It is Saturday night, and as I write this, my young son sleeps; there is a stack of at least 140 papers stuffed into my Jane Eyre tote bag—the seams that cinch the handles to the bag are loosening, and will probably rip before I administer my last final in December. I bought it just this August, but as an adjunct professor this semester, I’m teaching 22 credits at three separate colleges. As such, this bag, with its silk screen replica of the cover of a 1970s paperback of the Gothic novel—a windswept moor with a galloping horse, Jane in her bonnet—has traveled a lot of miles in those three short months. It has served, in tandem with my ten-year old Volvo, as my office, housing during the school week all of the materials I need to teach my 140-odd students: two different textbooks for the two different schools where I teach English composition, two different style guides for the same; reams of copies of supplementary reading; my grade book and attendance record; and, from week to week, the various novels I chose for my section of Argument and Persuasion for the Arts and Humanities: my beloved, dog-eared copies of Lawrence, Sade, Nin, and AS Byatt.
It is fitting, then, that buried within that fat stack are 20 open letters modeled on Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that need to be graded previous to 8 am this coming Monday; that, since I managed to stay awake beyond the lulling to sleep of my almost-three year old child, I should certainly be sitting with a beer, an open bag of pretzels, a red pen, and those essays, going to town. By all rights, this open letter, my own, should go unwritten, should retain its piecemeal state in my spinning brain, where it has lived now since sometime this past September; indeed, when I opened the file on the desktop of my busted, five year old laptop marked “Why Buy the Cow:”, it contained nothing but a title and a single line: “My father loved Joni Mitchell.” I recalled writing this seeming non-sequitor— it was a Sunday afternoon. I had fallen asleep with my napping son, woken with the title for this letter in my head, tip-toed to my desk to begin it, and been interrupted when my son woke up almost immediately thereafter.
Despite a concentrated effort, I can’t now tell you what either my father or Joni Mitchell has to do with the plight of higher education. I can tell you with confidence that this is the first time since that day—one month and four days ago—that I’ve found any time at all, to sit down and write this. My weekends, and probably yours (especially if you’re a parent, especially if you’re a single parent, as I am) begin as a kind of expansive field of time that swiftly narrows and collapses into a kind of V-shaped container: sand through the hourglass. Tempus fugit. The other side of the hour glass is my next work week, similarly expansive, similarly doomed to narrow and collapse—before Tuesday, I found myself internally muttering, scrubbing the dishes, I need to reread the Times’ article on selfies, find examples of paintings of the dead, request a syllabus from Rich, grade the process analysis essays… In my brain, each of these items is marked with a kind of internal color code: high alert, medium alert, low alert. What is non-negotiable, what can be delayed? What will genuinely interfere with the flow of the course, what will merely catch a few glares from the neurotic, grade-obsessed kids?
I imagine this resembles your mindset. I imagine this resembles your life.
Of course, it’s not only time that’s prevented me from writing this—in many ways, my privilege, and my knowledge of that privilege, has kept the proverbial pen from my hand. I am a highly educated white woman from the suburbs. My parents have college degrees. They paid (mostly) for mine. It is difficult for me to speak out about what I perceive as unjust, or morally appalling, in my own life. There is a kind of stopgap there, a voice that reminds me how much worse so many people have it. For many years that voice spoke from a kind of theoretical knowledge, based on my elite education, that out there, somewhere in the world, were many people living in poverty and despair of ever escaping that poverty. That voice is no longer theoretical. Having now taught at the community college level for the better part of five years, I witness poverty daily. I am usually amazed at the lack of despair that goes along with it. This semester alone, I have listened to one young woman, probably 23, with pock-marked skin, bright pink hair, and fiercely intelligent eyes, tell me she was late for class because her two-year old daughter woke in their trailer covered in tiny, biting roaches, and she had spent the morning desperately looking for another place to live. Another student arrived late, having missed two previous classes—“Where have you been?” I asked, half-fuming. He turned over his forearm, exposing at least a dozen quarter sized, weeping burn wounds he’d received at his job at McDonald’s. His supervisor had called him a “pussy” when he’d asked to see a doctor; three days had passed since the accident. I sent him to the emergency room, after making sure he called his mother—“I need this job,” he said quietly, his voice shaking. “They told me I could get fired if I reported the accident on company time.”
