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An Adjunct's Novel

September 21, 2010

Some years back, faculty activists started talking about adjuncts as "freeway flyers" to reflect how they had to drive from campus to campus. Cyrus Duffleman is an abused adjunct, but he's not worried about exceeding the speed limit as he moves from one campus to another to another on his "long day" -- the day on which all of the various teaching and tutoring jobs he has landed require him to be present. Moving across Philadelphia, he takes public transportation -- and worries about train schedules, rude fellow passengers, unscheduled delays and random acts of violence. For much of the day, he is late for one or more of his five jobs, realizing he is late to get to the train that will get him to class on time, late to the campus, late to the classroom, late out of the classroom, late.

Duffleman (or "Duffy," as he is called) is the creation of Alex Kudera, a longtime Philadelphia adjunct whose novel, Fight for Your Long Day, is about to be released by Atticus Press. Duffy's narrative on this long day catalogs a list of the kinds of insults that are part of an adjunct's daily existence -- and documents, too, his continuing sense of obligation to his students.

When you are an adjunct -- at least at the institutions that employ Duffy -- any impulse to help a student seems to lead to more insults. In the novel's first classroom scene, a female student shocks her classmates when she refers to having been raped -- and then she makes a series of racist remarks, offending other students. Duffy tries to manage the situation by suggesting that the student shouldn't be making racial stereotypes based on what happened to her, and also by trying (after they leave the class) to get the student to the counseling center. She won't go, so he goes, figuring he'll ask a counselor to reach out to her.

After telling the story, risking his ability to stay on schedule because he is convinced the student needs help, the first question he is asked by the counselor is: "Are you fucking her?" Duffy isn't, but the counselor goes on to say that he could have confidentiality if he needed to confess something, unless of course the student's parents sue the university. The scene is one of a number in which Duffy sees that adjuncts are seen as the source of potential lawsuits for unprofessional behavior -- even if they aren't treated professionally, or even much thought about.

While some of the insults are overt -- assuming that the only reason an instructor would report a student's rape is that he was having a sexual relationship with her -- others are more subtle and sad. One of his colleges (they are all renamed but may be recognizable to Philadelphia academics) is charting "a brave, new eco-friendly course" by going paperless -- and that means the photocopiers that adjuncts could use are all being removed. But Duffy sees this as making it impossible for him (and for all the other adjuncts) to include "the photocopied additional essay, a professor's favorite left out of the current anthology." While seemingly a small thing, that extra essay helped Duffy or his colleagues put some individual stamp on courses given to them as a formula.

During the course of the day, Duffy is constantly aware of current events -- and a series of unusual political acts that relate in part to the varying ways people reacted to the Bush administration's war on terror. The story lines relate to the education trends during this period. The novel is an apt reminder that many writing instructors, for example, are not teaching students to analyze novels, but to write a decent business memo.

Like many adjuncts, Duffy may relate more to public higher ed, but he fills out his schedule by teaching in the for-profit sector as well. He teaches at the University of America, which bought up a smaller for-profit, moving its operations from a brownstone to a skyscraper (and cutting adjunct pay from $10 an hour to $9 an hour for staffing the tutoring center). "As the Wal-Mart of higher education, U. of A. undercuts the market in every region, charges less per credit, and pays less to its contract employees who provide all of their educational services," Kudera writes.

Kudera, who created Duffy, is 41 and has been adjuncting since his 20s. He said in an interview that he wanted Duffy's character to be roughly his age to illustrate that adjuncts aren't just a year or two out of graduate school, navigating the path to the tenure track, but are frequently non-tenure-track for many years, if not their entire careers. "People are working this way their whole lives, and I don't think people realize that."

While there are examples of adjuncts in academic fiction (The Lecturer's Tale), and many academic characters feel that they don't get the respect they deserve or haven't achieved the success they want (consider characters in Small Change, Straight Man, Wonder Boys or Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), the particular plight of the modern adjunct hasn't been mined by many novelists. Kudera stressed that he's not focused on adjuncts because he thinks those with tenure have it easy. "I think a lot of them are working like dogs, too," he said. But he wants people thinking about adjuncts.

He doesn't have a magical solution to the labor problems facing academe, but thinks it can only help to jar people into realizing how many college instructors are economically fragile, living from check to check.

For his part, Kudera recently had a major career advance, and is now teaching on full-year contracts at Clemson University. He has a 5-5 courseload, and is paid just a little over $30,000 plus health insurance. In dollars, that's less than the $40,000 he was typically earning in Philadelphia at various colleges -- but those jobs typically came without benefits and with considerable travel time and expense, and no long-term security at all. Factoring in benefits and the less expensive cost of living, Kudera says he is better off economically at Clemson. And while his courseload may seem impossible to those on the tenure track (outside community colleges), Kudera said that he frequently taught 6-6 (plus paid time in tutoring centers) in Philadelphia.

While open to a tenure-track job -- "I will entertain offers," he said -- Kudera is very happy to have the relative stability of a year-long contract. He no longer rushes from campus to campus, but he has new responsibilities now: his wife has a tenure-track job that is too far for a daily commute from Clemson, so he is the primary caregiver for their 2-year old while navigating workweeks apart from his spouse.

Perhaps a topic for his next novel.

 

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