Your Teaching Assistant, Rumpelstiltskin

Finals period ends.  You turn in your final grades to the grading portal.  Every one of the students’ final grades is an A!  You did it, and with time to spare.  And your students are happy.


And the following week, you receive an email from President Canasta with Department Chair Professor Peterson cc’d with the subject “Congratulations” detailing the offer of a full, year-long teaching contract for the next academic year at Opportunity University.  You throw your arms up in the air in victory and beam the biggest smile you have smiled since you passed your dissertation defense and got your PhD!  And then you almost faint when, at the bottom of the email, President Canasta informs you in writing that you will also, as part of this full-time compensation package, be getting health insurance and benefits, including a university-matched 401K.  You’re a little bit sad, too, because you never really dreamed of teaching, but hey, it’s a job, you think….

Just then, the imp’s labored breathing can be heard outside your office as he stomps down the hallway.

“It happened!”  You exclaim when he appears.  “I got the year-long teaching contract.”

“Of course you did,” the imp says.

“You know, I’ve never asked you your name.  Or, well, you have never told me.”

“Since when does any professor care about something like the name of his TA?” he says.

“Well, I’m still technically not a professor.  I’m still adjunct faculty,” you counter.

“I’m sorry, I cannot tell you my name,” the imp says.  “Besides, it shouldn’t matter to you.  And now, you have gotten your year-long teaching contract as you wanted.  Due to all the help I have given you throughout the term, doing your lesson planning and grading all of your papers–in short, turning all your students into ‘A’ students—I have one final demand.  And this will be my biggest demand yet.  But you must give it to me as part of our bargain.  I won’t take no for an answer.”

Your throat goes dry.  You gulp.  And you get a vague, dreaded feeling that you know what the imp is going to ask of you.

“You will give me your doctoral degree.”


What?!”  You gasp.

“Well, that, or you have to have sex with me.”

“Excuse me??”

“What?”  The imp smirks and raises his hairy eyebrows.

“I’m sorry,” you say, the blood pounding in your head, beads of sweat forming above your lip, “I cannot give you my doctoral degree, and if you are in fact propositioning me for sex, then I am going to have to report you to the Title IX office, and HR.”

“Forget that I said that thing about the sex.  Give me your doctoral degree.  Or else.”

“I refuse.”  You cross your arms.

“How about this?”  This imp says.  “I will give you three days to figure out what my name is.  Guess it.  I’ll be out of town during that time.  Professional reasons.  Email me some guesses, and if you can guess my name correctly by the end of three days when I return, then I will rescind my threat, and you can keep your precious PhD.”

Finals are now over, and grades are turned in.  It’s mid-May, the weather is turning balmy, and even though the academic year is over, you are still sitting in your windowless basement office, consulting dictionaries and Wikipedia (the latter much to your chagrin) and a variety of peer reviewed journals and scholarly sources, hoping to find something that the imp has published and thereby discover his name.  You send the imp lists of names via email every hour.  You comb through old issues of the English department’s newsletter.

And almost immediately after you send each email to the imp with name guesses, you get a response:


The first day goes by, then the second.  Still, you find nothing.  You try not to panic, but then you panic.  Your PhD is your baby.  In the quest to get your PhD, you gave up getting married and owning a home and having an actual baby.

And if you lose your PhD, you will never be able to work again in academia, and academia is all that you know.

You send lists and lists of names to the imp.  You comb through baby name books too.  L.L. Bean catalogs.  Newspapers.  You consider all names, from the most generic (Jim, John), to the biblical (Matthew, Adam) to even the literary-minded (Shakespeare, Beckett).  You wrack your brain.








Xiaolong Bao??

Wait, no, that’s a type of dumpling.

Dumpleding?  That’s not even a word.

And almost immediately after sending each message, you receive that one-word response: No.

It is the morning of Day 3.  You have spent the last two days holed up in your office, and you visit your mailbox in the English department mailroom to pick up your hard copy of next semester’s teaching contract to sign and return to HR.  As you walk through the hallway, a brightly colored piece of paper taped to the wall in front of the copy room catches your eye and causes you to stop in your tracks.  It is a flier for a humanities conference in the middle of the country.

