Chapter 11: A Day in a Life
It was Monday morning. Daria got out of her car. It wasn't yet drizzling, though she had run the windshield wipers once or twice on the way. She thought, 'Nothing like drizzle in late January.' She walked around her car, removed her charging cable from the trunk and plugged her car into the charging station outlet. Lawndale State had just installed additional parking spaces with charging stations for plug-in hybrid cars. Arriving a half hour before classes started was enough to get Daria one of those spaces. She decided to get into the office early today to finish up her presentation for the conference. She was looking forward to this conference not only because it was an opportunity to find out about the latest research in comparative literature, but also because it was in Tampa, Florida. Daria was ready to go and visit summer and feel some warmth again. Tom had left early in the morning to catch a flight to Baltimore on his way to Minneapolis for a three day meeting with clients. So, it turned out this was a very opportune time to go to a conference.
As she walked into the office Daria noticed immediately that she was not the first one there. The secretary was already there.
"Good morning Daria!" Brittany said in her characteristic high pitched voice that seemed to end every sentence with a squeak. In her early 30's Brittany was still the tall, attractive, buxom blonde she had been in high school, well except for the tiny crow's feet at the corner of her eyes. There was also a little more brain there than before, but not much. She had traded cheerleading for parenthood and single parenthood at that. Her first husband had left her for someone else – Daria did not care to know the details. "Are you ready to go to Florida and get some sun? I sure wish that I was going with you. This is the part of winter that is the hardest. It is cold, gray and boring. The holidays are long over, I don't really have anyone for Valentine's Day, and there is just nothing until Easter. Even then Easter is kind of early this year. So, we may not really have spring weather yet. I don't know about you, but I think that things just get really boring. The Superbowl is the only thing left. I'm not really into basketball. I like baseball a whole lot better. It at least gets you outside in the park. It seems like the best I can do right now is Zumba class. Are you taking any classes like yoga or something with your pregnancy?"
"Not really," Daria replied. Brittany's mindless prattle was enough to drive Daria crazy at this hour of the morning. What was worse was that she brought up sports. "I am looking forward to this conference, but it is because of the sessions I can go to not because I want to go and spend time in the sun, though I will admit that it will be nice to feel warmth again." Daria thought, 'At least Brittany had brewed the first pot of coffee for the day. There was some redeeming feature of encountering her in the office!'
"You really should have some fun while you are down there. You professors seem to just get caught up in all your dull academic stuff and never want to have any fun! You should at least skip out and have a day at the beach."
"Thanks Brittany. I'll think about that. Maybe I will pack a bathing suit," Daria said as she poured herself some coffee, grabbed yesterday's mail out of her box and headed down the hall to her office. The encounter had kind of broken the mood of the morning. Daria was perfectly happy with mild melancholy in the morning. Then it was disturbed by that bubbly cheeriness rearing its ugly head on her day.
Once in her office Daria started her computer, set down her coffee, took off her coat and hung it on the back of the door. She sat down and after logging in first checked her email to see if there was anything from the Balkans. Thankfully there wasn't. Maybe that nightmare in her life was finally over. She went through and sent all of the junk emails to the trash, so that she wouldn't have to be bothered with them. She started reading the remainder of the new emails in her account.
Looking down the list she saw the usual university communications: announcements of various seminars, colloquia, and talks by visitors from around the world. Her department had a visitor from China, who was holding a series of talks about literature trends since the Cultural Revolution with an emphasis on writings in the 21st century. Daria had attended several. It had become clear to her very quickly that writing in a country which strictly – and sometimes viciously – censored authors did not produce particularly vibrant and rich literature. If anything the talks had become a forum to promote the current propaganda of the communist party. It was mildly interesting to see what the current political fad was, but that was about it. Daria sometimes wondered about the real mission of the visiting scholar. Surely there was nothing worth spying on in Lawndale or Lawndale State University. She did always seem to have Chinese students in her office. At least their government was smart enough to send someone who spoke English well! This was probably a good idea when they were being sent to a university English department.
Once she was through both the mail and her email, Daria set about putting the final touches on her presentation. She was lucky enough not to have class until early in the afternoon. So, the morning could be spent putting the finishing touches on her conference presentation and catching up on some grading. All-in-all she looked forward to a productive morning.
About two hours into the morning Daria was done with her presentation. Just as she finished saving the file there was a knock at her door. She quickly downloaded the file to a stick and put the stick in her pocket. She would load it on her laptop at home and take both to the conference. Daria got up, walked around her desk in the cramped office, and opened the door.
