Tag Archives: labor

The Ones Who Walk Away: #NAWD

I read a story, when I was an undergraduate taking a course on the American short story, called “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” written by fantasy/science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin. If you’ve read it, you know that it’s the type of story that is brief enough to be scanned in a few minutes’ time but laden with endless layers of meaning; in other words, a perfect assignment for students of literature who have better things to do with their time than study literature. Of course, I was the type of student who was idealistic enough to believe that, as my father would say, “words have meaning,” and that a story like Le Guin’s merited study, merited the time spent chasing down the phantoms that it stirred in the mind of one not yet old enough to have matters of ethics and philosophy rendered moot by the brute force of the material considerations of life. If I’m being honest, I am still that student, allowing the written words of others to possess me, to catch fire in my imagination, when it is the spaces between, the absent spaces, that I perhaps should have been studying more carefully.

At its core, “Omelas” is a parable about a fictional city of the same name, a place that Le Guin describes as sort of a personalized utopia, an Edenic chameleon that takes the form of whatever best possible world exists in the mind of the reader, unlike comparable “utopias” like A Brave New World, whose merits as an idealized state vary from reader to reader. By crafting her world thus, Le Guin forces the reader to confront the true conflict at the heart of her idyllic society rather than be distracted by the more common objections raised by such works. And what of the conflict? In short, it is the horror that all citizens of Omelas must face, when they reach an age where their parents feel they can begin to comprehend it, that their society prospers only so long as a young child is held prisoner in the worst imaginable squalor and neglect. No reason as we would understand it is presented for the necessity of the child’s mistreatment, only that it must be, and that if it were not so, Omelas would fall into ruin, and the perfect happiness of its inhabitants would be destroyed forever.

Of course, upon first discovering this terrible open secret, citizens of Omelas have an impulse to help the child, to feel disgust at their society for thriving at its expense. But for most citizens, their anger is short-lived; it soon gives way to the same kinds of rationalizations that all of us our prone to make, when confronted with systemic evil. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and the child would not even understand charity, if charity were afforded it, having gone so long without, and some things just are,” etc. We have all had these thoughts, I am sure.

But then, there is the title of the story, “The Ones Who Walk Away.” What of them? Some of Omelas’ denizens recognize the horror, and, caught in the dilemma of being unable to either condone the horror or condemn it, unable to either resolve it or continue living in a society that seeks no resolution, they simply walk away, leaving the city for the darkness and the wild beyond its walls. No one who leaves returns, and Le Guin is purposely enigmatic on the subject of their fate. All that we know, at the close of the story, is that there are some who have made a choice, when faced with an irresolvable conflict, of walking away. Of refusing to remain complicit any longer.

Today is National Adjunct Walkout Day, #NAWD on Twitter. The brainchild of an anonymous adjunct that, as a nebulous thought experiment, has doubtlessly crossed the minds of countless adjuncts over the past few decades, #NAWD has been endlessly picked apart online, as with every other action that adjuncts have contemplated in their attempts to rectify what a number of academics have characterized as a “crisis.” As someone who “walked away” a while back out of the conviction that my continued struggles as an adjunct were doing no one any favors – not my school, which refused to provide me with the institutional support necessary for student success; not my students, who could not help but suffer when I was forced to give them less than the attention that they deserved as a consequence of my extreme course load that, though full-time by any reasonable accounting, did not come attached to a living wage that would allow me to stay off government assistance while continuing to do what I loved; not my family, who realized long before I did that what I was doing was less of an apprenticeship than it was the pursuit of a stillborn dream, yet who could do little to sway me from my self-destructive course of action; and not myself, whose idealized notions of the life of an academic had become little more than ashes in my mouth after spending so many years struggling against a gradual slide into penury.

Eventually, I could see no course of action that made sense but to walk away. Ever since, I’ve been scrambling, but as an adjunct, I had grown used to scrambling, and while my current status as a freelance writer and editor has yet to make me as fiscally solvent as I would like, I have no regrets. Unlike when I was an adjunct, feeling like a pawn in the games of heartless corporate administrators, I now feel that I have some control over my work, the ability to sell my labor, if not at mythical “fair market” wages, then at least in more direct proportion to the actual labor I have spent in pursuit of the capital needed to keep the fiscal wolves from the door. For those who are still adjuncts – and believe me, I have the utmost respect for those who continue to teach in such degraded conditions, even if the sole reason is financial necessity – I would recommend taking the brilliant advice of “freelance academic” Katie Rose Guest Pryal and treating the school for which you adjunct as any other client.

