First day teaching

This semester, after a two-year stint as a full-time visiting professor at Framingham State University, I’m back to teaching there part-time: basically the same job, but with a smaller teaching load, fewer departmental responsibilities, and significantly less pay. To make up some of the financial difference, I’ve taken a part-time position as an adjunct lecturer at Babson College in Wellesley, a college whose campus is conveniently located on my way to Framingham. Two days a week, I teach at Babson in the morning and Framingham State in the afternoon, and on the other days, I grade papers, prep classes, and answer student emails from home.

This way / that way

This is how contingent faculty far off the tenure track make their living; my situation is in no way unique. Throughout graduate school and beyond, I was a roads scholar, juggling classes at multiple institutions: drive in, teach, drive somewhere else, repeat. My two years of full-time teaching at Framingham State were the exception, not the rule. Even during the decade I was employed as a full-time instructor at Keene State College, I didn’t receive benefits and taught online to cover my health insurance premiums. Long before the gig economy had a name, I’ve supported myself for decades with a long string of side-hustles.

This way

In the year leading up to my fiftieth birthday, I spent a lot of time quietly lamenting the sorry state of my contingent career. I love teaching, but it often feels like the academy doesn’t love me back. I didn’t go to grad school, after all, with dreams of being a perpetual part-timer, and there is something quaintly pathetic about middle-aged adjuncts like me: we’re the folks at the party who have long overstayed our welcome.

Adjuncting is a rite of passage when you’re in graduate school, and most folks either merge onto the tenure track or move onto other things. But for better or worse, I’ve made a lasting living out of temporary employment. Out of necessity, I’ve become the person who can step in at the last minute when someone suddenly goes on leave or moves onto a better job. If I were a basketball player rather than a college instructor, I’d be the role player way down the bench who can plug into any team mid-season: a quintessential team-player who will never be an All-Star.

This way

I sometimes think of myself as an itinerant, like the pioneer preachers who rode from town to town on horseback with nothing but a Bible and a head full of homilies. Nobody becomes a superstar through circuit riding, but there are plenty of communities that relied upon preachers who passed through intermittently, but with great faith. The need for itinerants always outstrips the resources to compensate them.

What I lack in lasting job security, I make up for in breadth of experience. Almost a month into the semester, I’ve quickly realized that Babson and Framingham State are very different institutionally and in terms of student demographics, so twice a week when I steer my Subaru from one campus to the other, I move from world to world, culture to culture, gaining a perspective that professors who teach at only one college necessarily lack. The best college professors make a conscious effort to teach the students in front of them, not some theoretical idea of what a student “should” be. When you’re contingent faculty, the nature of the students in front of you changes from day to day and hour to hour, depending on where you find yourself.


When J and I went to Wellesley College to visit the greenhouse several weekends ago, we made a point to see Tony Matelli’s “Sleepwalker,” which has garnered lots of attention since he was unveiled outside the Davis Museum last month. I refer to the sleepwalker as a “him” rather than an “it” because this statue has acquired an almost-celebrity status after controversy erupted over his presence at the all-women’s college.


Critics of Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” argue he should be installed inside (or removed from campus entirely) because the sight of an eerily realistic half-naked man looming with arms outstretched might be triggering to survivors of sexual assault. I’m no expert on the subject of post-traumatic stress, but I can say this much: Matelli’s sleepwalker is unbelievably creepy. When J and I set out on foot to find him, we had only a vague sense of where he might be located…but the second J spotted him, there was no mistaking him. Matelli’s statue doesn’t look like a statue: he looks like a man standing on the side of the road in his underwear. Had we not known the sleepwalker was a statue, I’m sure we would have veered around him, doing anything in our power to avoid the creepy half-naked guy on the other side of the street.


But once you know the sleepwalker isn’t real, does he still seem threatening? Art is full of nude and semi-nude figures. Would Michelangelo’s “David” be frightening to survivors of sexual assault, given he’s entirely nude and armed with a slingshot? Few would suggest Michelangelo’s “David” isn’t art because he is gorgeous, and eye-pleasing nudes have long been considered worthy subjects for a sculptor’s attention. But a flabby, pale-skinned guy with a paunch calls into question our notion of “art” because his form is obviously not idealized. This isn’t an Adonis or even an Everyman; instead, it’s some random guy with a sleep disorder.


