Two loves: An adjunct’s journey from the classroom to the racetrack

BY Ingrid Steffensen  February 6, 2014 at 6:03 PM EST
Ingrid Steffensen thought she'd be spending her life on a university campus. Instead, she's found a new home on the racetrack. Photo by Brent Lewin/Bloomberg.

Ingrid Steffensen thought she’d be spending her life on a university campus. Instead, she’s found a new home on the racetrack. Photo by Brent Lewin/Bloomberg.

Editor’s Note: As an 18-year-old romantic, Ingrid Steffensen fell hard for the academic life. She went on to complete a Ph.D., intending to never divorce herself from academia. But the relationship she imagined for herself – teaching and reading and writing full-time (and making a living doing it!) – wasn’t to be. Her love was unrequited.

Instructional positions in higher education are increasingly being held by adjuncts, who make an average of $2,000 to $3,000 per course. We’ve been exploring the economic realities of being an adjunct in a Making Sense series we’re calling “adjunctivitis.” Earlier in the week, we heard from Arik Greenberg, who recently briefed congressional staffers on behalf of his adjunct union. (Our broadcast segment in which Greenberg appears is slated to air Thursday on the NewsHour.) Greenberg is still at it — teaching theology part-time at Loyola Marymount University.

But Steffensen took a different course. Frustrated that she couldn’t earn a living doing what she thought was her one true love, she quit teaching. This is her story of how she found her second love. Steffensen’s book is “Fast Girl: Don’t Brake Until You See the Face of God and Other Good Advice from the Racetrack.”

Simone Pathe, Making Sense Editor


I arrived at the University of Virginia, 18 years old and as green as you can imagine a small-town central Pennsylvania girl would be, and promptly fell in love.

Ingrid Steffensen

The object of my affection was the charismatic professor Paul Barolsky: tall and lanky, with a wild crop of curly hair and pants that often needed hiking up because they were just a wee bit too big for him, he offered a course called “Renaissance Art and Literature” that I signed up for the moment I spotted it in the catalog.

For me, that was exactly like picking out the plumpest, juiciest ring at Tiffany’s, and I was absolutely moon-eyed about the whole experience. We read Dante’s “Inferno,” Machiavelli’s “The Prince” and Castiglione’s “The Courtier,” along with a smattering of Boccaccio and Vasari, while we looked at Botticelli and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Quartet (Donatello, Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo). I listened, rapt, as professor Barolsky strode up and down the stage, ardently gesticulating and making divinest sense of this divinest of materials. So dreamy!

That’s when it first occurred to me: you can make a living doing that? I fell, and I fell hard, for this romantic Romeo of the academic life. I wanted to be just like him: I wanted to wallow in beautiful words and things, and ferret out interesting connections between them, and I wanted to be surrounded by smart, witty people, and I wanted to live and breathe the rarified air that exists in a place like the surpassingly beautiful campus designed by Thomas Jefferson.

I simply couldn’t get enough of it, so I went on for a master’s degree in literature, then a Ph.D. in art history, and I never wanted to leave the Arcadian fields of academe. I did well in the beauty pageant portion, winning a prestigious fellowship, a dissertation prize and a publisher for my work. My first gig out with my shiny new degree was as an adjunct at a highly regarded liberal arts college, and I nearly swooned with delight the first time a student referred to me — all of 27 years old at the time — as “Professor Steffensen.” Heady stuff indeed.

So I embarked on the effort to turn that lover into a husband. I entered the marriage market full of hope, thinking it was just a matter of time before one of the short-term relationships I engaged in blossomed into the long-term tenure-track job of my dreams. But, alas, what started out as an Austen novel, with the promise of marriage at the end, turned into a serial dating scenario instead.

My dates got consistently handsomer: first a community college, then a brief fling at an Ivy, then the main campus of a state school, and finally one-Seventh of the Sisters with a campus so pretty (I’m such a sucker for good looks) that I almost forgave its fickleness towards me — part-time one year, full-time the next, in an unpredictable pattern that left me in a perpetual state of anticipatory anxiety.

Would he ever get down on bended knee, offer up a ring, and make a declaration of undying devotion?

It appeared not, but I kept hanging on, waiting, hoping, thinking (delusionally): maybe this year is the year.

And then a new lover entered my life. He arrived in a most unexpected guise: wearing bright blue booties, a flame-retardant jumpsuit and a crash helmet with a mirrored visor. His name was Ike Nielson, and when he first approached my car I thought I would swoon again — not with pleasure this time, but with terror.

I found myself in the extraordinary and slightly surreal position of driving out onto a racetrack for the first time, at Watkins Glen International Raceway in upstate New York. I had married (non-metaphorically this time) a guy with an automotive obsession, and he persuaded me to try what is euphemistically termed “high performance driving” in my beloved Mini Cooper commuter car. This was far and away the most unlikely and uncharacteristic thing I had ever done in my art-and-literature-loving, sedate academic life — and I was terrified to the point of nausea.

