My technophobia left me miscast as a Covid-year Mr Mom

The half-hearted pursuit of dust bunnies was less scary than teaching online, but it was no match for life on campus, says Jeffrey Susla

October 17, 2021
A dust bunny
Source: iStock

Fourteen months ago, I had an abrupt career setback. The university where I had been teaching three courses a semester for almost six years informed me that I would be offered only one online course for the fall 2020 semester.

This came as a surprise. I knew that other adjuncts in the department had been offered more, and my past student satisfaction surveys were, in a word, exceptional; I consistently outperformed on the departmental mean for almost every criterion.

I realise, dear reader, that this comes across as sour grapes, and, in all fairness, the department was hit by lower enrolments because of the pandemic. But something did not sit right with me about the offer: I detected a supervisorial animus. So even though I needed income to supplement my measly Connecticut schoolteacher’s retirement cheque, I declined the offer and decided to look elsewhere for a position.

But then I realised that I couldn’t do it. While my wife, a university administrator and mathematics professor, was able to make the transition from campus to dining room table, the technophobe in me shuddered at the thought of my face and voice forever echoing through cyberspace, accessible to anyone. To those instructors who somehow made it through the battlefield of the 2020-21 virtual year, I salute you. But I admit that I am nothing but a limp-livered, yellow-bellied sapsucker. A wuss.

While I instead busied myself with the household chores, however, there was a part of me that missed being part of a college community, interacting with students and faculty alike. And I was hardly outperforming the departmental mean when it came to polishing, vacuuming and the laundry. Dust bunnies under the bed were no longer an exotic species to me, yet I hesitated to pursue their extermination; let sleeping bunnies lie was my motto.

I otherwise filled my days with reading, binge watching and composing the occasional online article. I kidded myself into thinking that after a long career in the secondary and post-secondary trenches, I deserved the time to do other things in my life. I had paid my educational dues.

On the other hand, I wasn’t quite ready to assume the level of domestic subservience to a ladder-climbing partner to which Michael Keaton submitted himself in Mr Mom (one 1980s movie I managed to avoid rewatching). Nor was that partner ready to let me. Truth be told, my wife urged me to go out and find any educational job – online tutoring or whatever – so long as it allowed me to make a contribution to our ever-diminishing coffers.

Spurred by her “countenance that could not unfrown itself” (thank you Theodore Roethke) I sent an email inquiry and a copy of my resume to a local college where she had previously had a most satisfying adjunct teaching experience. I knew full well that positions in the humanities were increasingly, frustratingly rare; I was one of thousands of under- or unemployed vulnerable lecturers (what one colleague calls an “alt-ac”). But I wanted to be able to tell my wife that, on that day, at least, I had done something concrete towards finding a job.

As expected, my email went unacknowledged, however. So I began to focus more closely on the tasks that needed attending to around the house. There was painting to be done. Hinges needed tightening. Batteries needed replacing. I resigned to myself to a new calling as Mr Dad.

You know the rest of the story. Seven months later, and 10 days before the fall semester began, I received word from the department chair apologising for the delay in replying to my email and informing me that there was an opening for a tutor for two college writing sections if I was interested. The chair, to her credit, vetted me quickly, though a conversation with my neighbour, who happens to teach at the college, along with a Zoom interview during which I managed to keep her awake for the entire hour.

And so, in late August, I set foot on a new campus and entered a classroom filled with fully masked students (OK, I do see some noses too many times), replete with a detectable scent of hand sanitiser.

The students’ voices often come to me in scarcely audible mumbles. I have to challenge my technophobia to learn new technologies, including an email system that requires time-consuming double verification (“Now where the hell did I put my smartphone?”). Parking is woefully inadequate, and climbing the 64 stairs from the underground lot to street level is, for this double knee-replaced, backpack-wearing, out-of-shape creature, an almost Herculean task.

God, it’s good to be back!

Jeffrey Susla teaches English at Nichols College in Dudley, Massachusetts.

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