Saturday, March 11, 2006
Here's a shout out there to all those adjuncts on the quarter system facing uncertain times. It's that part of the year when enrollments dwindle, and the trickle of cash you hoped might last till June dries up in the blink of an eye. You know you shouldn't depend on it. You try to keep yourself from hoping, but you can't imagine why, with students requesting you for the no-brainer (I mean this. You literally take your brain out like a supplementary drive and check it until class is over) Comp II class they have to take next quarter, there won't be something for you. You let yourself believe that maybe you'll make it through a good part of the summer. In a fit of luxurious hopefulness, you buy three paperback novels discounted to half the price by independent sellers on Amazon. You think maybe you really can finally replace those two expensive plastic hubcaps stolen from one side of your car by the kids up the street when you had that flat tire for two weeks. It's not a big break you're hoping for, really--just a little piece of something to sustain you as you wait for the upswing to happen. A tiny bit of luck in the first optimistic days of spring.
Thursday was the last day of class at Culinary College so I made sure I was there in time for my Last Free Meal. It was a doozy, as usual, with five different stations--hand-cooked and assembled cajun pasta, three different fish entrees, a salad bar filled with oysters on the half shell, a peppery roasted lamb, a pizza station, a salad bar. Desserts galore. I always try not to eat too much, but I took as many oysters as I could reasonably fit on my tray. I collected papers in two classes, then checked in with the coordinator to find out about final grades and possible spring courses. I found him at his desk eating salad out of a "to go" plastic clamshell, looking glum. We spent twenty minutes talking about final grade submissions before I asked him point-blank about courses, and he told me there was nothing. He could have told me up front. He knew from my flurry of emails that I was desperate. But he held back, hoping I wouldn't ask. Why?
He explained thet Spring enrollment was slack. Fewer courses were being offered, and most of these had to go to full-time people whose contracts required three or more courses per quarter. He didn't have anything for anybody, and by anybody, he meant adjuncts. The coordinator showed me the schedule, and pointed out the different classes and who would get them. But I could see over his shoulder that actually, one of us HAD gotten a class, out of the four of us that had started that quarter. I recognized the initials of one of the adjuncts penciled in. I didn't say anything. I know the adjunct, and I remembered that while a couple of us had gotten two courses to teach this past quarter, he had only gotten one. It seemed fair to give him a second course. The weird thing was, the coordinator was lying about it when he said nobody was getting anything. He didn't have to lie, but he did it anyway, hesitating when he came to the initials I recognized. I felt bad for him. His life was about holding back information and lying to people. He felt bad, too. He looked miserable. I think it must kill your soul a little every day to know that your job is to treat people like they are expendable. He promised to keep us in mind for summer, for next fall, trying to convince himself that he actually could reward loyalty and good work. But his hands are tied. Culinary College is run by a for-profit educational company. No programs will be built there, ever. As he gave his little speech, I laughed somewhere in my own head. See you next fall? Fat chance, sucka.
I drove out of the parking lot for what now seemed like the last time, but I didn't feel sentimental. Better to get out before my facade of taking it seriously cracked. When I swung by the apartment after class to pick up gf for a much-needed trip to Costco, though, I burst into tears. I was a failure. I couldn't even keep a stupid comp job at a sham college. Gf cheered me up with an exhortation to remember everything I had to look forward to later in the year, how far I'd come, how everything would work out. She offered to drive, and we switched places for the short journey into the land of suburban bulk-buying. At Costco, as usual, toilet paper is cheap and plentiful, and strangers offer us exotic reheated foods in little paper cups. Everything is giant-sized. Cereal boxes and Starbucks bags of coffee have huge, Mesezoic dimensions. That which was once big will be big again. Think big! Buy big! Dream big!
When we get home a letter in the mail tells me I have gotten a merit scholarship to Neighboring Big State University law school, putting it in the running with my in-state University law school. Cheered, I go to the back room to check my email, and find a solicitation from Elite University in town to teach an intro to gender studies course for them this quarter. One course at Elite pays a little more than I would make teaching two courses at Culinary. Whoa. Now I have to put my brain back in and make a syllabus. The hilarity of moving in two weeks from teaching composition to cooking students who don't want to be there to teaching gender to some of the best students in the country at a better school than any place I have ever taught strikes me. As an adjunct I can go places I never could as a professor; once long ago I thought teaching at Elite University was the most amazing and impossible thing. I knew I could do it, but I also knew it would forever remain out of my reach, reserved for much grander people than me. Under the radar, below the regulatory mechanisms of hiring and tenure, they are happy to have me. "Welcome aboard!" the email says. It doesn't mean status or validation. It means rent money for the next three months. I look at it. I feel lucky.