Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
SHJ
  • Home
    Share
  • About
  • Archive
  • Bio Notes
  • Bookshelf
  • Contents
  • Submit
Essay
3438 words
SHJ Issue 12
Spring 2015

How I Became a College Professor

by Walter Cummins

I became a college professor because I didn’t want to be a corporate executive.

Today, in the second decade of the 21st century, that must sound like arrogance or delusion, what with so many college graduates working as baristas or retail clerks under a lifelong burden of student debt, what with so many PhDs adjuncting at poverty wages and surviving on food stamps. But it wasn’t like that in the mid 20th century, when a man with a BA was assured a future of professional success and creature comforts. In those days a man really had to make an effort to be a failure.

I am convinced we were the luckiest male generation America, perhaps the world, has ever seen, too young for the Korean War, too old for Vietnam, spilling out of classrooms into a booming post-World War II economy hungry for managerial functionaries. Corporations grabbed us as fast as they could.

Woody Allen once said that ninety percent of success is showing up; but he left out the most important criterion—showing up at the right time. Ultimately, the life we fall into is all a matter of luck and timing. Don’t believe those who claim full credit for their social and economic status, those who argue they deserve all they’ve got and resent having to part with any of it, as if tax cuts are their right.

When I did my six months of National Guard training, the first week at Fort Dix I underwent a battery of aptitude tests coincidentally administered by a fraternity brother, a spec 4 volunteer for the draft, who ran the testing center while his sergeant loafed. Phil took me aside to share my results. It turned out I was literally off the top of the charts for clerical ability and a deep plunge off the bottom for combat adaptability, perhaps because I said I would rather be a librarian than as machine gunner. Of course, I was assigned to an infantry unit, until—as luck would have it—I ended up at a mess table for lunch with the company clerk, a studious-looking young man about to muster out and return to graduate studies in math at the University of Chicago. I asked who was going to replace him in the office, and he asked if I could type. Poorly, I told him, but that was good enough. I spent the rest of my active duty behind a desk pecking away at a manual keyboard.

If I had been born, say, a dozen years earlier, I have no doubt I would never have escaped the infantry, clerical aptitude or not. Given my documented combat incompetence, when even the best-trained soldiers were slaughtered on D-Day, I envision myself as one of those khaki-clad bodies bobbing in the currents on a Normandy beach. Instead, my active duty career ended up listening to Count Basie records with Sgt. Dodson while the rest of the unit was out bivouacking on chill, muddy weekends. Timing and luck.

::

In my final college semester, I had to think about what I would do next, uprooted from the contentment at living in a fraternity house, reading books, writing papers, and hanging out with friends. Besides, I was engaged, about to be married. Soon I’d have a (first) wife to support. Fortunately, recruiters came to campus, and I ended up one of several classmates hired by General Electric, in my case as an advertising and sales promotion trainee. Being hired by GE was a plum job, paying more than most other starting positions and assuring a future of advancement and affluence. Classmates congratulated me, perhaps envious.

When I was considering what kind of job to look for, I had assumed my roles on the college paper and the college humor magazine would translate to a career in advertising, where I would be paid to be clever. So I envisioned myself a Mad Man, long before that TV series existed as a cautionary tale. Instead, I went to a corporation in Schenectady rather than a street in Manhattan. Graduate school didn’t even make the bottom of my list of possibilities. If my thoughts about careers had been graphed, grad school would have come out even lower than combat adaptability.

But what did I know about work? Many of today’s college students have opportunities for internships in professional surroundings. My undergraduate-year jobs had been bussing tables at summer resorts and sitting behind a cash register at a co-op bookstore. In adolescence, at fourteen, I did have a one-day career as a busboy but spilled water into the lap of a woman at the first table I served. Next day they put me in the kitchen to clean shrimp; but I was too fastidious about removing every speck of the dark innards running along the creatures’ backs and was fired for slowness. I did make money as a pin boy in a bowling alley during a time before machines automated that career out of existence. Every cent I earned I spent on bowling myself. To be honest, I wasn’t a very good pin boy, lacking the stamina to jump back and forth between two alleys like most of my coworkers. The summer after high school and before college, I had a job in the warehouse of a local tile factory, where I threw my back out with life-long after-effects. The short of it is that if I lived like men throughout most of human history when survival depended on manual labor and wartime skills, my fate would have been a life much nastier, more brutish, and shorter than most.