The flexibility that I have as a freelance has allowed me to refuse to work for those who are clearly out to exploit my labor – the SEO charlatans who pay writers pennies to churn out garbage articles, the “academics” who hire ghostwriters to plagiarize essays and even whole dissertations, and all manner of clients who operate under the deeply misguided assumption that quality writing springs out of an author as readily as oil from a freshly-tapped well – but in retrospect, I should have viewed the academy not as something special, some child of Socrates with no desire but to operate as an intellectual beacon in a world of material darkness, but rather, as a corporate scholarship monopoly, a knowledge factory that treats the content produced therein with all the reverence that Kraft holds for a jar of Cheez Whiz. There is good work to be done in the academy, no doubt, but academics should remain eternally aware – those who are not already – that this work is done in spite of, rather than as a result of, the material realities of the corporate university.

A part of me feels strange for continuing to discuss a topic that should not “matter” to me any longer; it would seem that I have no skin in the game, at this point. And #NAWD, while enormously satisfying on an emotional level, may amount to little in terms of bringing about real change in the academy. But life is strange, and it is long, and the material struggles we face on a day-to-day basis often blind us to the history in which we cannot help but take part; we rarely see which stones we throw create ripples in the wider world, and which leave the waters unmoved. I’ve always felt that my words were these stones, and though many of them have sunk to the bottom, unseen and unremarked upon, it is my hope, unrealistic though it may be, that the stones thrown by myself and countless others will accumulate, will build, and one day, the work that adjuncts do will be recognized, in a material sense, for the valuable contribution to society that it is.

But in the end, I have more words than I do solutions, and I am only a bystander in this affair. So, here’s to #NAWD. Here’s to the ones today, the adjuncts who have chosen to walk out, teach-in, or walk away. You are worth more than you are valued, and valued more than you know. Keep fighting the good fight, and for those who have it to spare, consider donating to a cause for adjuncts, such as the PrecariCorps or the New Faculty Majority. I am formally affiliated with neither, but I have the utmost respect for their efforts.

#solidarity


S/hell

Wakened again by the cicadan scream,
I crawl from under the broodmate’s forelimb
to scrape away the prior day’s detritus
and climb in the awaiting carapace
of flayed cows and mothchild effluvia.
I exit the cell; I boil black bones,
one hive-traverser among the millions.
I arrive; I am chittered at by drones,
and I chitter back the same nothing sounds.
Directives spawn tasks, and the sun-hours
bleed away in the doing, and none ask
why, for there is no why, only the must
of the moment that demands an action,
forgotten even as the action ends.
Then there is night: but the day ran reverse,
chittering leave, boiling back, and home,
that place of intervals where I consume
what remains of an abandoned repast,
dead matter to coal the embers of life,
then enter the room where the larvae sleep,
half-shed of their cowboy-coated cocoons;
I stare at the silent forms and take note
of how each is as alien as I
before returning to where I will rest,
where I will climb free of this silken shell,
prime the cicadan cry, replace the limb
left when the day was new, and, as I fade,
wonder if I will ever leave this bed
a human.


Ivory

Adjuncts

We were beasts, hired for our memories,
gentle even before the goad;
lumbering and gorgeous,
we went where we were led,
went where we were taken.

We had power; we bowed beneath
our burdens, nonetheless.
Still the citadel rose, pallid
blocks of accrued capital
bearing witness to our labors.

We were promised a home,
promised a hermitage;
minds innocent and quiet,
we saw the shrunken garrets,
and still, still said nothing.

We could say nothing;
our tongues had been flayed,
commodified, and auctioned.
We no longer knew our names,
no longer knew our worth.

We slept; we dreamt
of glories gone by, glories
to come, vanities, all.
We woke; we had coffee.
We waited; we had liquor.

We watched the wrinkles deepen
in the hides of our comrades,
listened as the wind failed them,
felt the tremors as another gray
mass was claimed by age, by gravity.

