IN PLACES FAR NICER:
On Being Adjunct Faculty at a Liberal Arts University
John Carr Walker
1. 5:00 AM
I pull back the bedroom curtain to see if it’s snowing. An orange slash from the streetlight cuts across my side of the bed, as if to lead me back where I really want to be, under the covers again—outside, the asphalt’s black and dry. I shut the bedroom door behind me. Coffee. I stand watching the machine hiss and spit because I don’t dare sit: any soft surface would claim me and I’d lose the morning. The alarm felt earlier than usual because I was up late last night grading forty-two expository essays, mostly by college sophomores, though some by procrastinating seniors, and some by freshman creative writing majors others. Cereal. Thyroid pill. The coffee can’t brew fast enough.
I take the first cup into my office, a room the size of a walk-in closet with my desk pushed against the far wall, and sit in my purposely-hard chair. I turn on the space heater. I don’t dare pull the throw blanket over my shoulders. I open my laptop and maximize the file of my most recent short story, but not quickly enough—the Outlook icon jumps to indicate I have unread mail. Fuck me. I forgot to pull the Internet cable last night.
2. 6:00 AM
Between the hours of five and seven I’m supposed to write fiction. I am supposed to be a fiction writer. Ostensibly this is one thing that qualifies me to teach a four-course load—my publications are supposed to bring prestige to the university, an emerging writer to watch. Instead, as I read student emails, the only thing emerging is a migraine. Revised versions of their papers are attached. Professor, I realized that I printed out my first draft instead! Here’s the version to please be graded. In my head I prepare the talk I’ll give my classes: too bad, you spoiled twats. Then again, I’m meeting with the English department chair this afternoon, for vague reasons, which I hope means he’ll offer me spring classes. I need spring classes. We just bought this house. Maybe I shouldn’t call my students twats.
One hour of my two is gone before I write my first sentence. It’s terrible, I know, but a start. A seed. I still don’t dare shut my eyes to visualize the next action. My fingers sit on home row, waiting. Have you ever tried to move something with your mind? That’s how writing feels this morning.
I check the weather forecast—revised: snow isn’t expected until this afternoon.
3. 7:00 AM
Hearing my wife in the kitchen tells me my time is done. Cereal dropping in the bowl. The fridge door sucking shut. Have you ever tried moving something with your mind? Everything is loud under that kind of mental strain. I close my laptop. I load my backpack with the books I need, the pages chaotically flagged, and the graded papers in manila folders.
My son’s eating his breakfast at the television tray. “No accidents!” he says, beaming proud. Recently there have been incidents with his urine in the night. I affirm this good news on my way through the room. I have just enough time to grab a shower before my wife leaves for her teaching job, and she’s looping her keys around her neck as I come out in a towel. Her car idles in the street, defrosting. I position my son outside the bedroom and have him sing the alphabet through the door while I dress. Any silence lasting longer than a natural breath makes me draw still, heart rate on the rise—H, I, J, K. Relax, John.
Except for the threat of snow, and the meeting with the Chair, it’s a routine day.
4. 8:00 AM
After checking my son in at preschool I have an hour commute over Cornelius Pass. I’ve lived in Oregon five months and recently experienced my first orange and russet fall out the windows, but I’m not yet used to the twisting, rising roads, and I’ve never in my life driven in snow. I moved here from my hometown in California’s San Joaquin Valley; I had thirty years of heat and flatness. The weather here’s been a subject for me, a surprising novelty, but now the low platinum sky, the cold dry air, and the way this wind smashes instead of tickles the arms of the pine trees makes me nervous. I feel like a child behind the wheel, everyone in the line behind me older, better, and tougher as I take another swinging, climbing corner.
5. 9:00 AM
I do like a university campus. For seven years I taught high school English in concrete bunkers and portables, where the available resources depended on what you managed to horde and hide from your colleagues—walking the stone walkways, the walls of redbrick castles visible through evergreens as old as the state of Oregon helps to lower my blood pressure. In teacher education I learned about the importance of cultivating a safe space for ideas; the campus collectively works toward this goal. It’s part of why I want to teach here in spring. America’s best college campuses resemble benevolent downtowns or gothic hamlets; seem, in fact, other worlds than the suburbs, cities, and countryside that sends their young to be educated; seems, to some, unconnected from the real world. Tenure comes to mean pampering, grants welfare. The landscapes of colleges are used against them. As an adjunct professor, however, I’m always angered when I’m accused to working in a fantasyland; I work in a beautiful place, but I’d take so-called real world conditions over the meaner realities of adjuncting.