Perry Samson stood there looking way too cheery for a January morning. "Good Morning Dr. Sloane!" He said in an all too cheery voice. "I submitted my first chapter to you this morning and was wondering if we could go over it. I saw on your calendar that you were free now."
First Brittany and now Perry. Why was everyone so darned perky on a gray day like this? Daria replied to Perry in total deadpan, "If you just submitted it this morning what makes you think I have even seen it yet?"
"Well, I sent it to your email," Perry replied.
"Look. I check my email maybe two to three times per day. I was here early this morning and did not have an email from you at that time. So, I will probably see it when I check at lunchtime. Even when I do see it, then you need to allow me at least a week to read it and critique it. I am leaving for a conference later today and so I won't be able to see you before next Wednesday at the earliest. Please check my calendar for next week and send me a meeting invitation." With that Daria turned and closed the door and stood with her back to it. She thought, 'This was one of the problems with these kids today. They expect that I can just skim their work and then magically declare it acceptable without serious review.' Then she thought, 'Oh God, did I just think that? I sound like an old person! Well, Mom's late hippie friend said I had an 'old soul.' Oh well.' Daria returned to her desk and started working on her grading.
When Daria was about half finished with her grading there was another knock on the door. Once again she got up, walked around her desk and opened it. There stood one of the students from her afternoon class. She asked, "Are we going to get our papers back today?"
Daria stood in her doorway, leaned against the doorjam, folded her arms and replied, "What did I say in our last class meeting?"
"That we would get out papers back," the young woman responded.
"OK, then I think you should plan on getting your papers back, assuming that I do not have so many interruptions that I cannot finish grading them."
"Thanks," the young woman said. Then she walked off.
Daria closed her door and went back to grading.
About five minutes later there was another knock on the door. The interruptions were starting to irritate Daria. She opened the door and once again a student asked whether or not the papers would be returned. Daria responded in the affirmative. After the fourth interruption and response Daria was annoyed. She took a piece of paper and wrote on it, 'Grading – Do Not Disturb' and taped it to the outside of her door. Then she went back to her grading.
Lunchtime finally rolled around. Daria completed the grading and grade entry with about 45 minutes to spare before class. She grabbed her thermal lunch bag and ate her sandwich and drank her juice while going over email and starting to read Perry's thesis chapter. It seemed to her that as soon as she finished eating it was time to go to class. She copied her notes onto a memory stick and walked out of the office toward the classroom. She had set the timing for the assignments on the learning management system so that they would become visible to the students five minutes after the beginning of class.
Teaching today was much like any other day. As the junior most faculty member she got to teach the students during the "death hour" – the hour after lunch when the blood in their bodies flowed away from their brains to their stomachs in order to digest their food. Just keeping them awake was a feat in and of itself. It was even worse since these were freshmen. They tended to over eat the starchy cafeteria food. This was a huge contributor to the 'freshman 15' weight gain. What they needed to do was eat a third as much, get some protein, and some complex carbohydrates so that they had some energy that would last through the afternoon.
Daria had a strategy. She needed to keep the students moving and thinking. So, for this course she divided her class into 15 minute segments punctuated by 5 minute segments – called it content and commercials. This was a pace that would at least keep the students awake. Now if they would just think about the books they were supposed to be reading. Most didn't know the difference between how to read a work of literature versus casually reading a billboard. They needed to read using methods to retain information. She had tried to introduce some of these methods during the first two weeks of the course. Most were not retaining it, so now she had to spend time repeating herself. Daria hated that, but students this young still needed repetition. She prayed she didn't wind up with a bulging eye and constant feeling of failure like Mr. DeMartino did back in high school.
The course itself was a survey of literature, which counted as one of the possible freshman English choices Lawndale State students could select. Like all of the freshman English courses it was heavy on writing. The reading was a smattering of works from ancient to modern. The modern works included both literature originally written in English and a few translated pieces. The challenge for the students was not only to get through the volume of reading, but to perceive the thread that wound its way through all of these works. Daria felt that as a professor it was her job to lead them down the path, but not hold their hands all along the way. They had to learn to think for themselves and think critically. That was the theory anyway. What concerned her was that too many students wanted to be told what to think. Daria had never been one who liked to be told what to think.
