Grad Student to Full-Time Academic: A Transformation

by Sheldon Gaskell

Image Courtesy of Sheldon Gaskell

On May 30th, 2017, my birthday, I packed my truck and left Macomb, Illinois, vowing to never return. The 5:00AM sky was clear until the upper troposphere where a layer of shale clouds blocked the sun and cast the land in an alien blue light. Solitary trees, newly leafed and grasping skyward, scattered the prairie in this wonder-scape I would surely never see again. I wondered what would become of me after this Midwest graduate school venture, and, even more jarring, how my studies mattered to the greater scheme of life.

Final student essays were read and graded weeks ago. Graduation had commenced, goodbyes were shared with colleagues with promises of “see you again soon!” (some promises were kept, and others have yet to be met). Despite the shock and thrill of it all, I was not yet finished with my thesis: “Digital Schizophrenia and Technogenesis in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors.” My research of evolving film techniques toward the digital medium in French cinema (and what this technological transformation signifies for the human identity) had been an obsession for a time but had quickly devolved to feeling like a process of making sense of nonsense, of peering through the haze of depression spell, thoughts of hopelessness, and recurring daymares, questioning if there was really one reality or many and if there was a point to doing all this work when the product of my achievements would be returning home to my parent’s house in Connecticut, highly educated and somehow unemployed.

My last few weeks in Macomb were spent in a caffeinated daze, jittery, skeleton-eyed, bicycling back and forth between my one room apartment and a cubicle in Malpass Library with books on literary theory, film studies, and philosophy with Deleuze, Derrida, Barthes, Hayles, and McLuhan bursting through my polyester sports bag. I would read for a time in the library, take a coffee break, eat, move location (sometimes to Simpkins, sometimes to Sullivan Taylor Coffee House), write, drink, feast, move, read, skim, caffeinate, reread, and write again with a slew of wasted moments in between. Sometimes I arrived home at 3:00AM when the town was silent as a cemetery, the squeak of my bike seat the only sound of life. The bike was from Walmart and was broken, which made the frequent rides a difficult balance of sitting, standing, and risking collapse into the crumbling, potholed streets I had traveled and called home for the past two years.

Overweight, alone, depressed, and somehow always tired, I sometimes made a detour on the way to the library for an egg and bacon bagel (I’m vegan now) at Einstein Bros. Bagels in the Union (though they had closed shortly after the end of the semester) or stopped by Yummy Chen’s for Orange Chicken and Rice, which I would devour in one sitting while watching Better Call Saul and other shows—between critical thesis re-viewings of Holy Motors (2012)—that fed the procrastination demon within me. My apartment was a half garage studio space behind three small homes (nestled like an egg in the company of three large hens), and my window was constantly open as I could not afford AC. Through this window emanated sounds of bird calls, buzzing insects, and car engines from the road (the apartment was leagues better than my previous roach and bat-infested residence, which cost me a month of hospital visits and thousands of dollars for rabies shots—long story). Sometimes while writing, generally mid-afternoons when I was my most neurotic, I would shout and cuss at computer malfunctions, lengthy Spotify advertisements, and other minor infractions against my mental focus and then hope the neighbors had not heard me and were not at that moment spinning gossip webs about the lunatic who lived among them.

One neighbor was a kind Vietnam War veteran who occasionally shared stories with me of his time at war. He hated the notion of soldiers as heroes, despised it in fact, said that soldiers do atrocious acts that change them forever, said he was one of these soldiers and hated himself for it sometimes. This perspective came as a shock to me, as, in addition to my thesis I had been working on an intensive editing project for a book written by Mark Jurras, a WWII veteran who I consider a hero that experienced a very different side of war. Our talks inspired my creative urge to write (not my thesis, unfortunately) stories of complicated, ideologically diverse characters in challenging scenarios who somehow find meaning in their lives. I wrote these thoughts on post-it-notes, napkins, scrap paper, and the back of old lesson plans and grocery lists I still hoard like dragon’s gold. These ideas have yet to emerge in writing, but I’m hopeful they will one day take root and sprout into future plots of narrative wilderness.

Drafts upon drafts were drawn and redrawn with post-grad memories embedded between these thesis revisions. When I returned home to Connecticut on May 31st, 2017, after the 20-hour drive East, life was a blend of thesis finalization, family re-conditioning, job searching, freelance editing, and attempts at creative writing. In one intensive month, my thesis expanded from a 30-page archipelago of mismatched quotes and musings to 100 pages of somewhat polished prose (an achievement I never could have accomplished without the gracious support of my advisor Dr. Di Carmine and readers Dr. Banash and Dr. Cole).  In July, I successfully defended my thesis and could now focus on job applications and finishing my years-long editing project: One Man’s Journey Through War and Peace. There were moments of joy, patches of self-deprivation, and Facebook-fueled bouts of unproductivity, as well as many hours spent filing online applications for teaching and editing opportunities across the nation (New England, New York, Pennsylvania, the West Coast), and crafting “perfect” letters of intent, different versions of my curriculum vitae, and variations on my teaching philosophy only to receive automated rejections in response. I finally landed an interview with Manchester Community College in Connecticut and earned a position as adjunct instructor teaching developmental reading and writing. To supplement my income, I also worked as a substitute teacher at local high schools, which I hope I will never have to do again (God bless public school educators!). With every opportunity, I worked to refine my resume through developing the creative and professional skills required to make me an attractive candidate for full-time instruction in higher education.

I moved to Colorado to be close to my girlfriend (we met as undergraduates) in January 2018, where I continued to grind the adjunct gears in the University of Colorado Succeed Program. There, I taught three sections of rhetoric and writing to students in two Denver-area high schools, planned lessons, graded essays, and kept applying for full-time positions in my nontraditional office spaces: libraries, local coffee shops, and sometimes in the car I borrowed from my girlfriend’s family. In February, my edited book was published independently by the author, an early reassurance that all this work was not for nothing. In the spring and early summer, I received three promising job interviews, all of which alluded me. Finally, in late July I received word from my current employer, the University of Colorado: Colorado Springs, that I was accepted to teach four semester-long theme-focused courses in writing and research. To my relief and great enthusiasm, this temporary position has since developed into a permanent faculty position. For the first time in my life, I realized that this dream of a career in academia was actually possible.

During my long drive to Connecticut in May, 2017, I had much time to envision who I wanted to be as a professional. At some point, I would write on paper who this person was and the steps I would take to transform myself into this identity. I knew I had to do as much as possible as widely as possible to get to this stage: apply for jobs across the United States, travel, feel and contemplate joy and sorrow, forget grudges, and continuously appreciate the treasured relationships of colleagues, friends, and family. There would be difficult, cloudy patches. Like Illinois thunderstorms these would explode, intensely ferocious at times, and then just as quickly break into sunny slices of paradise. I would have to keep moving through moments of slothfulness or despair until I embraced the dreamy vision of what I knew existed beyond the fog. There is always the presence of sun in reach—keep grasping.

I did return to Macomb, and I was reminded of the roots that supported me along this journey. I am happy to hear student stories and answer any questions about post-grad life or teaching in the university setting. Please e-mail me: