Worst Fear Realized -- Academic Edition

Thursday, January 9, 2020 | 0 Comment(s)

Those of my loyal readers may remember not too too long ago, about 5 years back, I had my eye sewn shut. It was as bad as it sounds.

Additionally, a few tiny "mishaps" really upgraded my worst fear realized to a level where the only accurate way to describe the circumstances in retrospect is as traumatizing. I feel confident in this assessment in that when I think back to that time I still have a physical reaction of fear, vulnerability, and resentment. In truth, I'm not sure exactly who I resent (probably the doctors who treated the whole ordeal like I was getting my tooth pulled instead of a needle across each eyelid. Anyway, if you want to know more, you can find those "recaps" here, here and here.

More recently, as in 6 month ago, I had the privilege of experiencing another worst fear that I hadn't even mentally conceptualized at the time of its occurrence. And here we find today's tale. It requires a bit of backstory for context. So, as the line in the world famous movie Couples Retreat says, "Please, regard me."

From 2015 - 2018 I worked as a professor at UMass Amherst. During that time I received consistent positive feedback and a teaching award nomination from my students, I came in 2nd for a job vacancy in my department, behind an already established professor, and then I was not reinterviewed the next year when 3 additional positions became available. I was extremely unceremoniously let go without a letter of thanks, letter of explanation, or even a goodbye from any of the many coworkers I had known for the past decade (I also received my PhD from UMass). These are the facts. I took all this as a particularly devastating hit to my self-esteem, my hard work, and to my career trajectory.

The following year, now underemployed, I taught at both Hampshire College and Springfield College, before my wife and I made the decision that our time in Western Mass had come to an end. While it was difficult saying goodbye to these institutions, both of which appreciated my contribution to their college and asked me to continue, the writing was so clearly on the wall that not even a set of established classes would make staying put the right move for our family.

And so last August, my wife and I relocated to the greater Boston area where my wife immediately found work, because she is a rock star and elementary education isn't quite as broken a system as the collegiate one. For me, this meant once again mounting my imaginary steed and reentering the job market - a semi-constant affair for adjunct professors looking for more permanent and predictable work. I've gotten better at this over the years, but it really is a knife in the leg to teach so many classes successfully only to find job insecurity waiting 6 months down the road. Consistently. If I didn't really love the experience of teaching and sharing knowledge, I would be out of this racket in a second. At least that's what I tell myself. It's always easier to make huge decisions with your imaginary self. As if a self without that love of teaching would still be me. But I digress into the philosophical and thought problems, and that isn't what this story is about.

This past semester I managed to piece together a full teaching schedule. Depending on the university, a full schedule means you are either teaching 4 classes or teaching 3 classes with other service commitments such as advising, sitting on this or that board, or running a club type activity. The bigger the university, the smaller the chance any one professor is teaching 4 classes at a time. There are plenty of exceptions to all of these rules, but basically, that's how it goes. I taught 4 classes this semester, but I did so at 3 different colleges/universities. The upside of this set up is that I have paid work. Pretty much every other systemic piece of this schedule works to save colleges money by paying adjuncts as little as possible. As a non-full time member of any of these faculties, I don't get insurance, so they save money there. Also, until you get a contract, adjuncts get paid a la carte for each class, and the payment is almost never negotiable. Best case, the college has a union and you get paid the equivalent of a living wage. Other times, the rate is set by the administration itself. To give you an idea of how much payment can vary from school to the next, I can tell you that what one college paid me for teaching a single class was more than another paid me for two classes of the same size and type. If you're thinking that the first school pays a tons and I'm lucking out, you haven't been paying attention.

In late August, our lives still mostly in boxes strewn around a now much smaller living space, I prepared for my multiple orientations. Keeping all of the passwords, parking structures, building names, and learning systems straight for one college can be overwhelming. Getting "uploaded" (this is the term I discovered schools now use for adding new faculty) to three schools simultaneously, none of them in close proximity to the next, made my head spin. I even started learning how to use tabs and bookmarks just to keep the three integral websites each school utilizes separate and available. It was an overwhelming time, but not unexpected.

To give you an idea of where my head was at by week two, when I happened to off-handedly check my old UMass email account, I present to you this example. In taking attendance (to be sure I know my students names early in the semester), I called one student, who was a late add to my class at College A, the name of the late add in a class at a totally different school. These two students had nothing in common except their sex and the fact they were the two late adds across my three schools.