Standing in front of the 30 students in her class Daria said, "Your graded papers are now posted. Let's discuss the ideas you came up with. Here are some things I observed while grading …"
When class was finally over Daria couldn't wait to get back to her office. She had just 4 hours before going to the airport. There was a department faculty meeting this afternoon and she wanted to use that time to take one final look at her presentation and maybe even practice it once. She also wanted to try and anticipate questions which might be asked.
Daria made a quick trip to the library right before the faculty meeting. The place had been recently renovated and to Daria's annoyance the emphasis in the renovation had nothing to do with books. The modern campus library was supposed to be an 'information hub' that included computers with access to a myriad of databases, meeting rooms, student and community services somehow related to information, a coffee shop, and then as an afterthought some shelves with books and a few magazines. It hardly seemed like a place for serious scholarship anymore. Gone were the days of 'browsing the stacks.' Instead, books were ordered from either your computer or one inside the library. You had to know what you wanted. All in all it was a big disappointment. While the coffee shop was a godsend nevertheless Daria really didn't think it should be in the library. She couldn't dispute, however, that it got far more students in the building than would otherwise be here. In any event, Daria needed a latte with at least one extra shot of espresso in order to live through the faculty meeting. She walked up to the student at the ordering station and ordered an Irish cream latte with an extra shot. She silently apologized to her baby. She needed the caffeine to at least get her onto the plane this evening.
Daria walked into the Department of English Conference Room. She found a seat near the far end of the conference table. Anyone who thought academia was a luxurious ivory tower hadn't been in this conference room. She was never quite sure if the smell was something long dead in the room or her fellow faculty members – a couple of whom could be walking dead. The long wooden tables had been acquired from the Library – some 30 years ago just before its last renovation. The chairs were about the same vintage. The foam had totally broken down and Daria might as well have been sitting on a bare board. Her theory was that the discomfort helped keep department faculty awake during what were mostly deathly dull meetings!
With English being a requirement for all undergraduate majors at the university their department was large by Lawndale State standards. Most were 6 to 10 faculty members. In English there were 20 faculty members altogether. Daria was the only new assistant professor this year. Last year there had been two. At the moment the department was fairly balanced with 3 part-time instructors, 4 assistant professors, 6 associate professors, and 7 full professors. However, over the next five years there would likely be more retirements.
One by one the members of the department filtered in. She just hoped that Prof. Czylok didn't sit next to her. He was internationally known in the field of American Literature for his expertise on Walt Whitman poetry. He was also known for having only one suit, which he wore every day and never bothered to take to the cleaners. Daria guessed one way to keep meetings short was to have everybody trying to escape the room before they gagged!
Cate Jones walked into the room. Tall, thin, wrinkled with gray eyes and sporting long gray hair below her shoulders, Daria actually felt sorry for Cate. She had been with the department for almost 40 years. She was clearly the most senior faculty member. Unfortunately, she did not get any respect from the other senior faculty – because she lacked a doctoral degree. She had started teaching back when the university was just a small state teachers' college and they had even given people without doctorates the title of Assistant Professor. That would never happen today. Daria wished that the other faculty members would respect her for her amazing talents as a teacher. She really did get the interest of students in the material of the freshman English classes she taught. Daria was trying to get Cate to mentor her teaching. Cate walked over and sat next to Daria. The smell of cigarette smoke was heavy on her clothes and on her breath.
Turning and looking at Daria Cate remarked, "Well, which blowhard do you think will monopolize the meeting today?"
"I can't say," Daria responded. "But it would be nice once in a while to get through Bill's agenda rather than get sidetracked." Dr. Bill Culbertson was the department chair and lived down the street from Jake and Helen Morgendorffer.
"That is for sure. Oh look, here comes Dev. If Dev Gupta can't steal a meeting, then I don't know who can! Surely he will want to talk about salaries and benefits, especially his own!" The two women chuckled. With a sigh Cate added, "Well, when in your own mind you are eminently qualified to drone on about anything…"
Brittany came in and sat on the other side of Daria and prepared to take the minutes of the meeting. That meant pulling out the little digital recorder and turning it on. It certainly seemed that since Daria had arrived back in Lawndale that Brittany was much more comfortable sitting next to her than next to any of the other faculty members. Daria figured that this was because she was not only familiar, but that Daria was not condescending or cruel to Brittany. That was not true of some of the other faculty. Brittany was certainly dumb, especially compared to the others in the room. But, she did not need to be reminded of that fact.
As everyone was seated, Dr. Culbertson came in and started the meeting. "Does everyone have an agenda? Raise your hand if you do not." He asked. About half the people gathered raised a hand and Brittany got up and handed them printed agendas. They started through the usual announcements that could have been sent as simple emails or in many cases already had. In less than ten minutes a third of the faculty were staring at their phones. Daria was not being so rude.
Dr. Culbertson stopped and cleared his throat to get everyone's attention. Then he said, "I have received the distribution of grades in freshman English from Fall. There has been a significant negative shift in the average freshman grade in the course. The proportion of failures is unchanged, but there was clearly a greater percentage of 'Ds' and 'Cs' than a year ago. Since most of you teach at least one section of the course, I want to hear what happened."
"Every year these freshman seem to get worse," Dr. Gupta intoned. "We really need to speak to these public schools, especially Lawndale High. They either need to improve their teaching of literature and writing or get better teachers. The students are simply unprepared to meet my standards, which are wholly reasonable for college level reading and writing."
"So, let me ask a question here. Are you saying that the public schools should all be looking to you for their standards?" asked Dr. Aaron Qualer.
Dr. Gupta replied, "Well, they would certainly be producing a better product if they did! I was totally appalled when a student wrote in her first paper using some of those horrible abbreviations like they use when they carry out the appalling practice of texting each other."
Cate leaned over and whispered in Daria's ear, "Probably something like 'kmn' in one of his lectures."
Daria just smiled. 'Kill me now' could certainly be a text message for many of these meetings as well. Too bad Cate was not tenured. She could have said it to the whole group.
Dr. Constance Battles, expert and lone African American in the department jumped in. "I don't think we are being sensitive enough to the backgrounds of our students. We are not being sensitive to the fact that as our numbers of underrepresented groups recruited into the freshman class increases their diverse backgrounds are not suited to the Eurocentric attitude of this faculty and the freshman course you make them endure. If you want to engage them you will have to include more African-American and Latino literature. You are asking a growing segment to read and write about things outside their cultural boundaries."
Now it was Dr. Petri's turn to jump into the fray. As a professor of writing and communications he never bothered to let subtlety interfere with what we said. "Constance, that is pure rubbish and you know it. We dumbed down the reading list for the course two years ago and specifically addressed your concerns at that time. What do want in the course – picture and pop-up books? Maybe we should have them draw pictures with crayons and color them rather than write coherent essays. That seems to be the practice in the public schools these days!"
Constance replied, "That is the most insensitive statement I think I have heard come out of your mouth in at least a month. You should apologize to everyone who worked hard on that course for saying that."
"What's the matter? Does the truth hurt?" Dr. Petri replied. "The fact is that the little idiots come in here coddled and needing their noses wiped for them. A little fear of failure never hurt. They need to step up and do the work that is assigned to them and do it well. No one in the workplace is going to hold their hands."
Dr. Peggy Kelly jumped in at this point and said, "Have we looked at the teaching methods we are using? If we could incorporate more active learning, then studies show we can better engage our students in the material! Just lecturing to them is not going to engage this generation of students."
Cate again leaned over to Daria and whispered, "Now the fun starts. Today's question is: Will it be a fire show or a water show!" Daria was beginning to wish that it was real Irish cream liqueur in her coffee and not just flavoring and an extra shot of espresso.
Petri looked at Peggy and growled, "Well, I do not need an untenured junior faculty member telling me how to teach. I know what is efficient in transmitting knowledge to freshmen. That is what over thirty years of experience in this place gives me. Lecturing senior faculty on how they should be teaching is not a good path to tenure."
Constance looked over to Peggy and attacked as well. "You go on and on about this 'active learning' stuff. But how do you know that it will engage the underrepresented students? Can you produce your precious data on that?"
"There is data on that and it shows improved learning," Peggy said with ever so slight a crack in her voice.
Constance dismissed her statement with, "Well you don't have it to cite here, so your point is unacceptable."
Dev added, "You keep coming up with this stuff, Peggy. You need to listen to the people with experience. Maybe you will learn something. I don't know what they taught you up in North Dakota or wherever it was you went to school, but here we use proven instructional methods. Not just the 'flavor of the day' or something that would fit middle school children. These are adults and they need to learn to be adults. You make me wonder about your fitness to teach here!"
At the last comment Peggy couldn't take it anymore. She got up and ran from the room crying. Side conversations were becoming arguments around the room.
Cate leaned over to Daria and whispered, "Water show. Complete with sharks."
"Alright," Dr. Culbert said banging his hand on the table. "That will be enough. Since we can't seem to have a civil discussion about the subject in this meeting I am appointing a committee to study the problem and report back to us before the end of the semester. Daria, I am appointing you to chair the committee, since you had the best student evaluations in freshman English in the fall semester. I am appointing professors Qualer, Kelly, and Zhang to work with you. I want a reasonable set of recommendations."
"Yes Dr. Culbertson," Daria replied. Daria thought, 'Great. I have the questioner, the crier, and the one who wants consensus on everything. There is just nothing like an impossible task and one which will anger the very people who will eventually vote on my tenure application, because heaven forbid they ever have to change anything.'
"Brittany, set an appointment for us next week and we will discuss the committee's task," Dr. Culbertson said.
Brittany responded, "Yes Dr. Culbertson."
By now there were only 15 minutes left in the meeting. Dr. Culbertson had only gotten to one item on the agenda, but the meeting was clearly and irretrievably out of order. He simply announced the next meeting date and they adjourned.
As she was walking back to her office Daria was approached by Cate. Cate said, "Daria, if you would like some help with this come and talk to me. I know all of these personalities quite well. When you submit your written report the wording won't be a big deal. However, you will want Aaron to do the presentation not you. He is mean enough to not only hit them between the eyes with the heresy of having to change, but he will enjoy it. There is nothing the faculty can do to him."
"Thanks Cate. I will," Daria said. "Now if you will excuse me, I need to finish up a few things and then head to the airport. I am off to a conference for a few days. I have a paper to present."
"I hope it goes well for you," Cate replied. Then the two women parted company.
Daria walked up to her office door, placed her hand on the handle and immediately heard her mobile phone emitting the ringtone for Quinn. Still in the hallway she pulled out her phone and said, "Hello."
"Daria, it's Tyler."
"What's up Tyler? Why are you on Quinn's phone?"
"Because it was in her purse which she grabbed on the way out the door going to the hospital."
Daria's eyes got wider at the word 'hospital.'
"Elias Jake Smith was born at 2:17 this afternoon! Congratulations. You are an aunt!"
Daria opened her office door and quickly walked in and sat down.
"Daria, are you still there?"
"Yes, Tyler. I'm here. Wow. A boy! Congratulations to you and Quinn. Can I talk to my sister?"
"She is right here. I'll give her the phone, but keep it short. She is really tired and we have a couple more calls to make."
"Hi Daria," Quinn said weakly.
"Congratulations on your baby boy!"
"Thanks. We named him after Dad and Tyler's Dad. You and I need to talk when I am rested. I'll have to tell you all about giving birth."
"I can't wait," Daria replied. She absent mindedly rubbed her abdomen.
"It really isn't so bad and you get a beautiful baby when you are done! Tyler got to cut the cord and Elias took right to nursing, too."
"Hmm," Daria replied feeling a tiny bit nauseated. "That is really great."
"When will you be able to come and see us?"
"Unfortunately, I have to leave for the airport shortly to go to a conference in Florida. I am guessing it will be next week before I can see Elias."
"I really want to see you, Daria. Please come as soon as you can," Quinn pleaded.
Daria was actually touched by the sound in Quinn's voice. Her sister actually missed her! She went on to say, "I am really anxious to see Elias. Now you get some rest. I will see you soon, Would you put Tyler back on the phone?"
"Hey Daria," Tyler said.
Daria snapped at Tyler, "Why didn't you at least text me that Quinn was in labor? Do my parents know yet?"
Tyler calmly responded, "Quinn went into labor about six this morning. Her water broke early and there just wasn't time. We needed to get her to the hospital and it was just one thing after another. Fortunately, there were no cops around when I was running red lights! Anyway, there just wasn't time. As for your parents, Jake and Helen are our next call."
"OK," Daria said. "Message pictures to me or at least put some up on social media so I can see the baby!"
"Will do," Tyler replied. Then he ended the call.
Daria slipped her phone in her pocket, turned her chair and stared out the window. It really struck her that the next generation of the family had made its appearance. Soon enough it would be her turn on the birthing table. Well, she couldn't dwell on these thoughts now. She had to finish her work and get to the airport. Pulling out her phone again, she texted Tom about the baby. They would talk this evening once she got to the hotel. Now back to the tasks at hand!