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Soylent Green is Adjuncts
September 8, 2009 - 12:53am


I’m gratified by the response to my last post, which got more comments than any other in recent memory, except for the ones in which I gave away stuff for free. It’s good to know what sorts of things engage an audience.

But I was beginning to think—going by comments such as “insulting…flippant…asinine”; “sneering”; and “not cool”—that some readers were bothered by my little satire of a report that said adjunct labor was being “hidden” by some schools in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. Then I saw that one reader had called me “Bro,” which reassured me and made me very happy. Finally I will have the brother I never had! I clasp your hand warmly! Can I borrow 20 dollars?

Seriously, bro, at least I didn’t suggest that adjuncts were being ground up by a giant machine and turned into an easily-digestible product for consumption by the larger society. That would have been going too far.

At least one strident reader—Rory, was that you?—was disappointed there was nothing funny about the post, but those who demand laughter and charm are cutting themselves off from another tradition, the Juvenalian satire, which can be anything from dully uncomfortable to truly sickening. Here’s Mark Twain on a “battle” in the Philippine-American War in 1906:

This incident burst upon the world last Friday in an official cablegram from the commander of our forces in the Philippines to our Government at Washington. The substance of it was as follows: A tribe of [Muslim] Moros, dark-skinned savages, had fortified themselves in the bowl of an extinct crater not many miles from Jolo; and as they were hostiles, and bitter against us because we have been trying for eight years to take their liberties away from them, their presence in that position was a menace. Our commander, Gen. Leonard Wood, ordered a reconnaissance. It was found that the Moros numbered six hundred, counting women and children; that their crater bowl was in the summit of a peak or mountain twenty-two hundred feet above sea level, and very difficult of access for Christian troops and artillery. Then General Wood ordered a surprise, and went along himself to see the order carried out. Our troops climbed the heights by devious and difficult trails, and even took some artillery with them. [...] Our soldiers numbered five hundred and forty. They were assisted by auxiliaries consisting of a detachment of native constabulary in our pay -- their numbers not given -- and by a naval detachment, whose numbers are not stated. But apparently the contending parties were about equal as to number -- six hundred men on our side, on the edge of the bowl; six hundred men, women and children in the bottom of the bowl.

[...] The completeness of the victory is established by this fact: that of the six hundred Moros not one was left alive. The brilliancy of the victory is established by this other fact, to wit: that of our six hundred heroes only fifteen lost their lives. […] The official report quite properly extolled and magnified the "heroism" and "gallantry" of our troops; lamented the loss of the fifteen who perished, and elaborated the wounds of thirty-two of our men who suffered injury, and even minutely and faithfully described the nature of the wounds, in the interest of future historians of the United States. It mentioned that a private had one of his elbows scraped by a missile, and the private's name was mentioned. Another private had the end of his nose scraped by a missile. His name was also mentioned - by cable, at one dollar and fifty cents a word.

[W]e abolished them utterly, leaving not even a baby alive to cry for its dead mother. This is incomparably the greatest victory that was ever achieved by the Christian soldiers of the United States. [...] The [headline] blazes with American and Christian glory like to the sun in the zenith: “Death List is Now 900.”

I was never so enthusiastically proud of the flag till now!

And have you re-read Swift’s Modest Proposal lately? It’s pretty dry stuff until you get to this:

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.

I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration that of the hundred and twenty thousand children already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one-fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle or swine; and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in the sale to the persons of quality and fortune through the kingdom; always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.

The popular notion of Swift is that he was a funny guy who today might be writing for TV. But most of the excellent comic expressions of outrage these days (such as The Simpsons) are Horatian satire, and there are few as truly savage as Swift. As a father of two, I read Modest Proposal and feel an urge to vomit, not laugh.

So bless the adjunct lecturers of Valdosta State University—indeed, all those who dwell along the I-75 corridor, from north to south—for their “more generous” readings of me and the suggestion that I am capable of anything approaching Juvenalia:

Oronte responds to the report…by exposing [adjuncts’] presence in his own department’s spaces; he then fancifully (and savagely) imagines them used as tools, treated as refuse, or displayed as trophies, reminds us of the broken dreams of the many adjuncts who didn’t survive their institutions’ cuts and were forced to scramble for any kind of employment, and closes by suggesting that higher education’s reliance on contingent, underpaid, no-benefit labor dovetails all too neatly with larger employment practices in business and corporate America. [...] One might read a show of anger—as if Oronte could forget for a moment in his ten years of contingent labor that he is adjunct….

Yes, I’ve been an adjunct lecturer for more than decade, and though I try to maintain repose in the matter (one element in my survival), sometimes a certain amount of feeling bubbles up. My piece uses a persona to satirize a system in which adjuncts are both so prevalent and so embarrassing to the system that administrators of the system must ridiculously and insultingly try to make them invisible. And, yes, I believe it is increasingly an adjunct world, which is not for the best, even if some say it’s inevitable.

I do understand why some read the piece as lacking in proper sympathy. In part it’s because I didn’t portray adjuncts as pure of heart, what a poet I know calls “that workers’ bullshit.” But I walk around and look at things and find that people are people. Those under the most pressure will often behave the worst, from secretly wishing failure on mates, to gossiping, hoping magically for the best, baring fangs, or refusing to become involved. These less-than-happy qualities in turn get used against adjuncts by those who see not only junior colleagues—though “colleagues” is not a term often used—but sullen ones. As many have pointed out, it’s necessary to diminish those you intend to treat badly.

I have much more to say on all this in a subsequent post, but for now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m tired. Among other things I had to attend a teaching seminar on this our day of leisure in celebration of the gains of the labor movement.

Happy Labor Day to all my adjunct friends!


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