The Adjunct Novel

Writers love to write about professors. With most professors now off the tenure track, will these kinds of characters start to appear more in fiction? Nathan Hill's new book, The Nix, could be a start.

November 3, 2016

Few professions seem more ripe for fictionalization than that of the academic. Maybe that's because writers have some things in common with professors: a typically long and trying initiation period, dedication to a life of the mind, and healthy portions of criticism. Many writers also teach.

So far, though, most mainstream fictional portrayals of academic life show professors on the tenure track, living relatively comfortable lives -- if only materially -- and enjoying some degree of job security. Or if they have less job security, it's because they didn't earn tenure. That’s to say writers haven’t yet caught up to the new reality of academe: that landing a tenure-track job these days can be as hard as landing a book deal.

Not so, though, for Nathan Hill, author of The Nix. The book, recently released by Alfred A. Knopf to much acclaim, casts as its central character not a tenure-track professor, but rather an adjunct professor teaching at a Chicago-area college.

The book refers to Samuel Anderson as an assistant professor, but various interviews with Hill have described his main character, a frustrated writer who teaches one introductory literature class and who struggles with mounting credit card debt, as an adjunct. Hill told Inside Higher Ed that he imagined Anderson as not on the tenure track, and “definitely outside the department looking in.”

Hill is a tenured associate professor of English at the University of St. Thomas. But before landing that job, he spent time teaching writing off the tenure track at Florida Gulf Coast University.

The Nix reads as several books in one, and the protagonist’s path to eventually writing a book about his estranged mother’s past as a political radical takes him well beyond the classroom; it's not just a book about being an adjunct. But Hill’s descriptions of the adjunct life -- primarily Anderson’s financial struggles -- will resonate with some.

Anderson also falls into a manipulative student’s plan to smear his reputation after he accuses her (rightly) of blatant plagiarism; after a long, often comic conversation in which she accuses him of various offenses -- such as trying to coerce her into sex -- he tells her she simply isn’t "very smart," and "not a very good person, either."

The professor eventually loses his job after the student tells a dean his classroom isn't a "safe space" (although the student isn’t quite sure what that means), and after she creates a student group dedicated solely to revealing Anderson’s use of college computers to play World of Elfcraft -- an obvious play on the game World of Warcraft -- many hours a day.

While many adjuncts might relate to feelings of precarity when it comes to defending themselves against student complaints, having time at work to play World of Elfcraft -- or any game at all -- will probably sound foreign. That’s because many adjuncts commute between campuses to try to string together the equivalent of a full-time job in order to make ends meet.

Still, The Nix does a better job than most novels of portraying the challenges of what is now the majority of the professoriate. (As a side note, many professors will probably appreciate Hill’s references to students hiding their phones in their laps and asking if work “counts” before completing it, whether or not they’re on the tenure track -- if not Anderson’s apparent antipathy toward teaching over all.)

Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, for example, portrays Chip Lambert, its academic character, as down-and-out only after he loses his tenure-track job -- in part because he embarks on an affair with a student. Coleman Silk in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain is a dean and professor of classics whose life falls apart only after he’s forced out of his college following allegations of racism by two students. Ted Swenson in Francine Prose’s Blue Angel long enjoyed a steady job as a college writing instructor before considering an affair. And Richard Russo’s William Henry Devereaux Jr. experiences something of a midlife crisis while serving as tenured chair of an unwieldy English department in Straight Man. (Somewhat interestingly, Russo does feature an adjunct as a secondary character -- the daughter of a colleague who tries to seduce Devereaux with peaches. “Will I be teaching in the fall?” Meg asks Devereaux. “You should let us adjuncts into your union.”)

In an example from theater, one-half of the miserable married couple at the heart of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, George, is an associate professor of history. He has plenty of unhappiness but isn't worried about where he will teach the next semester. (His wife, Martha, is his college president’s daughter.)

So will fiction featuring adjuncts become more common going forward? Hill said he didn’t know, but that he wouldn’t be surprised, “given that fiction is often about people in trouble, and adjuncts are in trouble. They are often overworked, underpaid, lacking basic economic protections like health insurance and retirement plans and job security.”

And given that many writers are themselves adjuncts, he added, recalling his own experience off the tenure track, “I would expect to see more of their stories in literature. I certainly hope so, anyway.”

While The Nix is one of the first novels featuring a character who happens to be an adjunct (The New York Times called it "the love child of Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace"), it is not the first novel about adjuncts. Alex Kudera, who has spent many years as a non-tenure-track professor of English, made waves in 2010 with his book about Cyrus “Duffy” Duffleman, a Philadelphia-area adjunct who travels around the city to five different jobs. Fight for Your Long Day traces Duffleman’s steps and the various indignities he experiences inside the classroom and out. He’s always running late, for example, and is wrongly accused of sleeping with a student by a college counselor, but still shows dedication to his work.

Kudera published Auggie’s Revenge, which touches on similar themes and features as adjunct as its central character, earlier this year. Hinting that some audiences aren’t quite ready for a full-on fictionalized takedown of adjunct issues, he said via email that his work might be “a more brutal version of socioeconomic America than relatively affluent urban readers like to see in their novels.”

Gordon Haber, a former adjunct instructor of writing and author of the short novel Adjunctivitis, said that American literary fiction has been “lagging behind the larger concerns of the culture.” And because fiction “is basically a middle-class pursuit,” he added, “it’s taken writers a long time to wake up to the fact that the middle class is getting screwed, too. It's only been relatively recently that people are realizing that contingent labor is a white-collar issue as well -- it's not just Walmart greeters struggling to get full employment.”

So it's only now that “we're starting to see adjuncts in American fiction about the academy, as opposed to the usual tenured-white-middle-aged-male-professor-in-crisis academic satire,” Haber said.

Despite being troubling, Haber suggested, adjunct-centered novels have the potential to be even more entertaining than their tenure-centric predecessors.

“When I was a freeway flier in Los Angeles, I saw there was a story in it -- my problems as a teacher, the exhaustion, anxiety, poverty, overwork -- echoed the problems that many of my students faced, especially my community college students,” he said. “Combine that with the indifference of the administration, the contempt from academics with more secure jobs -- it sounds quite grim, and it is, but whenever life is shitty you also have a rich possibility for comedy.”

To Haber’s point -- and to the larger question about whether adjuncts will play a bigger role in the U.S. cultural consciousness -- Saturday Night Live just last month featured a sketch about a new “comedy” series about a family of adjunct professors “who are all diagnosed with depression on the same day.”


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