Your Teaching Assistant, Rumpelstiltskin

“President Canasta, I have a solution to all of your woes about the sunk costs of running an English department at a university preoccupied with revenues, cost-cutting, and post-graduation career stats.  An adjunct in our department, Jane Miller, is the fastest and most effective grader in our entire university.  You can lay off everyone else and just employ her to teach all the English department classes this semester, and I promise you, she will turn every last one of her pupils into A students, and the freshman class into some of the best college writers and critical thinkers this side of U.S. News and World Report’s college rankings have ever seen!  Just think of the cost-cutting benefits of employing a single adjunct to teach all English department courses!  Overall, this will help the university’s bottom line, and, more importantly, hiring less faculty will allow you to pad your pockets and those of all your university administrator colleagues....”

President Canasta of Opportunity University steeples his fingers as he considers Department Chair Peterson’s proposition.  “If Ms. Miller–”

“Professor Miller,” Chair Peterson interjects–

“…But you said she was an adjunct, right, not a professor?  Anyway, if she can teach every class in the English department and turn every student into an A student, then I have an offer of my own: Ms. Miller will be renewed on not just another semester-long contract, but for an entire academic year.”

When Chair Peterson pulls you into his office to go over President Canasta’s teaching offer with you, Jane Miller, adjunct faculty at Opportunity University, you nearly choke on the filtered campus tap water you have been drinking out of your sustainable Opportunity University water bottle in shock.  How and why the higher-ups chose you for this task is beyond you, firstly, because there is typically a cap on courses adjuncts can teach, and even more importantly, you have never taught more than two classes at a time—forget every course in the department!

But as Chair Peterson details the offer, you ponder the possibilities.

An entire year-long teaching contract?  Why, you could actually PLAN AHEAD more than a few months at a time!

You could sign a one-year lease on your studio apartment instead of renting month to month!

You could finally live on your own instead of having a roommate....!  Wait, scratch that last one, living alone would still be too expensive given the coastal, prohibitively expensive city in which you live.  Besides, even teaching all the courses in the department still doesn’t qualify you for a full-time salary with benefits, because, Chair Peterson explains, you would still be an adjunct.

Chair Peterson seems careful to hedge his claims when speaking to you, making it clear, but also vague, and hence ambiguous that as an adjunct, your renewal as an instructor depends very much on whether or not your students do well [read: finish the course with an A].  Because students with As are happy.  And happy students write positive teacher evaluations.  And rehiring an adjunct depends very much on whether that adjunct’s student evaluations are good.

Chair Peterson concludes the meeting by stating that you may take the offer provided, or leave along with the rest of your colleagues, and the entire English department will be shut down without giving students the option to learn about Chaucer or Poe or, for that matter, college writing.

A knot twists in your stomach.

You take the offer.

On your first day of teaching all the courses in the English Department, after teaching the entire morning block from 8am to 12pm, you are given a key to a small, windowless, basement office in a building of disrepair on the edge of campus, a building which, as part of the layoffs, has been swiftly cleared of all other adjunct instructors who used to share it.  In an effort to cut university costs and boost administrator salaries, you are now the sole instructor in the English Department, an adjunct stipulating that there will, at least for this term, be no cap on the number of courses she may teach.

As you stand alone in your new/old office, you’re elated at first, but elation quickly turns to dread when you remember that you have never taught more than two sections at a time per semester.  And what’s more, there’s no way on earth you’ll be able to both teach every student and grade every last paper in the department—and with the unspoken rule that all students must earn As in the grade-inflated, evaluation-based landscape in which you work.

The task sounds impossible and overwhelming, and you put your head in your hands.

And that’s when you hear footsteps and heavy breathing.  You lift your head.  A man walks into your office.  Short, gray, stout, impish, off-putting, with a scowl, he announces he’s the TA for all your classes.

Impossible, you reply.  Adjuncts don’t get TAs to help them teach their classes!

The imp points at one of many massive stacks of yet-to-be graded papers piled on top of your desk.  “I promise I can grade one of those stacks of papers–why, from the looks of it, it seems to be about 100–by tomorrow morning.  And they’ll all be A papers, that I can promise you.”

“Impossible!”  You say again.  “How do you know those papers are ALL A-quality papers?  Trust me, they’re not.  More like Cs that I’ll round up to B+s so that I can keep my job for another term, and so students don’t trash me on teaching evaluations or”

“I have news for you, Professor Miller,” says the imp with a bit of a sneer.  “How well-written or poorly written the papers are doesn’t matter,” he says.  “I’ll still give every paper an A.  And it doesn’t matter if the paper has plagiarized material, unsubstantiated claims, incoherent logic, you name it.  And do you know why?  Because you want to keep your job, not get fired or dragged in online forums, and then you’ll be more likely to win that year-long, full-time teaching contract from President Canasta.  I promise I’ll read through every paper in that stack and make some insightful comments on each one to boot.  Students love glowing comments.  And do you know what they love more?  As.”

“What about lesson plans for the dozens of classes I have to teach?  Can you help me with that?” you ask.

“No worries, I’ll have those all done up for you by tomorrow morning.”

You nod, still wondering who assigned you a TA.

So you leave the imp in your office and go back to your shared studio apartment for the night, where you binge watch episodes of that show that the alt-right on Twitter refers to as “that libtard crap” while your funemployed roommate is out at a karaoke dive bar, presumably until the wee hours of the morning.  You let out a sigh of relief.  Solitude, peace, freedom.  For the first night since before the semester began, you are spending your evening doing something other than grading papers or drafting lesson plans.  You have a glass of wine and savor some of Drake’s latest album.  Your students would have a field day if they were to discover that stuffy-boring-old-Professor-Miller of all people likes listening to Drake.  You remember that you got into a debate a while back with one of your students in freshman comp over Kanye West’s Donda, conceding that it isn’t on par with Graduation or anything, but it is Ye’s best album in a while.  The student had shrugged at your argument, and then didn’t say anything else in class for the rest of the semester.

You smile to yourself at the amusing memory.

Sitting on your couch now, you take a moment to feel grateful to the imp, who is probably still in that dingy little office grading papers, muttering to himself in frustration at a split infinitive or an unsupported claim in a student essay.  In fact, you feel a little guilty, like you’re getting away with something.  But the feeling of guilt quickly passes when you remember that you want to keep your job as an adjunct, because it beats flipping burgers or working retail at Macy’s.  At least you’re helping people, educating the masses, imparting your hard-earned wisdom to respectful youngins.

You sit back and savor the new Drake album some more.

The next morning, when you return to your office, the imp is still there.

He glares at you.  Then, he smiles.

“Thank you, imp.”  You pick up the stack of papers and flip through them as you get ready to take them to your 8am class.  The margins of each paper are covered in handwritten comments, some constructive, some glowing, and even a few with critical remarks phrased in a way that shows judicious care, and on the front page of every single paper is a big, circled letter A written in blue ink instead of red (blue ink is so much less offensive, you think.  He’s good).

“No rubric?” you wonder aloud.

“Why do you need a rubric?  Well, unless they’re getting a grade they don’t like, of course, in which you would need to defend to the student why they got an A-minus, or, God forbid, a B plus.”

“Hm,” you say, considering this.  “To tell you the truth, I’m relieved that I don’t have to deal with every student pushing back on the grade they got, because these are all As!  There’s nothing for them to contest.”  You sigh and prepare to go.  “Well, that takes care of that, doesn’t it?”

“And here is your lesson plan,” the imp says, holding a piece of paper out in front of him.

You reach for the lesson plan, and he snatches the paper out of your reach.

“Not so fast,” he says.  “In exchange for grading that stack of papers for you and creating your lesson plans for this week, you must give me something in exchange, something of personal significance.”

You both glance around your mostly empty office, and at the same time, your gazes land on the one bookshelf filled with books you collected, bought, and borrowed, dating back to your graduate school days.

You hesitate, knowing he’s going to ask for a book, one book in particular.

“Give me your signed copy of Infinite Jest,” he says with authority that belies his position as your TA.

“No!  My copy of Infinite Jest?  But it’s convoluted and no one actually understands it except for me, I don’t merely pretend to understand it!  I really do–it’s my favorite novel of all time, I got it at a book signing with David Foster Wallace when I was in graduate school, and–”

“Do you want to get a full academic year teaching contract after this semester or not?  Or do you want to flounder and fall behind on your grading?  Let your pride get the best of you, become an unnecessarily harsh grader, and then get burned in your end-of-semester teaching evaluations?”

You shove the book at him, stifle a groan, and storm off to your classroom, where your students betray looks of slightly less ennui when you hand them the grades on their most recent papers.





Kirkley Silverman-Mehndiratta

Kirkley Silverman-Mehndiratta has an MA in English and was a Leighton Artists Colony writing fellow at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Banff, Canada. Her work has been published in Litro, Philadelphia Weekly, 34th Parallel, The Write Launch, Turk's Head Review, Extract(s), and elsewhere. She has taught writing at MIT, the University of Pennsylvania, and at several renowned universities in China. Learn more at Kirkley recommends the ACLU and the National Alliance to End Homelessness.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Thursday, October 6, 2022 - 08:41