My cubicle is in a corner of the old library. With the shelves all moved out, the counters and workstations abandoned, the vast ceiling seems to sag toward the tile floor. Four of us share two spots in the cubicle, arranging our office hours for the least overlap. I find Tommy in my chair—not a shock, given that it’s almost finals week. He blinks at me through slim eyeglasses. “Is it your day? I don’t even know what day it is. Is it all right if I finish up on this screen?”
I sit on the side usually shared on alternating days by Blaine and Marie and log in to the closed network. Back in August, Marie marked her territory by tacking postcards, prayer beads, and dream catchers to the soft skin of the divider, and by adorning the desk with wire document baskets and bowls full of bird feathers. Blaine’s been getting even ever since by turning random postcards upside down and planting her feathers in the monitor vents. Lately, though, there’s less to mark Marie’s side of the cubicle, a slowly filling file box under the desk.
“What about this snow?” I ask Tommy. He’s a Portland native. “You think it’s going to close the roads like the forecasts are saying?”
He turns in the swivel chair, squints out the shaft of window behind us at the cold, slated landscape. “Is that what they’re saying? I think the last time I blinked there were leaves still on the oaks.”
6. 10:00 AM
My student Laura visits my office hour in tears. She holds a zipper binder to her front. Wears fuzzy house shoes speared with grass clippings. Did I get an email from her earlier this morning? I direct her toward the conference table outside the cubicle. She lays the binder flat on the tabletop and I see her painted nails are trembling. Eight years of teaching experience tells me this isn’t a problem with her paper. “My fiancé is going to Afghanistan. He’s army reserve,” she says. “He’s going to be shot at in Afghanistan.” Hot tears, red cheeks burn through the film of composure she managed.
No matter how much I’m not a counselor, no matter how much I’m not paid for handling emotional baggage, sometimes this is my work. I listen. Sit. Wait. I try not to be a monster by referring to the syllabus. The echo of her sobs travels through the gutted library. I’d offer her a tissue, but Marie packed the Kleenex.
“I wondered, since I want to go back with him to be with his family in Washington, before he goes—” she holds onto this remade composure by a thread “—I wanted to take your final early. Kirk said it’s fine.”
Kirk is the Assistant Dean of Students. Everyone important here is on a strictly first-name basis.
“How early?” I ask, trying not to be a monster.
My final isn’t even written yet. I thought I’d be ahead of the curve if I started next week. Now I’m supposed to be done? But even if I’m a sucker, I can’t refuse her.
“Thank you, Professor,” she says, pulling the binder to her front once again. “So much.”
Professor. Not John. I listen to her house shoes scuff endlessly away across the tiles.
On Marie and Blaine’s side of the cubicle I open the anthology and find the flag that marks today’s reading. The pages are layered with pencil lead and two colors of highlighter, notes slanted in the margins. I’ve been over and over this essay—other late nights, other stolen mornings—but now is the first chance I’ve had to make discussion notes. I fold back the leaves of a legal pad and hold it on my lap; I transfer some of the marginalia, point myself toward some specific highlights, circle things, draw connecting lines. I’d like to let myself sink in the ideas—this is my favorite part, the preparation—but I’ve got thirty minutes to be ready for class.
7. 11:00 AM
As I pass back their papers, I explain to my students why I didn’t read the versions so many of them emailed. I spend the next twenty minutes quelling a low-level mutiny, answering questions, hearing their points of view (provided it’s stated civilly), and walking them through the rules and philosophy of using the semi-colon, again. I’d probably hurry this along if my preparation had been better, but I ran out of hours—the best I can hope is a chance to add to my notes on this essay in spring. Judging by the cold stares some students wear, I wager their emails will be with the English Chair hours before I am. Students know the power they can wield over adjuncts: they’ve seen my office; they’ve analyzed the dubious facts of two chairs and four names on the divider; they’ve synthesized the many cubicles tucked into every corner of the old library; they’ve compared these stations to the faculty offices in Victorian Houses, and to their own Leeds Certified dormitories, some of which still smell of paint and new carpet; if I could teach my students to be as adept at exploring the nuances of argument as they are at sensing their own advantage I’d be known on campus by my first name. Instead I’m wondering for the hundredth time, in the back of my mind, if I’m a fraud.
