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April 27, 2007 - 5:43pm


I may have the best deal in all of adjunctdom. My teaching load is 3/3, and I have full health coverage. My pay is only $20,000 less than if I was on the tenure track at Hinterland, doing the same thing. If I were tenured, with my current time in service, I’d be making double what I am now. I’m often asked to teach 400-level independent studies, for free, and I serve on committees and constantly mentor university-scholar students in an attempt to be a good departmental citizen. I even go to the director’s bonfire parties, when tenured faculty don’t bother to show.

Personally, I think Hinterland is getting a bargain, and whenever I feel uncertain, I have my wife tell me so.

I’m not alone, and academe’s not the half of it. Barbara Ehrenreich writes, “In 1995, 31 percent of the American workforce found themselves in some sort of ‘nonstandard’ employment, characterized by a lack of benefits and weak bonds to their ostensible employers, and the numbers continue to grow.”

One of the downsides of my job, other than the possibility of being terminated on a whim, without explanation, is that I do not, generally, get to choose my classes. I used to enjoy teaching a two-semester lit sequence on the history of the short story. It was a lecture-discussion format, with 35 students, and significant amounts of writing. But when budgets were cut a couple of years ago, Hinterland stuck 150 kids in a lecture hall for one semester, with multiple-choice quizzes and a short-answer final. They billed this as a sort of triumph.

At the time, the associate department head told me in a staffing meeting that the department had to have a Ph.D. teach any lecture-hall class, for appearance’s sake—nothing personal—and since I have an MFA, I could no longer teach the same content I’d taught before.

This coming fall, the person who’s been teaching it has some conflict, and the new associate head has asked if I will help out the department. I’m happy to do so and am excited about the opportunity. But when I explained all this to my administrator friend Rory over lunch the other day, he called me cynical for viewing it the way I do.

I do understand the need for administrative hoops to jump through, and I realize that my main problem is that I don’t have a book yet. (That, and the fact that the Ph.D. in creative writing is the new MFA. And that it's two books now, not one, for many entry-level positions.) But I have published stories, poems, and essays, and I have book manuscripts under submission, which any administrator can read and judge if she wants.

Believe me, I do want to publish a book, and to publish well. I want to build audience. I want to be asked to do readings, so I can defer. I want all the other professors to walk over and hand me their fountain pens, like they do in that odd ritual in A Beautiful Mind that’s reminiscent of castration. I want a monument, to me, the size of the Titanic, forged from solid titanium and welded to a continental plate, so a billion years from now, the dolphin-people will have to look at it as they go about their chitter-chatter lives.

But the formalistic things have little to do with how well I can teach literature or writing--or write. (Think of all the writing awards, and all the books that aren’t that good.) An administrator could come observe me in the classroom, if he's unsure about my skills. No one does. So it’s aggravating to be in the club but not of the club, as they say.

I was reminded of this again this week, when I finished Ehrenreich’s Bait and Switch, The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, the follow-up to her bestseller Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. While Nickel was about her short foray into the dead-end world of employment by the likes of Wal-Mart and Merry Maids, Bait is about trying to find work in the corporate world. I saw some parallels with being an MFA in the academy.

She finds that the corporate world is all about fitting in, being a team player. She quotes from Robert Jackall’s Moral Mazes: “Proper management of one’s external appearances simply signals to one’s superiors that one is prepared to undertake other kinds of self-adaptation.” As Ehrenreich points out, “You let it be know that you are willing to conform in other ways too—that you can follow orders, for example, and blend in with the prevailing ‘culture.’ ” (Problem is, she discovers, even that won’t necessarily save your job.)

Fitting into academe was never fully determined by something as simplistic as dress (tweed jackets with elbow patches?), and that seems less important than ever. (Check out AAUP President Cary Nelson for the latest fashion trends.) But as writers have gone to the academy in greater numbers over the last 50 years, the markers for their worthiness have become more codified, with, I believe, less meaning.

Ehrenreich says, “[White-collar occupational groups’] principal strategy [for autonomy and security], undertaken in the twentieth century, was professionalization: the erection of steep barriers to the occupation, backed up by the force of law and the power of professional organizations like the [American Medical Association]. No one can practice medicine, for example, without a thorough education and a license, nor can a physician—or a professor, for that matter—be fired without cause.” Unions, she says, were part of this process “to defend themselves against arbitrary and autocratic employers.

“The ‘business professions,’ on the other hand…made a relatively late entry into the college curriculum; and even today, although the MBA has been the fastest-growing graduate degree for the past two decades, it is by no means a requirement for a management job. [A]nyone with a college degree…can present themselves as a potential practitioner. And with this openness comes a huge vulnerability for the veterans in the field: there is no transparent way to judge their performance, and no protection from capricious firings.” The result is a “world of intrigue and ill-defined expectations, of manipulation and mind games.”

Being new on the scene and fast-growing, the MFA is like the MBA. Getting one is no guarantee of competency in the field, and it doesn’t really mark the holder as a full member of the desired community. Couple that with higher ed's increasing tendency to use contingent labor, and you really get some intrigue.


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