When Adjuncts Attack

15 Apr 2010

UPDATE: This post was written when I was an adjunct instructor, and is about a particular article that appeared in The Atlantic. It should in no way reflect on the work or attitudes of all adjuncts, who are the most dedicated, creative, and abused professionals I know. —Michael

The juiciest prey approach the watering hole at 8:00 on a sunny morning in early September. Fresh from their high school graduation, or flush with pride after earning a GED, they arrive for ENG101, sit at the computer stations without opening Facebook, take out their texts, and wait. Already, they are mentally recalibrating, wondering what happens first, taking those first tentative steps in the complex intellectual dance that David Bartholomae calls “Inventing the University.” And then, after a few tense minutes, in strides me:  an instructor with a cup of strong coffee, a Masters in English, and claws sharpened on the dry bones of intellectual pursuits, strident class politics, and chronic underemployment.

In fact, the students could get anybody from the pool, someone with a Masters Degree and a dream, at once starry-eyed and down-hearted, excited and depressed, who only had to show the college some transcripts and now has a low-level writing class where he can, by and large, do whatever he wants. And what he wants, most likely, is to be teaching EN500, or any other boutique Humanities class normally claimed by tenured faculty.

Take “Professor X,” for instance. In a 2008 article for The Atlantic entitled, “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” X laments the state of the current community college rabble, and paints himself as a reluctant and persecuted hold-out (hence the alias) against the decline of academic excellence. “I am the man,” he writes, “who has to lower the hammer.” He sees himself as “a modern Coriolanus bearing sword and grade book, ‘a thing of blood, whose every motion / Was timed with dying cries.’” Well, it’s a dirty job, I suppose, but someone has to do it.

Unfortunately, whatever the merits of the real Professor X as an instructor, the persona that rises from his article is closer to a modern Prince Hal, cooling his heels with all the Falstaffs and Bardolphs (who are destined to become blue-collar cannon fodder) until he can take his rightful place on a tenured throne:

“I am the one who ultimately delivers the news to those unfit for college: that they lack the most basic skills and have no sense of the volume of work required; that they are in some cases barely literate; that they are so bereft of schemata, so dispossessed of contexts in which to place newly acquired knowledge, that every bit of information simply raises more questions.”

Now, I’m not at all sure what schemata the students are expected to have with them in their backpacks, or even how raising more questions is a bad thing (unless one fancies oneself a kind of academic oracle, whose words signal the end of the discussion). But, Professor X assures us—or, perhaps, himself—that “my students and I are of a piece. I could not be aloof, even if I wanted to be. Our presence together in these evening classes is evidence that we all have screwed up.” Or, as Hal says to his unfit friends,

I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyok’d humor of your idleness.

Professor X’s beef seems, ultimately, with the community college practice of open enrollment. Even though such a policy is “a bonanza for the colleges and nice for the students and makes the entire United States of America feel rather pleased with itself,” there is a problem, “and that is the moment when the adjunct instructor, who by the nature of his job teaches the worst students, must ink the F on that first writing assignment.”

Actually, he inks the “F” on 9 out of 15 assignments, and fails more than half the class, because what he really wants to teach them is, not how to write an essay (which he believes they should know already), but how to know their place. It’s just “the nature of the job.” Unless, that is, it’s just the growl of a frustrated adjunct.

*****

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