The class discussion ranges between jagged and circular, but however inefficiently it happens, we construct the salient points. I’m working harder for being underprepared, though, and the payoff in class is less than it would have been—in the back of my mind I’m chiding myself for not staying up an hour later, or getting up an hour earlier, though the front of my mind barely gets enough sleep as it is. I come back to consciousness, the sound of my own voice holding forth on the fine examples of pathos as an expository technique.
8. 12:00 PM
Tyler follows me back to my office. He’s a freshmen, and entered the university as a creative writing major, with an eye toward getting his MFA after his BA, then a year of struggle, then sudden fame, then fortune, then a long career showered with literary prizes and blockbuster sales. On our walk through the gutted library he asks for my advice on publishing, though what he really wants is for me to do the work for him, bless him by submitting his work to my contacts. He thinks I have contacts. All he wants to learn from me is if he’s a real writer or not. This conversation and its subtext echoes around corners.
I leave him at the conference table and put my bag in Marie and Blaine’s chair. Tommy’s coffee cup sits by the keyboard, saving his place while he’s away at lunch. I’m hungry. I take out the legal pad, and as I sit across from Tyler, turn back the pages to a blank sheet.
“I wanted to talk to you, Professor. About your handwriting.” He rotates his paper and leaves it between us. The horizontal line I folded in it late last night makes it sit like a book with a broken spine. “It’s too much work for me to decipher your comments,” he says.
“Can you read them?”
“Eventually. But like this one—” he points to a word slashed in the margin.
“It says, ‘Good,’ Tyler.”
“I know. But, like, how good? I don’t get enough out of your notes, and it’s so frustrating to have to read your writing.”
Sometimes this is my work: to decide between rage and calm, gentleness and outright dismissal; to try and preserve the teacher-student relationship in the fading hope I’ll be able to teach something, someday. I put my elbows on either side of the blank, yellow page, and press my fingers into the sides of my head. Have you ever tried to make someone vanish with your mind?
9. 1:00 PM
I buy an egg and cheese muffin from the dollar rack at the campus bistro. The line for the twin microwaves is long but moves fast. I heat my lunch and wrap it in a napkin. I cross the width of the cafeteria, packed full with students, to the conference room isolated in a far corner. A colleague is giving a post-sabbatical talk, and sometimes, my work means attending, listening, and being counted among the present. The door’s already shut and I hear a voice being projected from the other side. I feel the stares as I sidle to an open chair at the side of the room. Tommy ignores me from across the room.
When I introduced myself at the August all-faculty meeting, I followed a colleague born and raised in Texas; “I’m from the San Joaquin Valley,” I quipped, “the Texas of California.” I got the laugh I wanted, but my colleagues understood the shorthand: Rural, Conservative, Fundamentalist. Places where academics, and our intellectual/creative pursuits, are discounted. This is one of the reasons I want to come back in the spring: I don’t want to lose the intellectual/creative fellowship—indeed, the acceptance—I left my hometown to find. But the stares I feel coming late label me provincial, product of a rural, conservative Bible belt. I wish I’d said I was from New York. Then I’d only be rude.
Out the tall windows beside me lies a beach volleyball court abandoned to winter. I don’t like the unfamiliar look of the metallic sky.
10. 2:00 PM
I take my backpack, heavy with books, binders, notepads, and the second expository section’s graded papers to the new library. I carry everything since I don’t have an office door, or even a locking cabinet. I climb to the third floor, which is a kind of loft high in the pitched ceiling, spread with tables, chairs, and study nooks. It’s a quiet place to hide. I don’t trust myself to sit on one of the couches so claim a nook with a wooden chair where the gray light shines down through a skylight. I’d like to improve my discussion notes before this evening’s class, but first I have to review the lesson I’ll be teaching in my literature class.
I like my literature class. It’s small, intimate, with the minimum number of students enrolled instead of the maximum. I add to the notes I started yesterday, clarifying my own thinking, gleaning the story for more textual support, leaving myself reminders to check for student comprehension, and trying to anticipate student questions. (And yes, Tyler, I also fix a few things for the sake of legibility.) I whisper aloud a few passages I especially want to highlight, that I especially love; the few students with me in the loft don’t stir from their work.
11. 3:00 PM
My student Emma’s already in the classroom when I come in. Her arms crossed on the table seem to suspend her a little ways off the seat, head down, reading. She grew up on a family farm outside Colusa, California, in the agricultural valley north of Sacramento. Her home place resonates with my home place: a family farm outside Caruthers, south of Fresno. She brings her experiences to literature with sophistication uncommon in a twenty-year-old. My work, as far as students like Emma go, is to provide them with a challenge.
I cannot express how important an intellectual/creative challenge was to me growing up, except to say the challenges saved my life. I spent much of my childhood working for my father in his vineyard. My fifth birthday present was a shovel. Mechanical cleverness was valued—look what I made out of Lego, look what I made in the woodshop—but drawing robots was cute, then wasn’t, and music, which meant everything to me in high school, would make a nice hobby in my decrepitude, I was told. By sixteen, the only thing that could un-bore me at home was writing lyrics for the garage band I played in with my friends. I wrote hard, fast, sometimes with a flashlight under my bed, but it didn’t count as work. I started to hide the folders filled with loose-leaf paper. Then I read Jane Eyre and fell in love. With Jane.
There I was, then, mounted aloft: I, who had said I could not bear the shame of standing on my natural feet in the middle of the room, was now exposed to general view on a pedestal of infamy. What my sensations were, no language can describe; but, just as they all rose, stifling my breath and constricting my throat, a girl came up and passed me: in passing, she lifted her eyes. What a strange light inspired them! What an extraordinary sensation that ray sent through me! How the new feeling bore me up! It was as if a martyr, a hero, had passed a slave or victim, and imparted strength in the transit. I mastered the rising hysteria, lifted up my head, and took a firm stand on the stool. (End Chapter 7)
Jane was my passing girl, lifting her eyes to me on a pedestal of infamy. I copied this passage on my binder and memorized it during Algebra II.
My literature students all fit around one big table. Sometimes my work is sharing, and curating a safe environment for sharing, and being brave enough to share what makes one most vulnerable. It’s important work, the nuances difficult, the stakes high. I know: I never suffered from shyness until I was a sixteen-year-old boy in rural, conservative, fundamentalist Caruthers High, sheltering a pure love for Jane Eyre against the cries of faggot! Home wasn’t much safer: aren’t you wasting your time reading that book again? Sometimes my work is rereading again.
12. 4:00 PM
After class Emma and I walk a little ways together, she to her dorm and I to my meeting, her book and binder in the crook of her arm, my backpack over one shoulder. We watch the pathways underfoot or the looming sky above, now and then tipping our heads if the wind muffles the words. I like talking with my student in the residual energy of class, for the sake of curiosity, not formal learning. Is it work? I can say for certain it isn’t rest, because the conversation keeps my mind reaching for remembered examples and for the language to express them. Let’s say it’s happy work. My dream literature class doesn’t happen in a classroom or under a shade tree, but is a walk around, telling stories that the buildings or birds remind us of. Reading list constructed by landscape. I suppose this too is the kind of trippy Ivory Tower thinking non-academics and parents get nervous about. They want for their children results, not nature walks.
I say goodbye to Emma then cross the one-way street that divides the body of campus from its limbs, property bought up over decades as the university expanded in size and scope. The English department calls a squat turn-of-the-century house home. What were once bedrooms or dens are now cozy faculty offices. It’s named for a pioneer feminist. This sort of touch assures me I was right to move, to trade a tenured high school position to chase a professorship, leave behind the San Joaquin Valley for Portland, Oregon—it also tells me how much I want more classes here in the form of a body check; I swear, I almost lose my footing on the steps I want this so badly. I’ve worked hard to earn it. Haven’t I?
Richard, English department chair, waits in the common room. A manila folder of papers balances on one thigh; he makes a mark and shifts the top paper to the stack on the sofa cushion beside him. He looks up then moves the stack for me to sit down. Is this foreshadowing? I sense meaning in every expression that passes in his face.
He asks me about my teaching, if I’m connecting with my students, keeping my head above water with the grading—I make it sound interrogative, but it passed like small talk. I worry he’s going to ask about my measly publishing credits.
