Messy desk in an office with old books stacked everywhere.
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The Research Assistant

He handed me a 1974 edition of a nineteenth century novel. It was one of those classic looking ones that bibliophiles so often lusted after, one with a cracked spine and yellowed pages. He told me it was his personal copy from back in the day. I didn’t know if it was true at the time, but I wanted it to be. Hearing it made me feel even luckier.

It was my first meeting with this professor as his new research assistant. He said that for my first assignment I was to read the novel cover to cover, from this particular edition. Then I was to write him a paper contextualizing and explaining the significance of page 211 (of page 211 only, he emphasized). On the following Monday — for it was Monday morning as we spoke, the first Monday in June — I would return to his office on the second floor of the humanities building and receive my next assignment. The process would repeat itself for ten weeks total, encompassing a coveted summer position that only one student was chosen for each year. It was an intoxicating feeling, being chosen.

At that point I had just finished my third year of an English degree at this classic liberal arts college. Think pristine green quad, austere brick buildings, quaint benches shaded by leafy branches. It was a great school, although it hadn’t been my first choice. Indeed, the enduring lore was that this school was perennially students’ second choice, after they received their rejection letters from whatever prestigious institutions they had set their sights on. And so we all found ourselves here: making the best of it, taking our immense privilege for granted, and quietly shifting our pretentious targets to masters or doctorate programs. I had this theory that once someone yearned to attend a certain school, that desire never truly burnt out until it happened. I had accepted this about myself long ago.

Applying for this research position was one way that us perfectionist, academia-bound English majors attempted to distinguish ourselves from the pack. The professor only hired one student each summer, someone who was between their junior and senior year. While it was a paid position, everyone knew that the ultimate compensation was a recommendation letter written by the professor. The professor, tenured, had taught at the college for decades. He was impressively well-respected in the literary criticism space, and was the equivalent of a household name as far as scholarship went. Students and faculty alike often speculated that someday he would seek employment at a more prestigious, better-paying institution. Yet he had occupied the same office at the end of the hall for as long as anyone could remember, with no signs of packing up anytime soon. Any eager literature student in the department knew that a favorable recommendation letter from him was worth more than a whole degree’s worth of perfect grades come application season.

And so I had applied for this research assistant position, by which I mean that I wrote my name on the paper taped to the professor’s door. The method was undoubtedly antiquated, and no one quite knew how he selected a student. He required no cover letter and asked for no additional materials. I was elated when I received the email informing me that I had been chosen for the position — that he had chosen me. I was excited, and then surprised when I read the attached document: a form requesting my signature in acknowledgement that all research conducted for him was to be confidential. I had heard rumors that this professor preferred secrecy when it came to his research. For some reason I had always pictured it as a sort of tacit agreement, not something formalized with a signature.

Of course, I signed the form without hesitation. The thought of that recommendation letter pushed away any doubts. After all, I had my heart set on a prestigious post-grad track, and needed every upper hand I could get. I was exorbitantly ambitious then, in a way that clouded my judgment and made me self-absorbed. I feel quite embarrassed when I think about it now.

After the professor finished giving his instructions, he made polite small talk with me for a few minutes before excusing himself to attend another obligation. I was both excited and puzzled as I walked across campus, book in hand, to the dorm room I was staying in that summer. Campus became particularly verdant in the warmer months. The grass of the central quad grew lush and green, a sweet breeze blew through full crowds of rustling leaves, and flowers bloomed in carefully maintained garden beds. It was the ideal backdrop for what I thought was a highly intellectual endeavor.

I had never read this novel before. I was eager to get started, and yet I couldn’t help feeling rather… surprised, perhaps? Disappointed, even? Reading a novel and writing a paper was not what I had expected of this sought-after position. I had visions of scouring the stacks in the basement of the library, brushing dust off of long forgotten pages, a clear mission in mind. Instead, the professor hadn’t even explained the overarching premise of his research. What was he hoping that I would find? What had he already found? But, I told myself, surely he knew what he was doing. It would all make sense once I started reading.

The novel was a delight. Set in the early nineteenth century, it offered a social historical perspective of workers, women, and society during that time. I devoured all six hundred pages in just three days. Afterwards, I went back and reread page 211. As I had hoped, it became clear to me why the professor had requested analysis of that particular page. An integral character was introduced and described, making it fairly simple to form a working thesis and research some supporting context. I thought I was quite clever at the time, that the conclusions I drew were as close to original thought as possible in a saturated literary landscape. I didn’t know as much as I thought I knew. In hindsight, the insights I wrote about were rather obvious and lacked the depth and nuance I had thought they possessed.

Even then, my pride wasn’t exorbitant enough to prevent my nerves from tightening as I handed the professor my paper the next Monday morning. He placed it on a corner of his desk, on top of which he rested the novel he had let me borrow. Surely, I thought, he would provide me with feedback upon reading my final product. What if his response was scathing — or worse, quietly disappointed? How would I continue on, week after week, knowing that he thought my writing poor, my ideas uninspiring, or my tone woefully missing the mark? Just the thought of it made me yearn to disappear, to somehow blend into the slate-colored walls of his office.

But he didn’t so much as glance at my paper. Instead, he reached over to the overflowing bookshelf to his right and pulled out another faded edition, this time a 1961 copy of a different nineteenth century novel. Then, for the second week in a row, he instructed me to read the book and write him a paper contextualizing and explaining the significance of page 211.

I was surprised, perhaps even visibly. I couldn’t help it. Based on my previous assignment, I figured that he had chosen page 211 due to its particular significance in the novel. But what were the chances that an equally compelling scene could also be found on page 211 in this edition? I asked for clarification on the page number.  Yes, he said, page 211, as though there was nothing at all strange about his request. Then, as he had at our prior meeting, he soon excused himself. With that, I was left to make the humid trek back across campus, clutching the yellowed pages of the next novel just a little too tightly.

By the time I was halfway across the quad, I had already made up my mind to give the professor the benefit of the doubt. It hardly took any convincing on my part. Yes, the whole situation was a bit bizarre. But he was a renowned professor and scholar for a reason. He had instructed countless research assistants before. And his research was known to be a bit untraditional — he had made me sign a confidentiality agreement, after all. I reassured myself that he had a very good reason for giving me this assignment, and that a meaningful pattern in the work would soon appear.

Despite its length, I devoured the second novel rapidly. I couldn’t get enough of the drama, passion, desperation, and suspense. And because it was summer and few other students were on campus — mostly some sports teams starting their practice schedules early and a handful of students working in summer positions like myself — I had little else to occupy my time or thoughts. I would take a stroll or two around campus each day if the weather was nice, admiring the flowers and inhaling their sweet smell. Otherwise, I alternated between reading at the old wooden desk in my dorm room and out somewhere on the quad, stretched out on a blanket with a breeze fluttering the pages.

I approached this second assignment much like I had the first: I read the novel all the way through, and then went back and reread page 211. However, this time I was confused. Page 211 in this novel didn’t contain anything revelatory or crucial to the story overall. What is more, I couldn’t see any sort of connection between this page 211 and the prior week’s page 211. Clearly, I was missing something. The professor chose this page for a reason. I just needed to figure out why.

The research took longer that week as I tried to understand the context of the novel more broadly. Eventually, though, it hit me. I managed to scrape together a relatively sound paper, with conclusions that, I thought proudly, could maybe even connect back to my analysis from the previous week. Surely this was the meaning he had intended me to see. Considering my initial doubts about the assignment, the paper ended up far better than I had expected.

As I walked down to the professor’s office for the third time that summer, warm rain gently tapping on my rain jacket, I chastised myself for second-guessing the professor so profusely. Who was I, a soon-to-be college senior, to question the methods of such a successful, revered professor? I was confident that all would be explained during this meeting — he would have read my previous paper by now, and could perhaps provide some guidance on the direction of the research overall.

He greeted me as I entered his office and took my usual seat in the chair opposite his desk. It was a small office, and nearly everything in it was just an arm’s reach away. I felt a little claustrophobic, but told myself it was due to the rain splattering against his office window. As was our routine now, I handed him my paper and the book and he placed them on the corner of his desk.

