What We Have Here, Is a Failure to Communicate

Greetings and salutations from the temporary occupant of this august space.

February 20, 2012

Hello! Is this thing on?

It’s a big space here at the blog now that Churm is preparing to decamp from adjunctdom for Lake Charles and the tenure track. He hasn’t left much behind save that dark stain in the corner that I imagine is students’ tears, or maybe mixture of Churm’s own blood, sweat, and tears.

I couldn’t be happier for him. He’s our Cool Hand Luke, tricking the bosses and breaking the chains and escaping to the outside world. Just like the inmates left behind in the film, I’m looking forward to getting photos of him sandwiched between two busty and available ladies. I hope the tenure-track grass is as green as the improved salary he’ll be receiving, even as I suspect the fresh challenges come with fresh problems.

Last Spring, I thought I’d made my own escape after ten years of adjunct teaching at three different universities. I’d spent the previous six years at Clemson University where I was privileged to teach a variety of creative writing, composition and literature courses, some of my own design, as part of an active and dynamic faculty. I was provided tremendous freedom to do my work, and was frequently thanked and acknowledged by the departmental higher-ups for my contribution.

For this I received a smidge over $25,000 per year.

I was simultaneously incredibly fortunate and completely exploited. Fortunate in that I have a successful (enough) parallel career as a writer/editor to bring in additional income from time to time. Fortunate to be partnered with a woman who had the good sense to go into a profession (veterinarian) where people are paid adequately for their work. Most fortunate to have a job that I looked forward to doing each day, a rare and special thing.

Exploited? I mentioned the smidge over 25k, right? Do we have to have that argument, that somehow this is the fair rate for a full-time college instructor with a 4/4 teaching load of 300 and 400-level courses? The MLA believes I should have been making almost double that. 

Sure, sure, market economics, if people will do the job for that salary, then that’s what it’s worth, blah blah blah. I get it. It’s all true while being untrue. I’m not really capable of solving that one.

One of the criticisms you hear about adjuncts (often in the comments sections of this very publication) is that they need to stop “allowing” themselves to be exploited by walking away.

It seems like sensible advice that I tried my hardest to take.


For a variety of reasons, my wife and I decided to relocate to Charleston, SC. To me, this felt like an opportunity to make my break from the velvet shackles of the non-tenure-line life. My novel  was going to be released in September with a small tour planned to keep me busy. I wasn’t counting on riches because I am not fully delusional, but it seemed as though additional opportunities for writing-related remuneration may open up. Foreign sales if the book did well enough. Maybe a low-res MFA lecture or two, or even a faculty gig at one of them that holds classes in Tuscany, that kind of thing. I could finish the next book – and fingers crossed – find a publisher.

When new acquaintances in my new hometown asked what I did, I planned on saying, “I’m a writer.”

The doubts crept in by mid-June. By July, it was closer to a waxing and waning fever of anxiety. By August 1, the time a teacher’s thoughts turn to the Fall syllabus, it all felt simply wrong and in a barely controlled panic I sent a querying email to the Chair of the College of Charleston Department of English offering to pick up a stray section or two of anything.

They did have two sections of English 110 (freshman writing) available. I gobbled them up with thanks. The pay is embarrassing enough that I won’t tell you what it is.

This Spring, I only have one section of English 110 on which I’m spending an inordinate amount of time. I actually think I’m starting to annoy the students a little bit with my level of attention, my insistence on one-on-one conferences, the spontaneous emails offering additional materials for their perusal. I’ve made it clear to the department that I’m ready/eager/willing to take on a full-time teaching load for the Fall.

With apologies to Francis Ford Coppola, just when I thought I was out, I volunteered to be pulled back in.

Apparently, what I want to tell people when they ask me what I do is say, “I teach college.”


As I re-consider my own opening analogy, I realize that I’mcloser to being Cool Hand Luke, than my friend Churm. Just as Luke’s picture with the busty ladies was fake, my own hopes for a different life haven’t come to fruition. My novel did fine, but didn’t set the world on fire. Money from translation rights hasn’t been flowing from Scandinavia and the Eastern Bloc. The phone rings about as much as ever, and it’s usually my undergraduate alma-mater alumni association looking for a donation.

Churm won’t be returning to the adjunct nation, but in the movie, Luke is recaptured, given extra chains, his previous indomitable spirit wounded.

Though even this I=Luke comparison breaks down. I’ve re-entered this bargain willingly (if not uncomplainingly). And teaching is hardly a prison. In fact, it’s the work I most enjoy.

Still, I can’t help but think of Luke just before the climax of the movie when he’s made his second escape and finds himself in a church and he tries to have a conversation with god, a talk between two hard cases. He confesses his sins, his bad acts and worse nature and then he says, “You made me like I am. Now just where am I supposed to fit in?”

It’s a good question.


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