass. This morning, around 11 a.m., my friend Brian and I drove around for 25 minutes looking for an empty space, and never found one. Because we were going to be late to work at the university writing center, I finally said, “Screw it. We’ll go to the pay lot.” Also full. Brian claimed there was, somewhere, another pay lot, and so we continued to drive around, and eventually, somewhere far, far away from anything familiar on campus, we found one.

We pulled into a long line of cars, also full of frustrated people who had presumably been driving around at least as long as we had, and then we saw the sign reading, “Pre-Pay $6.” I pulled out my wallet and found four crumpled ones. Brian had 52 cents. We began digging through our bags and the floor of my car, ultimately hitting a (relative) jackpot with a change purse full of pennies at the bottom of my purse. By the time it was our turn to pay, we still didn’t have enough, so we continued to scrounge around frantically, holding up the line of cars and doing all of this in plain sight because I’d put the convertible top down before leaving that morning. Eventually, we handed the parking attendant $5.95, which included 87 cents in pennies. When he said, “Fine, go,” Brian replied, “We’re professors.”

Day 2:

Three weeks ago, on vacation in South Carolina, I broke into an upper-class community’s hot tub with a friend, claiming her parents owned a condo in the development when, in fact, they had a place in the next neighborhood over, one with smaller, less oppressive cars in the parking lot, one with grass slightly less green and a clear gate separating it from Coral Lawns or whatever it was called. I lied, right to the lifeguard after she noticed I wasn’t wearing the green wristband (obviously signifying the extraordinary amount of money I don’t make), and then, to my horror, she said, “Oh, no problem. Let me just go get the residents’ binder.” I stood there, I considered how humiliating the next fifteen minutes were really going to be. When I was younger, such things felt hilarious. Sneaking onto campsites late in the evening to silently set up a moldy tent and sleep for free, jumping a fence, my knees and heels digging into the shoulders of boys as I skinned my knuckles in the name of night swimming—but now, at 30, it begins to feel, well, unreasonable.

When the lifeguard came back and did not see the name we offered up as “proof,” she asked if they had purchased the condo very recently. “I think so. Yeah. Very recently,” my friend said and somehow the lifeguard bought it. We swam for an hour, but uneasily, nervous that we’d be found out at any second. Surely such a person is not fit to teach.

This is the sort of thing that creeps into my head ever 20 minutes or so as I’m standing up there in the front of the classroom. Today, again, went pretty well, but I do have these quick flashes of “Holy shit. Holy shit. Holy shit.” When I took roll, I knew maybe a third of the kids by sight, and then we talked about the writing process and what they wanted to get out of the class by the end of the semester. Not everyone contributed, but I found the more specific I got with my questions, the more hands went up. So, after asking, “What do you want to learn this semester?” I saw them all stare at their desks, but when I said, “Let’s say you’re assigned a an eight-page research paper. What are you worried about knowing how to do?” they really started chiming in, which was awesome.

I gave their first assignment today, which is the back cover of an autobiography (below). They seemed intimidated, which I get, and so I told them so. “This is really hard,” I said. “I get that, but we’re going to use it in all kinds of ways. First, it will help us get to know one another a little better, and it will be our jumping-off point for talking about audience and purpose and tone.” I spoke for a while about this idea, going so far as to draw the “Rhetorical Situation” triangle on the board (which made me feel very professor-ish). To drive it home, I gave them all a scenario and had them split into groups to describe it to different audiences (their teacher, a friend, their parents, etc.) and we looked at how the description changed based on audience. They seemed—if not enthusiastic—then at least willing.

First assignment:

Autobiography Back Cover Assignment

For this assignment, I want you to imagine that you’ve just written your autobiography. Because you’re not actually writing the book itself, you can imagine it to be anything you want. For example, would your memoir be a page-turning, celebrity tell-all book? A literary, reflective examination of your life so far? A cheap paperback beach book?
After you’ve decided what kind of book you’ve “written,” I want you to come up with an apt title for it, and write the back cover, keeping in mind your audience (the reader you want to buy your book) and how to make that reader say, “Fascinating. I must read it.”
You can include any information about yourself that you want to, provided it’s true and appropriate for the kind of book you’ve decided upon. It can be funny, or not, shocking if you want (though you will have to read them out loud in class, so don’t include anything you wouldn’t want your classmates to know), but above all, you should strive to make it interesting. If you get stuck, read the backs of any books sitting in your dorm room for inspiration. You’ll find that they generally include a brief summary of the book’s content, as well as some marketing language to pique the potential reader’s interest.

Length: Between 200 and 400 words.

Due: Friday, September 4, 2009.

Sample Cover:

Screamingly Normal: The Jessica McCaughey Story

Jessica McCaughey is a writer and professor, but it wasn’t always so. This highly anticipated autobiography shows her shocking past and allows the public a much-needed glimpse into what it’s like to be Jessica McCaughey.

Born in New Jersey, Jessica spends the first 18 years of her life trying to achieve the largest hair possible, and living with her screamingly nice, normal family. In college, she becomes obsessed with reading memoirs of, instead, highly dysfunctional relationships, and wishing (at times) that her own life had been more of a mess so that she’d have some tragic history to use as writing fodder. This book chronicles Jessica’s undergraduate and graduate education, as well as the time she spent writing marketing copy for some of the world’s most boring corporations before returning to George Mason University to teach.

This newly released book shows Jessica as a slow runner and a terrible cook. It also explores her fears about being significantly older than most of the people at the indie rock shows she attends. Readers also get a glimpse of Jessica’s obsession with Pakistani food, which borders on the inappropriate.

Both witty and tragic, absurd and highly literary, readers will be stunned by this true story of the woman behind the desk.

Leave a Reply