I. Hate. Math. If I could tar and feather it, put it in an iron maiden, draw and quarter it and then drench it in boiling oil, it would only abate a minor fraction of the primeval rage I feel for it. Everyone says it’s a practice of logic, but it makes no sense to me. Teachers wouldn’t, or couldn’t, tell me why certain things had to happen in a certain way. “Because we do,” parried all my questions about process and rationale. They couldn’t tell me why “x” was “x” instead of “a” or “b.” Unable to draw connections between the why and the how, I did horribly in math.
It was always like this, except for when I met R.Q. Thomas in the 8th grade.
R.Q. Thomas, as he referred to himself, speaking in the third person, told us like all math teachers that we would always need math in life. But, dressed in snakeskin shoes and shiny silk suits, perfectly manicured and coiffed, he gave us relevant examples, mostly from negotiations with his son’s and wife’s requests for extra money and his two “side businesses,” his clothing store and nightclub. Upon learning from my parents that R.Q. Thomas was notorious for his popular night club, “where the shootings always happen,” he naturally soared skyward in my estimation. I hung on to every word he said.
“Two trains leave the station at the same time, but traveling at different speeds, one at 45 mph and one at 60 mph,” he read from our textbook. “How long does it take each train to get to the next station 50 miles away?” He closed the textbook. “Who cares? R.Q. Thomas cares about how long it takes two of his employees to get to the bank with his money!”
He taught us inventory, overhead, economy of scale, how many customers the club had to have and how many drinks each customer had to buy in order to cover the club’s entire month’s rent in one night. He showed us how to make buckets more money just by asking our parents for an allowance increase of only a quarter a week–and providing the math to show that the increase was justified. I got A’s in his class. I knew when to use which equations and why. I figured Geometry next year would be a breeze.
You might have already guessed what I did not know at the time, that R.Q. Thomas was as much of an anomaly as an albino flamingo. There was no mathematical second coming after him. The teachers went back to being dickishly incomprehensible and unapproachable, often disdainful of my apparent obtuseness. Despite the fact that I had picked up four languages by then, I couldn’t understand a thing they said. An Isosceles triangle sounded like an area in the Pacific Ocean that sucked up airplane carriers. It turns out that calculating volume has nothing to do with stereo systems. I already knew that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but I had no idea how I was supposed to get there. Parabolas, area, diameters, radii and Pi made my life a living hell. Pythagoras was a bastard and Euclid could kiss my ass. Sines and cosines hovered on the horizon, looming like grim reapers of trigonometry.
Every time I asked the teacher to please, for the love of all that was holy and reasonably-priced, explain in some way I could even remotely identify with why we use this equation at this time, I always got the same answer: “because we do.” And then they told my parents that my laziness led to my failing grades.
The fact that every science class I still had to take required math more mind-boggling than I was currently sucking at made my decision for me: I would specialize in the humanities. Screw math and all it’s crappy, crappy teachers. I would stick to languages I could understand.
So I went off and got a PhD in the humanities. Easy, right? Goodbye math, fuck off Euclid.
But R.Q. Thomas was right. No matter what, I needed math. I needed math to understand how the PhD bottleneck in the Humanities developed, when, at what rate, in order to understand why I couldn’t get a tenure-track job.
I needed math to reckon that on average less than 20 tenure-track jobs in my discipline have been offered per year in the last decade, while the number of people on the market is close to 1,000. Calculate the probability of being one of the lucky three of hundreds of applicants to get an interview, much less get the job, just to thrill at the chance to move to Nowhere, Idaho to be an academic Clydesdale (all for the low, low cost of a 5-page CV, a 30-page writing sample, 3-4 letters of recommendation, a teaching philosophy, a diversity statement, $300-400 in plane tickets, $300 in hotel costs, $50 per diem and $200 in cheap suits, just so you can go to the mad cattle call otherwise known as the MLA conference and be interviewed by a committee while seated childishly on the edge of a bed in one of their hotel rooms), and you realize you have a better chance of winning the lottery or, more likely, being mauled by a tiger.
I needed math to figure out how long it would take to pay off my student debt as a single woman working as an adjunct lecturer–20 years, if I did not continue to go into forbearance because of underemployment. I needed math to figure out how much extra part-time work outside of academia–working as a pastry chef, translating, home schooling–that I needed to cover the rent in the lean years.
Then I sat down and did the math, the Real Math. Having given up reaching for the tenure-track brass ring until I felt like I’d been stretched on the rack, I “resigned” myself to being a lecturer, a negative integer. In order to have the greatest amount of job security in a profession with unlimited variables, from the budget to the enrollment to the personal whim of the department chair, what did I have to do, and how much of it?
The white board in my mind filled up quickly. A=see, B=be seen–and liked, C=conference presentations, N=number of classes taught per semester, I=interdisciplinary, E=stellar evaluations and S=service. I taught across the curriculum in freshman and sophomore comp, writing in the sciences, film, literature, culture and foreign language. I advised students, gave seminars, trained teachers, acted as club adviser and cast votes in committees. I taught, produced, wrote, graded until my fingers bled, made myself a hot commodity.
Naturally, I did not bother factoring in quality of life or free time.
Depending on the semester and year, the coefficients change. In the fall it could be (7A + 4B) x 2C/20EI + 6N = guarantee of job offer. In the spring it could be 7B + (4C x 2 S/10EI) +3N.
But no matter what equation I created, it always equaled the same: burnout. I left the country for a year to recover–twice in the span of eight years. But even then, because I honest-to-god love teaching, I had my eye on the prize, creating a calculus that would convert my lateral moves into CV mojo, tilting the scales as much as I could.
Because, in the end, being a lecturer is a game of probability, in which she with the best poker face and card-counting skills is the winner. It’s game theory.
But, as before, the logic makes no sense to me.
Take for instance my latest problem. I solved the equation of desirability in the lecturer marketplace. Having parlayed myself into a lean, mean, interdisciplinary instructional machine, I am now in high demand. Four schools want to hire me next semester for a total of seven classes. The simple math is encouraging. 7N= Money, Money, Dollar Dollar Bill Y’all!
But then it gets tricky. Three of the classes are scheduled at the same time. Two of the classes have too high a personal cost per unit, each paying half as much as one class at another institution, and requiring three times the work. I would end up grading a total of 200 4-page essays in one semester, totaling almost 1,000 minutes, for about $1,000 a month. And that doesn’t include class time (T=4,800 minutes) or prep time (P=960 minutes).
Dump the two low-paying classes, and negotiate the scheduling of the others, right? But then there’s still five courses left, which, when compounded with interest over time, equal, once again, burnout. And I am now too old to start building seniority all over from the beginning if I want to retire with a pitiful pension by the time I’m 70.
And did I mention that only two of the four schools offer health insurance? Did I mention that one of them is–you guessed it–the one with back-breaking work for minimum wage, the one for which you need the health insurance the most?
Did I mention that, because of the previous burnout, I have no job security anywhere, that all my previous semesters of hard work (a total of 42 in 14 years–wrap your head around that for a minute) no longer counts because I left for one year and no one told me about taking a leave of absence? (You try keeping up with the lecturer handbooks for four institutions, grade 800 papers a semester and manage three different preps all at the same time. Go on, see how well you learn the bureaucracy.) The equation gets more and more confusing and out of reach with each day.
So now we get into conditional probability. If numbers are lower in the following semester, what are the chances that I will get offered as much work then? If there is little or no work in the following semester, how much do I have to pre-emptively work in order to cover that loss? What are the chances that I turn down work at one of the places that offers health care and never get offered a course there again? What are the chances that the other places will consistently employ me and pay enough money in the long run so that affording health care is no longer one of my greatest worries? What are the chances that some chair will take my “sorry, I can’t” as a personal affront and try to blacklist me all over town? What are the chances that these schools will ever regard me as more than disposable, when hundreds, if not thousands, of unemployed PhDs are standing in line behind me, desperate to take my place?
There is work and money to be made–for now. But I can’t take half of it. I now face a famine in the middle of a feast.
I stand at the station, looking at four different trains, with no idea of their end destinations, the routes they will take to get there, nor the speed at which they travel. And there is not enough whiteboard to work it all out. Despite all my efforts, I am involved in a numbers game that I can’t understand. And even if I did, I still wouldn’t win.
Maybe it’s time for me to look up R.Q. Thomas and get a job at his nightclub.