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Keeping Sane(ish) through Satire

February 22, 2024

By Nancy McCabe, fiction and creative nonfiction faculty


My short comic novel, The Pamela Papers: A Mostly E-pistolary Story of Academic Pandemic Pandemonium, was released earlier this month. It’s a bit of a departure from my previous work.


Of course, so was my last novel, Vaulting through Time, a young adult story about time travel. And so is my forthcoming novel, Fires Burning Underground, a story for middle graders based on a year of my own childhood. So is it really a departure when everything is a departure? Like that of many writers, my work almost always arises from some sense of necessity, the need to sort out my own questions, obsessions, traumas, and stresses. The writing that takes off almost always feels necessary.

But why an academic satire? I’ve been teaching for thirty-nine years, and the profession, as many colleagues have pointed out, tends to satirize itself. Still, there’s something satisfying about getting that onto the page, acknowledging and poking fun at daily absurdities. Years ago, during one of the most difficult times in my career, I took refuge in reading books like Richard Russo’s Straight Man, Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, and James Hynes’s Publish and Perish: Three Tales of Tenure and Terror. I felt less alone, being able to acknowledge that in the midst of optimism, idealism, and a belief in the power of education, the cultures we create can also feel irrational, egotistical, and jarringly out of keeping with the values we claim to hold. In addition, the way universities are viewed by the outside culture, as hotbeds of overboard progressivism, is not at all true to my experience at smaller campuses.


In addition, the pandemic was a challenging time for workers across many industries. Front-line workers, particularly in medical fields, risked their lives, in many cases, to do their jobs, while many of us in professions as widely varied as academia, banking, and software design found ourselves going through less life-threatening wringers of our own. The technology that enabled us to continue doing our jobs had the power to speed up the dehumanization of the workplace.


At the beginning of the pandemic, my own regional campus had just hired new administrators, some of whom we had never actually met in person. The isolation of workers across campus created a perfect breeding ground for abuses, and stress and chaos ensued as everyone worked around the clock in demoralizing circumstances to keep the university operating. That was the reality that eventually pushed me over the edge into writing a comic workplace novel. It was gratifying and validating to borrow from seeds of real life and exaggerate it to highlight the ridiculousness of our situation, giving me distance and perspective.


Here, I have to give a shout-out to the Naslund-Mann program, which gracefully navigated such a challenging time. I learned much of what I know about effective online teaching from participating in virtual residencies, and I was indebted to the Spalding community for connection and inspiration throughout those months. But things were more difficult at home, and every time I opened my manuscript, I started giggling, my tension and anxiety easing. I went wild, exaggerating real events, telling a story through e-mails, to-do lists, a resume, a project proposal, a word cloud, a Zoom transcript, a screenplay assignment by an investigator who happens to also be a graduate student in dramatic writing at Spalding, and other documents.


As my colleagues caught wind of my project, they started sending me e-mails and texts. “You have to include this!” said the subject lines. Or, more recently: “A sequel?” My story took on a life of its own. There was a collaborative aspect to it that bonded us, a relief after months of isolation and stress. Eventually, though, as things on our campus stabilized, some colleagues advocated for putting the trauma behind us and moving on. But for many, passion for their work and confidence in its value had been depleted. They were discouraged, in many cases burnt out; those long-term effects don’t magically resolve. They linger despite our best efforts.


And friends from other walks of life shared with me their own horror stories of working through the pandemic. So I plugged on with my novel, hoping others might find catharsis through it.  


I won’t be having a release party. Instead, I’ve converted an excerpt into a 40-minute play and nine colleagues have agreed to take part in performing it on our campus in March. After the first group read-through, the room exploded with comments and reminiscences. “I think you triggered everyone,” said my friend Karen. I hope that the play triggered not a reliving of trauma, but a feeling of relief to have emerged from a dark time and to be able to laugh and bond over our mutual survival.


And I hope that people outside of our campus, others in academia and in other professions as well, will recognize some aspect of their experience and find something to laugh at as well.



Nancy McCabe is the author of eight books, most recently The Pamela Papers from Outpost 19 and the young adult novel Vaulting through Time from CamCat. Her ninth book, the middle-grade novel Fires Burning Underground, is forthcoming in 2025 from Fitzroy/Regal House. Her previous work includes the memoir in essays Can This Marriage Be Saved? and the reading and travel memoir From Little Houses to Little Women. She’s the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and a PA Council on the Arts fellowship. Her work has been recognized ten times on Best American notable lists. She directs the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford and teaches fiction and nonfiction for Spalding.




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