“Now,” he said, swiveling in his chair to face his bookshelves, “to locate this week’s book.”

“Actually, professor?” The question came out like a chirp. I asked him if I could receive feedback on last week’s paper, just so I knew whether I was heading in the right direction with my research.

He smiled knowingly. “Ah, yes. Right. Students often want timely feedback on their work. But I’ve found it more useful to provide feedback on the totality of a student’s work at the end of the summer. It allows me to really see how a student’s mind functions.” He paused, still smiling. I felt compelled to smile back. “Is that agreeable?”

I nodded in response, silently agreeing that yes, his odd methodologies were perfectly fine with me. Turning back to his shelves, he pulled off yet another aged copy. Handing me the book, he said exactly what I had been dreading he would say.

I’ll spare you the gory details of the rest of that summer. I’m sure you can guess how it played out, to an extent. Each Monday morning I was handed a novel from the professor’s shelves and given the same instructions. I would spend the next week diligently researching and writing, producing a paper that inevitably found its way to the same corner of the professor’s desk the following Monday. And the cycle repeated — and repeated — until mid-August.

Initially I tried not to think about the many questions that I had no answers to. But the more I tried to focus on the research, the harder my mind strove to uncover any possible meaning that might lie behind his repetitive instructions. For surely these assignments had meaning, were based on significant patterns he had discovered that were just beyond my understanding. The thought of there being no purpose behind this tedious cycle nearly made me nauseous. All I could think of was why why why. A drumbeat, a pulse. Endless loops of concentric circles. A spiral.

It was all-consuming, the not knowing. The words and metaphors and symbolism all washed over and through me and it was like I hardly felt them, hardly even noticed the mediocre analysis I typed out hour after hour, day after day. But the image of ten pages, all different but the same in a way that frustrated and perplexed me, remained etched into my mind, into the darkness when I closed my eyes. It taunted me.

Each week as I walked to the professor’s office I swore to myself that I would ask him for an explanation. Yet when he inevitably handed me another novel and repeated the same instruction — for he always repeated it, as though he were telling it to me for the first time — my insides twisted and I froze. My mouth refused to open, my body declined to do anything but nod agreeably and head back the way I came, as though in a daze. This stupor would persist for a few hours, but by midday I couldn’t believe that I had let yet another week slip by with no more answers than I had had on that first Monday morning in June.

Eventually — finally, improbably, inevitably — the summer came to a close, and with it our final Monday meeting. I handed him my tenth paper, which he accepted with little fanfare. He thanked me for my hard work that summer, told me he would provide feedback soon, and wished me a nice week before the fall semester began. Anticlimactically, I was no longer his research assistant.

As friends began to trickle back onto campus, I found it difficult to articulate how my summer had been. Unexpectedly, I found comfort in the confidentiality agreement I had signed many weeks before. My classmates’ imaginations would have to fill in the blanks.

True to the professor’s word, I received feedback on my work shortly after the start of the new semester. It came in the form of an email, a few short lines about how my work was exactly the kind of research he had been hoping for, and thanking me again for my help and hard work. That was all — no elaboration, no explanation, no further comments. At least, the selfish, ambitious part of me thought, this means he’ll write me a strong letter of recommendation.

And he must have, because a month or two shy of graduation I was accepted into my ideal master’s program. It was a prestigious program, highly competitive and selective and was, consequently, exactly what I wanted. The following morning I stopped by the professor’s office to thank him and share the exciting news, but he wasn’t in. I turned to head back down the nearby staircase, humming to myself. Yet I stopped after only a few steps, having caught something out of the corner of my eye. It was the professor’s name placard on the wall outside of his office, something I had always rushed by without stopping to look closely at. There, beneath his name in small, faded letters, was his office number. I stared at the name placard for a few seconds before heading back to my dorm.

Two weeks later I heard that the professor had selected his research assistant for the upcoming summer. The student and I ran into each other in the quad not long after and got to talking. He asked me if I had any advice for a soon-to-be research assistant. I told him that nothing in particular came to mind. I didn’t want to ruin the surprise.