Page 153

North Carolina Miscellany

mediocre department – unless some outside power takes a hand – because mediocre people, given their heads, will hire mediocre people. They recognize each other, their predictable ways, their modest goals, their understated demands. Why would anyone hire someone who was going to make them uncomfortable? This is also why excellent department and institutions stay excellent for a long time. It didn’t seem to her that the comp program was actually mediocre, but it did have a problem with self-image. No amount of insisting that the Literature program and the Freshman Writing program were equal partners had actually made that the case. The hierarchy was the stronger for everybody’s officially denying its existence. New hires were expected to teach comp until they had made their way in the department. Later, they might have a schedule full of literature and creative writing and feel themselves fully arrived. All the denial in the world had not quite kept a comp class from seeming a punishment, a demeaning. You could teach comp with a master’s degree, after all. Elaine was the head of Freshman Comp, and Kristen/Dorinda soon perceived that much of its culture flowed from her. Elaine was agonized by the thought that what she was doing might be second rate, or perceived to be second rate, and therefore had affected the departmental culture so that a good deal of energy went into pretending things were otherwise than they were. So Kristen perceived, unable to tell perfectly what was her bitterness speaking and what was the truth. Department meetings included a part where Elaine felt underappreciated and solicited support from the department, which she always got. Yes of course comp and lit are equals in this department, someone would say with mechanical precision. On stage it would have been unconvincing, but in a department meeting it was enough. Elaine had begun calling herself a rhetorician, and her favored adjuncts rhetoricians, advancing the theory that “rhetorician” was a professional category that others in the department could neither fully appreciate nor usefully judge. If the layman could not check Dr. Corin on his pronouncements concerning a difficult passage of Donne, neither should they be able to check the rhetorician on her markings on a student essay. Elaine rejected

N C L R ONLINE

153

It didn’t seem to her that the comp program was actually mediocre, but it did have a problem with self-image.

the argument that one thing was more specialized than the other. Other faculty knew her tenacity was greater than theirs and let the matter drop. On the faculty were several important writers, and when one remarked, “Well, am I not a rhetorician?” her response was, “No. You may be a great writer, but you are no rhetorician.” Like Christian dogma, there were only two ways of taking this: either as an absurdity or as a mystical truth only the elect could comprehend. Such was the power of Elaine’s personality that the second triumphed, generally, at least in the moment. Her insistence of the specialness of her calling gave Elaine a certain control over hiring. Only she – or another rhetorician named by her – could be sure what the program needed. Quite mediocre people were retained because Elaine liked them, or because they could be presented as rhetoricians, whatever that may have been at that moment. Kristen, being forced on her from above, was immediately on Elaine’s blacklist. Kristen might have fared better if, in a moment of candor, perhaps seeking in Elaine a possible friend and confidant, she had not admitted her bitterness at not being in the literature program with her husband. “But, you’re teaching comp! You’re teaching rhetoric!” Elaine had chirped. “Oh, anybody can do that,” Kristen had fired back. It was several weeks before she understood fully what she had done to earn Elaine’s coldness. She’d thought she was merely speaking a truth that everyone understood. But what she had said was the single greatest heresy possible on the comp side of the corridor. When she told her husband about this, he sucked in his cheeks and said “Ooooo,” implying a misplayed hand on her part.

Profile for East Carolina University

North Carolina Literary Review Online 2019  

A literary review published online annually by East Carolina University and by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association.

North Carolina Literary Review Online 2019  

A literary review published online annually by East Carolina University and by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association.

Advertisement