“Are you protecting your writing time?”
“So. Spring—” he claps his hands softly.
What does that mean? I’m not cognizant until now how much I’ve been auditioning. I’m not proud of it, but the work gone into cultivating a patch for myself at this university is every bit as demanding as instruction. It’s a pressure put on adjuncts more than any other group on campus, a constant improvisation about your own worth. Does this kind of thing happen in the real world?
“Tell me about your availability.”
13. 5:00 PM
I sit on my side of the cubicle. I have office hours till seven. I’ve moved Tommy’s cold travel mug to Marie and Blaine’s side. I enter my evening section’s paper scores into the spreadsheet. I’m trying to multi-task: record data, consider those discussion notes that still aren’t up to snuff, and congratulate myself. By the time Tommy comes in, I want a celebration, discussion notes be damned! I ask if he wants to grab a bite at the bistro.
“Negative,” he says. He scans the desk for his mug.
“I spoke with Richard.”
“Me too. Mind if I—” and gestures at the file box stored under the desk, which my chair is blocking access to.
I tack a sign to the outside of the cubicle wall—John in Cafeteria—and leave Tommy to do his work without an audience.
14. 6:00 PM
I work on improving my notes before my next expository class. Even in the glow of good news—spring classes!—I feel unreasonable pride in finding a gap in the day big enough to sit with the yellow pad on my lap. Sometimes my work is sitting with a yellow pad on my lap and thinking about more than I write down. I go over the morning section in my head, feeling for the flat spots, trying to invent new ways of coming at next hour’s discussion. Sometimes my work is feeling.
It’s the first time all day I’ve trusted myself to sit in a soft chair. The fireplace in the corner of the cafeteria crackles and shoots sparks up the chimney pipe. I have the urge to call my parents. I want my dad to know that my gamble, at least for another semester, is paying off. I’m liked and wanted here. (I’ll be Biff. Dad, you be Willy Loman.) Yet will he be proud of me? I grew up listening to him dismiss teachers and the teaching profession. He lambasts even the memory of his father-in-law, a middle school shop teacher, for taking four hours to build a jig for a project that should have taken only one working freehand. He used to scour my mother, a high school biology teacher, for staying late to set up the next day’s lab experiments; in his cruel logic, her working more hours made her worth less. Those who can’t do teach: that’s the bromide he’s hung his educational philosophy on. The fact his own family’s crowded with educators—my sister and my wife are both teachers as well—doesn’t change his mind. Maybe we all reinforce it. But he reserves his deadliest venom for college professors. They live in ivory towers. They haven’t set foot in the real world since they got tenure. You know the bromides. All the things that make adjuncting difficult—its low pay, its temporary-ness, and its part-time-ness (Ha!)—set it on a yet-lower rung of my father’s estimation. The fact I’m also doing, writing every morning at five, should refute all his theories up to this point, but don’t. To achieve his definition of hard work, callused hands, a sweaty shirt, and dust in your eyes are helpful, but efficiency is vital. Hard workers don’t waste anything. Certainly not time, looking into a fire from a sofa.
15. 7:00 PM
With fourteen hours of my workday complete I start teaching my last class. It meets in a second floor room of the flagship building, directly below the president’s office. From the outside, the hall appears like a castle through the trees, all turrets, slate roofs, and soldered windows. In the classroom, old green chalkboards shed dust from a day’s use and erasure, mismatched tables and chairs crowd the floor, and the split that runs the length of the carpet has been repaired with duct tape but is splitting again. It takes going inside a college to know what it’s like. This university’s building state-of-the-art student dorms at a rate of one building per three years, places far nicer than our recent graduates or faculty are likely to live in, in order to attract ever-larger freshman classes, but one wonders where those future students will be taught, and by whom. A university’s image, its curb appeal, does not project adjuncts into the picture. We’re represented in the gap critical readers will notice between the published numbers of students and faculty and the advertised ratio between the two groups—adjuncts make up the difference, like ghostwriters, or the night crew that cleans the chalkboards before morning.
