Call Me Adjunct
by Alissa Montalbano
Like the narrator in Ulysses, English Adjunct Professors wander from college to university to community college with our battered briefcases stuffed with syllabi. We diligently try to ingratiate ourselves to each new workplace, hopeful to call it home. In the Fall we feel inspired, even desired, by many suitors promising a relationship until all the seas go dry. But, in the Spring when the “winds do shake the darling buds of May,” we are summarily tossed aside like poor Tess of D’Ubervilles.
While all higher educational institutions resemble each other on the surface, each one is bizarre in its own unique way. Universities, for example, make a big production of registering us, completing stacks of paperwork, background checks, fingerprinting, and the like. All this occurs while we carefully navigate Charybdis and Scylla to show a lively interest in the position without exhibiting the desire, or worse, the assumption, that we will be asked to return next semester.
Contrarily, military institutions are, as expected, very efficient. Adjuncts are registered and teaching class before Shel Silverstein can say, “Adam had ‘em.” And, in the Spring, we are decommissioned in a likewise efficient manner via a department-wide email that notes someone in uniform will be taking over the position. In summa, make like Nick when Daisy and Gatsby finally re-connect and step aside.
Our community college tenure can be gauged by careful analysis of the particular institution. For instance, when the professor with a Ph.D. in Philosophy is introduced as the scheduler for the adjuncts, we know our time here will be “nasty, brutish, and short.” As grammarians, we are acutely aware that the adverb “not” is missing between the title Ph.D. in Philosophy and the phrasal clause “organizing of schedules.”
No matter the institution, however, newly tenured professors uniformly shun us as if the scarlet letter “A” were emblazoned upon our breast. Like old, fat Falstaff rejected by the newly crowned King Henry V, we completely understand this behavior (and, indeed, imagine ourselves doing the same some fruitful day), but it still hurts.
But, a Dixonian path does not represent the whole of the career. There are some amazing benefits too, like:
Academic Freedom: we will regularly introduce in class what used to be known as Shakespeare and is now called “trigger subjects.” As a matter of fact, at this very moment, adjuncts around the country are discussing murder, incest, politics, religion, racism, betrayal, torture, fights to the death with complete confidence that no one will ever come in the classroom and put a stop to the interesting debate.
Freedom from critique: If a student hates us – we don’t care. The oft-kept secret, which is herein revealed: no one reads adjunct evaluations. No one.
No publishing deadlines: we do not worry about publishing; ergo we do not worry about perishing.
Scholarly support: we regularly get together, like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, to eat, drink, and shoot large animals (just kidding), rather — to exchange ideas.
Life as divine comedy: In a single day we can hear from a community college student bemoaning Alice Walker’s choice of the color purple or a military student calling Hamlet a “pussy” for taking the entire play to kill Claudius. In that same day, we can read an essay from a university student detailing what, exactly, those Bronte sisters really did with that Moor.
Boring, this job is not.
This is why we adjuncts return each Fall, like flocks of Poe’s Ravens, to various institutions of higher learning. Despite the intermittent (and impecunious) check we receive in our creaky metal mailboxes every month and the other oddities we abide by, we adjuncts always have the beautiful option to simply pack our bags and move on. After all, “the road is life.” And, life, as we English Literature folk well know, is always reflected in literature. Or, is it the other way around? Maybe that is why I am the adjunct.
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