Imagining myself as an undergraduate walking back to my dorm after dark, I’m guessing I’d startle the first time I saw a statue like the sleepwalker looming near my path…but I’d probably grow used to him, realizing this half-naked guy doesn’t pose the same threat as other half-naked guys. Seeing Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” in the light of day on a quiet Sunday afternoon, I was struck by how vulnerable he looked. Perhaps I was swayed by the slushy puddle he was standing in, but instead of seeing him as a potential sexual predator, I couldn’t help but see him as a poor schlub who’s going to catch his death of cold if someone doesn’t cover him with a sweater or shirt.

Perchance to dream

Up close, Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” is alarmingly realistic. His skin is blotchy and prickled with goosebumps, and you can see the veins in his hands and the dirt under his fingernails. This verisimilitude is exactly what makes the sleepwalker creepy. Why would anyone in their right mind cast a statue that looks exactly like an average, ordinary person, and why would any college agree to display such a piece out in the open, right alongside a major campus thoroughfare?

Needs a manicure

“He looks like something from the morgue,” one man remarked after having pulled his car to the side of the road to take pictures. In the brief time we spent looking at this man-in-briefs, J and I saw a half-dozen onlookers in cars or on foot stop to investigate (and take photos of) the statue. Nobody seemed frightened by him, but many seemed to be bemused, taking the requisite cell-phone shots, with or without themselves posed for a selfie. Whether or not his presence is welcome at Wellesley, the sleepwalker has proven to be popular with sightseers, dog-walkers, passing pedestrians, and at least one blogger, all of whom want to stop, stare, and figure out what all the fuss is about.

J with sleepwalker

Sometimes in my literature classes, I pose the question “What is art,” and Tony Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” silently asks the same question. Is art limited to depictions of pretty people or figures so stylized, we’d never mistake them for an actual person? Can art replicate in almost exact verisimilitude the pockmarks and imperfects of an actual person, or must art necessarily be idealized? In debating these questions with my students, we’d often decide that intentionality is key: if an artist is trying to make a statement, even a fire extinguisher hanging on a wall can be “art.” If you believe art is anything that invites discussion and debate, Tony Matelli’s “Sleepwalker” has certainly achieved that aim.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

A greenhouse is a portal to another place or time. Entering the Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses at Wellesley College last weekend, J and I traveled across space to the tropics and across time to an eventual spring. A greenhouse is a magic box that contains its own world, its own climate, and its own sense of time: a self-contained universe that remains separate and apart.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

While many folks fly to warmer climes in the cold months, J and I typically don’t travel in the winter. We visit family in the summer, when my teaching load is lighter and the weather is more predictable: the only thing worse than weathering a New England winter is being stuck in an airport en route to Elsewhere. When you don’t travel during the winter, you become practiced in the art of hunkering down, cultivating your own inner fire while enjoying quick adventures close to home during the brief daylight hours: nothing that would keep you out in the cold for long, your own warm hearth being your final destination.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

“Traveling a great deal in Concord” is how Thoreau described his own practice of home-centered excursion, his afternoon walks beginning and ending at the very writing desk where he’d record them in his journal. When you travel a great deal in your own neighborhood, your consciousness grows like a taproot, delving deep into the familiar and mundane. You become a connoisseur of the Here and Now, cultivating patience like a hidden bulb that will bear fruit only in due course, after many storms and much suffering.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

Last weekend at the Wellesley College greenhouses, J and I repeatedly crossed paths with several photographers toting long-lensed cameras, tripods, and complicated flashes. “It’s like spring in here,” one of these photographers enthused as he followed us into a room filled with potted tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths. We later saw a van for a photography club on a field trip, and I can’t think of a better destination than a glass house that contains flora from around the world. A greenhouse, after all, is the opposite of snow globe. Instead of containing a tiny scene perpetually a-swirl in white, a greenhouse traps the sun’s own heat under glass, a sun-globe that refracts and magnifies all the color and warmth of an undying summer.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

Click here for more photos from last weekend’s trip to the Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses at Wellesley College: enjoy!

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

Today J and I are planning to go to the Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses at Wellesley College, which we visited almost exactly two years ago. Two years ago, we’d had a mild and relatively snow-free winter, so March found me starved for greenery more than warmth. This year, it’s been cold and we’ve had plenty of snow, so I’m starved for any color that isn’t white or gray.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

Hothouse flowers have a bad rap for being high-maintenance: what kind of plants need a sheltered and climate-controlled environment to thrive? But after months of being pent-up in my own hot house, I’m looking forward to visiting a tropical pocket where both my glasses and my camera lens will fog with warmth and humidity. Thank goodness, in other words, for hothouse flowers. I don’t know how we’d get through another interminable New England winter without them.

