Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 6.0]

Chapter VI


I defended my dissertation ten months after I’d started it and graduated in August. There weren’t many academic openings in my field that year, I was told, due to low faculty retirement and a trend to reduce faculty positions and increase distance learning. I thought I’d be happier seeking positions at smaller universities where teaching was emphasized over research. Truthfully, I doubted my ability to succeed at a place where research and publication demands were high; I knew I was too unfocused, unmotivated, and undisciplined. Unfortunately, many of the teaching-focused colleges wouldn’t consider me because I didn’t have teaching credibility since I hadn’t been a K-12 teacher.

I simply wasn’t a very competitive candidate. After an exhaustive search, I had two potential options: a community college in Miami and a small college in central Tennessee. Although the chair of my dissertation committee and my mentor had a connection in Miami, I’d been reluctant to apply for the position because a fellow grad student I was close to, Maria, was from Miami and she was targeting that area exclusively because her husband and both of their families lived there.

When I told my mentor why I wasn’t going to apply to the Miami position, he said, “Michelle, that’s ridiculous. There are very few openings this year. You shouldn’t take yourself out of a pool or deny yourself a professional opportunity just because you’re afraid of upsetting a friend. Besides, they may not be interested in Maria anyway, and then you would have eliminated that option for nothing.”

So I applied, even though it didn’t feel entirely right.

As it turned out, one afternoon I got called for an interview for the Miami position. I felt panicky and conflicted. Was it because of Maria? Or had I only applied in the first place because my mentor wanted me to? I quickly tried to get honest with myself about what I really wanted to do.

Halfway through the phone interview, I blurted out, “I’m sorry. But, I have to be honest with you. My heart is not completely in this. It doesn’t have anything to do with your university, which I respect tremendously; it’s personal. I’m from the Midwest and I don’t think I would be happy living in Miami. I know I would stay in the position for only a few years, then I would look for jobs closer to my family. I don’t think that’s fair to other candidates who have Miami as their top choice. For instance, a colleague of mine, Maria, would love to have this job. Her entire family is from there and she even speaks Spanish. We’ve had very similar coursework and teaching experience and have collaborated on two projects. She’s really wonderful. I hope you would consider someone like her instead.”

The faculty interviewer didn’t know how to respond. She seemed offended and appreciative at the same time. I apologized several times and thanked her for the opportunity. Before she hung up, she asked me for Maria’s name again.

I repeated it and she said, “Oh yes, I remember her name now. We didn’t call her because her application packet was incomplete.”

I wanted to call Maria to tell her that some of her packet hadn’t reached the right office, but then she would wonder how I got that information. Thankfully, later that same afternoon, Maria called me ecstatic because the Miami college had called her. After she’d cleared things up with her application packet, she got an interview. A few weeks later, she got a job offer.

After that was over, I had no choice but to convince myself that my one remaining option, a small state college in Tennessee, was best for me. I visited the college in the summer and it seemed like a quaint, small town—albeit somewhat poor—nestled in a beautiful location. The department chair gave me a tour. I gave a small presentation on my dissertation and then had dinner with a few faculty members from the department. I liked the courses I would be teaching, and the research requirements for tenure seemed doable.

A member of my dissertation committee advised me not to take the job because it was at such a low-tier school; I’d never be able to move into an academic position at a higher-tiered school. She encouraged me to look for a post-doc job at a better university. I’m sure she knew what she was talking about, but it was so late in the game and the thought of possibly being in limbo for a year unnerved me. So, when the college in Tennessee called, I accepted their offer and moved in time to start teaching that fall.

Since Chris had one more year of coursework and a master’s thesis to complete, he remained living in our apartment in Florida. My offer came so late in the summer that the best, cheapest housing option I could find was a small apartment in the married/family housing complex on the campus. Chris drove with me to help move in my things. The apartment was an old, drafty, dingy dump inside and out. The cabinets were stained and from the seventies. The floors were scuffed black vinyl laminate, and the place was painted a drab gray.

As soon as we walked in, the gloominess hit me. I tried to tell myself the sadness was more about separating from Chris than about the place itself, but I was disappointed to be living there. I had no furniture or accessories and barely any money. We bought a futon, a card table and four chairs, a cheap desk for my computer, and some plastic dressers from Walmart. Chris left a few days later to get back for classes, and I tried to stay upbeat. I organized my new office, planned my classes, and attended faculty orientations.