Often, my community college students leave early or arrive late because of their jobs; I try as hard as I can not to become frustrated with this, to walk a line that has never truly been articulated for them, as it was for me—school is first. Everything else is secondary. I try hard to decide who “really needs” to come late, leave early, clad in their red Target polo shirts and PartyCity nametags. I ask myself why they “really need” whatever I hope my course might have to offer them—the rhetoric of American history, of American civil rights. I am the educated working poor educating the working poor about people who dared to speak out against, or about, injustice, about people who paved the way for the possibility that we can even do this in the first place. Every once in a great while, this registers with a student, but often, I am left with my own sense of despair. The evening after I shuttled my student off to the emergency room, I drove the long, country roads home, seeing the shining pink burns flash in my mind’s eye against the black of the evening. I recalled the end of John Updike’s “A&P”, a story we had just read in class—the protagonist, Sammy, being warned by his manager against quitting a job he knows will suck the life out of him because he needs it, because of his parents, recognizing, when he quits anyway, “how hard the world was going to be for [him] from now on.” I wept—for his arm, the scars that I knew would be there, forever; for the beauty of Updike’s prose. For the fact that he might never make the connection between his own vital life and Sammy’s imagined one; for the fact of my privilege, the possible self-righteousness of my tears: my forearm extended from the wheel, whole, barely visible in the night, the same one I see now, as I type this. This is the strange quandary of education, the clever machinations of labor, its means of production, of those who, whether with purpose or none, ill-intentions or simply a looking the other way, have created the system I now work within and try to step outside of to accurately describe: I know in my bones the language, the intent, the exquisite articulation and argument, of “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” That knowledge dictates that I speak out about the systemic wrongs I witness daily. That knowledge dictates that I shut up and move along. I am, to paraphrase one of my favorite poets, crushed with gratitude and shame by the force of King’s letter, by the force of what he was trying to do, what he was up against, the concreteness of his foe. As an adjunct, do I even have a foe? Do my students? And if I do, if they do, isn’t it nothing compared to police dogs and tear gas in Birmingham, to the threat of an assassin’s bullet? Haven’t we come this far? Isn’t it time to be quiet? Dr. King, and the people he spoke on behalf of, had it worse than me, as my students have it worse than me; those facts alone have kept me quiet.
The irony in this is sometimes almost painful, the silence reminiscent of the times my father would refuse to allow me to address something in our household that I saw as fiercely unjust. It’s a kind of agony, that quiet, rising up in my throat, being pushed back. After all—my job is to teach the literature of American freedoms, American injustice; Dr. King’s famous letter, and much of his other literature, play a huge role in my classroom. Moreover, I am paid, however little, to inspire in my students the spirit of critical inquiry, to turn those inquiries by a kind of magic, into critical thought, to begin to be able to transform those thoughts, those sometimes vague, sometimes sharp, cloudy vapors swishing through our brains and nagging at us to articulate them, into the written word. To give them a definitive shape. So often, walking out of class for the evening, or racing in my car from one campus to the next, I try to ignore my own vague critiques of the higher education system—but like my son saying Mommy—mommy—mommy until I am forced to address whatever he wants or needs, they will not be ignored. They swim up. And like my son, who was once a speechless cluster of cells who lived in my body, they take their own definitive shape. They talk, haltingly at first, then fluidly, until they have a distinct voice, a hybrid: echoes of Dr. King, echoes of my students, echoes of you, my colleagues, my mother and my father: me.
Of course, this is no accident. As Dr. King reminds us, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” It is not possible—for me, anyway—to do the job I do, to work alongside the remarkable people I work alongside, to teach the students I teach without absorbing something of their lives. And since my students are part of this “network of mutuality,” and since, as I wrote above, I have had the privileges I’ve had, that I still have, doesn’t that then ask of me—no, demand of me—that I speak openly on their behalf? That I put that privilege to its best possible use?
What does that mean?
I have thought long and hard about what that means. First and foremost, it means I continue to do the best possible job I can in the classroom, and increasingly, out of it: as any teacher will tell you, nowadays you can almost never leave your job in the classroom, or your office (if you’re lucky enough to have one), or the library or cafeteria, which are, as an adjunct instructor, the two places I usually meet my students—my “office hours.” As an instructor at three separate colleges, I maintain three separate emails, which I have to check at least twice a day, even on the weekends. I won’t go into the amount of hours I spend grading essays, but I will say that I spend at least 10-15 minutes on each essay I grade—sometimes longer, depending on how much help the student needs—and I have 142 students, who each write between 4-6 essays each semester. You can do the math. They are graded after my son falls asleep; they are graded before he wakes up; they are graded while I eat lunch; they are graded, in bits and pieces, while my students do a freewrite; they are graded in the single adjunct lounge with its single, barely working, computer, at a community college whose adjunct coordinator freely admits that the ratio of adjunct to full-time faculty is 5:1, a lounge that has contained, since I began working there almost two years ago, a sign that reads, “Adjuncts—please be sparing with your use of supplies. They must serve everyone. Thank you.” These “supplies” have only, in the time I’ve worked there, consisted of a copy machine, a single stapler, and a handful of paper clips. Recently, I sat in that lounge, across from a fellow adjunct, a retired high school French teacher, a woman whose name I can never recall, but who I have come to look forward to seeing, who I feel a kind of love for—she is heavyset, always beautifully turned out.
