How I Became an ‘Accidental’ Professor

My love and respect for the craft of writing fuel my commitment to teaching it. But it was a long time before I could envision academia including someone like me.

Whitman College / The Atlantic

I am a writer by calling. But I became a professor by accident. That’s what I usually say, the quickest version of the story I tell most often when asked. Then I double down, and more self-effacing garbage spills out: I had no idea what I was doing when I applied for my first tenure-track job and I didn’t even know what I was getting myself into because I sort of applied for that job on a whim and I guess I somehow tricked a school into hiring me HA HA HA HA. No one ever questions this version, despite the fact that applying to academic jobs is so time-consuming and requires such a big emotional and financial investment that saying I did it “on a whim” should be a huge red flag to anyone who knows better.

Here’s the clear, technical answer to the question “How did I become a professor?”—which I’m laying out here because I didn’t know the answer for a good chunk of my adult life, despite successfully completing college and graduate school: I got a bachelor’s degree, then I got a graduate degree (an M.F.A. in creative writing), and then I worked a bunch of odd jobs while writing my first book. These included after-school day-care provider, movie projectionist, standardized-test scorer, college-access counselor, personal assistant to a douchebag (this was in Los Angeles, though douchebags exist everywhere), and, ever so briefly, search-engine-optimization . . . person (I don’t know what my official title was: I looked at a website all day and made lists of keywords and it was incredibly boring).

I loved teaching while in grad school. The biggest reason I didn’t pursue teaching immediately after was because I knew that, without a book, my options were limited when it came to teaching at the college level and making a living wage. So in the years prior to publishing my first collection of stories, I opted for more stable jobs that paid better than adjuncting and that—despite their regular hours (in fact, because of their regularity)—left me with more time and energy to write.

Also, I’d heard stories from writer friends with credentials far more stunning than mine about how impossible it was to land a tenure-track position as a creative writer, so I figured, why even try? That was another big hurdle to pursuing a teaching position: this idea that it was impossible, that my work wasn’t good enough to get me past even the first round of a search committee’s screening.

I am a first-generation college student, and the idea of becoming a professor—one of those people who seemed to emanate brilliance and poise, the people who made knowledge!—felt like too big of a leap for me, as someone who comes from a working-class family of electricians. Add to this the fact that the majority of my professors were white, and that most of them were male, and that most of the books they taught and deemed important enough to be covered in survey courses were written by straight white men, and you can see how a Cuban girl from Miami could come to think academia wasn’t the place for her.

When it came to having the privilege of choosing a career path, I did what people who’ve internalized systemic oppression sometimes do: I aimed for something different that felt more appropriate, more attainable. I decided I’d make a good high-school English teacher. I’d still get to talk about books and teach people to love and value the act of writing. And I’d have summers to work on all the novels and short stories I wanted to write.

Then something happened that very subtly set me on a different path. What happened was that I stayed up too late one night in my dorm, and I went in on pizza with some girls on my floor, and we got to talking about what we hoped to do with our lives. Of the four other women in the room, three of them had at least one parent who was a lawyer. I was searching my brain for what they would consider the right answer, which I somehow intuited was not high-school English teacher. When they asked me, I blurted out what I thought was an appropriately upgraded version of my dream: “I want to be an English professor.” And the minute I said it, I knew it could be true.

I genuinely did not think I was smart enough to be a professor. Even today, when I think of a professor, the image that comes to my mind is of a specific white man, James Adams, a scholar of Victorian literature who wore a for-real tweed jacket—with the elbow patches and everything—and who was so freaky smart and accomplished that I remember tracing my fingers over the written comments he’d add at the end of my papers, hoping his brilliance would somehow transfer to me that way. But I knew when the sentence came out of my mouth that I wanted to be someone who made knowledge, who got to live in books and in theories about books, who got to spend her life writing while teaching future generations of writers how to pick apart the books they loved and discover how they were built.

I went after my first tenure-track job with a ferocity that barely made sense. I knew I wanted that job as much as I’d ever wanted anything. I recognized it as the life that I wanted but that I’d convinced myself over time was not really a possibility. A Latina professor and mentor of mine, the writer Helena María Viramontes, worked much harder than she had to with me the first time I went on the job market, especially considering I hadn’t been her student for close to a decade by then. But that’s what I wanted to be for someone else, what I wanted to strive for. My vision of a professor had changed enough to include someone like me: someone without a tweed jacket, a writer first, whose love and respect for the craft of writing fuel her commitment to teaching it to others.

I earned tenure last year. I’m proud of the accomplishment, but it doesn’t mean everything I thought it would mean to me, and I know it’s because of the roundabout way I came to working in academia. The real job—the career—is being a writer; that’s the path I was even more afraid to let myself want.

The moment I held a hard copy of my novel in my hands for the first time, I wept, alone in my kitchen, because it hit me that I honestly thought that moment would never come. I had doubted that novel would ever exist to such an extent that I couldn’t believe I now held it in my hands. I’m not sure if this feeling will ever go away, and I’m not sure that I want it to, because the moment of realizing that it’s true—that I’ve really accomplished this thing that for so long I worked for—fills me to bursting every time.

I don’t know if I’ll be a professor forever. There’s more to the machine of it than I anticipated. I sometimes joke that maybe I need a tweed jacket. I have occasionally indulged in drafting resignation letters: “Thank you for the tenure. However, I am leaving academia to be a tugboat captain/florist.” But the fact that I’m somewhat ambivalent about my day job is what makes me good at it. I teach as if I have nothing to lose, which helps me tell my students the truth—about why the faces in the room are mostly a certain color, or about how we are all part of an oppressive structure perpetuating all sorts of bigotry just by sitting in that room. I don’t believe these institutions will figure out a way to solve their own problems. They were designed to do the opposite. When I speak at other predominantly white campuses, I remind the students of color and the women about this fact: This place never imagined you here, and your exclusion was a fundamental premise in its initial design. I push students to make themselves heard, to voice their understandable and justified rage. Then I go back to my own campus and sit in my office and listen to the lights buzz overheard while thanking the universe that, for now, I have health insurance.

That contradiction makes me sick. And the only thing that eases the nausea is the writing. The writing asks you to question the job. The job lets me afford the writing. The job is why you’re reading this.

This essay has been adapted from Jennine Capó Crucet’s book My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education.