Your Teaching Assistant, Rumpelstiltskin

It’s 8:00pm later that same day, and you’ve been seeing students nonstop since 3pm.  Before that, you taught all morning and into the afternoon.  The office hours for the last five consecutive hours are because you are required by the university to hold one office hour per class that you teach, and the number of classes that you’re currently teaching is, well…all of them.

Before you see the imp, you hear him grunting from the hallway.  He saunters into your office.

“Well, well, well,” the imp says, looking at the never-ending stack of papers piled on your desk, including yet another assignment that your students just returned to you, not to mention the papers from Freshman Comp. that still haven’t been graded.  Your expression probably looks pained, because the imp says curtly, “Oh, don’t give me that pitiful look of desperation.”

You try to manage your facial expression into one of neutrality, but it’s difficult to mask your worry.

“I see that the semester is winding down already,” he says.

“It is?” you ask.

“Don’t you remember that the department was all but cut more than halfway through the term?  Reading day and then the final exam period are approaching.  And I can see that you’re clearly in over your head.  So, I have another offer for you.  By the end of next week, I will grade all of the final papers for all of your English course sections, even Victorian Lit,” the imp says.

“Victorian Lit?  Ha, good luck finding As in that bunch,” you say.  “They sleep through the entire class.”

The imp wags his finger at you.  “You’re not a very good instructor, are you?  Remember what I said?  You give As anyway if you want to keep your job and get that full year academic contract.”

You throw your hands up.  “OK, fine,” you say, wondering whether you had in fact been too punitive to your students with their grades.

And as you walk out of your office, you glance at the empty space on your bookshelf, remembering the imp’s previous demand, and a knot tightens in your stomach.  You’re bracing yourself for what he will demand of you next….


While the imp toils away in your basement office that week, you take the entire week off from grading papers.  You’re filled with glee at the prospect of free time, but you’re also wondering if your approach to teaching has been all wrong.  Sure, you could call yourself a fast grader—but it’s nothing compared to the imp.  And in terms of the grades your students were getting, were you too tough on them before?

Getting through teaching all the classes in the English department is easier with the imp’s lesson plans.  Though students once slept through your lectures, scrolled through their phones, or all-out cut them, more are trickling into class now—and on time!

You spend the hours that you’re not grading papers taking in the art museums and galleries, visiting a local winery, and even attending a meetup with old college friends in the area whom you haven’t seen since the academic year started.  At the meetup, there is a brief scuffle in a local bar when a stranger calls your friend, also an adjunct, a ‘cuck’ and a ‘beta’, and you almost get into a fight with him and his friends.  The tension with a stranger, the will-he-or-won’t-he assault my friend—it all invigorates you!  And now, with less grading to do, you finally have time to pay attention to things like self-care, sleep, and basic hygiene like showering.

You have a secret weapon now, and it is the imp.

You’re no longer watching the clock, trying to get one more paper graded and trading it with one less hour of sleep.  You notice less grays and more freshly sprouted, youthful browns coming in, in…all sorts of places on your body.  And when you return to your office at 7:30am the following Monday morning, after an entire week of gallivanting through your exorbitantly expensive city full of coastal elites, it is the last day of classes just before the final exam reading period begins.  When you see the imp, he is slipping the final essay of the graded stack to the top of the last pile.

“Well?  Take a look,” he says with an elaborate flourish of his arm.  There are stacks of papers all around the room and almost no room to fit anything else.

Again, every single paper is covered in blue ink and scribbled with a massive, circled A on the top of each front page.

“I don’t know how you completed this so quickly, and so well,” you say, flipping through stacks and stacks of graded papers and having trouble maneuvering around the crowded room.

“Maybe it’s time to consider a different line of work?” the imp says as you shuffle through the graded papers in awe.  He says it so quietly that you wonder if he’s actually talking to you.

“This would have taken me weeks, probably, on top of office hours, teaching, email correspondence, union meetings–”

“You still have union meetings?  Even after everyone got let go except you?”

“Well, a bunch of the laid off adjuncts are still attending the union meetings to gripe about what being an adjunct was once like for them, so….”

“That’s enough,” the imp says, looking impatient.  “Now, for my payment.  What will you give me in exchange for this stack of hundreds of student papers—from Victorian Literature to African-American Literature to Postcolonial Lit to a seminar on Edgar Allen Poe, to—oh, I know…” the imp says, twiddling his thumbs, a gruesome smile spreading across his face.

Don’t say it, don’t say it, don’t say it, you think, holding your breath, hoping against all hope….

He glares at you.  “You will now give me the entire first draft of that self-indulgent novel you have been working on for the last five years.”


“Which one?” you ask, hoping to confuse the imp by implying there’s more than one book you have ever worked on.

“Oh, you know the one,” the imp replies.

But that novel was my ticket out of here, you think.

“I’m sure you think that that novel is your ticket out of adjuncting here, or some crap idea like that, but c’mon, really?  No one reads these days.  And advances and royalties being the pittance that they are?  Give me a break.  Hand it over.”

“Fine,” you say, marching over to your office drawer and pulling out the first draft of that novel you have been working on—yes, the self-indulgent one with the premise that nevertheless is almost good.  The one thing you actually cared about, except….

You shove the draft of your novel at the imp, and then grab the stack of graded papers covered with copious notes, and all adorned with As, to head to your final 8am class meeting of the term.  Your novel now flushed down the proverbial toilet and given to your TA, you curse yourself, knowing you’ll have to start writing something more catchy, less self-indulgent, to make up for this loss and maybe cash in on a quick buck.  Like, you’ll have to write something that people actually want to read, that isn’t art.  Oh, no.  You’ll have to write fast-paced thrillers.  Or romance novels.

Or… beach reads.





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