We worked harder, worked longer,
worked faster, worked cheaper,
worked for peanuts, worked for good-girls
and atta-boys, worked for nothing,
worked for love; worked for nothing.

We were in crisis; we were the crisis.
We blamed ourselves, blamed each other.
We turned on each other, gored
the flanks of our neighbors,
drew blood. Went back to work.

We rolled our jaundiced eyes
as rogues were put down
in the periphery. Not us.
We were too tired to stampede.
We were money; we were spent.

We deferred, demurred, declined;
decided to be undecided; abstained.
We needed to study the problem.
We were the problem; we hesitated.
We bought lottery tickets.

We watched the tower climb
and called it progress, fell
at the base and called it fate.
Once, we had wondered:
where did they get all that ivory?

We wondered no more.
We had stepped over scores
of carcasses, shorn of their teeth.
So much indentured meat, rotting.
Not us. That way? Madness.

Madness.


No Green Light for Adjuncts: Teaching Gatsby on Pennies a Day

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”

“’Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.'”

I waited for him to stop reading, inwardly ecstatic that a student had so readily volunteered to “engage” with the text, although in hindsight, I had no good reason to care. The Chair of the Department of English and Humanities sat in the back of the near-empty classroom, taking notes and evaluating my performance, but I had long since realized that no matter how brilliantly I shone or how dully I went through the motions, it was over. I had worked as an adjunct instructor for close to four years, teaching as many as five classes per semester for, at most, thirteen grand a year, and after losing out once again to another candidate for a full-time position – which would have meant being compensated three times as much as well as receiving benefits, in exchange for doing pretty much what I had always done – I could no longer justify what I was doing as anything else but slowly sinking into poverty for the sake of a dream.

I had taken these last classes out of habit and out of desperation, deeply hurt that my years of service to the small town community college where I had once sat in a classroom and discovered The Great Gatsby for the first time had been met only with suggestions that I teach at online for-profit schools that lived under the perpetual threat of indictment by the federal government or at “local” colleges that were over an hour’s drive away. Apparently, this was the way a number of teachers in higher education made their living: taking work one class at a time, hiring themselves out as mercenaries to whichever schools would take them, and, if they were lucky, finding a way to “efficiently” teach seven or eight classes in order to scrape together just enough money to keep them above the poverty line. And though the route to efficiency might require substituting rote Powerpoint presentations and computer-graded multiple-choice tests for open-ended discussions and careful analysis of student papers, as long as students kept passing courses and paying tuition, would anyone care?

After class one day, I had stopped by the office of the man who had introduced me to Fitzgerald’s novel, back when I was a student. I told him that I had spoken highly of him that day in class, and I thanked him for inspiring me to pursue a degree in English.

Taken aback, he could only apologize. “There’s no money in the language arts.”

Lecturing on Gatsby, scribbling with a faded magic marker on a whiteboard in a cold bare room, I prodded my students to come up with their own interpretations of the text, and when that failed, I gave them my own reading, which, were I not a precariously-employed adjunct in a small town in a deep red state, I would have been able to properly label as “Marxist.” Without invoking this verboten name, I spoke of the glittering, gilded, hollow lie that is the American dream, where the hoarded wealth of a dynasty compounds into perpetuity while the sudden stolen fortune of an upstart outlier evaporates in one summer’s vain attempt to reify the Alger myth. And absent the media proxy wars waged by “left” and “right,” absent the vapid, vaguely warmed-over Cold War propaganda, absent the dubious claims of class mobility that I, as a teacher in an open-door community college system that markets itself to students as an unequivocally sound investment in the future… well, if I were bolder, I would have merely said, “Ecce homo.” We were all adults; we all knew the score.