Wellesley MLP/DPW

This morning on my way to Framingham State, I shot a picture of a sign framed by red ivy leaves on a brick wall. It’s an image I first noticed when the ivy on this particular wall started to turn last month, but this morning was the first time I got stopped at the light at this intersection, giving me a chance to capture the shot.

Stone gate

It might seem strange to compose photographic shots on my morning commute, but many days the time I spend in my car driving to or from that day’s campus is the one time I’m really quiet and relaxed, not thinking about much of anything besides the road right in front of me. When I used to drive from Massachusetts to New Hampshire and back, that long commute gave me ample time to meditate: a chance to “be here, now” in my driver’s seat. It’s more than a bit ironic that I could “be here, now” while zooming down the highway, en route between Here and There, but I found if I turned off the radio, a car is a closed environment with few distractions.

Stone steps

These days my commute is much shorter, but I’ve maintained that previous practice of keeping the radio switched off during my drive to campus. Whether I’m driving three miles to Boston College or twelve miles to Framingham State, my morning commute is a kind of daily quiet time, one of the few times during my waking hours when I don’t have to multitask, thinking ahead to X while currently devoting myself to Y. Although there are some mornings when I spend my commute worrying about the day’s to-do list or making last-minute mental edits to the day’s lesson plan, for the most part I simply leave my mind alone, letting it wander from one idle thought to another like a mellow old dog you trust off-leash, knowing it doesn’t have the energy or youthful foolishness to roam far.

Why did the turkeys cross the road

It is at times like these, when I’m not looking for them, that ideas and inspiration arise, even more so than when I’m consciously seeking them. It is at moments like these that an idea to pursue later might arise, or an image might appear that begs to be photographed the next time the traffic light turns red. You never know what you might see on your morning commute, so keep your eyes open.

This is my Day 5 contribution to NaBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month, a commitment to post every day during the month of November: thirty days, thirty posts.

I shot all of today’s photos from the driver’s seat of my (stopped) car while commuting to or from Framingham State or Boston College: selected scenes from this past month’s daily commutes.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

Every time I pass through our dining room, I see it: a rugged and irregular brick-sized rock, slightly oblong in shape with jutting angles and edges, that we keep on a shelf along with other knickknacks. Years ago, when he first moved into the house we now share, J found this rock in what is now our backyard dog-pen, half buried in the acidic, pine-needled soil. J unearthed, cleaned, and then brought into the house this otherwise ordinary field stone—a rock among rocks—because of what was prominently written upon it in white paint: “Sylvia Fish, Died October 1949.” This curious artifact is now displayed on our dining room bookshelf, in a sheltered spot where the dogs won’t soil it and we humans can frequently see it: a tombstone among tchotchkes.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

It’s eerie to think of the ground we walk upon as being potentially haunted—our backyard a burial ground—but what footstep of earth isn’t overshadowed with grief? Wherever we live, others have lived before—there’s no escaping the inevitability of history—and wherever others have lived, others have suffered, too. What kind of innocence, ignorance, or naivety would insist that one’s own heartaches are the first to have transpired in this house, this neighborhood, this earth or universe? It’s a simple empirical fact—one supported by ample evidence—that whatever basic human emotions I experience today have been experienced countless times by others. There’s nothing new under the sun, and that most certainly applies to love, heartache, gratitude, and loss.

What was once a beloved pet’s final resting place is now a pen where our two dogs run, sniff, and relieve themselves. This fenced area is a bare, weed-studded patch of soft soil fringed with tall pine trees: nothing special. Several years ago, it was the enclosed nursery for at least one nest of cottontail rabbits, each one of three babies finding their individual way into our beagle’s mouth before J was able to tell her to drop it; it is also a space where our Labrador retriever regularly bounds after birds and squirrels. We occasionally hear great-horned and screech owls calling from this unkempt border of our backyard—predators presumably passing through on their way to larger, lonelier patches of pines—and in the morning when I watch our birdfeeder, I occasionally see a red-tailed hawk zoom through, looking for careless squirrels.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

If this humble corner of an otherwise unremarkable suburban yard harbors the graves of the dearly departed, what else lurks without our knowledge in our backyards or under our feet? Are even our own yards a mystery, the Great Questions camping without invitation right outside our door?

I find myself wondering not about Sylvia Fish herself but the nameless child who loved her enough to insist upon a proper burial. Sylvia Fish died in October, 1949: more than sixty years ago. Sylvia Fish has long since disappeared, her flesh and fins transmogrified into silt and soil, and the unknown child who named and then mourned Sylvia is herself old now, too. Who was this child who loved then mourned a goldfish some sixty years ago, and does she have any recollection now of what may have been her first initiation in the human fellowship of grief? Is there anyone who remembers and still grieves over Sylvia, or was her life as cheap and insignificant as the price tag on a goldfish tank would suggest?

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

Goldfish are not long-lived creatures, but we give them to children, thereby inuring them to loss. Giving a child a goldfish is like giving a child a balloon, a soap-bubble, or something similarly short-lived: it is a guarantee of heartbreak. One of my most vivid memories of childhood involves me crying in my parents’ front yard after a helium balloon my father had tied to my wrist came loose and floated away, leaving me nothing but a limp string. If a child can love even an inanimate object with all her heart, why give that child a thing that is guaranteed to float away? Why not give her a more durable plaything: when asked by a child for bread—something perishable and prone to staleness—why not give instead a stone that will endure beyond even her recollection?

There is something in our human nature that clings desperately to things that are both fragile and ephemeral. This is the cause of human suffering, but it is also the seed of human compassion. Imagine a world where we fully recognized the impermanence of all created things and responded accordingly, refusing to become attached to creatures who will invariably grow old, sicken, and die. This would be a world where we didn’t fall in love, didn’t cherish children, didn’t adopt pets, and didn’t acquire souvenirs with mere sentimental value. This would be a world where children didn’t name their goldfish and teddy bears, and a world where adults didn’t name their cars. It would be, in other words, an unthinkable place: a place entirely unlike our own world because it lacked both sorrow and joy.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

We give our children goldfish not despite their short life spans but because of them. Taking care of a goldfish teaches a child responsibility, and grieving a goldfish teaches a child compassion. As goes Sylvia, so goes the whole mortal world. Watching a news report focused on war, pestilence, or natural disaster, we see so many Sylvias, each one hastening toward her inevitable end. Our first experience of loss is an essential rite of passage, an initiation into the human race. If you can grieve a goldfish, then you’ve learned what it means to be human, to be mortal, to be part of the larger sentient family.

On a peg by our back door, J has collected the collars of cats we have lost to old age: first Boomer, then Tony, then after him Shadow. Upstairs in a drawer, I have Reggie’s collar carefully tucked away with his leash, a curling wisp of fur still clinging to his dog-tags. Keeping the collars of dead pets is both a sentimental act and a quintessential kind of clinging, and I wouldn’t give it up for anything. Does a creature who is fondly remembered ever truly die? Does some part of a beloved pet rise again when you revisit their mementos, and does some aspect of Sylvia Fish swim on whenever I see her stone and subsequently remember her, a testament to a world where we care for and mourn even the most insignificant creatures?

Today’s photos of goldfish come from the Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses at Wellesley College, which J and I visited last March.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

Photographing flowers in a greenhouse is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel: your subject is captive and motionless, so it doesn’t take much skill to capture it. But in the gray, barren days at the end of a gray, barren winter, you don’t necessarily care about proving your photographic prowess. It’s just a relief to be in the presence of something floral.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Floral.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

This weekend, J and I visited the Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses at Wellesley College, which I’d blogged years ago. Although this winter has been mild and almost entirely snow-free, I’m tired of looking at the bare, brown ground. February and March are months when I’m typically starved for color, so I thought visiting a well-tended greenhouse would serve as a virtual trip to the tropics.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

When I first suggested J and I visit the Wellesley greenhouses, I pictured myself taking endless macro shots of flowers as I do every year when the first blossoms appear. Instead, however, what drew my eye time and again this weekend was the sight of greenery.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

I’m tired, as I said, of looking at the bare, brown ground, and I long for a season when the grass is lush and green rather than dry and yellow. As J and I wandered from one warm and humid room to another, it was the sight of green leaves that repeatedly attracted my eye. Colorful flowers are wonderful, but it’s chlorophyll I crave.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

When you wander a greenhouse with your heart tuned toward green, you’ll discover how richly diverse the wide verdant world is. Green comes in many shades and shapes, and each appeals in its own fashion.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses

In due time, the bare New England earth will itself erupt in fresh foliage. But for the time being, I’ve stockpiled a cache of images I’ll hold in my heart: both a reminder and a promise of greener days.

Margaret C. Ferguson Greenhouses