"A professor is one who talks in someone else's sleep."  ....W.H. Auden.

Commentary of the Day - May 10, 2011: An Open Letter to Professor X.   Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.

[Ed. note: This article should be read in conjunction with Professor X's 2008 Atlantic article linked in the first paragraph, and with the previous article we published by Cindy Ellen Hill: "In an Adjunct Funk - on the Inside Looking Out."]

Reading about your life as an adjunct professor of English, first in a 2008 Atlantic article, and now in a full-fledged book (In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic), I wasn't sure how to respond to your long trail of tears.  Part of me  wondered about how your ongoing life as an adjunct might, just might, have been mine (this was a there-but-for-the-grace-of God moment); part of me was simply glad I spent most of my academic life in what you would probably regard as tenured, cushy circumstances.

But it was not always peaches-and-cream. I began my graduate studies in l963, as a TA (teaching assistant) at the University of Washington.  The prospect of teaching a college-level class made me giddy.  No matter that it was in freshmen composition or that I was paid a pittance.  No matter that the university  newspaper regularly ran a column of "TA jokes" or that "regular professors" regarded us as second-class citizens.  What mattered was the office that I shared with other TA's, and the class roster of students who were all mine.

It took a few semesters before the truths that Professor X talks about sunk in: I was there less to teach than to bust out weak students.  The same thing was true for those who taught the required freshman math course.  Every Spring the campus bulletin boards would be filled with people out to sell, at bargain basement prices, all manner of typewriters, 10-speed bikes, and (once expensive) university jackets.  If it is true that the University made an effort to accept virtually any student who had graduated from a Washington state high school, it was also true that the same University made sure that people like me busted out people who probably shouldn't have been accepted in the first place.   That, I am told, is how the politics of state funding often works; the "chance" to receive a higher education does not necessarily mean that individual students will acquire one.

Professor X spends a good deal of time chronicling the despair that afflicts both those who take night school English courses and those, such as Professor X, who teach them.  Both groups are bone tired, and both reek of bad coffee and tuna fish oil.  At fifty, Professor X make it clear that this is no way to spend a life.  He is right, but tell that to those who love teaching, including Professor X.

One of the ironies about Professor X's catalogue of lousy treatment is the fact that he can be sacked anytime enrollments dip.  I saw roughly the same problem from the other side of the coin.  Far too many of my TA, grad student friends hung around the university district far longer than they should have.  True, they had cheap apartments and drank cheap wine, but there was something downright invigorating in a life spent reading, writing, listening to music, and even grading student papers.  The trouble, of course, was that tangible rewards such as a living wage and health benefits came with finishing the PH.D. and getting what the world calls a "real job."

TA's were cheap labor, just as adjuncts are cheap labor, and both groups perform valuable, albeit, usually undervalued, functions in higher education.  Small wonder that efforts to create TA unions crop up every so often (this was true when I was a TA in the politically-conscious l960s), and small wonder that they usually don't succeed.  What drives the higher education industry is the nearly unshakable belief that everybody deserves a spot in a large research university, a small liberal-arts college, or a community college.  The egalitarian part of me agrees, especially when I recall the Socratic dialogue about the slave boy who knew (or perhaps "remembered") more mathematics than he realized.

But  experience has taught me that college ain't for everybody.  And when administrators face this un-pleasant fact, they have two choices: they can lower the bar or work to raise student abilities.  In far too many cases they have opted for the former rather than the latter.  They do this by watering down the curriculum and allowing grade inflation to run rampant.  The result is students who have lots of "self-esteem" but very little to be proud about.

Poor Professor X strikes me as a man more sinned against than sinning.  He is caught in a system that plays on his need (his vanity?) to be called "professor," and then grinds away his life.  At age 50, he is a sad duck, and the best he can do is warn away others in graduate school   headed for the same fate.

My hunch is that Professor X would be a terrific in a Great Books program. Why so? Because I suspect he genuinely believes in books, and because these programs are sought after by adults who are either retired or who arrive at class after their day jobs are over.  There might still be whiffs of bad coffee and tuna fish oil but I suspect that Professor X, who will still need to keep his day job, should find the atmosphere, the books, and the fellow participants (for better or worse, no longer "students") at once more congenial and more exciting.

When I made my way through your assorted troubles I kept thinking that I was lucky and you, alas, were not.  Nobody should have to be an adjunct more than, say, four years.  After that, everybody should agree that enough is enough.  Granted, there's probably another community college over the hill, another small college looking for a cheap worker, but my advice is to resist the temptation.  Nobody can take away the wonderful snippets of poems and prose in your head, they comfort, and make you a more humane person.  Adjunct jobs, by contrast, are spirit-killers of the first order.  When you learn  what Professor X knows, you'll know enough to avoid them.  End of story.

2011, Sanford Pinsker
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College. He now lives in south Florida where he thinks about weighty issues on cloudy days and occasionally reviews manuscripts for publishers.

The Irascible Professor comments: As Cindy Hill related in her article "In an Adjunct Funk - on the Inside Looking Out," the life of an adjunct or part-time college instructor leaves much to be desired.  The pay and working conditions range from poor to atrocious, and the students who populate the adjunct's classes often range from weak to hopeless.  Professor X, who turned to adjunct teaching to supplement the income from his day job, has chosen to focus on the hopeless rather than the merely weak students.  His primary thesis is that many, if not the majority of his students, simply are not capable of college-level work.  And, in his Atlantic piece he mentions one of his classes where nine of 15 students flunked.  Sanford suggests that because of these odds nobody should consider adjunct or part-time teaching as a long-term job.

I'm going to disagree in part at least with both Professor X and with my good friend Sandy Pinsker.  Having taught at Krispy Kreme University (aka Cal State Fullerton) for some 37 years, I can assure both Professor X and Sandy that anyone, adjunct or tenured full professor who teaches one or more introductory classes in a community college, public comprehensive university, or even many private liberal arts colleges knows full well that a significant number of the students in those classes probably would be better off spending their time somewhere else.  Both Professor X and Sandy, when he worked as TA, focused on the need to flunk out those truly incapable of college-level work.  This can wear a person down very quickly, and if one's focus is on the "flunking out" mission Sanford's advice to get out after four years of adjunct teaching probably is appropriate.  However, we also celebrate the fact that here in the United States we still offer just about anyone who wants it, a shot at a college education.  With that in mind we should focus not on the nine students who failed English 101, but on the six who passed.  English 101 is one of the most difficult college course any student faces.  More than likely the six who passed will continue on to receive their degrees, and they are six people whom we probably would not have considered to be "college material" at first glance.  A forty percent success ratio might seem paltry, but since it's baseball season I'd remind all those adjuncts and part-timers out there that a .400 batting average is actually pretty damn good.  An adjunct or part-timer who celebrates his or her successes need not be worn down by the failures.  That said, there is a group of "adjuncts" who I think would do well to heed Sandy's advice.  Those are the people who don't have a "day job, who aren't teaching a class or two because they love teaching and perhaps have something from their life experience to bring to the classroom while earning a little extra cash.  They are the ones who eke out a living by cobbling together something like a full load of courses, usually at two or more campuses at the same time.  Itinerant scholars in that group lead a life of perpetual insecurity.  They do need to find "day jobs.

Irascible Professor invites your  .

© 2011 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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