I wasn’t the only high school dropout in the room who had looked to a college education as a means to a fulfilling, comfortable life. And I doubt that I was the only one currently on food stamps, either. A small class meant that I came to know each student intimately, for even when I was evasive about my personal life, they were explicit about theirs: I heard their stories of drug addiction and miscarriages and privation, and I went home to a fiancée I could not afford to marry and a child I could not afford to adopt and a home I could not afford to own, and the world of Gatsby seemed at once so close that I could smell the manicured lawns of West Egg and as distant as Daisy’s haunting green light across the water. And though, like Gatsby, my dream seemed so close that I “could hardly fail to grasp it,” I had realized my folly: no pushing, no straining, no striving would transmute the leaden weight of five adjunct courses into the golden halo of a full-time appointment. I had borne the load for years in the misguided sense that I was sacrificing my present at the altar of the future, all the while woefully unaware of how little value my labor held to those who saw me only as a tantalizingly small number on a balance sheet.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Gatsby is a relic, of no use in this technocratic, neoliberal age. Maybe the attempts to rebrand the humanities as “digital” are only a desperate attempt to stave off the obsolescence of our discipline. Maybe the very idea of a liberal arts education, an education designed to broaden, rather than narrow, one’s horizons, is quaint, childish, and, that most grave sin of all in a society obsessed with an ever-escalating GDP, “not worth the money.” As the corporate model of commodifying people into living capital grows increasingly ascendant, we find ourselves locked in an economic arms race, students borrowing vaster and vaster sums of money to compete for fewer and fewer decent jobs, and those among us who might shed some light on these structural inequalities are all too often only to be found huddled in hushed obeisance in the shadow of the ivory tower, learned monks with obligatory vows of poverty, begging bowls extended.

Unlike Gatsby, I never aspired to wealth, and I knew that, as a teacher, I would not attain it. I will admit to being shocked by my slow slide into poverty, though, and the callous disregard that the institution that I worked for held for my well-being. On an individual level, I had administrators, faculty, and staff who clearly sympathized with my plight, refusing to dock my pay on my rare absences from class, pointedly mentioning that I wasn’t being paid for work that I had been contracted to do, and writing glowing letters of recommendation whenever I applied to a full-time position, but the system itself was rigged against me, as it is rigged against all adjuncts.

If a tenured professor could be compared to an old house, increasing in equity year by year, an adjunct is more like a new car, losing value with every mile a school puts on us, as we race from one campus to another. The longer one remains an adjunct, the less likely it is that one will ever make the leap to full-time status as a faculty member, because in higher education, experience is taken not as a measure of one’s skill as a teacher but only as an indication of how little one is willing to work for.

For a time, I bought into the Hegelian master-slave dynamic of higher education, the notion that my time was not worth that of my tenured “betters,” which is a thought process that I suppose was easy for someone like me, a small town guy from an almost entirely non-academic family background, to fall into. However, if we view teaching as a service provided to students – and the customer service model is increasingly being applied in higher education – then what sense does it make for students to pay the same price for a class whether it is led by a fairly-compensated full-time professor or an abysmally underpaid adjunct? Hiring adjuncts saves colleges money, but the savings are not passed on to students, whose grotesquely inflated tuition is spent instead on lavishly-compensated administrators, student athlete-exploiting sports programs, and gorgeous amenities that will look good on college brochures: in short, everything but the faculty who form the core of a vibrant college education.

Though free market fundamentalists are quick to ascribe all of this to Adam Smith’s invisible hand, what has become clear to many inside of academia is that, in prioritizing bureaucracy, athletics, and aesthetics over instruction, higher education has lost its way. Where education should be seen as a social good, a basic form of infrastructure that we invest in for the betterment of society as a whole, it has instead become, like health care, yet another means of profiting off of those who can ill-afford it, yet who need it desperately. And, as is again the case with health care, we ignore the hidden subsidies that higher education relies upon to continue operating: professors on food stamps, professors on Medicaid, professors on disability, professors on social security, professors with trust funds, professors with working spouses, professors with all manner of alternate sources of income that, were they to vanish overnight, would all but annihilate the modern-day American professoriate, and higher education along with it.

The costs of adjunctification, the increasing reliance on contingent educators, are hidden, but they are felt nonetheless. A vital system of higher education depends on a professional force of teachers to be its backbone, and adjuncts, though in many cases doing an admirable job in spite of the dearth of resources given them, cannot fulfill their duties to the fullest when they are overworked (an inevitability when so many rely on multiple part-time jobs in order to make anything close to a reasonable living) and underpaid (also inevitable when one is paid only according to time spent in a classroom rather than for all the work that goes into teaching, work that is accounted for in the salaries of non-contingent teaching positions).