Hmph, probably full of scholars and wannabe scholar-nerds congratulating each other on nothing in particular, you think, and today is its third and final day.

Wait, a three-day conference?  And today is day three?

You remember the imp’s words: I’ll be out of town…. for professional reasons….I will give you three days….

You realize that, given that time is running out to save your degree, you must take a chance that the imp is at this very conference, and that, by spying on him there, you will discover his name.  You are willing to risk anything professionally to save your PhD at this point.  And it looks like this is your Hail Mary.  Besides, as a supposed English scholar, you probably should have been attending that conference anyway to pad your resume and seem more serious about your work.

And the likelihood that the imp is there is strong: the world of humanities scholars is incredibly small.

You look at your phone: it is 7:30 in the morning.  The conference is a three-hour flight away, smack-dab in the middle of the country.

You uber straight from campus to the airport and get on the first flight you can find to the tiny college town.

And before noon that same day, you are walking through the double-doors of a university campus’s conference center in a state where the people who troll you on Twitter live.

Two graduate students greet you at a table and hand you a conference program.  You scan through all the names and conference titles, some from scholars whom you know or have heard of.

And then, there it is–that loud, growly, and yet also high-pitched voice, the unmistakable voice of the imp.  You hear it coming from what appears to be an amphitheater-style conference hall just a few feet away.  You glance down at the conference program in your hand and read the name: Rumpelstilt-skin.  Someone named Rumpelstiltskin is delivering a lecture in Grimm Hall at noon.

Hm, that kind of, sort of sounds like Dumpleding, you think.  You were almost close that time.

You look at your watch.

It is 12:08.

“Is that Grimm Hall?” you ask the graduate students sitting at the welcome table.

They nod and smile.

The title of the talk in Grimm Hall is“The Teleology of Impish Rogues in the Global North: A Problematic of Trauma vis-a-vis the Villainesque in Pre-19th-century German Fairy Tales” by Rumpelstiltskin.

Your eye wanders down through the other conference presentations on the written program.  You quickly realize that this ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ is giving many of the talks at this conference—monopolizing the conference, really—and each one of the talks has a title that is more nonsensical, incoherent, and bizarre than the next, including but not limited to the following:

“Semantic Pragmatics of ELL Phonemes in Postcolonial German Fairytales” by Rumpelstiltskin

“Applying Impish Anti-Discriminatory Rhetorics to TAs of Post-Secondary First Year Writing Courses” by Rumpelstiltskin

“The Psychology of Dionysian Pedagogy in Queer Video Games” by Rumpelstiltskin

And finally:

“How to Grade College Essays Super-Fast!  A Crash-Course” by Rumpelstiltskin

Clutching the conference program in your hand, you steel yourself and march into Grimm Hall, where the voice of Rumpelstiltskin, your TA, and monopolizing conference speaker, drones on, throwing phrases around like “tortuous” (meandering, not to be confused with torturous) “anagnorisis” (when a character in a story recognizes the truth), and a variety of other overused words in the humanities academy.  In fact, Rumpelstiltskin is busy talking about “elucidating an important point in this problematic,” when you interrupt him by shouting–


For a moment, the imp hesitates, then continues speaking “—uh, in fact, in elucidating said problematic, we’ll explore the underlying mechanistic framework of–”

“RUMPELSTILTSKIN!  RUMPELSTILTSKIN!  RUMPELSTILTSKIN!  That’s your NAME!  I know your name, and now, your demands on my doctoral degree must be rescinded!”  you shout at the imp.

The few people in an audience filled with a bit too much tweed collectively turn around to stare at you, the unknown adjunct.  And then, Rumpelstiltskin covers his ears, and the crowd turns back to look at him for his reaction.

“Aaaaaaah!” the imp shouts, stomping one foot and then the other as he boxes his ears and grits his teeth.

“RUMPELSTILTSKIN!!!!”  You repeat, over and over again, and the imp stomps and stomps until one foot and then the other breaks through the floor of the conference stage, and the small-sized, overly tweedy crowd collectively gasps.

Someone calls an EMT after Rumpelstiltskin falls through the conference stage, but before the paramedics arrive, you have already high-tailed it back to your coastal city.




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