Walking across campus on the first day of classes, I noticed a significant gathering of students on the lawn in front of the Library. They carried signs and were chanting something. I froze when I discovered it was an anti-gay rally. Students were pumping their bibles in the air and chanting, “Homos aren’t welcome! Homos aren’t welcome.”

I went directly to the chair’s office and told him what I’d seen.

He nodded sheepishly and said he wasn’t surprised. “Yes. I’ve seen it. They typically organize one of those every year.”

I then asked, “Who are they exactly?” hoping they were fanatics from a church near campus. But, they weren’t. They were our students!

He explained that the school used to be a religious college and still had that “feel” to it sometimes, as 99 percent of the town was devoutly Southern Baptist. “I guess no one told you that B-ville is known as ‘the buckle’ of the Bible belt?”

I almost blurted out “What the FUCK?” But I managed to hold it in. My head started pounding and my guts bottomed out. How had this observation escaped me? Well, it had been the last thing on my mind. Thinking back to the religious fanatics from my childhood—especially the crazed spiritual energy that poured out of them—scared the shit of me. This was Worst-Case Scenario. I had a deep, strong feeling that I’d made a horrible mistake taking the position. And, indeed, it was the worst decision I could have made. Many of my students brought their bibles to class with them and rested them on their laps throughout class, even during exams. They attempted to work scriptures into my lectures. When I asked them why they’d chosen teaching as a profession, half the class said “to mission.”

About mid-semester, I taught a lecture on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the basic point being that people are born inherently good with the potential and purpose to evolve overtime into a stage of psychological “self-actualization,” which is essentially a state of being where once your physical, emotional, and cognitive needs are met—in that order—you are at peace with yourself and you focus on and get joy from giving back to others. This was one of my favorite theories because of its implications for motivation. But the Monday after that lecture, a male and two female students came to my office declaring they wanted to drop my class. They had shared my lesson with their preacher, who told them I was teaching “a cult.”

He said, “People are not born good; they are born evil. The ultimate life goal is to serve God, not self-actualize. You can only reach a state of grace through prayer and accepting the Lord into your heart, not by figuring out how to meet your own psychological needs.”

I spent an hour explaining that the concepts presented in my class were just theories and weren’t in competition with their spiritual beliefs. I couldn’t convince them. Religion provides explanations for behavior, prescriptions for how to behave, and consequences that should accompany good and bad behavior. Psychology gives alternate explanations for those things. Just like religion was a scary threat to me, psychology was a scary threat to them. In the end, those students finished out my class, but they came back to my office twice more trying to convince me to attend their church.

My lectures on diversity and multiculturalism bombed pretty well, too. A majority of the class believed America was being overrun by Hispanics and that gays were immoral. Sex education wasn’t allowed in the schools in Tennessee, unless you counted abstinence-only programs, which I didn’t. There were no Planned Parenthoods in the county although the county did have the highest teen-pregnancy rate in the state. It was clear by the way the students looked and dressed, this was truly a poor rural area. Some wives of a nearby military base came to class with bruises on their faces and arms. Some student-mothers brought their sick children to class with them. I couldn’t schedule study sessions in the evenings because the women told me their husbands wouldn’t babysit their own children. Several were too poor to buy books and shared or borrowed them from the library or from me. I hated the pity I felt for most of my students, even for the ignorant racist ones, and I felt even worse for their future students and children. They had no idea what they were triggering in me.

One weekend while Chris was visiting, a married couple living next to me knocked on my door. They made some small talk and then asked us to go for a walk with them. Thinking they were just being friendly, we went. Soon, the guy pulled Chris off in one direction, and the girl pulled me off in another. I didn’t think much about it, but when we got home, Chris asked me what we talked about. I told him we discussed grad schools and where we were from. He told me that the guy had asked twenty questions about his faith and whether Chris would like to go to Bible study with him while he was in town. The guy said he’d recently found his calling as a missionary. According to him, the church was a potentially dangerous “middle man.” His group believed in going right to “the source” for their beliefs, to the Bible itself. And when they were reading it privately, God spoke directly to them. The sour pit flared back up in my stomach. Why hadn’t the girl mentioned any of this to me on our walk?

The next day, I went to my department chair for an answer, and he thought they most likely believed that “If they can ‘get’ the man…they’ve automatically ‘got’ the woman.”

Now I was scared—and pissed. I actually felt violated, or demeaned, or something. To add insult to injury, two nights later, while I was out at dinner, a resident assistant came in to my room to perform a routine room inspection and found a half-open bottle of wine in my kitchen cupboard. I returned to my room to find a note summoning me to a hearing by the college judicial board. I couldn’t take it. I went straight to the chair and apologized for any embarrassment this would cause the department.

He was very cool about it, but another faculty member in my department named Sharon overheard my story and paid me an office visit. Sharon was an almost-forty-something professor whose husband was also a faculty member in the department. Their story, according to Sharon, was that she and her husband, individually, were talented enough to have landed faculty positions at Ivy League schools. But, because they were a “dual-career couple,” they had to settle on this place if they both wanted to be employed in their field. Sharon had intimidated me from the start. She was abrasive, never lost her matter-of-fact sarcasm, rolled her eyes at everything the chair said, and didn’t act the least bit interested in getting to know me. She had two children, one with severe behavioral problems, and she generally seemed overwhelmed with life all the time.

Sharon walked right into my office, not even saying “hello.” She launched into a diatribe, under the guise that she was going to offer me a “little helpful advice,” things she wished someone had told her.

“Listen, this is a tight-knit, religious community run by a good-old boys’ network. People are wondering what church you belong to. Personally, I don’t care what you are, or if you’re anything at all. Just pick a church, preferably a Baptist one, and go. The Catholic one is acceptable, but not ideal. Make sure you’re seen there by people from the university. If you want to further your career, don’t be ‘direct’ with the administrators. They expect women to be subservient. You should grow your hair out and work on your wardrobe. Wear dresses. Look more feminine.”

At this point she paused, and I took a chance to speak. “Really? Do people here really care about these sorts of things? The other faculty, I mean? Where I’m from, there’s an inverse correlation between IQ and worrying about how you look.”

Sharon was annoyed either by the inverse correlation or by the fact that I’d incredulously opened my mouth because she leaned forward, glared into my eyes, and said in an acidic tone, “Look. I’m just going to be really honest with you. The outfit you wore to the interview was highly controversial and almost cost you this job. You had on a long, black skirt with a slit up to HERE.”

She put her hand to her crotch, raised her eyebrows, and gave me a challenging look.

“And you had on a black choker necklace,” she continued, “which people just DON’T wear around here. And you removed your jacket before your presentation. Afterwards, none of us could even discuss your presentation seriously because we couldn’t get past your intentions with that outfit. And you need to stop wearing shorts around the building, even on the weekends. What if a student was here and saw you? It’s hard enough to get the people around here to call us by our proper titles. Most of these hillbillies have no idea what a PhD even is. Insist that they call you ‘Doctor,’ for all our sakes.”

She ended by telling me to keep my eyes and ears open because I had a lot to learn.

The poor chair. I was in his office seconds after she left, in tears yet again. Humiliated, I told him what Sharon had said and explained how I honestly hadn’t had intentions to seduce the search committee. Those were the nicest clothes I owned, given to me by my husband’s stepmother. I’d worn black tights underneath the skirt to ensure nothing was revealed by the slit, which only came to the top of my knee. He seemed disgusted with Sharon’s disclosure and said that none of the men had even noticed my outfit until Sharon had pointed it out and made it an issue. Then, to make me feel better, he told me that he’d heard some students talking positively about one of my classes and to not take Sharon’s words too seriously. A few days later, an annoying cough that had been hanging around for a few weeks intensified and often resulted in me coughing up blood. The cough persisted for months, and everyone blamed it on the ragweed. I blamed it on Sharon.

I lumbered on in a daze, trying to keep up the appearance I was doing just fine. I should have been creating a formal dossier and outlining my research agenda. Instead, when I wasn’t teaching, I holed myself up in my apartment and read every book by Somerset Maugham I could find at the library. There were several dozens of them, and there was something about his stories—perhaps the purity of his voice, the particular issues his characters grappled with, his keen observations of the everyday human condition—that spoke directly to me. While I fully escaped into them, I could explore myself and life from many new angles. I could examine and challenge beliefs I’d taken for granted and try to decide whether they were truly in line with the type of person I wanted to be.

