Death Without Tenure: A Professor Karen Pelletier Mystery #6

Death Without Tenure: A Professor Karen Pelletier Mystery #6

Karen Pelletier is about to realize her dream. After six years in the English Department at New England’s exclusive Enfield College, she is up for a tenured position. But when ...

About The Author

Joanne Dobson

Joanne Dobson, a former English professor at Fordham University, is the author of the Professor Karen Pelletier mystery series from ...

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Chapter One

Friday 10/2

I was in my English Department office grading papers at a red-hot pace, a red pencil clutched in my fist, when the door crashed open and Professor Miles Jewell came storming in. He fit the red color motif: his face was crimson, maybe even darker, maybe the color of his buttoned-up burgundy cardigan.

I’d been grading fast. As soon as I was done with the papers,  I planned to put finishing touches on a new scholarly article to submit along with my petition for tenure. Tenure in the Enfield College English Department would cap my long journey from hardscrabble New-England single mom to academic woman with a secure professional future. Almost, almost, I could feel the long weight of my scholarly preparation begin to lift from my shoulders.

But now, here was my elderly colleague, breathing heavily, staring at me pop-eyed. I jumped up from my desk chair. “Miles!” What had I done this time to tick him off?

Miles was attempting to speak. Ah hee, ah hee. His thick white hair stuck up on one side. I feared he was going to drop dead right then and there on the antediluvian Oriental rug in front of my desk.

I rushed over to Miles, took him by the arm and led him  to the green vinyl chair. “What can I get you? A glass of water? Some bourbon?”

An ambulance?

He plopped into the chair, and the cushion made its customary ffffrrrttt. “No, no. I’ll be all right. Just give me a minute.” He began tugging at his black knit tie.

I went for water from the cooler in the department office.  I knew where the bourbon was if I needed it—in the bottom drawer of Monica’s desk, next to her emergency stash of sanitary napkins.

By the time I got back to Miles with the water, he looked more composed. He took the flimsy paper cup. “Close the door,” he said.

Miles Jewell was chairman emeritus of the English Department. In some ways it was too bad he no longer headed it; he’d had a death grip on the position for so long that his outmoded style of scholarship was coming back in again. Miles and I had squabbled off and on over my penchant for teaching literary texts other than his precious Great Tradition: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and their hordes of dead white sons. But he’d been fighting a losing battle: by now the writing of women and other too-long dispossessed social groups had been thoroughly integrated into the curriculum of literary studies. He’d learned a few things from me, I think. I know I’d learned from him: to read texts closely, to respect the language as well as the message, even to consider the possible benefits of Tradition. But, while no longer kneejerk intellectual antagonists, we weren’t exactly pals.

Therefore I was dumbfounded when he said, “Close the door,” which in Enfield College protocol suggests either secrets to be shared or a dressing down to be administered. I closed the door. Pulling up the black captain’s chair, I sat down across from him. What could have driven Professor Miles Jewell to such an agitated state? Since Miles was no longer in a position to tell me off, he must have some dire secret to share with me.

“Karen,” he said, “I’ve just come from a meeting of the senior faculty.…”

Oh, God: this was about tenure. My heart flipped. Then it flopped. The protracted silence and the look of…could it be compassion?…in Miles’ beady eyes derailed whatever composure I might have summoned. I picked up the red pencil and began rolling it between numb fingers. “What?” I exclaimed. “What?”

“…and I’m furious. You and I have had our differences through the years…” he began, sonorously.

The phone rang. I ignored it. It would go to voice-mail. A little popping noise from my computer let me know I had a new e-mail message. It would keep.

“…but I’ve always had respect for your scholarly integrity, and your popularity with the students is indicative of excellent teaching.”

“And…?” I urged, hoping I shouldn’t be saying “But…” “But…given the sloppy and doctrinaire thinking of the new department leadership, I’m afraid there’s a possibility that your tenure petition might be in jeopardy.”

The red pencil snapped in two. I let the pieces fall to the floor, along with my heart. “What did I do?”

“Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Of course you know that faculty meetings are strictly confidential.”

I nodded. Then what the hell was he doing here? It must be apocalyptic, for him to be breaking The Code.

With his elbows on his knees Miles leaned close, keeping his voice down. “I have always strictly adhered to the rules of confidentiality, but when the department to which I have devoted my entire professional life is being led by its nincompoop of a chairman to commit an egregious wrong, I’ll step up to the plate one last time. I’m on the verge of a much deserved retirement. What can they do to me? Snatch away my emeritus rank? And I think it’s only right that you know what you’re up against.”

He took a drink of water. My throat was dry, too.

Placing the cup on a side table, Miles stroked the white beard he had recently cultivated. It wasn’t the full, mustachioed type of beard that would have made him look like Santa Claus, but rather a chin-line growth, affording him the appearance  of an sagacious old sea captain. He continued, “Given the growing vulgarity that passes for academic discourse these days, I shouldn’t be astounded at our new chairman’s tactics, but, frankly, I am.”

A tentative knock on the door startled me. I checked my watch. It was the beginning of office hours. “Come back later,” I croaked to whichever student was seeking my counsel. Then I took a deep breath—might as well get it over with. “What’s Ned done?”

“Ahem. You do know, don’t you, that the college administration announced this semester that only one person in each department could be granted tenure this year.”

“Yes.” Words had become knives; little bloody cuts scored my psyche. “To avoid a skewed tenured-to-untenured ratio in the faculty, right?”

“Yes, ahem. A very problematic move, in my opinion—could very well leave us open to litigation. And now, at that lame excuse for a senior-faculty department meeting, Herr Professor Doktor Hilton announced that if we’re only allowed to tenure one candidate, it should be Joe Lone Wolf rather than you.”

I felt as if my heart were pumping cold red ink. Joe Lone Wolf! As far as I knew, my colleague Joe hadn’t published a book. In fact, rumor said he hadn’t even finished his dissertation.

And I had published a lot—two scholarly books, several articles in academic journals, one in a much-lauded book of essays—plus I had another book manuscript under contract.

And there they sat, my scholarly works, piled in modest heaps across the shiny surface of the long oak conference table. It was late afternoon and the sun slanted through the russet leaves   of the maple tree outside the window, casting a golden patina over my desk, chairs, and bookcases, positively sanctifying the manuscripts, books, and scholarly journals awaiting evaluation by my colleagues.

And then there was the box. Next to the table. Waiting.

I hate to think about how much time and energy I had put into choosing the box in which I would submit to the Enfield College English Department the scholarly material upon which I would be judged worthy of tenure. Or not. I’d given in to magical thinking; if I had just the right box—size, shape, color, political correctness (recycled cardboard)—serious but accessible, dignified but modest, a box that spoke volumes about my intellectual capacities, collegial usefulness and pedagogical skill—then surely I would unanimously and enthusiastically be granted tenure. But now…

“Why Joe?” I croaked.

“Reparations for the atrocities of history.” Miles looked as if he’d just eaten prunes. “Joe is Native American. According to Hilton, because Joe Wolf is a member of a native tradition where, from prehistory, knowledge has been transmitted orally, he should not be judged on his writings, but on his ‘speakings.’ Evidently it would perpetuate hegemonic oppression to expect him to complete a written dissertation. In his case we must practice radical equalitarianism.”

“Oh, God.” I dropped my head into my hands. My fingers were cold against my burning cheeks. I was doomed. Radical equalitarianism? Speakings?

Joe and I had been hired during the same year, but we’d never been friends. Any overtures I’d made to my Native colleague, he’d spurned right from the start. As far as I could tell, he’d never had even a single pal among the other professors. He’d kept such a low profile in the department, sitting in the back of the room during department meetings, never speaking up or volunteering for committees, that eventually I’d almost forgotten about him. Joe Lone Wolf was a loner by name and a loner by nature. Miles continued. “And then Ned brought out Wolf ’s teaching evaluations, which, I must say, have been consistently enthusiastic over the years. Hilton called them ‘evidence of tenurable excellence in teaching.’” Miles found a blue-edged white handkerchief somewhere in his sweater, and wiped sweat from his forehead. “He says that tenuring Joe Lone Wolf, despite an incomplete dissertation and even though he’s never published a word, ‘would constitute a bold challenge to print-dominated Western culture, thus striking a radical and visionary blow for intellectual reparations to a persecuted race.’”