“Did you get the email asking us to consider donating to the school’s arts program?” she asked, savagely licking the tip of her finger, with its candy apple red nail, as she slashed and burned through mid-term exams.
“I did,” I replied.
“And what did you think?” she said, raising one perfectly manicured blond eyebrow.
“I thought it was audacious, considering the state of our supplies,” I said back, motioning to the aforementioned, faded sign, which is one of our favorite subjects. She turned and ripped it from the wall, balled it up, and tossed it into the garbage bin.
“Two points,” she said, and we burst into peals of laughter.
So I grade in between little joyful, dark moments with men and women I might never really know. The system, it should be noted, is designed to keep me in isolation, to prevent me from developing the kind of deep and lasting professional relationships that strengthen our teaching, strengthen our department, strengthen our school—strengthen, in short, our students, who are, after all, the reason we are there at all. Aren’t they?
The system is there to keep me quiet. I literally do not have the time—or the space—to collect and get these thoughts down on paper. I am a thief— I stole this time from my students’ essays. Those essays will steal time from somewhere, or someone, else—another fat stack on questions of obscenity in D.H. Lawrence and the Marquis de Sade, reviews of the dance company I took my students to see—maybe my son will watch a few too many hours of television so I can grade with one eye on him. Maybe that hour I sometimes take in between teaching at one campus and teaching at another to sneak over to my boyfriend’s house and crawl into his warm, loving bed, to feel the comfort that exists in forgetting everything but someone who loves every inch of me, who demands nothing of me? Maybe that will be spent grading. It probably will. Is it worth it? What is my time worth? If I don’t deserve what amounts to even part-time pay for full-time work, what do I deserve?
(As I write this, it’s now Sunday morning. My mother has taken my son to church with her, and then to the grocery store—two more stolen hours. Tap, tap, tap go my fingers—in my mind’s eye, I see her pushing him through the brightly lit store—he reaches out for applesauce, for cheese sticks, for her, for all the things he loves—my fingers race my brain to get this out, against the ticking clock of my mother’s grocery purchase, her generous offer of time—)
Why should I even write this? Why should you care? After all—as a contracted instructor, I am not paid for any time outside of the classroom. I am therefore free to use it as I like, or don’t like. And as I was recently reminded by a full-time faculty member, in an email chain that went around at one the colleges I work at, if you break the numbers down, if you perform a special kind of fuzzy, magical math which ignores all the work I perform outside of the classroom, then I am, at $1225 per credit, per semester, paid more hourly than you, my full-time colleagues. If, this particular faculty member hastened to remind her adjunct colleagues, we chose to go above and beyond for our students, well then, that was on us. We had nothing to complain about. That was not in our agreement. That had nothing, in her mind, to do with our mutuality, because in her mind, we had none. We were—are—her “untouchables.” What, her emails asked, was the problem? The college had decided that in order to be able to pay its full-time faculty a certain amount of money, it had to pay its adjuncts far, far less. It had to grow its dependence on adjuncts considerably, and with no end in sight, to be able to keep “expanding.” The college is, indeed, growing. Buying large buildings, large tracts of land. Someone has to fill them. Someone has to teach in those rooms. It looks like it’s going to be us.
There is a scene in the film Shakespeare in Love that beautifully and precisely illustrates this faculty member’s—and, I feel sorry to write, many of the college administrators’— point. Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow) is informed by Lord Wessox (Colin Firth) that her father has arranged a marriage between them without consulting her. She is shocked, and appalled, and tells him in no uncertain terms, “But I don’t love you!”
He stares at her, baffled. What, he asks, has that to do with anything? He has an ancient name that will bring honor to her family, and her father, a merchant, will pay him a sizeable dowry that will clear his debts. What is the problem? He has bought her. He speaks in the language, the tones, of business transactions, because in the discourse of his life, she is now his property, as previously, she belonged to her father. He cannot step outside of that to see her humanity.
Or can he? For when she asks him, as they are about to part, “Why me?” he responds, “It was your eyes—no—your lips—“ and kisses her squarely on the mouth. It’s not just her financial worth—a penny a pound, so to speak—but also her physicality that makes her a fetching prospect. In the same way, while the aforementioned full-time faculty member could not imagine what, if anything, an adjunct might have to protest about—“This is the system,” she seemed to say; “What’s the problem?”—she is also, like the administration that helps keep the system in place, aware that my credentials, and the credentials of my adjunct colleagues (our advanced degrees, our publications, our endless, unpaid hours working with and advocating for our students outside of the classroom—“… your lips—no—your eyes…”) keep her position, and the prestige of the college, securely in place.
