Considering Adjunct Misery

An academic novel offers an Everyman for the new American economy

Pat Kinsella for The Chronicle

March 25, 2013

Alex Kudera's Fight for Your Long Day is likely to provoke post-traumatic stress reactions in anyone who has been a college teacher. Unlike most academic novels that feature the first-world problems of tenured professors, Kudera's is about Cyrus Duffleman, a depressed, saggy, almost-40 adjunct who makes, he calculates, about $10 an hour teaching courses to disengaged—and sometimes mentally ill—students at universities all over Philadelphia.

Several years after its publication, the novel continues to attract a following among adjuncts and full-time faculty members concerned about the state of the professoriate. Having been one of those graduate students who love their subjects, Duffleman wakes up in midlife and finds that he is a cockroach scurrying around the city, just trying to stay alive. Duffleman can't write his way out of being an adjunct; he hasn't written anything besides e-mails for years. And who would hire him anyway at this point? He fantasizes about going to prison, reminding readers of the Little Tramp in Modern Times.

Kudera was an adjunct in Philadelphia from 1998 to 2007, so the novel is an exposé and manifesto in the muckraking tradition, but it also has strong absurdist elements. In an e-mail Kudera wrote, "Cyrus has incrediblefeelings of inadequacy, marginality, deep-seated feelings of failure, based in part on the conditions surrounding him—the society that dictates he must work 12 or more hours a day and is not worthy of decent health coverage or pay, and that he is supposed to be grateful for this exhausting life. And yet, as with many overworked depressives, there are these moments of clarity that can include outburstsof extreme laughter, often at one's own expense." In addition to the usual rounds of composition and business writing, the "Duffler" teaches "The Literature of Post-War Male Loneliness and Despair."

Philadelphia is Duffleman's Dublin, and Fight for Your Long Day is full of symbolic moments and literary jokes that connect the novel to other works such as Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Blue Angel by Francine Prose, Philip Roth's The Human Stain, Richard Russo's Straight Man, Taxi Driver, and maybe even Robert Crumb's comics.

But the key to the novel is the moment when Duffleman draws Maslow's hierarchy of needs on the board for his students and asks them to explain each stage. Throughout the novel, we see characters' being forced lower and lower on the hierarchy, their chief joys consisting of being able to satisfy bodily needs. Never mind reaching the pinnacle of "self-actualization"—that's for politicians and corporate executives.

Ironically, it's that promise of ascending Maslow's hierarchy that leads so many people into academe, and turns them into Dufflemans. The role of the teacher—especially in the arts and humanities—is to be the embodiment of the fulfilled person: someone who is pursuing the life of the mind and realizing his or her full potential through discipline and intellect. In Duffleman's world, the nation and the institutions in which he teaches are presided over by money-mad mediocrities. They are eliminating entire humanities programs, except for the "cash cow" of composition courses taught entirely by adjuncts (for the brief remaining period before all such courses can be automated or outsourced to other countries with even lower wages).

He's devoted to his students, but Duffleman is racked by persistent anxieties, self-doubts, and dread. How can you teach, Kudera seems to ask, when you can't even provide for your own basic needs? When you have no job security? When you seriously expect that you will spend your retirement in a homeless shelter? Duffleman obsesses about food and elimination; he suffers from inappropriate sexual obsessions; he feels cut off from society; he is a prime candidate for suicide, and he looks at death as a release from his predicament. He is the least attractive representative of learning imaginable, and perhaps that's why he stands in front of the classroom.

His students are not pursuing the "life of the mind"; they are just trying to avoid a future of working on a checkout line. Many of them—especially the recent arrivals in this country—believe education is about being on the right side of wealth and poverty. They may be victims of extortionate tuitions—for many, their "inability to pay educational loans is the only sign of ever having attended college"—but most of his students have no illusions: They'd be glad to work for Big Tobacco if it offered job security and benefits.

And any instructor who plays a version of Robin Williams's Mr. Keating for students will seem like either a fool or a knave. Duffleman is the former, though not in a naïve or sentimental way. He is an idealist, a lover of books, a warm-hearted liberal, but he is also a prisoner of the contingent-labor poverty trap. The one other idealist in his classes—a young veteran trying to earn a degree—ends up being an inadvertent political assassin, a Travis Bickle, who launches the only real action of the plot, apart from Duffleman's weary journey from one teaching gig to another on his longest day of the week.

In a novel that includes a lot of exposition, Kudera is exceptionally effective in his depictions of classroom dialogues from the perspective of the teacher. At one point Duffleman even manages to spellbind his otherwise fractious, politically polarized students with the story of his own family's immigrant, working-class history: how they ascended the social ladder (at least until he came along).

But in another class, on the same day, Duffleman's students cross the line into vulgarity and racial epithets, insanity and physical violence, and he is left with a mixture of concern for his students and fear that he will lose his job for not being in control of the situation.

Kudera makes it clear that Duffleman, in a different novel from another era, would have been a beloved teacher—a Mr. Chips if there ever was one. He truly cares about his students; he'd love teaching if he weren't so tired all the time. He wanders from one job to another, a Ulysses of exhaustion and futility, until we find him, at the end of the day, shielding one of his students from the bullets of the military-pharmaceutical complex that runs Liberty Tech University.

What is the purpose of this novel?

The most important thing, from my perspective, is that Fight for Your Long Day offers a realistic depiction of the life and psychology of an adjunct teacher. Most readers do not have that image of professors; Duffleman assumes that his students probably think he is one of the people profiting from their exorbitant tuition rates, and he is too proud to undeceive them.

Now that three-quarters of college teachers are contingent faculty members like Duffleman, the depiction of professors as tweedy, pipe-smoking dons or turtlenecked, bearded radicals with actual authority is inherently reactionary. It paints all faculty members as a pampered elite, disconnected from the "real world," ignoring the reality that most of them have more in common with Wal-Mart employees than they do with the one-percenters who preside over Kudera's urban academic hellscape of poverty, terrorism, outsourcing, deskilling, externalization of costs, and privatization of profits.

Fight for Your Long Day is not without problems. The sexual and digestive preoccupations of the protagonist seem like distractions from the larger message of the novel. One could argue that they relate to Maslow's hierarchy; in any case, they are revoltingly described, and Duffleman's sexual interest in students severely undermines any sympathy the reader might have for him as a representative of adjuncts. Just like the political-thriller elements of the novel, the sexual detours seem to cater more to the perceived demands of the book market than to the actual life of an adjunct. (And Kudera has written one of the most intentionally awful sex scenes I have read since I Am Charlotte Simmons.)

That's not to say that all adjuncts must be depicted in positively heroic terms, but it seems counterproductive to create a character whose moral flaws are so egregious—and personal habits so gross—as to erode or even destroy any sympathy we might otherwise have for his plight and, by extension, that of adjuncts everywhere.

I was not pleased by the novel's ambiguous conclusion, either. It's hard to make a proletarian hero out of an adjunct, but I wanted Duffleman to be awakened to a more radical, activist consciousness. Maybe the novel could end with his joining a unionization movement. Or maybe he could become a dead hero, somehow, whose martyrdom sparks others to action. No such luck. Kudera's vision seems ultimately dystopian.

Duffleman is a sinner, no doubt about it. But he is also a Good Samaritan, a role model in that respect. You never doubt his heart is, ultimately, in the right place.

Fight for Your Long Day merits renewed attention amid the continuing tendency of politicians on the right, and even the left, to blame tuition increases on the salaries and privileges of elite faculty members, who are not representative of the working conditions of most college teachers. Those of us who have written about the plight of adjuncts are often asked, "Why don't you write about something more serious—major evils such as war or genocide?" But the idea that one cannot address what appear to be smaller evils, like the private hell of a Duffleman, seems like a slippery slope toward moral apathy. More important, the situation of contingent academic workers is not isolated but representative.

Ostensibly about the plight of adjuncts, Duffleman's long day is a nightmare from which millions of workers are trying to awake. Trapped in positions of subordination, insecurity, and fear, Duffleman is an Everyman for the new American economy. And Kudera's novel merits the attention of everyone who cares about that.

William Pannapacker is an associate professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Mich. His Twitter handle is @Pannapacker. Many of his previous columns were published under a pseudonym, Thomas H. Benton. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employers.