Although working as an adjunct has made life difficult, I don’t expect anyone’s sympathy, although I have of course been grateful to those who have extended it. On an individual basis, I see the rationale for the personal responsibility argument, that those who attempt to make a living by being an adjunct are making a mistake, although I know that for many, avoiding adjunct work is easier said than done. I have a friend who has adjuncted for seven years: on less than ten grand a year, he lives in government housing and is forced into innumerable sacrifices on a day-to-day basis, but with a master’s degree in history and a chronic, crippling medical condition, his job options are limited. Personal circumstances often make the “choice” of adjuncting into an economic necessity: even exploitative work is better than no work at all.

However, although my friend is not the only one who has suffered greatly due to the precarious, poorly-compensated nature of adjunct work, we make a mistake by looking at these cases as simply tragic, isolated incidences rather than as signs of a larger, more disturbing trend. Rather than seeing education as a vital part of public infrastructure and funding it accordingly, we have increasingly bought into the idea that education is a matter of personal responsibility alone, and that those who want to pursue it should shoulder the burden themselves. It is this short-sighted corporatist mentality, that all investments which do not bear fruit within the next fiscal quarter are bad ones, that has taken over higher education. And were I not the recipient of this down-sizing, I might feel more sympathy for harried administrators who contend with shrinking budgets by “cutting labor costs” – a cold corporate euphemism that elides untold examples of heartbreaking personal sacrifices, but never mind that for now – but I can’t help but think that, once a school has seen that it can continue to operate, at least nominally, while using a majority “part-time” workforce, why would it ever go back, even if the trend of education defunding were to suddenly reverse itself?

As the recent fast-food and Walmart worker strikes have demonstrated, corporations, once addicted to a supply of cheap labor, will only improve worker conditions under the threat of organized labor action, and higher education, having succumbed to the same bottom-line mentality that drives the decisions of private sector restaurant chains, will only improve when adjuncts realize that if we want a living wage, we will have to fight for one. In any labor dispute, there is the tension between speaking out at the risk of losing one’s livelihood and remaining silent at the risk of remaining exploited forever, and I believe that the tipping point is quickly approaching where more choose to do the former rather than the latter.

If I were an optimist, I would say that change is imminent, that the scattered efforts of adjuncts to create organized labor movements and work with legislators to achieve better work conditions will result in widespread reform, and that, in time, the “professor on food stamps” trope will be seen as just an unfortunate chapter in the history of American higher education. But as I face the prospect of abandoning my profession while watching a friend slowly wasting away in pursuit of a dream continually deferred, I can’t help but be filled with an overwhelming sense of futility. When educators are forced to fight for their very survival, what does it say about the value we place on education itself?

My teaching career may be dead, but my convictions about what higher education should look like have not perished. Adjuncts might be fighting a losing battle, but even if they are, I know that their cause is just. And I know which side I am on.

Go to any college in the country, and there you will surely find someone like me: an adjunct barely scraping together a living in the hope that just a little more work for just a little bit longer will result in a full-time faculty position. It is this belief, vain as it is, that sustains so many of us, who, like Gatsby, see our futures receding year by year, even as we run faster, stretch out our arms farther…


“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”


Book Review: Adjunctivitis by Gordon Haber

“He opened the windows and put his face in his hands, reminding himself that he had a loving girlfriend and worked in an honourable profession and that the inability to afford a twenty dollar bottle of whiskey did not indicate that he was a complete failure as a human being.”

Gordon Haber, freelance writer and former adjunct, speaks from a place of hard-won experience in his brief novella Adjunctivitis, which he is currently offering for free to adjuncts and education reporters alike. As much as anything in the book, his generosity in this regard illustrates his insight into the realities of adjunct life, where even a $2.99 purchase might seem a wasteful extravagance. By extending this offer to journalists as well, Haber is undoubtedly signalling his commitment to enlightening the wider world to the realities of contingent academic labor.

Adjunctivitis, however, is hardly a polemic. Instead, it reads as a slice-of-life approach to the difficulties that countless teachers in higher education now face, dealing with the everyday injustices of life as a member of academia’s lower caste with an understated wit and an eye for the telling detail. The novella, by personalizing a topic that can easily be abstracted into irrelevancy, works to remind all of us who are concerned with the direction of higher education that the human cost of adjunctification lies in the day-to-day trials that, over time, can turn even a devoted pedagogue against a career as an instructor.