I’m so tired. The adrenaline’s worn off. Dwelling on my father’s ideas have left me grumpy. I know I sound like I’m complaining, but the fact is I know I’m lucky: so many with my qualifications and experience commute between three or four campuses to teach the same load that I do on one. At the moment it’s beyond my comprehension to know how they do it. Those extra commutes alone so tightly wrench the available time that I wonder how I’d manage to live up to anyone’s expectations.
I push it to the back of my mind. I put my improved notes on the midget lectern on the narrow table at the front of the room. My students straggle in from dinner. I never try to start this class sooner than five minutes after it’s supposed to anymore—that’s a battle I fought and lost sometime around Halloween. At least I don’t have to worry now if this lapse in authority will cost me spring classes.
This time, I handle the paper situation better. It’s cold comfort to know I can learn from my flubs. Then again, this section is always more subdued. All of my students want to get this prerequisite done with. They’re tired too, and after dark don’t rightly care about the status of the person teaching them.
16. 8:00 PM
Outside the doors of the old library I call campus security to come let me in. After seven p.m. the building’s secured and if I use my key I’ll activate the alarm. As I wait for the guard, it starts to snow fat flakes that stick to the walkways and lawns.
He arrives on a golf cart. Before he lets me in, he checks my name against the roster of authorized personnel—I’m thankfully included—and asks how long I intend to be in the building.
“I have just a bit of work,” I say. “What about this snow? I have a long drive to make tonight.”
The radio on his polo shirt blares before he can answer. I watch the tire tracks cut through the snow being slowly covered. In the cubicle I check the state’s road advisory website; the snow is general over Portland. I could leave now or wait and see; I have no points of references for snow driving, central Californian I am. Or was. Which is it? Will today mean anything in the ultimate course my life takes between two places?
I decide to wait and see. I can use the time. On the computer I start writing my final exam for Laura to take early. I leave myself notes on my literature discussion for next time, thoughts on how it could go better, markers of where I need more textual support, more discourse, more illustration, as well as a reminder to look up the title of a story for Emma that I couldn’t recall earlier. Sometimes my work is about grabbing the moment before I lose the thought.
17. 9:00 PM
I make the sure the building door shuts firmly behind me. Snow ladders the pine trees and blankets the ground, bouncing the streetlights back into the air, doubling their brightness. I can hear students outside playing in it, concealed from view in one of the dormitory quads. It’s beautiful, but seems less so behind the wheel. I’m nervous. The lane lines are gone, and all I can do is follow the tracks of the cars that went before me. For the thousandth time since moving here I feel like a fraud, an interloper, and after only a few hundred yards decide I’ll get a hotel. I have to be back on campus at eight o’clock tomorrow morning for my Tuesday-Thursday class. Sometimes my work is knowing the ways in which I don’t want to kill myself.
The local hotel is a brewpub in a former Masonic Temple-turned-insane asylum with European-style rooms, a Japanese soaking pool, a book at registration for guests to record their encounters with the world of ghosts. All I’m interested in is the bed, and for a tense moment, my credit card being accepted.
In my basement room I strip to my underwear and get under the covers, lie looking up at the painted pipes on the ceiling. I don’t have a change of clothes for tomorrow. I don’t have my Thyroid pills. I don’t even have a toothbrush. When I was working for my father in his vineyards, digging trenches or driving tractors, my body would melt into bed at night, and I’d struggle to keep reading my book or writing lyrics. The kind of mental, emotional work I do now makes my mind electrostatic—I’m still working, details of my final popping into my head unbidden, ways to smooth things with Tyler, and finally the name of that story I wanted Emma to read. Have you ever tried to silence a barking dog with only your mind?
When your mind is the dog, chained and barking into the night?
18. 10:00 PM
After an hour I give up. I put my clothes back on and take my backpack to the bar down the hall. I’ll write down the ideas as they come. I’ll drink a stout. Both should help ease me down from the height of my day.
From the doorway I spy Richard, department chair, drinking alone at a table. He sees me, but before either of us can acknowledge it, he drops his face toward his glass and twists his shoulder to snub me without turning his back. Sometimes the work is being alone with ideas. It doesn’t matter. He’ll see me in the spring.
John Carr Walker’s story collection Repairable Men (Sunnyoutside) appeared in 2014. He’s the founder of Trachodon Magazine and a 2012 Fishtrap Fellow. A native of California’s San Joaquin Valley and former teacher, he now lives and writes full-time in Saint Helens, Oregon.