adjunct community, “Lucy Snowe,” and the trap of adjunct work

A vibrant on-line community has erupted around contingent faculty in the last five years. Articles about adjuncts and the atrophied job market have appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, Slate and beyond. When you add the blogs and Twitter accounts that have popped up everywhere regarding adjuncting, unionization efforts and transition from academic life, it seems a massive snowball has formed over the much troubled village of academe.

Real change may still be far out, so far that I have trouble imagining what it will look like when it finally comes, but the potential for graduate students and adjuncts to build community and organize exists on a large scale.

I am so happy to see this community form. When I worked as an adjunct from 2004 to 2006, I didn’t even know the other contingent laborers at the university where I worked, let alone those who held similar jobs across the country.

But I did have Lucy Snowe.

Not the Lucy Snowe of Brontë fame–although I’m sure the pseudonym is inspired by Brontë’s teacher-protagonist in Villette–but a Lucy Snowe who worked as an adjunct writing instructor for almost 20 years and who wrote three articles for the CHE between 2003 and 2006.

Back then, the Chronicle still materialized on my doorstep–and I didn’t even think that was quaint. When I read Snowe’s article, I’m Professor Nobody, in March 2004, I folded it up and “filed” it in a stack of books in my office.

I wouldn’t begin my own adjunct work until after I graduated that coming May, but I still recognized this public accounting of adjunct life as a novel thing.

Not even my friends wanted to talk about our plight. We had all endured at least one job search by then, so the burden of shame already weighed heavily upon us. As my colleagues graduated, they scattered to the wind, preferring, I suppose, to face the odds and lick their wounds in private.

The blogosphere was in its infancy at the time. If I’d known to look, I could have found an online source of support in the blog The Invisible Adjunct, but I was what marketing professionals call a “late adopter.” I had heard people talk about “web logs” in 2004, but I didn’t really know what that meant, and I had my hands full with young children, teaching, research and job searching. Surfing the internet never crossed my mind.

I’m sorry for that because I think The Invisible Adjunct would have been a huge support to me as I followed along in her footsteps. IA posted from 2003-2004. She quit adjuncting and blogging just as I graduated and began my first term appointment. (The blog’s archives have been offline for years, but you can read about it here. There’s also an article in the CHE: “Disappearing Act” by Scott Smallwood, but it’s behind a pay wall).

Without an awareness of this small but burgeoning online community, I only had Lucy. I pulled her article out in 2005 and re-read it as if she were a cherished friend. So many of her experiences paralleled the things I’d written about in my journal: our exclusion from faculty meetings and meaningful committees, our invisibility in the department, our miserable walks to the mailroom, our motherhood, our passion for our work, our disgust with the tenured faculty who treated us like second-class citizens, our job insecurity, and our angst about the future.

Except Lucy had been at it for decades.

I would leave academe after spring semester 2006. I’d played the “market” three times, once as a grad student and twice as an adjunct. Some would consider that a quick exit. A lot of factors went into my decision. Kids, exhaustion, pride, my own helpless form of activism (don’t let the university exploit me). But one of those reasons was Lucy Snowe. By sharing her story, she showed me the future: adjunct work would not lead to tenure-track work. It was a trap.

In the eyes of academe, Ph.D.’s are like fresh vegetables. We degrade quickly once cut from the vine. In that sense, the further you get from graduation, the less appealing you become–and adjunct work proves a poor preservative.

After I quit, I published a farewell article in the CHE. Lucy published hers, The Long Goodbye, a few months later, in October of 2006. She and I made the same analogy: the university was an abusive lover, and we saw only one way to save ourselves: leave.

When I saw Lucy’s article, I felt validated. I was sorry that her career ended as it did, but the idea that someone else made the same decision as me, leaving what she loved because it didn’t love her back–went a long way to comfort me in my terror that I’d made a mistake.

So this post is a shout-out to Lucy Snowe, wherever she may be, for having the courage to share her story in the days when we had only a trace of a snowball.

Thank you Lucy!

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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.