I check my old .edu accounts every few months in case a student has reached out, or occasionally to see if there are any job postings. In less than a month I will have my eighth academic email account, so there is a bit of a law of diminishing returns regarding the frequency with which each inbox gets checked. About two months after I last checked my UMass account, I open my INBOX and click on this email:

Hi Professor Zimbler,

My name is XXXXX XXXXXX and I just switched into your 391AH class, "What's Love Got to Do With It: The Psychology of Close Relationships" (I love the name, by the way). I did not see a Moodle page for the course, and so I wanted to reach out so that I would have the necessary materials and information for class next week. Would it be possible for you to send me the syllabus and any assignment instructions that will be due on Tuesday? I am really excited to be joining the class, it seems very interesting!

"That's strange,"  I think to myself. "I haven't worked there in two years." To be honest, I didn't think much of it. It's one student, I'm assumed she was confused. I clicked onward. 

The next two emails were students asking to switch into the same class as the one listed above. Now I'm getting nervous. One person does something, they're a wacko, if three people do it, it's a pattern. After this next email in the queue, I realized I had a more serious issue on my hands. 

Hi Professor-

My name is XXXX XXXX and I am signed up for your 391AH class aboutthe psychology of love. I just wanted to make sure that we have class today and if so we are all in the right place (Elm 301 10:00 am- 10:50am). Also your class has not shown up on any of the other students Moodles. Please let me know and I look forward to studying with you this semester.


First I want to point out that she closed her email, "Signed." I've never seen that before. It seems awfully redundant. That's the kind of grammar advice I'd give this student if I were, in fact, her professor. Considering my recent triple uploading at other universities, however, this just wasn't the case. I realized I needed to start responding to these emails. They may make absolutely no sense to me, but these students are obviously being guided toward this dead-end, not finding it themselves, and they need to be quickly dissuaded of the notion that I still exist at UMass. I replied to each student with a version of this email: 

Hi Student,
I'm not sure what happened but I haven't taught at UMass in two years.
Something must be amiss.
Matt Zimbler

With any other school this whole misunderstanding might have remained a mystery. But it just wouldn't be UMass if all of this weren't followed by this gem from the Senior Lecturer in charge of organizing these Honor's offerings. Below his signature, you'll see the header of the message he forwarded back to me. 

---------- Forwarded message ---------
From: Brion Dualc
Date: Tue, Sep 3, 2019 at 1:39 PM
Subject: FW: Mattitiyahu Zimbler has applied to teach an Honors 391AH seminar
To: mzimbler@psych

Hi Mattitiyahu, We received emails this morning from students who are enrolled in the Fall 2019 Honors seminar you applied to teach. They said you were absent from today’s class. Are you able to teach the class or should I cancel it? Let me know ASAP.

Dualc From: webmaster@honors.umass
On Behalf Of Honors Seminar Series Coordinator
Sent: Monday, July 23, 2018 12:36 PM

Subject: Mattitiyahu Zimbler has applied to teach an Honors 391AH seminar

I wish I still had my response. I will tell you that while my email somehow didn't warrant a written response, my account was shut down shortly thereafter. After over a decade of use. Total coincidence I'm sure. While I, therefore, can't paste for you my professionally worded email response, I'll give you a brief rundown of the main points in real world talk.

Hi Brion,

Long time no see. Like two years long time. I wasn't absent from the class today, because I never applied to teach a class. I know that may seem absurd considering you've attached my application to teach a class at UMass to your email, but if you take a slightly closer look at said email, you'll see it is dated July, 2018. That class, had you literally ever responded to my application (you didn't by the way) would have begun a year ago in the August of 2018. Considering I never heard word from your office, I didn't assume that you had thrown some salt and spices on my application to season it for a season, before just up and enrolling students without, and here's the rub Brion, hiring me. The fact that your email insinuates my disorganization and not your gross oversight really is the cherry on top of the unpaid work request.


Prof. Zimbler

I was nicer. But still pretty upset. What made me even more upset in retrospect, is these students are never going to be told that it was Brion, and not I, that made live a course for which they never hired the professor. That's, structurally speaking, insane to me. Those students are going to think that I screwed their schedule, and I hate that.

The bluster and self-righteousness of my pho email to Brion belies the truth of how this situation washed over me emotionally. Amidst the controlled chaos of the beginning of the semester, I opened and old .edu account to slowly realize I was enrolled to teach a course, that had already started, without my knowledge. As a responsible committed academic, who genuinely cares about students, reading those emails was a waking anxiety nightmare come to life. I literally have a recurring dream (not my worst recurring academic nightmare, but one of them) where class has already started and I'm lost somewhere on campus trying to find the right classroom. THIS IS WORSE THAN THAT! Which means that up until I read those emails, that was the worst my subconscious could create to set my head aflame with anxiety. And then UMass goes and one ups even my subconscious.

That's the only part of this that wasn't a surprise.

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