the art of complaining: an adjunct’s dilemma

I am a terrible complainer.

But I should clarify.

I rock when I’m ranting around the house about my kids’ messy rooms, fraudulent insurance companies or environmental desecration. But the complaints of an adjunct? This is a different and more difficult thing to do. If you hope to persuade your audience of an injustice that you have personally suffered, you’ll be better off if you can make them trust you, empathize with you…like you. Otherwise, they just might blame you.

Before starting my memoir in 2004, I read Ghosts in the Classroom, a collection of essays about adjuncting published in 2001. I thought it was an important book, giving voice to a subject that, at the time, was shrouded in silence.

Still, taken together, the essays wore me out. I didn’t doubt the stories of hardship and loss. I empathized with the writers, and I wanted the message to get out, but despite that, I found the barrage of negative experiences overwhelming. I knew better than to blame the writers for their predicaments, but I wondered, would readers outside the academy be so generous?

How do you tell a miserable story without making your reader miserable? Without inviting blame?

I saw this as the challenge of my memoir–a problem I set out to avoid from the beginning. To do so, I decided I would tell the story of the whole person, not just the adjunct. I would pack the hard knot of my adjunct misery in a box padded with personal and palatable things like motherhood, marriage and my passion for graduate school.

By making myself real, I would illuminate the university’s exploitative labor practices without sounding like a whiner.

While I’m confessing silly little fantasies, I should admit I also told myself that I would keep a positive face while adjuncting–that I would view it as a temporary situation to be observed and commented upon, but not internalized.

You know where this is going.

I didn’t get through the opening paragraphs before face-planting on each of those ambitions.

The thing is, I couldn’t see it. Over the years, the writing and editing of this book has occurred in isolation, in the narrow spaces that opened between tutoring, parenting and grant writing. That changed when I got into a writing group this past year.

And the crux of the feedback is: I’m a lowdown dirty rotten complainer. A griper. A whiner to the Nth degree.

How the heck did that happen?

These are my long-held first paragraphs, the ones I just cut. I wrote them in my communal office during my first day on the adjunct-job nine long years ago:

“Here I sit, in my office. My first teaching gig since the Ph.D. and I can’t silence the voice in my head: “don’t be cynical, don’t be cynical, don’t be cynical.” Rather than come across as bitter and negative, I feel compelled to wow people with my resilience. How deep did I dig to find that wellspring of optimism? Impressive, isn’t it, how I can make good from the bad; how I am professionally and personally gratified by the essence of teaching, how I can rise above the pettiness of my employment status? But a coffee stain lies splattered in a sheet down the wall next to my desk. It’s brownish, amorphous and large. Maybe it’s not coffee? I note other, darker droplets that resemble blood. Not blood, I’m sure, but even so, when I look at them, I feel a thickness in my throat. Revolted, I turn away, but they lure me back like a crumpled car on the side of a highway.

I could clean the stain off the wall—obviously. But I think of this as more of an experiment than a job—I’m not really employed here, am I? I fathom myself an observer—an anthropologist of sort—curious about this culture of part-time work that has grown like unwelcome algae in the Petri dish of academia. My research questions: how long will that stain remain on the wall? Do the custodians ever come in here? Will an over-zealous co-worker scrub it off in the enthusiasm of his or her first day? Or will it just fade away like the occupants of this office?

My eye follows the brown trail down below my table and the voice in my head makes way for bitter words like irony, hypocrisy, exploitation…cynicism. And there it is. What a goddamned disappointment that is.”

The crazy thing is that I was surprised when my writers’ group asked me why I was so bitter on the first day.

“Bitter?” I said. “Which part was bitter?” I thought I’d started off like a firecracker.

Then I reread it through their eyes and it looked quite different to me. Way more negative than I ever intended.

I had a few days of crisis after this revelation. Workshopping a memoir is a funny thing because critique of the writing can so easily feel like critique of the writer. We’re not talking about made up characters here. We’re talking about a real person with real feelings, and as the case may have it, real bitterness.