So, I was right; Joe had no Ph.D. I could feel a minute flame of anger beginning to burn in my chest. I wanted to throw a tantrum, scream, “It’s not fair!” I wanted to hit someone. I wanted to slug that pantywaist, Ned Hilton. And I could do it, too—he’s such a skinny wimp. “Why is Ned doing this?”

“You know Ned. As far as I can tell, he feels he’s on a mission, one so transcendent in importance that it justifies setting aside the customary tenure standards in the interests of social justice.”

“So, it’s a political mission?”

Miles put his gnarled hand to his chin and thought for a moment. “I think he sees it as even larger than that. He’s got grandiose ‘polycultural’ plans for the makeup of the English faculty—‘multicultural’ is no longer an adequate descriptor, he says. I truly believe he’s deluded himself into thinking that the mere teaching of literature can obviate global injustice.”

Like world peace, obviating global injustice is a laudable goal. I just couldn’t see how denying me tenure could help achieve either of these worthy objectives. I cleared my throat. “Did anyone take issue with him?”

“I was vociferous, of course.”

My champion. I studied him, this ancient academic warrior.

For him “vociferous” was as muscular as it got.

“And a few others made stabs at defending your case. But I’m not happy about the makeup of the tenure decision committee.”

“Don’t tell me—Sally Chennile?” Sally considers herself to be an academic gadflfy, a provocateur. She’s Enfield’s punkish talking-head celebrity, taking the sexiest tenets of cultural theory on the TV talk-show circuit: Oprah, Leno, the View.

“I’m sorry to say.” He bowed his head, then looked up and stared me directly in the eye. “And Harriet Person. Harriet suggested that you might well be ‘too successful’ for the Enfield English Department. That your ambition might better be satisfied at some large research university.”

In other words, I had more publications than Harriet, the Director of Women’s Studies, did, and she was jealous. I jumped up from my chair and went over to the bookcase where I keep The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson.

“Then Chenille said you were a contentious presence at department meetings.”

In other words, I often disagreed with Sally about department policies, and she didn’t like it. I opened the Dickinson volume at random.

“And Person added that she suspected you were giving inflated grades, because your classes were always suspiciously full.”

In other words, Harriet had the most under-enrolled courses in the school. I glanced down at the book. A great Hope fell / You heard no noise / The Ruin was within.

Doomed. Doomed by my hard work. Doomed because I call it as I see it. Good-bye to tenure. Farewell to the lovely green campus of Enfield College and the future I had envisioned for myself there. “Who are the others on the committee?” I sat down again with the volume of poems in my hand. I’d always have Emily. “Don’t worry—they’re on your side.” With his hands on its arms he pushed himself up out of the green chair. He walked to the door and grasped the brass knob. Before turning it he looked back over his shoulder. “But, of course, it takes only a couple of negative votes to give the deans pause.”

As I watched Miles lumber down the hall, I felt as if I’d been hit in the head with the Oxford English Dictionary, the old- fashioned kind—in print.

For most of my adult life I had been working toward this goal—a secure future doing what I did with skill and passion, teaching literature to college students. I’d come from the narrow houses and narrow lives of working-class Lowell, Massachusetts. I had not taken a college education for granted and had worked against daunting odds to get one. I began pacing back and forth from the door to the windows. From the windows to the door. Graduate school, surprisingly, had been easier, what with scholarships and grants and teaching fellowships. Then I was flabbergasted to find myself teaching not so very far from gritty Lowell, at one of the most exclusive colleges in the nation.

Sometimes democracy works.