The book follows Robert Allen Rabinowitz, a “five-year veteran” of undergraduate writing instruction. Working as a “freeway flier,” Rabinowitz splits his time between two Los Angeles schools, Fortas College and Compton Community College, in order to cobble together enough courses to earn a living that hovers somewhere between “substandard” and “impoverished.” Desperate for the financial security (and much-needed health insurance) that a full-time teaching position would bring, Rabinowitz struggles to keep his aging and unreliable Lexus in working order while eating rice and beans for the majority of his meals.

Unfortunately, though Rabinowitz has been assured by the department heads of both colleges that his diligence will be rewarded, the unceasing flood of poor student writing has begun to take its toll. He finds himself incapable of grading papers without vomiting profusely at howlers such as “Since the beginning of the universe, American society has always loved reality TV” and “Morals are important because without them we wouldn’t know how to act morally in society.” Briefly concerned that his symptoms may be indicative of some greater malady, Rabinowitz eventually realizes that he is suffering from a simple case of “adjunctivitis.”

Throughout the book, Haber uses a light touch when discussing a variety of topics that will surely be familiar to anyone who has taught in higher education, from the grueling process of essay grading to the tepid excuses of absent students to the petty squabbles of faculty meetings. However, though he is unfussily self-deprecating in his characterization of Rabinowitz, Haber demonstrates a sincere affinity for the transformative qualities of education, without venturing near the territory of over-the-top, “O Captain! My Captain!”-style antics (though Dead Poets’ Society does earn a mention). Rather, Haber dutifully details the nuts-and-bolts minutiae of classroom instruction (taking attendance, collecting essays, distributing reading selections) to ground Rabinowitz even as he moderates the sort of trenchant discussions that routinely alter the course of young lives.

The second-class citizen stature of the adjunct is a theme that Haber returns to again and again in Adjunctivitis, not only in faculty meetings where Rabinowitz is faced with the unenviable task of presenting his ideas to the dismissive and obtuse ranks of the tenured gods, but in the world beyond the academy’s walls, where he cannot help but feel ant-like amidst the giants of L.A.’s entertainment industry-fattened gentry. Rabinowitz is on the very bottom rung of an endlessly tall ladder, a space he shares with his economically disadvantaged African-American and Hispanic students. For them, the promise of education is salvation, even if, ironically, such economic salvation has failed to materialize in the case of their instructor.

One by one, the minor indignities and overall air of deprivation add up to a crushing indictment of the contingent academic labor system, which relies on the exploitation of a casualized class of workers like Adjunct Lecturer Robert Allen Rabinowitz, who (to paraphrase Haber himself) in the absence of spousal support or an inheritance, will gradually starve. As Charles Bukowski said, “An intellectual says a simple thing in a hard way. An artist says a hard thing in a simple way.” And while the problem of adjunctification has been explored by intellectuals for decades, translating the simple truth that adjuncts are exploited workers into the often obfuscatory language of academia, Adjunctivitis is a welcome artistic response to higher education’s dirty secret. Though I am loathe to utter the words “required reading,” in Gordon Haber’s case, I would make an exception: no one should be permitted to attend graduate school before first seeing where such a path might take them.


I Just Don’t Want to Die an Adjunct

He texted me for a ride the week before last. After seven years as an adjunct history instructor, he had an interview scheduled for a full-time position, and no way to get there. In much the same way that being an adjunct is sort of like having a job and sort of like not having one, he sort of had a car and sort of did not. Unable to make the payments on his Yaris, he had long since surrendered the title to his father, who had pressed the vehicle into service as the family car. As it happened, his younger sister had a job interview on the same day that he did, so he reached out to me, his friend for over a decade, ever since we were undergrads.

After he agreed to cover gas and meals, I made the trip, a four-hour drive that seemed far shorter on the turnaround, with my friend of over a decade matching me rant for rant as we railed at the capriciousness of the system that had deemed us worthy of teaching in its schools yet unworthy of being paid a living wage for the privilege. To the rest of the world, we may have been nothing more than two poorly-dressed and road-weary men, notable only for possessing grossly unmarketable degrees in the humanities, but for those few hours, we regained some semblance of the fire that had once made the realization of our dreams seem like little more than a triviality, and a decent job that paid a decent salary, merely an afterthought.