Was I just a negative and miserable old curmudgeon, dissing my work before I gave it a chance? And was this my persona in general? Complaining about my kids’ slovenliness? The dog smell in the carpet? Fracking? The Tea Party? The botched roll-out of Healthcare.gov? Was it all just me?

Time to take a step back.

I separated myself from the critique, but in saving myself, I couldn’t save the writing, which on closer inspection had enough whine coming out off it to make my dog howl.

I considered the advice of my writing group. They wanted to remove all of my lovely and bitter turns of phrase, all of my biting criticisms, all of my damning judgments. Things like: “I knew the university would treat me badly. What I didn’t know, was that I would begin to treat it badly.” I had cherished that line. (And how clever for me to figure out a way to share it with you here).

While I saw their points, I felt frustrated by my original question: How do you tell a story like this without alienating the reader? I could feel my neck getting hot as we discussed it around our computers because some of this felt like the old totalitarian pressures of grad school that dictated we take everything with a smile. No one said it out loud but as a graduate student I knew: never let them see you sweat. No doubt this pressure lay at the root of my feeling that I should “wow people with my resilience” as an adjunct.

I had to remind myself that my writing group didn’t want to silence the story, they just wanted me to tell it in a way that didn’t make readers hate me.

I needed to complain and be likable at the same time.

Part of the problem is my personality. I don’t have flair. One of the “characters” in my book answered almost every one of our adjunct dilemmas with a laugh and a flippant “fuck that!” which only made me like her more. Why couldn’t I be brazen and shocking and charming?

Instead, I’m so…serious? reserved?

Whatever it is, I can’t change that shock-value complaints don’t work for me. I’ll never be that person who makes you laugh with the F-word, so I have to find another way. As I floundered around, one member of my writing group said, “get rid of all the value judgments! Just tell your story and let the reader decide.”

That is some brilliant advice.

Readers don’t want to be told how to feel about something, they want to be inspired to draw their own conclusions.

So I’m back at the drawing board. So far, I’ve excised all of the opinions, ruminations and condemnations from the first quarter of the book. I cut everything from that opening section but the story of the coffee stain, which I rewrote.

I feel liberated, like I’m uncovering something shiny from under a heavy pile of dead leaves.

How ironic that after years of teaching my students to “show don’t tell,” I’m finally figuring out how to do it myself.

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6 thoughts on “the art of complaining: an adjunct’s dilemma

  1. Hi! I stumbled on this post because for a long time it was my dream to get a PHD in the humanities, but after some intensive internet research, I decided against it. Because I know the adjunct situation, I feel for you and understand your negativity. As far as the book goes, I don’t think you need to be the charismatic, “fuck you, I do what I want” kind of person to reach people. I think sincerity – a quality I perceive in you – is a much more valuable quality in a memoir. Plus, since your audience will likely want to read your book based on their own experiences with academia, they’ll appreciate a sincere (and maybe a little cynical) author a lot more. I’m interested in your book now and will keep dropping in to see your progress!

  2. Deb, the writing process is brutal. If only we could salvage every wonderful turn of phrase or poetic description….It is so helpful to hear someone else’s struggles to “show don’t tell.” I look forward to exchanging manuscripts and being a part of your writing process.

  3. I think what you wrote was the truth and if other people don’t like it, that’s too bad.

    This adjunct agrees with what you wrote and feels exactly the same. I am in the biological sciences and about to start another semester in the pit known as anatomy and physiology. I am dreading it and am very, very unhappy being so exploited and abused even tho I do my best to ‘have a good attitude, and show my gratitude and have a smile, etc.” Please, it is degrading.

    • I’m so sorry to hear you are still in that situation. I know that conflict of feeling like you’re in a bad situation but feeling like you have to put on a good face. It’s so hard. best of luck and keep your head up.

  4. Pingback: nine years and counting | professor never

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