And if we do not go above and beyond for our students? If we do not spend endless waking hours getting grades back within a reasonable timetable? If we do not speed down the Parkway South to make it to class on-time? If we do not go to work ill, or send our children to daycare and school with a hacking cough, or a low-grade fever? If we do not, if we do not, if we do not—well, we have nothing to protect us from losing our jobs for the coming semester. We have no contract. We are not, at the community college level, under union protection. We are disposable.
We feel disposable. Another point the full-time faculty member hinted at in her series of emails about adjuncts was the “difference” between adjunct faculty and full-time faculty, a kind of “mark of Cain,” if you will. If we were good enough to be hired full-time, she seemed to say, we’d have already been hired full-time. I sympathized with her—on the contrary, I empathized with her, which I mean literally, as in, I have felt exactly that which she describes feeling about myself, and my adjunct colleagues, for myself, for my colleagues. When the system you work under devalues your labor in the manner it does, for as long as it has, you can’t help but begin to believe you are worth less. I am a fraud, a fake, I have felt, have told myself countless times. When people ask me what I do, I tell them, accurately, “I am a college professor,” and then hope, depending on the person, that they ask me nothing further. All of the pride that I take in the job that I do, and do, I have no problem freely stating, very well, is sucked from me when I have to find a way to describe the situation of the adjunct, the bizarre logic that my mind bats about like a cat with string:
If I was worth it, they’d hire me.
They have hired you.
I want to be a college professor, it’s what I’ve desired and worked toward my whole life.
You are one.
A real one. I want to be a real teacher. I want to be a real boy. I am tired of being a puppet.
You are a real teacher. No one can take away those moments you have in the classroom. No one can devalue that.
Someone does. Lots of people do.
No student, no outsider who didn’t know the ins-and-outs of this system would be able to tell the difference, in a classroom, between you and a full-time faculty member.
Couldn’t they? Couldn’t they smell it on me, the shame, the despair, the hopeless sense that I’ll have to either give in and do something else just for the money, or remain in genteel poverty, “faking it”, forever? Am I a marked woman?
There is a scene in the film The English Patient wherein the main character, Almasy, an Hungarian count who maps the north of Africa for the Royal Geographic Society is talking with his good friend and colleague, Maddox, a British man. World War II is breaking out. They have to leave Africa. Everything is changing, the free exchange and travel they have come to know and love as the norm of their lives is over: Papers, please. We never cared about accents and visas, Maddox tells Almasy; now anyone with a foreign sounding name or an accent is suspect. He is disgusted. I know, my friend, says Almasy. I know. Their lives are about to explode. The thing they believed in, the thing they devoted their lives to, is on the edge of total collapse. Just the other day, I sat with my friend and fellow adjunct, Rich, in his mother’s office—she has been full-time at the community college for almost 40 years. The rain beat against the window, and I shivered, even though the busted old furnace pumped out dry heat. I railed, as usual, against the state of affairs at the colleges, until finally, I had nothing left to say, and we looked at one another, silent, over the sea of his mother’s desk.
“What will happen to us, Rich? What will happen to all of this?”
“I know, Em,” he said, quietly. “I know.”
One night, driving home from school in a blinding rain storm, I was struck dumb by a strange sight– alone, the only car on the winding back country road, I screeched to a halt when I noticed what I thought was a dog standing stock still in the middle of the road. As I got closer, I realized it was a young doe, appearing to stare directly at me. Her eyes shone. In the base glow of my headlights she looked like the deer Annie Dillard describes in “The Deer at Providencia,” which I teach every fall to my Composition I students– “thin-skinned, nearly translucent.” I stared for a timeless moment, and then she leapt for the side of the road. Fascinated, my eyes followed her– like the deer in Dillard’s story, she was trapped; she’d jumped straight into the tangles of barbed wire protecting the farmland from the road. The harder she tried to escape, the worse she became ensnared. I sat in the car, horrified, afraid to get out, knowing if I did, there was likely nothing I could do. I was miles even from the nearest streetlamp. This was her fate. Here was agony, resignation, all of the awful things Dillard describes with such gorgeous brutality, in language I had delighted in elucidating for my students just a few weeks previous. Here it was, in the flesh– I could do nothing but drive away.
Oftentimes, when I really describe my job to people, they will say, “Why would you stay? Why wouldn’t you just leave and do something else?”, unaware, perhaps, of the immense shortage of education jobs, of the devotion I feel to my current profession, to the huge lack of time I (and my fellow adjuncts) have to apply for other jobs while school is in session. And if I leave, and never really speak out about what has happened, is happening, on nearly every American college and university campus? And if it, then, never even begins to change? And if some other me, countless others, just spring up to take my place? What then?
The solution is not for me to “just leave.” Which is not to say I know what the solution is. But I do know that, just as without the support of you, our full-time colleagues, I would flounder, you would not, indeed could not, do what you do without me, without us, that we are all, to reiterate Dr. King’s words, “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”
It is time to begin to act in accordance with that understanding. It is not too late.