::

One morning in June 1957, I showed up at Building 23 of the General Electric complex in Schenectady at 8 a.m., twenty-one years old, never having worked a full day in my life, with no idea of what it meant to sit behind a desk for eight hours in a suit and tie. My bussing experience was just breakfast and dinner, mid day free to sit on the beach and flirt. My cashiering was only a few hours an afternoon. My daydreams about an actual job involved income, fringe benefits, and life style, with little thought about the actual work.

That work turned out to be tedious. For our advertising and sales training the plan was to have us shift from one function to another and physically relocate to a different GE city every six months. But my hiring year came during an economic downturn in the country, a fact that had escaped me in my collegiate detachment from the news. Instead of the usual fifty annual trainee hires, I was only one of a dozen. My assignment in technical publications ended up lasting much longer than six months. That turned out to be another piece of good luck.

Four of us sat at desks in a cubicle proofreading operating manuals for ship turbines, assuring that all references adhered to specs, and marking up sheets from IBM Executive typewriters that allowed counting of spaces in each line, with wider letters like “m” taking up more than a narrow letter like “l.” The goal was full justification, with the typists who retyped every page inserting fractional blank spaces to achieve a flush-right margin. Because the retyped page was new, we had to proof all over again. Those were the primitive pre-computer days.

My cubicle mates and I engaged in frequent small talk as a diversion from the tedium. At the time I estimated we were actually working about four hours of every eight-hour day, and I worried someone with authority would catch on. We’d all be in big trouble. Instead, it turned out, we were breaking productivity records. Our predecessors in that cubicle must have even more creative at wasting time.

As much as I disliked the actual work assigned me, what I found even more troubling were the duties of those who became managers after the training period, the future that awaited me. Their primary function seemed to be tracking expenditures to assure adherence to budgets. Salaries rose, homes and cars grew larger, wardrobes expanded, but those men—only men in those days—with advancing careers did little but shuffle paper. I realized I wanted hands-on, actually doing, no matter what that doing would involve. Within weeks as an advertising and sales trainee I came to dread the years ahead.

An aside: the chance that put me in technical publications yielded rewards. After my army half-year, knowing I wouldn’t return to GE, I was able to get a technical editing job in Manhattan. That experience, when I went to the University of Iowa, led to teaching tech writing in the college of engineering, first as a graduate assistant and later as an instructor, along with teaching core literature. Unlike my literary peers, I knew how engineers were supposed to write.

Beyond the job functions at GE, the corporate life style disturbed me, basically the strategies devised to control the lives of white-collar employees. It was the time when William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man became a bestseller. Reading it, I recognized the basis of every ploy used to subject us. To develop our social and sporting lives, we were offered minimal-cost memberships at the Edison Club for golf, tennis, meals, and the nineteenth-hole bar. I went once with borrowed golf clubs and demonstrated my inept coordination. It was my first and last golf experience, little white balls sliced at weird angles. We were supposed to volunteer to write publicity for a local charity and religious group. Hesitant about revealing my lack of spirituality, I did escape by helping a community organization once or twice. Essentially, with activities to occupy our non-working hours and frequent transfers to other locations, the company would become the most stable force in our lives, our fundamental bond. For a steady job and a decent salary, GE would own us.

One afternoon in one of our non-proofing lulls, my cubicle group began discussing the Whyte book, three of us agreeing that he’d gotten the details of how we were being manipulated. The fourth member, Dick, a tall young man with a mat of blond hair, was up from his chair and pacing while the rest of us endorsed Whyte’s insights. Finally, he spoke with a look of distress: “Why did he have to write that book? I was happy.”

