The Last Dispatch from Adjunct Faculty at a Large State University
“Hello, I must be going,
I cannot stay, I came to say I must be going.
I’m glad I came but just the same I must be going.
--Captain Spaulding (Groucho Marx)
You may or may not know I’ve taught for a dozen years in the English department of a Big 10 university, as an adjunct lecturer. Though I have an interest in labor issues, being adjunct has not often been my main topic here or elsewhere because I don’t see it as my defining characteristic. While I have been limited by pay, title, opportunities, and often respect, I’ve done my best to make others’ ideas of limitation not my own.
I first started writing as Oronte Churm for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. My editor chose the series title “Dispatches From Adjunct Faculty at a Large State University,” because McSweeney’s had a category for dispatches. I suggested I write my little essays as anatomies, with individual titles such as “On Ghosts,” “On Apophasis,” and “On Wildness.” I tried to put them together as chords, two or three motifs bound up in a central concern.
When I started writing here, the blog also served as anatomy, a long slow reveal of myself to myself, a dissection of my life as teacher, writer, father, husband, and a guy who walks around and sees things. But you don’t want the surgeon cutting on you all the time. Only when there’s something that needs to be brought out.
Dr. Jacob Wade Brubacher, M.D., Clinical Fellow in Orthopedic Surgery, Harvard Medical School:
“The toe bone connected to the heel bone,
The heel bone connected to the foot bone,
The foot bone connected to the leg bone,
The leg bone connected to the knee bone,
The knee bone connected to the thigh bone,
The thigh bone connected to the back bone,
The back bone connected to the neck bone,
The neck bone connected to the head bone,
Oh, hear the word of the Lord!”
“Every one has something to hide.”
–Anton Chekhov, in his journal, trans. S.S. Koteliansky and Leonard Woolf
You also may not know that I took my pen name from a short story called “The Real Thing,” by Henry James. The story is about who or what is real in society, art, and human feeling. I’ve always tried to be the real thing as a person, writer, and teacher, so I thought it applied. Besides, the sound of two characters’ names, one floral, one muddy, put together is comic. It’s not comic that I felt the need to have a pen name to protect my unprotected job, which is to say my family’s well-being and safety.
“Everybody’s got something to hide, ‘cept for me and my monkey.”
My elder son, Starbuck, who’s nine, a few months ago: “Think of all the things I have to look forward to, Daddy. Driving, reaching drinking age [!], college graduation, graduate school, my first job. You don’t have anything to look forward to, do you?”
I laughed. “I have watching you two grow up to look forward to. Things I want to write. Places I want to go. I’ll start a press, maybe. Take up hobby blacksmithing.”
I got on my horse relatively late, but what’s it matter? Average our ages, and I feel 29.
“Remember, I can still outrun you, Boy.”
Adjuncts and grad students now teach 75% of all classes in American higher ed. That our labor is often exploited is not the entire point. That the system has created a problem too big not to have catastrophic consequences if addressed is not our concern. That this system, which purports to stand for self-realization, enlightenment, rationality, equity, democracy, human rights, and opportunities for all, is the one doing the exploitation is the real bite in the ass.
I have tenured colleagues who came in at the same time as I did, who’ve taught (much) less and in some cases published less than I have, who make twice my best pay. I also like them very much.
Abraham Lincoln: "And, inasmuch [as] most good things are produced by labour, it follows that [all] such things of right belong to those whose labour has produced them. But it has so happened in all ages of the world, that some have laboured, and others have, without labour, enjoyed a large proportion of the fruits. This is wrong, and should not continue. To [secure] to each labourer the whole product of his labour, or as nearly as possible, is a most worthy object of any good government."
My best pay is a very recent development, just in the last month, actually, for reasons never explained. For much of my time here I made less than the starting pay of those who cut the grass on riding mowers. I even made less than a “Concession Specialist” at ballgames.
My recent best pay came with a price: The university took away my (and every other winner’s) campus teaching-award prize, a modest sum they had said would be added to base pay in perpetuity, and used it instead to help fund everybody’s raises.
“As for the teaching award issue, I'm not part of the policy decisions or discussions. I can only speak to how the mid-year increase was distributed. I'm afraid I have no answer for you.”
–A university accountant
Anatomies are not just an awareness of parts, or even the sum of parts. They’re also about the relationship of part to part, and part to the whole. This leads to exponential understandings.
When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.
Last August, before the semester started, I went up for 10 days. One night I had a dream. In the dream I had inherited $125 million. This seemed plausible, because in waking life a distant relative once promised to leave me $125,000, which made me happy even though I was sure I’d never see it. In the dream I walked around my large house, which was being professionally and extensively renovated, and met groups of people I knew in different rooms. In the library I promised old friends we’d take an epic road trip together; in the kitchen I told my actor friend of course I’d put up a production of something he’d star in; in the foyer I snubbed a bunch of people I never liked anyway. It all felt so right, so good, so true.
Imagine my confusion when I woke in the pitch black on a swayback bed in the damp air up a short mountain in West Virginia. I lay there for some seconds, maybe as long as a long minute, absolutely sure the dream had been real, and this two-a.m. darkness was false. Perfect comedy.
When the brain, our selfsame organ, plays trickster, how in the world are we to make sense of the parts of experience, let alone integrate them?
“Is all that we see or seem / But a dream within a dream?”
–Edgar Allan Poe
So you can understand why I’m pinching myself when I tell you:
This summer I’ll leave here to start my new job as an Assistant Professor, Fiction, at McNeese State University, in Lake Charles, Louisiana, the MFA post that Pulitzer-winner Robert Olen Butler held for many years. It’s an intimate creative-writing program, one of the longest-running in the country, and number 40 in the controversial top-50 rankings, where everyone gets at least modestly funded and there’s all the jambalaya, crab, shrimp, bread pudding, and King cakes in the world. (Also, a three-meat, three-cheese sandwich with gravy that is, in more ways than one, to die for.) I’ll also edit the McNeese Review, a former scholarly journal that’s turning literary.
McNeese’s MFA program was started 30 years ago by the legendary John Wood, and graduates include Adam Johnson (reviewed very favorably here last month by Michiko Kakutani), Neil Connelly, and Allen Braden, among many successful others. I want to publicly thank McNeese State University for honoring me with their trust, confidence, and enormous good taste.
My sincere thanks too to the hiring committees at two other unis who expressed interest all the way up to my decision. After meeting the faculty and grad students at McNeese, I’m convinced it’s a perfect match. But come visit us in Louisiana, Matt. All y’all. It’s a lot warmer there, and you can write about the food and Cajun culture. We'll go sea kayaking.
That person, way back then, on my desire to make writing a way of life : “It’s not worth it.” Years passed with no further interest or discussion. Then, after reading some bit one day, the same number of words: “You do beautiful work.” Nothing more.
-4 + 4 = 0. I guess we’re good then.
Things even out. The universe giveth, and the universe maketh a hard time. A tenured colleague at a recent get-together, congratulates me on the new job but can’t help from saying something about my surprising third act, a reference perhaps to Fitzgerald’s, “There are no second acts in American lives.” She pulls back when she realizes how bad it sounds and apologizes. I believe she's genuinely happy for me, so I drink all I politely can of the $90 bottle of wine she has bought, which she tells us is marked down from $150, so she knows there's no hard feelings. Smiling, I say gently: “You know, friend, I plan to go down there for my third act and kick the living shit right outta that job, in a way I was never given the chance to do here.”
“One does not speak to Miss Stein that way,” says a nervous Montparno in Stein’s salon, after Hemingway insults her, after Stein insults him, in the film The Moderns.
Fact is, I made a career here, without full support and sometimes without approval. This making was work on work. I used to look like Brad Pitt. But what I’ll remember most from my time at this university is the long line of students in my classes, maybe close to 2,000 of them, with their successes and new understandings, which I was fortunate enough to have witnessed.
You’re good, and I’m proud of you.
So this last dispatch-anatomy as an adjunct is one more chance to take stock. Even when we look at ourselves straight on, studying the person in the mirror, we miss things. I never understood, for example, how I really looked to others until an oral surgeon described my bite, a physical remnant of childhood poverty, as a “deformity,” and another, who was deaf, shouted so loudly during a procedure that his nurse winced and people heard him in the waiting room: “Well, you got yourself a purty lady, so why bother to have it fixed now?” See, I never saw myself from the side, and the mirror had always foreshortened the problem. Maybe we become aware of our parts as we have the strength to accept them.
What am I aware of now? A great family, supportive wife, two sons I love more than life itself, a book in process that’ll be even better than the ones I have, given health and good luck; a new position that better reflects on me. Onward, as the writer Jeff Biggers, one of many supportive friends in the writing community, says.
“What rarely is mentioned by many poets are the influences of their closest friends—Brian Voight and Stacey Brown are two of the strongest influences on my writing. I’ve known Brian Voight since I was seven years old and many of his ideas on art in general (and our arguments about story, politics, representation, avenues into artforms, and more) were incredibly important to my development as an artist. Likewise, my grad school friend and colleague—the poet Stacey Brown—was tremendously important to my development as a writer. Kwang Ho Lee also has influenced me. These three affected me far more than my internal discussions with Foucault, Jameson, or Eagleton.”
–Brian Turner, in an interview here at the blog
“Most people wouldn’t piss on you if you were on fire.”
–Frenchy, in a bad mood one day
Rory and I sit around sometimes wondering at chains of good will in our lives. Some important links in my chain include editors John Warner and Doug Lederman for giving me the first platforms to write hundreds of thousands of words as Churm. Rory introduced me to novelist Duff Brenna, who recommended me to publisher Dave Memmott at Wordcraft, who took my novel. And then there are my other constant friends Frenchy, Crazy Larry, Stepped Reckoner, Mike the pilot, and others who know how I value them.
You know what’s weird? My own first creative-writing teacher was named Jim McNiece. After I wrote a kind of elegy for him here at the blog, a wealthy former student of his approached me to do a project in Jim’s honor. That donor disappeared as mysteriously as he came, once I’d agreed. Now I’m being employed at McNeese State. I don’t know why I thought to put it in, except when you're anatomizing, it's best not to disregard coincidences that don't fit your theories.
I’ve run a number of contests and giveaways at the blog over the years, and it only seems right to do one now in celebration of my great good fortune. Let’s make it, oh, a clerihew contest this time.
Your topic can be education, self-improvement, career advancement, sons-of-bitches, the tenure stream, adjunct life, universities, the life of the mind, joy, or even Churm, if you like. Write what you want, I’m happy and full of boudin balls.
Post your clerihew here as a comment on this post. You may enter as many times as you like, but please leave each poem as a separate comment. The deadline is midnight, Wednesday, February 29, 2012.
Entries will be judged by Steve Davenport, Assistant Director of Creative Writing at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and author of Uncontainable Noise, which won Pavement Saw Press’s Transcontinental Poetry Prize, and “Murder on Gasoline Lake,” which was listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2007 and is available now as a New American Press chapbook. He is also a real Rory. Steve will post three winners at the blog in the week after the deadline; you’ll e-mail him addresses; he’ll send prizes.
The prizes: Two $20 Amazon gift cards, and somebody’s choice of one of these literary t-shirts. I like the one with Aristotle: “Those that know, do. Those that understand, teach.”
Now I’ll be handing the tiller of the blog to my friend John Warner, novelist (The Funny Man) and editor of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. All rivers run to the sea, as the teacher in The Book tells us; it’s John who midwifed Churm, pink, squalling, 180 pounds and 72 inches in length. He’ll keep you amused, bemused, and informed the next few months while I get some things done, like put Churm House on the market. Please welcome and support him. He’s not a pretty man—I once saw him go toe-to-toe with the editor of a big periodical on my behalf, and there were teeth on the ground when it was done—but he’s got the built-in shockproof shit detector that Hemingway wants for us, and I admire him greatly.
My intent is to return to the blog in the fall with new views, responsibilities, and a home near my beloved Gulf of Mexico, where, as a young diver trainee, I once walked in search of the depth.
“And behold the sea, the opaline, plentiful & strong, yet beautiful as the rose or the rainbow, full of food, nourisher of men, purger of the world, creating a sweet climate, and, in its unchangeable ebb & flow, and in its beauty at a few furlongs, giving a hint of that which changes not, & is perfect.”
–Emerson, from his journals
Thank you for reading these last adjunct years.
“I’ll stay a week or two,
I’ll stay the summer through,
But I am telling you,
I must be…
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