Enfield and I had been a good fit. I was crazy about the students, and they appreciated my irreverent take on American literature. When I got back to the windows, I stopped pacing and looked out. On the grassy common a brown boy with green hair sat up against a tree and played a spare, lilting tune on his flute. I loved these kids; I loved this leafy, red-brick campus; I loved the spacious new library; I loved my campus friends, Earlene Johnson, Dean of Students and my Friday-night dinner partner, Greg Samoorian of Political Science, Jill Greenberg of Sociology. I loved my former students still in the area: Sofia Warzak, thriving in the MFA program at the university, Shameka Gilfoyle, returned from culinary school to take over the kitchen at Upper Crust, a trattoria in town, pony-tailed Mike Vitale, still making pottery over in Northampton. I loved my large, light-filled office.

I walked back over to the book shelves to replace the Dickinson. There I picked up a pottery figure, Edgar Allan Poe, given to me by Mike Vitale, who, as a student, hadn’t much liked Poe. In this witty little figure, Mike’s contempt showed. I caressed the wild ceramic hair and placed Edgar Allan back on the shelf.

All I wanted was to be granted my tenure, well deserved as far as I was concerned, and teach Enfield College’s smart, savvy students for the rest of my career. And, now, because a change in departmental leadership had placed a wooly-brained liberal-run-amok in a position to make crucial decisions about my future, everything I hoped for was threatened.

My dream was to leave my rented house in the boondocks, to buy a place in town so I could be within three blocks of the college library, walk to work, and have friends over at the drop of a mortarboard. A home. And maybe Charlie and I…Anyhow, there’s a little green house for sale on Elm Street with a deep porch just right for one of those big wooden swings…

What should I do? What could I do? I sat down at my desk and hid my face in my hands, waiting for inspiration. When it struck, it was in the form of a single word: Google. Spinning my chair around, I grabbed the computer mouse, called up the Internet search engine, and typed in joe lone wolf.

Nothing. A couple of bars in Texas called Lone Wolf Saloon, with owners named Joe. One called Lone Star Wolf Cafe.

Oh, here he was: a single mention of Professor Joseph Lone Wolf, English Department faculty, Enfield College. But that was simply pro forma. We all had a listing on the Enfield College website. I kept scrolling. A Joe Wolf seemed to be connected to an online gambling site. But otherwise—nothing.

For comparison, I searched my own name. There was more than one Karen Pelletier, but I came up first. I was definitely an Internet presence—conferences attended, talks given, publica- tions cited. And I’d made absolutely no effort to get my name out there. No blog. No website. But here was my colleague, a professor at Enfield at least as long as I had been, with nothing noted on the Web.

It was almost as if he were intentionally underplaying his existence.

I felt as if I were in danger of losing tenure to a ghost.

I closed down the computer, packed up the ungraded papers and walked to the door. Before I opened it, I turned back and stood there, taking it all in: my expansive but cluttered desk, the green vinyl chair in which so many students had sat, the overflowing bookcases, the tall windows that looked out onto the Common, the cushioned window seat. The long oak conference table stacked with books and articles to be submitted for tenure. The box.

I felt as if I were saying goodbye.

Reviews of

Death Without Tenure: A Professor Karen Pelletier Mystery #6

“This sixth series title (after The Maltese Manuscript ) shows off Dobson’s command of feeding readers small clues that lead them in circles until the solution is revealed. Fans of academic mysteries will savor this one.”

Library Journal

“Dobson, who teaches at Fordham University, provides an amusing and accurate view of academia with her au courant plot and colorful characters.”


“Karen’s sixth case…has everything you’d expect from an academic mystery—civilized dialogue, literary allusions, venal administrators, miasmal paranoia….”

Kirkus Reviews

“Agatha-finalist Dobson’s sixth mystery…trots out a plague of academic bugaboos, including drugs, false credentials, plagiarism, faculty in-fighting and hate crimes. When Karen… starts playing detective, things heat up quickly.”

Publishers Weekly