OFF THE TENURE TRACK
January 3, 2010, 10:23 a.m.: My heart skips with anticipation when my inbox includes mail from Dr. Hunt, the Dean at the University of North Carolina’s School of Business. “I’m delighted to confirm your appointment as adjunct professor for the undergraduate course: Residential Real Estate, Law and Finance. Please come tomorrow morning for orientation on classroom technology. Your first class will be next Tuesday, January 11.”
I sit for a moment before the screen and contemplate the serendipitous path that led to this point. We’d moved from New Jersey to Chapel Hill just five months earlier. I’d retired from practicing law in New Jersey, but thought I might eventually do “something” in North Carolina.
Faster than I’d imagined, it all came together. Only several months after we arrived, my wife, Katie, met a woman playing tennis who indicated she taught a class at the business school. When Katie mentioned I’d been a real estate lawyer for twenty-six years, she suggested I fax my resume to the Dean.
“He just announced that he’d like to expand the real estate curriculum,” she said.
I completed and submitted a brief summary of my career in less than fifteen minutes. After all, I’d been my own boss for decades. There wasn’t much information to list. The home phone rang within an hour.
“Please come meet with me next week, “ said Dean Hunt, after we exchanged pleasantries.
He continued: “The basic course on house closings has been taught by a prominent local realtor for fifteen years, but he wants to retire. I’d like to add mortgage financing and legal issues to the mix, and your background is perfect.”
I couldn’t believe my luck. Faster than I could say “on-campus parking pass,” I was on the way to becoming a teacher at UNC and, thus, a full-fledged member of the semi-retired population of Chapel Hill. It’s a rare local person with an advanced degree, after all, who is not somehow affiliated with a university or two, as instructor, mentor or consultant.
My initial meeting with Dr. Hunt, a fit man of about fifty, surprised me. I expected to explain how my law practice had evolved, what I thought I could teach the students, and how the subject matter could be presented. I expected him to list his expectations and ask a number of questions about whether I had teaching experience (I didn’t), whether I could relate to college-aged students, and whether my temperament was suited to the task. Worried I would be deemed unsuitable I spent time preparing responses with Katie, an educator with thirty years of experience.
Instead, as we sat down on opposite sides of his desk, he pointed to various pennants of European and South American soccer teams on his walls, and asked: “Are you a fan?”
“Yes,” I said. “I played soccer myself and coached all three of my children.”
“Wonderful!” he said, a broad smile spreading out from his brown-hued beard and mustache, his eyes twinkling. “You’ll be an asset to the faculty team.”
“Um,” I said, “Are there any particular things you’ll want me to cover in the course?”
“Oh,” he said, “There’s plenty of time for that. It doesn’t start until January. Tell me about your kids’ teams.”
And so it went for thirty minutes. The only information somewhat relevant to teaching at UNC concerned the summer classes the business school offered in England, China and Brazil.
“Great soccer there,” he said. With a wink, he added: “There’ll be plenty of opportunities for faculty to chaperone the trips, you know.”
When I sensed we’d exhausted the subject of soccer, the Dean said he was late for a meeting. As I stood up, I asked: “Are there any further steps I need to take?”
“Oh, it shouldn’t be a problem to list your course for the spring semester,” he said. “I’ll speak to the administration and confirm. In the meantime, let’s put together a curriculum. Why don’t you send me an outline?”
After our meeting, per Dr. Hunt’s suggestion, I compiled a proposed syllabus. I expected he and I would work closely to make sure all the necessary aspects of the subject were covered. Instead, each time I forwarded a proposal, he took several weeks to respond. September gave way to October. October bled into November. The Dean neither rejected nor embraced my ideas specifically. He merely tinkered via e-mails with a concept here and there. “Perhaps you’ll have a guest speaker on house-flipping,” he wrote once. “Maybe the students will role-play as though they are realtors, mortgage brokers or clients,” he wrote another time.
Each week, I spent several hours working on the syllabus, sometimes more.
Changing the order of things and breaking down ninety-minute sessions into fifteen-minute segments, I felt like I was painting in the dark, adding a stroke here and there, but never certain how my final product would appear.
“You’re spending a lot of time on this,” said Katie one evening in November, while I pored through a collection of New Yorker cartoons in search of humorous but memorable representations of real estate topics. “You’re sure you’re hired to do this, right?”
“I’m starting to wonder myself,” I said. “But Dr. Hunt was confident. He should know, right?”
“I guess so,” said Katie. “But UNC’s pretty bureaucratic, from what I hear.”
“I’ll ask him again,” I said.
The next morning, after my e-mail inquiry bounced back with an out-of-town notice I called Dr. Hunt’s office.
“He’s at a conference,” said the receptionist.
“Will he be in next week?” I asked.
“No, he’ll be at his beach house until after Thanksgiving,” said the receptionist.
“Okay,” I said. “Can I make an appointment to see him the following week?”
“One moment, please,” she said. “I’ll check his schedule.”
While I waited I pictured the life of the Dean. It seemed like a lot of meetings, interspersed with ballgames, conferences and the beach house. When did he get any work done?
The receptionist returned to the phone and said: “Dean Hunt is out until December 5. You can reach him after that.”
I decided to put the syllabus aside for a couple of weeks, but the course was never far from my mind. I tried not to boast to anyone outside my family before I received confirmation, but I couldn’t help being excited. Besides the parking pass, there would be tremendous discounts at the UNC golf course and sporting events. Plus, it’d be fun to say, with nonchalance, “I teach a course at the University.”
I did have concerns about the technological and psychological aspects of teaching. Teaching involves varied skills, involving power point presentations, grading papers and lecturing. Instead of knowing the situation of each of my clients from a position of strength and expertise, I would be offering a set of knowledge to twenty or thirty students whom I barely know.
And then there were practical considerations. For instance, do I wear a suit? A blazer over khakis? A shirt and tie? Will the students call me “Mister” or “Professor?” How often do adjuncts chaperone summer sumeer students abroad? Are these working vacations or mere boondoggles? Dean Hunt certainly implied the trips were fun. Will I have my pick of countries? Will the University pay for my wife to go, too?
December 5 arrived and I still couldn’t get an appointment with Dr. Hunt. He was always in meetings or at conferences except for one time when he’d traveled to Syracuse to see UNC play a critical basketball game. In e-mails, he responded slowly and incompletely, offering almost no feedback. Still, he wrote just before the Christmas break: “I hope to have confirmation of your classroom and student roster any day now. Hang tight just a little longer.”
By this time, I’d nearly despaired of teaching the course, at least for the spring semester. Relieved I’d told so few people about the class, I could almost sleep through the night without lying awake obsessing about explaining mortgages to nineteen-year-olds or, worse, what would happen if I lost my train of thought in front the class. Then, finally, at 10:23 a.m. on January 3, I opened my e-mail and saw the long-awaited note. “I’m delighted to confirm your appointment….”
Home alone when my status as a University instructor, a shaper of young minds, a teacher, was confirmed, I hardly knew how to react.
“Unbelievable,” I said to myself. “I’m not just a professional; I’m a member of the intelligentsia.”
For a moment, I forgot how difficult it had been to pin down Dr. Hunt. I reveled in how smoothly the process had gone: Quit working, move to North Carolina, meet some people, and secure a teaching position at the eminent university.
“By tomorrow at this time,” I told myself, “you will know how to use a laser pointer.”
While still in my reverie about my new status, the computer indicated the arrival of another e-mail from Dr. Hunt. At 11:04, he wrote: “I’m so sorry. I’m so embarrassed. I’ve just been informed by the administration that, due to budget constraints, there is an indefinite moratorium on new course offerings. So sorry for the time and energy you’ve put in. Your course would have been an asset. All my best.”
I reread the e-mail three or four times. I parsed the words like a biblical scholar. My career as a professor had ended before it had begun. I expected to feel anger, outrage and disappointment. Instead, overwhelming relief welled up. I wouldn’t have the new “status.” I wouldn’t learn new skills. I wouldn’t have the inside track to see the Duke basketball game in person. But I also wouldn’t be tied down to a schedule and I wouldn’t have a dean or administration to answer to. I wouldn’t worry about whether my students “got it.”
When she arrived home, Katie and I discussed the turn of events. Our reactions ranged on a spectrum from cynical (“I wonder what relative of Dean Hunt is teaching the course instead.”) to positive (“I’ll ask him to consider me for future opportunities when the financial situation improves.”)
In the end, I chose to view the episode as a matter of fate. An opportunity that had fallen into my lap had fallen out. I didn’t “need” the job. If it came up again, I’d consider it at that time. I refrained from buying a Duke tee shirt, but just barely.