I discovered what mattered most to me wasn’t accumulating money, success, material things, or even recognition. Those were all extrinsic reinforcers, which I’d come to view as traps that took us away from the intrinsic value to be found in life all around us. I’d recently read a book about learning to want what you already have. It bothered me that we never feel satisfied or happy until we have achieved the next social status symbol, a new car, bigger house, better job, etc. We say to ourselves, “I’ll be happy once I graduate.” Then we do, and that is no longer enough. We say “I’ll be happy once I marry and get a good job.” Or, “Once I have children…and make a lot of money…”

It seems to go on and on, and in the meantime we are never satisfied with or savor what we do have. Television commercials are always making us think we don’t yet have the best object that will make us even cooler or happier than we already are. So, we are all forced to live in a perpetual state of excess desire. Ironically, we may miss out on being with the very people we think will love us more once we acquire all those things. I didn’t want to be trapped in that forever; the sheer thought of it exhausted me.

And, even if I did believe that “stuff” or recognition could somehow give me feelings of satisfaction and fulfillment, it would still be only half of the coin, wouldn’t it? Acquiring positive reinforcers may bring some temporary satisfaction, but what if doing so requires you to tolerate many negative reinforcers in the process? Having to work twelve hours a day at tasks that aren’t really that enjoyable or stimulating would be highly aversive to me. I would also hate to be trapped in a marriage with a man I despised just because of the high standard of living it created for me. In the end, sometimes the rewards simply aren’t worth the trade-off.

I could now see how in at least one aspect of my life, I was still trapped. I believed that becoming a professor would give me value and respect in ways I’d never had before. It would prove to others that I wasn’t a “bumpkin” or someone who was not worthy of love from certain classes of people. Certainly, my dad would be pleased, too.

But, what price was I paying? I love learning naturally, whether I receive a grade for it or not. The threat of a bad grade certainly created extra pressure to complete assignments, but it didn’t help me enjoy the task any more. Sometimes it sapped the enjoyment out of it. And, I was discovering that my new title of “Doctor” didn’t really make me feel any better. In fact, I was embarrassed to force my students to use it because that would make me one of the elitist jerks I loathed (aka—DOCTOR McDunn). In the end, carrying the title gave me no inherent joy itself. It was an illusion to think it would bring me more love or admiration.

It had always bothered me that people were so quick to say that Skinner was designing his science with the sole purpose of figuring out how to control others with rewards and punishers. It’s such a sad misjudgment of his work. I always felt like he was illuminating how we are—like it or not—often aversively controlled by our environments and/or are controlled by contrived reinforcers, so that we could design the environment in ways to eliminate coercive control as much as possible. People are so quick to deny they are controlled and so quick to believe that they have 100 percent free will and choice every moment about every decision.

Yet, I believe that only once we acknowledge what is really controlling us, and understand what rewards we are working for and what aversive stimuli we are putting up with for those rewards, can we finally decide whether the payoffs are worth the costs and make changes in our lives. I can decide to quit this job and find something more inherently fulfilling. I can decide to leave my marriage to reclaim solitude if I believe the marriage comes at too great a cost to my happiness.

After closing the last Maugham book, something clicked, lifted, or perhaps I’d just hit a wall. I’d figured out whatever it was I needed to figure out for the moment. But, now I also felt sick of myself in some way; I felt guilty and self-indulgent. For almost ten years, I’d had the luxury of self-analysis and the opportunity to take advantage of the things life had to offer. I’d had myself under a microscope all that time, identifying my flaws and improving my life in ways that brought in happiness and released pain. I was trying to change myself into someone worthy of acceptance and love. Had I really accumulated all this knowledge and understanding only to heal myself and better my own life?

Maybe I’d had it all backwards. I could see for the first time that my life would only have meaning to me if I was using what I’d learned to nurture someone else. I knew suddenly and with clarity that I would find the happiness and fulfillment I had been missing if I was less self-focused, lived honestly, gave love authentically and unconditionally, and remained joyful and grateful for life. I no longer wanted to take more from life than I gave. For the first time, I opened up to the idea that I could be a good mother to a child someday.

Although I didn’t have an exact plan, I knew for certain I would not create a research agenda nor start a dossier. Instead, I wrote a letter of resignation. I would finish out the spring semester, but that was it. The chair made a halfhearted attempt to convince me to change my mind, but I could tell he understood it was best to let me go. I’d officially just committed academic career suicide.


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