But time has a way of grounding us all, and though we shared innumerable fantasies regarding the overthrow of contingent labor in higher education, much more of our time was spent on preparing for the interview ahead: a seven-minute teaching presentation and a round of eight or so questions that would determine whether or not my friend, an adjunct with seven years of classroom experience, would be passed along to a second interview with the college president, who would make the final decision. In this regard, I was luckier than my friend, having made it to round two a couple of times, while he never had. Then again, job interviews are neither horseshoes nor hand grenades: proximity to success is only another flavor of failure, one far more bitter than it is sweet. Both of us remain in the same boat; it becomes leakier year by year.

My friend confessed to me that this would be the last year he would adjunct, if he did not get the full-time position. He taught because he loved it, but he was tired, and though he was only in his early thirties, his body could not take much more of the struggle. Diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, once considered a form of muscular dystrophy, he had been warned from an early age that his life would be both shorter and more painful than most, but he had always treated the grim pronouncements of his physicians with a measure of skepticism. After all, he was still alive, still ambulatory, years after most doctors had predicted he would be either in a wheelchair or in the ground.

He had the interview, and it went as these things often do, in my experience. He felt confident that his teaching presentation went well – how could it not have, with seven years in the classroom behind him? – and that his responses to the interviewers’ questions were thoughtful and delivered with aplomb. Before leaving, he was instructed to wait by his phone, a remark that he returned to again and again over the following few days, inferring from it, as he had, that a call was forthcoming. Like all of us, I suppose, my friend was quick to seize on any tell on the part of an interviewer, no matter how miniscule; once, he had even received a hug, a tiny gesture that couldn’t help but loom large in the mind of someone for whom a callback would be literally a life-changing event.

Although I offered to let him stay longer, optimistically assuming that his return would be imminent, he could not, obligated as he was to appear at a pain management clinic, where he would be forced to submit to a urine test in order to receive the medication that allowed him to do the things that most of us take for granted. Too little, too much, or the wrong kind of drugs in my friend’s system would have meant immediate expulsion from the program. Recent legislation aimed at combating the abuse of opioids had made things tough for those in legitimate need of relief from chronic pain.

Pain is an inherently unquantifiable experience, and it is easy for those who are not in its thrall to discount the suffering that others go through. I will never truly be able to experience the pain of my friend, but I do know that my uncle, whom I only know through stories told to me by my father, suffered from muscular dystrophy, and in his desperation to be rid of the painful symptoms of the disease, asked doctors to sever the dying nerves that were shooting electrical signals of pure agony throughout his body. He died on the operating table, but my friend sees even this tragedy in a positive light, believing as he does that even death is preferable to a life of unrelenting torture.

After enduring the humiliation of pissing in a cup to ensure that he was neither abusing nor profiting from his prescribed narcotics, my friend went over the results of the latest round of tests that his doctor had ordered, as a mere formality more than anything else. My friend had been through this charade more times than he could count; once, a specialist had essentially told him to go home to die, as there was nothing that modern medical science could do for him. He would relate such tribulations to me from time to time, always with a shrug, an eye-roll, an air of “Can you believe that?” He has always had a talent for seeing the humor in a situation, no matter how dire; no doubt, this talent has aided him tremendously as an adjunct, where our entire existence sometimes feels as if it is nothing more than the punchline to some cruel joke.

After my friend’s ordeal with the pain management clinic was over, I spent the next day and a half with him before returning home to my own (more or less) private struggles. We ate free at a restaurant as a result of our prowess at trivia, attended an impromptu and highly unofficial wake for the late Robin Williams, and waited… waited… waited… for a call that never came. It seemed that my friend would spend another year as an adjunct. Maybe his last.

“I just don’t want to die an adjunct.”

When he said those words, I couldn’t help but remember the story of Margaret Mary Vojtko. I didn’t want my friend to die an adjunct, either. I don’t want to, myself. For that matter, I don’t think any of us should.

Here’s to an end to contingency. And here’s to a long life for my friend. May he defy the odds. May we all.


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