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An Award-Winning Author on Adjuncts

I wanted to do something a little different for this post, so I contacted Alex Kudera, the author of Fight for Your Long Day (Atticus Books, 2010), which recently won the 2010 Independent Publisher’s Gold Medal for Best Fiction from the Mid-Atlantic Region. In the novel, the protagonist, Cyrus Duffleman, is an adjunct at numerous institutions who is trudging through a Thursday, his longest workday of the week. I sent Kudera three questions, which he answered at length. Here’s an abridged version that he approved.

You were an adjunct for a while. What was that experience like and has it helped or hurt your career in academe?

I was an adjunct for 10 years in Philadelphia, and I often taught six classes while also tutoring. It was not an easy life. I’ve never been on the hiring side in academia, but to me, experience as an adjunct can both help and hurt any academic career, including my own. The main way it could hurt is that the constant overloads, the need to teach far too many classes to survive, prevents one from finding time for writing, editing, and improving one’s scholarship or creative work — publication of which is presumably necessary to advance one’s career in hopes of gaining full-time work. There is also said to be a stigma against hiring adjuncts for tenure-track lines, even if they have the credentials, but I have seen the opposite happen in some cases over the years. I know Ph.D.’s and M.F.A.’s who were adjuncts or lecturers before landing a tenure-track line. In my case, it did seem like the years of experience teaching multiple classes and preps was one reason I was able to land a lectureship eventually.

What about your adjunct experience inspired you to write a novel with an adjunct as a protagonist?

To me, the most significant American stories have almost always been stories of alienation; the alienation could be emotional, social, psychological, or economic and is typically a combination of these. The university is central to the information economy and employs millions of workers across the country and more throughout the world. The fantastic irony of the marginalized teacher caught in the middle of the educational economy is too much to ignore; it is a rather fantastic elephant in the room that the place of greatest alienation in the university could be right behind the classroom lectern, where a contract worker without health benefits is the only adult most freshmen will have significant communication with. I did also want Fight for Your Long Day to show problems associated with other university and American workers, and so, Cyrus Duffleman takes on a graveyard shift as a security guard after teaching his classes and tutoring all day.

Here’s a loaded question: Do you have any ideas on the solutions to the overuse of adjuncts in academe?

I think the health-care problem is the main problem for adjuncts and millions of other American contract workers right now. I’m cautiously optimistic that what was passed will stand, and by 2014, America’s college instructors will be able to afford a visit to the doctor. I believe that the need for a flexible workforce will continue to be the trend in many different fields, and so millions and millions of more Americans will continue to be hired as contingent, part time, by the contract, etc. I don’t see universities going to the Home Depot parking lot to pick up the day’s teachers, but pay-per-course and contract seems to be here to stay.

Some adjuncts also need access to unemployment benefits, and right now, I think it varies from state to state as to whether an adjunct who loses a class, classes, or an entire semester’s work would qualify. With wildly fluctuating budgets and enrollments, there will always be adjuncts not getting enough work in spring and summer, and because we want experienced people to stay and teach. To me, it seems normal and healthy to make sure unemployment laws are adjusted to help adjuncts where needed.

I don’t see myself as being the person with the easy answers or solutions; at times, when I see how myopically careerist everyone seems to be in a highly self-oriented system, such as our own, I’m drawn to pessimism. In Fight for Your Long Day, Cyrus Duffleman’s passion for Soviet gulag literature, as well as writers who wrote during periods of democracy that preceded the rise of fascism in Europe, is partly meant to show that there may not be any easy solutions to these or the other great problems of our age. And Cyrus certainly knows that there are billions of people on this planet just hoping that their day will include access to clean drinking water. So there’s ample opportunity for American adjuncts like Cyrus to feel guilty for all of their advantages, too. Ah, humanity.

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