Two novelists discuss their experiences as adjuncts
Writing the Adjunct Experience
One contacted me after the first column, the other I already knew from social media and various discussions of labor and contingency: two adjuncts – novelists seemed a perfect pairing.
I particularly like the opening sentences of their novels:
Gordon: On a mild April afternoon in Los Angeles Robert Allen Rabinowitz sat down for an essay-grading session and realized he could no longer perform the task without vomiting.
Alex: Even on his long day, Cyrus Duffleman enjoys the fact that he can sip strong coffee and watch TV news before leaving his apartment five minutes past the opening bell of the New York Stock Exchange.
You’ll have to read the rest of Gordon’s and Alex’s writings to see the journeys their characters undertake.
A recovering adjunct, Gordon Haber writes fiction, criticism and journalism. His writing on religion and culture appears in The Jewish Daily Forward, Religion Dispatches and Killing the Buddha. Recent short stories have been published by The Normal School, The Rumpus and Jewish Fiction.net; his novellas, False Economies and Adjunctivitis, are best-selling Amazon Kindle Singles. He has an M.F.A. from Columbia University; his awards include a Fulbright Fellowship to Poland and a residency at the MacDowell Colony. He does not live in Brooklyn.
Alex Kudera’s debut novel, Fight for Your Long Day, won the 2011 Independent Publisher’s Gold Medal for Best Fiction from the Mid-Atlantic Region. It is an academic tragicomedy told from the perspective of an adjunct instructor who works five jobs at four urban universities in one day during a politically polarized spring of a Presidential election year. Reviews and interviews can be found online at Inside Higher Ed, Academe, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Psychology Today, The Southeast Review and other locations. Alex currently teaches writing and literature at Clemson University. When he’s not teaching or writing, he frets, walks, reads, and helps raise a child.
Alex Asks Gordon
AK: You’ve worked as an adjunct in both the Los Angeles and New York City metro regions. How would you compare them?
GH: Each city has its pros and cons. In both places you do a lot of schlepping. But in New York you can take the subway, which is much better than driving. The weather in Southern California does help morale somewhat, and I did like being a teacher and writer in L.A. When you don’t care about show business you’re like a kind of rare, exotic bird. It was really fun talking to some semi-famous TV actor about the crisis in American community colleges or how my criticism explores the connections between religion and culture. You’d meet these people who were just starved for real conversation. Whereas in New York you’re constantly running into literary writers who are much more successful than you are.
AK: Richard Yates, in an interview, said he hardly wrote any fiction when he was teaching at Iowa for six years. He described teaching as demanding the same emotions as writing, and so he was too drained from teaching to leave anything on the page. How has it been for you?
GH: Teaching was draining, but I wanted to do it. I have a really hard time with day jobs that don’t interest me. Of course it was extraordinarily difficult to balance marriage, fatherhood, teaching, freelance journalism and fiction writing. And yet the last few years have been a fertile period. I wrote a story collection, the third draft of a novel, a bunch of features and book reviews. I really don’t know how it happened. Maybe because for me writing is like exercise — you’ve got to do it regularly, even just a little bit, so you don’t feel like crap. So even though teaching can be emotionally taxing, I still managed to write, except during finals week when there was 100 essays to get through.
AK: What inspired Adjunctivitis? How are you like Robert, the protagonist?
GH: A couple of things inspired me — one was the contrast between the junior college in Compton and the four-year college in Bel Air. You just think, “there’s a story in this.” The workload was crushing at times, and I realized at one point that I would be living in poverty if it weren’t for my wife, who was earning good money as a screenwriter. So a second inspiration was a question: what would this be like if I were still on my own? But Robert isn’t me. I like a cigar and a drink too, but not as often, and I always found a way to get health insurance.
Gordon Asks Alex
GH: I really enjoyed the strong sense of place in Fight for Your Long Day. What’s particular about living/writing/adjuncting in Philadelphia?
AK: For the Philly region, I’d say the main problem is trying to build a relatively compact commute. Adjuncts get in trouble if they have to work in the mainline suburbs in the morning, center city in the afternoon, and then South Jersey suburbs in the evening. In Philly, some adjuncts can get by without a car, and I’d see this as a goal for adjuncts in any city if possible. There are a lot of schools, and Philly’s cost of living is relatively low although I’ve seen it get a lot more expensive. For example, the kind of junior one bedroom that was near $800 when real estate prices chased me out of center city in 2005 can now easily be $1,200. There are a lot of schools, some of which pay surprisingly low per course although a bunch of others pay a reasonable wage as long as enough classes are available. A big problem in Philly is getting enough spring courses, and then also summer courses, but I suspect “summer drought” is a problem for adjuncts everywhere.
GH: Are you full-time now? How did you get any writing done as an adjunct?
AK: I did not write much as an adjunct working a brutal schedule for nine years where I almost always taught six courses concurrently from September through May and also had occasional part-time copyediting work or evening tutoring. But one summer I didn’t get classes in Philly and I wound up with an opportunity to teach and tutor in Seoul, South Korea. I had a relatively light schedule there, none of the paper grading from hell that adjuncts are familiar with, and the entire first draft burst out in about eight weeks of ten to fourteen-hour writing days. That was six years before landing a novel contract, but for three of those last years I was “only” teaching four college classes. I’ve been full-time since 2007, and I am able to find more time for writing overall although life, of course, continues to offer its obstacles.
GH: What inspired Fight for Your Long Day? How much of you is in Duffy?
AK: Duffleman is a composite and an amazing exaggeration of many different people, and what he faces in the course of a day is perhaps an extreme look at what millions of adjuncts and contract workers, as well as underemployed and unemployed Americans, are going through. Only 44 percent of working-age America has a true full-time job, and worker participation is a bit over 60 percent, so there are obviously millions of Americans cobbling together part-time or freelance work for full-time income and then millions more trying to get into the economy or get back into it. The millennials are getting crushed, with 36 percent living at home and among recent college grads, I’ve seen that 25 percent have no job at all while another 25 percent report underemployment. So what Duffy does to survive is a hyperbolic look at what could be real life for millions, not just my own life or that of an average adjunct.
It is not a novel about one American man’s reality but rather a consciously overdrawn look at reality for so many. But Duffy’s more idiosyncratic characteristics are there, of course, to add flavor to the book, but also as additional commentary on life in the margins: How can people working so much even afford to think in terms of dating or doing so in a normal way? How do they even find time to go to the bathroom? Visiting a restroom, a chance to rest, indeed, becomes a higher-level need in Duffleman’s precarious world. So I’m thankful that I’m decidedly not Duffleman and that no real person could be Duffleman. He’s fictional.
Alex and Gordon raise much to discuss and debate here. Alex’s observation about more and more Americans cobbling together part-time and freelance work — my career model nowadays — hit home for me, as I’m sure it will for many of you. There’s more and more de facto full-time work out there for contingent faculty, even though it’s still “part time” on paper.
Their dual roles give them, I think, a nice vantage point for viewing the experiences of writers and contingent faculty members, regardless of whether these experiences overlap. What are the ideal and/or most effective ways to write the adjunct experience? Are their more novels in the works now? What other kinds of writing and performance can capture — with an eye toward improving — contingent labor conditions? Who else has written (or wants to write about) the adjunct experience?