The be-helmeted Ike, however, relieved me of my automotive maidenhead with gentlemanly courtesy, coaxing nervous and tentative me out onto the racetrack, and began the work of teaching me how to drive — in a word — fast. That first driving experience went by in a literal blur as I tried to absorb concepts I had never encountered before: how to drive the racing “line,” brake zones, apexes, track-outs — in short, all the things that are supposed to happen when you push your car to its Newtonian limits.

Full disclosure: I was awful.

Also: I hated it.

But then something funny happened on the drive home: I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and in my head, what I did played out somewhat differently from what had happened in real asphalt. In the visions I spooled out on that homeward journey I was brilliant, and the car did everything it was supposed to do, and I flew past powerful BMW M3s in my tiny little box of a car (sure, and why not throw a few whimpering Porsches into the mix?).

A new love had entered my life, and I went after it in hot pursuit. I attended as many “High Performance Driver’s Education” events as budgets and other nuisance-y real-life obligations (such as children and jobs) would allow. I was besotted.

If you are a person who is prone to metaphorical “thinkiness” (who, moi?), then the racetrack is a place just lousy with material. As I learned the basic techniques that racecar drivers use, I also thought a lot about my life. I had to learn to be more comfortable with aggression on the racetrack — and it made me see I had been kind of a doormat in real life. I was taught at the track how to keep my vision high and far — and realized I had for too long been looking with complete nearsightedness at my own path through life. And every time I drove out on the track, I had to re-conquer the fear that felt like it would swallow me whole and spit me out into the very depths of Dante’s nine-level version of Hell.

Fast Girl

Hey, I thought, maybe I am stronger and braver than I thought I was?

And maybe, just maybe, there is more to me, and to life, than the single-minded pursuit of a career that declines to return the favor.

If not teaching, then what? The answer came in the form of a professor friend of mine who had indulgently listened to me blather on and on about what had been happening at the racetrack. Hoping to support me in my quest to find a path other than the academic one — and perhaps hoping to spare himself the endless greasy details — he said to me: “I think there’s a book in that.”

A year into my adventures in racecar driving, I was a different person from the scared ninny I was when I had begun. I was now someone willing to try something completely outside my comfort zone, to venture to assert myself as an author with a subject of my very own. For a revelatory change, it was my life that was interesting, not someone else’s.

I wrote my book “Fast Girl: Don’t Brake Until You See the Face of God and Other Good Advice from the Racetrack” at an accelerated pace suited to my new hobby, and in it I explored the liberating (and often hilarious) journey I had inadvertently embarked upon. My new high-octane bravery fueled me through the fearsome labyrinth of trade publishing — agent, editor, publicist — and even impelled me to elbow my way to a review in the New York Times.

The subject of “Fast Girl” was not really cars and racing per se, but the discovery of a new self who, as a by-product, had suddenly become bored with the endless and unfulfilling pursuit of a tenure-track position in academia. I have not fallen out of love with the art and architecture that I have taught in the classroom (I still carry the torch for you, Mr. Barolsky, though I’m a little wistful about the taming of your wonderful, electric hair), nor have I any less regard for the educational mission itself.

But I did decide it was time for a trial separation from the love I had pursued for so long, as I sought to explore the possibility that I might actually become an artist in my own right, not someone who only reports on the historic accomplishments of others.

I realized, too, that I had become psychically stunted by the endless quest for validation that the eternal adjunct is forced to embark upon. With a well-paid spouse working in business, my stints as an adjunct seemed by comparison like a charming hobby — the needlepoint of an Austen heroine or the charity work of a Kardashian. Yes, I believed in the academic mission, but in the early years of my daughter’s life, I was really only covering childcare, which meant that the return on labor made my work essentially charity work.

There are many different kinds of value, to be sure. My students were gratifyingly enthusiastic about my work, and there were always waitlists for my classes. I knew that what I was doing was ultimately for the betterment of humanity: beauty and enlightenment are to an extent their own reward. But doing highly skilled work and being paid a living wage for it suddenly didn’t seem like too much to ask.

How’s that trial separation going? My new loves — driving and writing — aren’t exactly generating the kind of financial independence I would ultimately like to achieve. The first, in fact, is a financial black hole that only the Danica Patricks of the world can fill with greenbacks.

The second is as elusive a commitment-phobe as academe: I seem to have a thing for unattainable ideals. I’m at work on several different manuscripts (one about life as a dog) that have yet to find their own match made in publishing heaven. But I am, at least, in charge of my own success, and if I am not going to get paid a lot, I may as well do something that sates my new hunger for adventure and the perils and delights of the open road.

Gimme my helmet, a fast car and a tank of gas — and I’m off for a romantic rendezvous fit for the heroine of my own life’s story.

Watch Paul Solman’s story on adjuncts: