• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


Such a Waste

Others are planning on the university of the future, and most aren't going to like it.

September 29, 2016

I’m having a lot of fun teaching this semester.

I’ve always enjoyed teaching, perhaps save the first year of graduate school when anxiety over my shortcomings as an instructor occasionally clouded my ability to appreciate the good moments, but dropping down from a full load of first-year writing to a single introductory fiction course as an adjunct has made teaching straight-up fun again.

I’d forgotten how necessary a little variety in teaching is to the overall psyche. After three straight semesters of first-year writing exclusively, my brain now has a different set of problems to solve, and that problem solving is enhanced by being able to reflect on the experiences teaching different courses. This is an underappreciated toll on adjunct and contingent instructors who have little to no variety in the courses they teach, and are sometimes yoked to common syllabi which constrain even in-course freedoms.

I’m working as many hours as before, but many fewer of those hours go towards teaching. Having less to read and respond to, less to do when it comes to students, and therefore, less pressure overall, probably also has something to do with me being able to have fun, to feel like I am connecting with the work.

Feeling like you’re doing a good job matters when you aren’t getting paid very much. Teaching one course, I can give what’s necessary for that cohort of students without worrying about the inevitable trade-offs when I’m overloaded. Not needing the job relieves a lot of pressure.

Even as I’m having fun, I find myself getting angry.

I try to forget about the low pay, though it’s hard when the discounted campus parking garage is full and the more expensive municipal garage means parking costs outstrip my pay while I’m teaching. My name plate has been stripped from the outside of my office, and my department mailbox is now a cubby on a credenza in the administrative assistant’s office.

These are not the things that make me angry, though. Annoyed, but they’re unimportant in the grand scheme.

The anger builds when I consider the waste, how much more I could offer, except that the only way for me to give it is to agree to my own exploitation.

I look at the questions that confront English departments everywhere – How do we hold onto majors? How do we help our graduates succeed in the world? What should we be teaching them? – and I think about how I could be someone who could help solve those problems.

It’s weird having been part of the whole now being almost entirely separate from it. I ignore the emails about faculty meetings, about curricular changes, about events not because I am not interested, but because I am interested and I’m worried I may volunteer for something.

Higher education institutions seem spectacularly bad at figuring out how to make use of the potential of their employees. Jobs are literally “lines” and the lines that really matter, the ones that count are “tenure” lines, and to succeed you absolutely need to walk that line.

If you don’t have one of those lines, good luck.

Unfortunately, a lot of the work of the university doesn’t fit into lines, certainly not the lines of tenure track, tenured, visitor, adjunct.

If you aren’t willing or able to walk those lines, the institution doesn’t seem to have the capacity to adjust or accommodate, no matter how useful you may be, or how the world changes around us.

My choices were to grind away at a schedule that was going to drain my spirit and kill this thing that I found so meaningful or to quit.

And it makes me even angrier when I think about how my situation is entirely unspecial, that every year we flush so many people out of education because there aren’t enough lines, or they don’t fit within the lines we draw.

I’ve personally known dozens of these people over the years, people who wanted to contribute, who did contribute, but ultimately had to make the choice to leave.

Such a waste.

Up in Wisconsin, a conservative think tank has issued a blueprint for a “new” public university that largely dispatches with tenure and uses “performance-based metrics” to gauge instructor and institutional effectiveness. It promises to be the platonic ideal of the administrative university, free of those meddlesome professors with their politics and job protections.

It sounds like a nightmare, a takeover of higher education by a state-level “data-driven” bureaucracy. That’s it’s coming from a so-called “conservative” policy shop makes me wonder if we’ve slipped into bizarro world.

Here’s the thing, though. For those of us who don’t have access to those coveted lines, the jobs at the hypothetical university of the future are likely to be better that what’s available now.

They won’t be great jobs. Everyone will be a have not, and one managerial fad after another will rain down.

But those who are willing to put up with those annoyances will likely be better off than the status quo today’s public institutions if you haven't been lucky enough to grab a line.

I wish that the institutions themselves would start to think beyond lines, to adapt in a way that preserves our values.

If we don’t do, it’s going to be done to us. I can guarantee that.




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