Dick and his wife had decided it made more financial sense to purchase a home than rent, accumulating equity. When they did, he was called aside by a manager a few steps beyond trainee status. “Dick,” the man warned him, “I didn’t buy a house until I was in my thirties.” Cars too had a hierarchy of appropriateness, what models to drive and at what stage in one’s career.

By that time, I knew I’d be out of there and could safely regard the system with bemused detachment. Not long ago, a friend from college found a letter I had written him at the time, actually had overwritten, announcing that to his certain surprise I had made a decision to go to graduate school. Of course, I had no idea which university, if any, would take me. But I was still not yet twenty-two and, despite having an even younger wife, was willing to risk my chances in the unknown.

My undergraduate record wasn’t distinguished, though I graduated in the upper quarter of my class, which seemed to mean something back then. I’d been reading since early teens and even trying to write fiction. Evenings while my wife socialized with garden apartment neighbors—all GE employees—over barbecues in our common yard, I sat inside with a clipboard concocting strange stories with a pen on sheets of paper. I’m sure the neighbors thought I was as strange as those inept stories, and no doubt they were right. I didn’t belong in their world.

If I had sucked it up and stayed, I’m sure my off-the-charts clerical ability would have led to an executive position at GE or some other company. Big office, big house, big car, big salary. Another college friend who did become a senior vice president at several pharmaceutical firms once told me he thought I was too cynical to survive in the corporate world. I would have used the word skeptical. But, if life hadn’t offered an alternative, I believe I could have kept my opinions to myself and played the game if that’s what it took to put boutique bread on the table and a Bimmer or two in a three-car garage.

While I came to GE innocent of what the managerial life involved, I did learn a bit about the hardships of college teaching from colleagues in the technical publications department, actually about the financial deprivations of university life. Several of them had abandoned academia because, when the children came, they couldn’t afford to work for professorial wages.

I didn’t know these men well enough to ask about the psychic cost of what I considered selling out. They still were academics at heart. One who taught the post-working hours writing course mandatory for trainees gave much attention to the style of Henry James. It’s hard to imagine a business report with all of those “to put a fine point on it” qualifications. Another who specialized in semantics liked to ask questions like, “What would you rather have—a rare slice of filet mignon or a nearly raw piece of dead cow?” Yet another enjoyed telling how he and a fellow graduate student at the University of Indiana were in a competition for who could enroll in the most obscure foreign language. I recall High Church Hungarian being one. Is there such a language? Was he having me on?

Despite their example of seeking a refuge from meager wages, my young mind kept thinking, anyplace but here.

::

Still, I couldn’t apply to grad schools for a while. There was army training to get out of the way and time for my wife to finish her degree. After Fort Dix, I got the technical editing job in Manhattan despite letters from GE wondering why I wasn’t coming back. In leaving the company, though, I wasn’t unusual. In fact, most of my fellow trainees were gone in a few years, usually for other firms or companies, one to return to Georgia Tech to get a master’s in engineering. Could William H. Whyte be blamed for writing that book, or would we all have figured it out anyway?

::

During the year of editing I had time to consider where to apply, to take a German reading course at NYU, and to enroll in a non-credit story writing course at the New School. I still didn’t know which, if any, grad school would have me, though my GRE scores were decent despite my unfocused undergraduate years.

Most of my applications were to American Studies programs because I liked the cross-disciplinary approach, had even written an editorial in the college paper arguing for what I called horizontal education. My real hope was to be accepted by a creative writing program, of which only a handful existed at the time, unlike today where you can find one on just about every block.

Here again, my life was rewarded by an accident of being at the right place at the right time. My New School fiction instructor was R.V. (Verlin) Cassill, then living in New York and supporting himself by turning out paperback potboilers at the same time he was writing literary fiction. Verlin, the first night of the class of twenty or so, warned people that in his experience a majority would drop out and that they could get a full refund if they did right then. Everyone stayed seated, but at the end of the term, only five of us were left. Most evenings after the once-a-week meeting, Verlin and I would go out for a burger and beer. He lamented the good fiction ideas wasted in the potboilers, and he told me he was unable to give me real advice about the semi-fantasy stories I was writing then, in what he called the E.M. Forster vein. He had no affinity for the approach. But Verlin was going back to teach in the Iowa Workshop that fall and encouraged me to apply. My assumption is that he pulled strings and that I wouldn’t have made it on my own.

