Talking out of School: Memoir of an Educated Woman

May 14, 2009

Who doesn't love a pity party? The first third of Kass Fleisher's narrative is a Cinderella story about the relationship between a "teen cleaning machine" and her crazy-bad mother. The rest of the work is a Cinderella story about the author's experience in academia.

This narrative is complicated by its form, the memoir, which is a hot - if vexed - genre. Witness the emerging field of biographical and autobiographical studies and the appearance of autobiographies by the likes of Frank McCourt, Dave Eggers and Barack Obama, not to mention recent hoaxes by James Frey and Misha ("raised by wolves") Defonseca. Although Fleisher's work is not fictive, her self-conscious style makes some parts seem novelistic and embellished. The exaggeration in her story generates concern about autobiographical objectivity, memory, identity, agency and (to use satirist Stephen Colbert's term acknowledging the slipperiness of veracity) "truthiness".

Fleisher peppers the coming-of-age, blame-the-mum section of her narrative with gratuitous expletives. After a while, we get the idea: the mother-from-hell teaches at a local high school and presides over the teachers' union - that is, when she is not too busy smacking or kicking her children. Since writers are rarely the bad guys in their own life stories, it is not surprising that Fleisher never confronts the central issue: English lecturer/political activist daughter's identification with and separation from English teacher/union president mother. Although writing one's own narrative may be attractive, costuming revenge as memoir may be even sweeter. Understandably, Dad has flown the coop!

The author herself can't leave home soon enough, and the rest of the autobiography is a jeremiad detailing her years as a student and as a teacher. Throughout, the chronology is confused and shuffled for no apparent reason. (Faulkner this isn't.)

Clearly, Fleisher's relationship with her mother prepared her well to fight authority. The university stands in loco parentis as the young academic begins her career, struggling with the abuse of power in several different colleges and programmes. Sexual mishaps (in the form of flirtations, affairs, marriages and divorces) predominate. During this time, even after Fleisher earns her PhD, she is marginalised as she goes from one temporary, subordinate teaching assignment to another.

Holier-than-thou, she mounts her moral high horse to rail against The Man. Somewhat delusionally, she thinks she can inspire the spirit of rebellion in a student body composed largely of white conservative Mormons in Idaho. Throughout, she details ugly university squabbles that bring to mind the old saw about academic politics being so bitter because the stakes are so low. Albeit anecdotally, Fleisher provides telling snapshots of the problems of US academic culture, engaging the social contexts of issues such as sexism and racism. She fails, however, to situate her experiences against a background of an academic marketplace that has almost flatlined.

This crisis makes her narrative about life as an adjunct academic all the more important. As the number of tenured and tenure-track faculties at American post-secondary institutions has dwindled, the number of part-time temporary instructors has correspondingly increased. According to a recent article in The New York Times, 70 per cent of the teaching academics at US colleges and universities are poorly paid adjuncts.

Although Fleisher may sound like a crybaby, these circumstances lend special urgency to her exploitation as an itinerant outsider. Her life story as a teaching gypsy in a misogynistic system provides insight into the nature of power and oppression at the heart of academia. Yet she shapes her identity from a desperate desire for acceptance by the very academic culture that she so vehemently opposes. In the end, she is a wannabe who finally makes it up the ranks.

Although questions about its "truthiness" remain, Fleisher's memoir has important things to say about the abuse of power, from her early experiences at home to her experience of teaching culture. If Talking out of School lacks depth and analysis, it is nevertheless highly readable. This book is a wild and fun ride, especially the first section dealing with her family. As they say, if it's not one thing, it's your mother.

Talking out of School: Memoir of an Educated Woman

By Kass Fleisher. Dalkey Archive Press, 8pp, £9.99. ISBN 9781564785176. Published 1 January 2009

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