By Susan Segal
The student leaned across the instructor’s desk and said, “May I make a few suggestions about your syllabus?”
“Uh, okay,” the instructor said, dragging out the vowels for as long as she dared.
The instructor did not have tenure. She had been working at the university for almost twenty years but was still reminded every year, when her contract was renewed, that she could be fired at will.
“Your reading list,” the student said. “It lacks diversity.”
“I have three women on the reading list, and all but one of the writers is a person of color.”
“Yes,” the student said, “but do you realize there are no indigenous peoples on the list?” She spoke slowly, in the impatiently patient tone the instructor’s fourteen-year-old niece used when explaining how to use an app on her phone.
It was getting hot in the instructor’s office. She thought of throwing herself out the window next to her desk, except that the window had stopped opening years before. She often imagined the multiple work orders that she had submitted regarding the window’s recalcitrance languishing in some bottomless inbox in the bowels of the university’s maintenance department.
“Actually,” the student went on, “it’s not just the syllabus. I am not comfortable in your classroom.”
“Oh, dear. We can’t have that,” the instructor said. She tried a smile, but the student narrowed her eyes and sat back in her chair.
“Your class,” the student said, “doesn’t feel like a safe space.”
An image arose in the instructor’s mind of the slack, artless faces that awaited her in the classroom each day—faces that seemed to dare her to teach them anything they might be interested in learning.
“I hear you,” the instructor said. Her heart had begun to pound erratically.
With navy-blue fingernails, the student pushed her lustrous hair behind her shoulders. Her hair was shiny black, like onyx.
I used to have hair like that, thought the instructor, before I started pulling it out. Her head was as sparse as an old man’s these days. She often wore scarves and berets, hoping they gave her a jaunty look. Jaunty, however, was not a word that students used in describing her on class evaluations. Rigorous but worth it. Always available, and occasionally Too MUCH reading!, were more typical comments, though recently a student had written Try wearing pink! under the question, What suggestions for improvement would you make for this class?
“I thought when I came to college that there would be an enlightened, open environment,” said the student. “But I am finding it just as rigid, as atavistic, as high school.”
“Good use of that word,” the instructor said, genuinely impressed. Then she saw that it was a mistake to say that, having been taken by the student for condescension. She cleared her throat. “I will give your concerns serious thought,” she told the student.
The student frowned. She was no fool. “Well. Thank you for your time,” she said, clearly not at all grateful for the instructor’s time. She stood up. Her hair glistened in the weak fluorescent light of the instructor’s office.
You are so young, so confident, the instructor thought. She was burning with jealousy.
She also thought, all of this matters to you so much right now. She was jealous of that, too.
“Have a nice day,” the student said, pursing her lips and turning her back. She seemed to have given up.
“No, really,” the instructor said, abruptly rising from her ancient, wobbly chair, which she had inherited from the last non-tenured person who had inhabited this office. She suddenly felt compelled to convince the student that the student had a right to say what she thought, regardless of who did or didn’t agree with her.
“What you believe in matters,” the instructor said forcefully. “You should fight for what you believe in.”
The student turned back and peered at her. “Don’t worry,” she said, “I won’t give you a bad evaluation. I know it matters when you don’t have tenure.”
The instructor stepped back against the rickety chair. She should not have been surprised, she supposed, that the student understood so well the balance of power at the university.
“I’m not worried about the evaluations,” the instructor said, keeping her voice steady. She did not lower her gaze from the student’s.
The student cocked her head to one side. “Well, if that’s the case, I actually have a list of writers I think would be more appropriate for this course. I could email them to you, if you like?”
The instructor thought of the year it took her to research and craft each class that she taught. “Absolutely!” she said, thus depleting the last remnants of her ability to convey enthusiasm.
At last, the student smiled. “That’s great,” she said, “I’ll send it as soon as I get home. Have a nice day,” she said again, now seeming to truly care if the instructor had one.
After she left, the instructor lowered herself carefully into her chair and took several deep breaths. Slowly, her heart resumed its usual pace. She looked longingly at the cloudy window that failed to open out to the lush trees and rolling grasses of the campus. She adjusted the pale blue beret on her head and wondered if it were possible to retire two years before sixty. She was so tired. If she put her head on the desk right now, she’d be asleep in minutes. She had a class in half an hour. Maybe just a catnap, she thought, trying to keep the chair steady as she lowered her head. She closed her eyes and was soon asleep. She dreamed of massive piles of student evaluations, so heated with condemnation and praise of her that they burst into flames—a hungry bonfire spewing shards of glowing compliments and blazing reproaches that floated into the sky, shimmering above her balding head like stars, like heavenly stars.