::

Our plan for supporting my Iowa education was for my wife to get a public school teaching position, a very uninformed and na├»ve assumption. Everyone’s wife had a teaching degree, and supply overwhelmed demand. I hadn’t even thought of applying for a graduate assistantship before we arrived, or for that matter hadn’t really considered if I’d teach after getting a degree, but my technical editing experience put me near the head of the line with a freshman comp section for first semester until one opened up in tech writing the next.

Necessity forced me to overcome trepidation. I was more than reticent in college courses and generally shy in life. For my very first freshman comp class I prepared for several hours and ran out of material after thirty of the fifty minutes, with no idea how I was going to fill a semester’s worth of time. My hands were sweating, my voice breaking.

But some weeks later the students had a stereotype assignment, in the first part telling how they thought someone filled an assumed expectation but in the second part revealing how that person was really not like that at all. One of my students chose me as his subject—how my voice boomed that very first class and how I terrorized him, but then I turned out not to be such a bad guy. That convinced me I could fool enough people enough of the time to survive in a college classroom.

::

My year of completing the Ph.D. turned out to be another example of stumbling into ideal timing. My decision to go for the doctorate resulted from not getting an appealing job offer with an MFA, probably because I was blatantly unpublished. Besides, I was content in Iowa City, where life was good. So I became an instructor at a salary that paid for a two-bedroom apartment, food, diaper rental for two kids, and enough gasoline to get back and forth to campus. In addition to teaching three courses, I took two and sat in on others to fill my yawning gaps in English literature. No GE days of killing time.

A university hiring boom was still going on in 1965, the year I passed all tests, turned in a turgid novel for a dissertation, and received the degree. Schools were actually soliciting me, though none whose letters came were from the East, where I wanted to return. After applying to many universities between Boston and Washington, I ended up with a dozen interviews and three or four job offers.

Soon the teaching market snapped shut. If I had been a few years younger or delayed longer in applying to grad school, I would have been one of those wandering in the desert of an academic job drought much like that of today. My own department hired no new faculty members between 1968 and 1986. By 1969, I had tenure. Once again I blundered into showing up at the right time.

::

For me being a faculty member has had almost nothing in common with working in a major corporation. Although most of my career I put in a seven-day week, much of that time unable to tell whether I was working or enjoying myself. Every book I read, movie I saw, trip I took, piece I wrote fed into course planning or just a comment in class. Living and teaching have been inseparable.

::

Classmates from my then all-male college who did become corporate executives seem happy with the way their lives turned out, too. They certainly made much more money than I did, enough to own at least two homes and retire on a sunny island or a few steps from a golf course. As I said, we were the luckiest generation ever.

Without a doubt many of those slaughtered at Normandy were smarter and more talented and would have made better college professors than I, had they survived to go on to grad school on the GI Bill. And many with recent graduate degrees who find themselves adjuncting for fast-food wages or serving lattes are also more deserving than I. Unfortunately, they are victims of bad timing.

 

SHJ Issue 12
Spring 2015

Walter Cummins

Photo of Walter Cummins, by Minna Proctor
Photograph by
Minna Proctor

Co-publisher of Serving House Books and a faculty member in Fairleigh Dickinson University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program. His seventh short-story collection, Telling Stories: Old & New, was published in 2015; and his sixth collection, Habitat: Stories of Bent Realism, was published in 2013.

Cummins has published more than 100 of his stories in such magazines as Kansas Quarterly, Other Voices, Crosscurrents, Florida Review, South Carolina Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Virginia Quarterly Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Arabesques, and Confrontation, and on the Internet. He also has published memoirs, essays, articles, and reviews.

www.waltercummins.com

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury