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Pick Up the Bags and Get in the Limousine
December 6, 2009 - 11:57pm


It’s time again in the academic year for reflecting on pressures that have held sway for months and, if you teach, for decamping from minds you’ve inhabited all semester. I find I’m never as relieved with all this as I’d anticipated being since August.

In fact, despite the seeming closure in collecting portfolios and administering finals, and the promise of a weeks-long break from the classroom, a Dickensian sadness often sets in for me in December, compounded of endings, the weather, and reflection. “And so this is Christmas,” as that other Beatle sang. “And what have you done? / Another year over / A new one just begun.”

As I’ve often said when I wasn’t complaining, I may have the best low-level adjunct lectureship in America, in part because I’ve worked hard to make it so. The students here are interested and genial, the teaching load relatively fair, and my work full-time and varied. My pay went up slightly when I won the campus teaching award, and I’ve found some time to write and publish. When I asked novelist Richard Powers recently if he’d drop in to my lecture hall to talk with us for an hour about Galatea 2.2, technology, life, the mind, and the life of the mind, he did.

No, the seasonal fatigue that comes with teaching year after year as an adjunct is not, for me, due to diminishing returns. The rewards of engagement and service are ever-available, assuming baseline conditions of a renewed yearly contract and the state’s ability to pay off on health insurance claims. (It can’t pay, human resources told us last week.) What weighs on me, in part, is the prospect of the same returns with no hope for growth.

At an age when some of my childhood friends are becoming grandparents (really, really young ones) and people a few years older are plotting early retirements, I’m still on the lookout for new opportunities and situations. I’m thinking about five new books I want to write, and I want a tenure-stream job with fair pay and the opportunity for promotion if I’m going to continue to teach, and I want to live with my family in a more beautiful geography in a comfortable home filled with books and art and plants and animals, and I also want us to travel widely. I want fun, adventure, hard work, love, and passion. I want the whole thing, Bob.

Most of my life I’ve felt ageless, so there was always time yet for anything. This gave me leave to try several things and places, which slowed any one career. But the last half-dozen years have presented me with the birth of my sons, the death of my parents, and the apparent need to have written hundreds of thousands of words. Somewhere in there I dropped back into chronology. In my mind I just reached 31, but my body knows better—usually when one boy jumps on my back, the other hangs from my neck, and both clamor to be carried together up the steep, winding stairs in our Victorian.

It’s time, according to the seasons. I’ve gone on the job market, which in today’s economy is a little like saying I’m joining all the other little match girls hoping to sell their matches by standing outside the entrance to the Zippo factory.

I’ve written elsewhere that deciding to be something other than adjunct is like that moment when you’re walking a balance beam and feel yourself start to fall. You can either hop off gracefully or race for the end. If that last burst of concentrated effort fails, you’re likely to bust your ass spectacularly. I'm running as hard as I can for more tenable academic employment, but I can’t help but think about what life off the beam would be like. Writing and reading will always be my main pursuits, but maybe I could pay for them by stir-frying baby corns in a restaurant at a ski resort I know, an activity not too distant from teaching when you think about it.


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