What Tom Knows

This is the second interview in a series.

Two years ago I had an e-mail from another adjunct on campus. He wanted to audit a creative-writing class I was teaching, and I said if he could stand it, I could too.


April 13, 2007

This is the second interview in a series.

Two years ago I had an e-mail from another adjunct on campus. He wanted to audit a creative-writing class I was teaching, and I said if he could stand it, I could too.

Tom (not his name) turned out to be freshly retired, for the second time, and wanted to work on stories about his boyhood in the depression. My undergraduate students liked having him in class because he was feisty, funny, and took their work as seriously as his own. I liked having him there for his perspective, and because he made me work just a little harder to explain myself to his satisfaction. Once, he brought a friend along, a nearly-retired professor from another department. Neither had ever seen a writing workshop before, and they couldn’t have been more fascinated with me than if they’d found a coelacanth flopping in the grass on the quad. I had hopes for a while that it might become my thing, amusing older beginning writers.

When the semester ended, Tom published two of his stories. He tried to flatter me by saying I had something to do with that, but all I did was ask for work and get out of his way. We became friends that semester, and recently I joined him and his wife, Mildred, for lunch in a dorm cafeteria. I wanted to ask about his life as an adjunct, since his experience was so different from mine, but all I had to do was  get out of his way and let him talk.

My dad had a liquor store. I started working with him when I was 14. I went to Korea, came back and got my BA in advertising here. The school offered me a tenure-track job in advertising, which was in the journalism department. But I was running the business, which had expanded to a chain. I was 24 years old and had a child on the way. I knew I’d like to teach, would be good at it, but it wasn’t possible, and I didn’t moon about it. I ran my business 34 years, and when I sold it, I became rich.

About five years before I sold it—I was 50 then—I got to know a professor in Commerce and went to work with one of his classes in business policy. He became department head and said, “Why don’t you come over and teach for free, give something back to the university?” I had to know whether I could teach. It’s not a skill readily available to everybody. If I couldn’t teach, I knew I had no business doing it.

So I did. I taught free for three years, two classes a semester, and after five years, I was making $3000 a year. Then I sold my chain and asked for a full-time job. They said “yeah.” They said, “You have to take a salary,” and I took the salary to get health benefits.

They abused me a little bit…I don’t get abused very often. [Mildred speaks up: “They took advantage a little.”]

I taught case studies and told the department I needed classes with 25 students in order to get around a room in one-and-a-half hours. They kept their word for a while then went to 30 students, then 35. I walked into a class with 55 and said, Deal’s off. [Mildred says, “You were also doing one in the summers for MBA students. Six a year.”]

I went in and told them, I love teaching. Love it. But I can’t get around 55. They dropped it again. And I taught for 24 years. Every few years they kicked up my title—adjunct lecturer, to adjunct associate professor, to adjunct professor. Finally I made $18,000 a year.

I had a very touchy relationship with other teachers—academics. Not two whits of common sense about them. I had thought of my business as between me and my customers, with me and my employees a close second. Academics think you’re supposed to leave, let somebody else run it. They look for a formula to plug numbers into, come up with the right answers. Or they want to make it mythical, complicated. It’s not. Ninety percent common sense. Customers first.

The professors treated me with kid gloves. My saving grace was, I was older, and they may have realized my low salary let them make more money. I taught so long, some of it became spite. Mine was a required course for commerce students, and I wanted to teach them the right way, as many as possible.

One time there was a presentation on a failing brewery. They brought in some expert academic who had a model for saving it. Students want to save all things, and they all loved the idea. I said it was stupid: Look at the 16 breweries that used to be in Wisconsin. Now there are two. Fold it, I said. The academic said, “I did my master’s at UCLA.” He said the business would move from 20th to 11th place. That’s real progress, I told him, considering numbers 20 to 12 went out of business!

The college should train teachers to what they want. I had no training, no class visits, no observations. They say, “We get feedback on the job you do.” Feedback—bullshit.

I wanted to set up a teaching program for retired CEOs—these people 57 years old, not dead yet. Give ‘em a parking spot, a low salary, football tickets. They’re great communicators, else they wouldn’t be CEOs.

Never happened.

I’m interested in profiling other adjuncts—doctors, lawyers, businesspeople, retirees, and so on—who teach or have taught after success in another field, or who don’t fit the usual profile of contingent labor. If you know someone like that, please tell me about them, at [email protected]


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