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Cebula’s novel contributes to a new trend in American campus fiction that features contingent faculty and staff as protagonists seeking to understand the changing nature of higher education and to gain job security, professional recognition, and promotion. Such novels and short fiction — instances of what Jeffrey Williams has called the “Adjunctroman” — include Julia Keefer’s How to Survive as an Adjunct Professor by Wrestling (2006), J. Hayes Hurley’s The Adjunct (2008), Alex Kudera’s Fight for Your Long Day (2010), A.P. O’Malley’s “Vagrant Adjunct” (2012), and Gordon Haber’s “Adjunctivitis” (2013).
Feces, vomit, blood, amputated limbs, corpses — these are some of the motifs by which the new campus fictions announce their difference from the old.
These small-press or self-published narratives of contingency frustrate the most recognizable mode of campus fiction, the “Professorroman,” with a saga of Sisyphean lack of progress. If the Professorroman is a version of Bildungsroman that substitutes a story of coming into tenure for a coming-of-age narrative, in the Adjunctroman no one achieves professordom or even gets close: These are cautionary tales of academic drudgery and professional woe.
The old Professorroman reflected the realities of academic life and, for some, doubled as a kind of how-to manual. Elaine Showalter confesses in Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents (2009) that she read academic fiction as a kind of advice manual, because it projected desirable attributes for her own professorial persona: “In an era before there were handbooks, novels taught me how a proper professor should speak, behave, dress, think, write, love, succeed, or fail.” But now that the tenure track has more or less completely disappeared, a new genre has arrived.
To be sure, tales of academic job insecurity are not actually all that new. Early academic novels, such as Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954), Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe (1952), and David Lodge’s Small World (1984), tell tales of faculty (largely in English departments) who struggle to build a career and who in the end leave. Later 20th-century fictions, such as Jane Smiley’s Moo (1995) and Richard Russo’s Straight Man (1997), use satire to explore the pressure-cooker atmosphere that results when high-level thinkers are underemployed or feel invisible in crumbling institutions.
Coming-of-age narratives have traditionally shown us the underbellies of institutions, often through the eyes of a beleaguered and sympathetic protagonist. Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, Pip, or Oliver Twist come to mind. Classics of the tradition, Dickens’s Bildungsromans called attention to brutal class disparities in a rapidly shifting Victorian social climate. A century later, readers still sympathize with his orphaned protagonists. Along these lines, the Professorroman has helped many of us catch a glimpse of ourselves so that we might reflect on the academy in which we labor and live.
Haber’s novella “Adjunctivitis” opens with Robert Allen Rabinowitz preparing to grade a fresh batch of undergraduate essays from one of his introductory composition courses: “A five-year veteran of undergraduate essay correction, Robert had everything he needed in front of him: pencils, coffee and a double Irish whiskey with ice. … Thus prepared, he read one sentence — Since the beginning of the universe, American society has always loved reality TV — and turned his head just in time to spray the wastepaper basket with vomit.” Rabinowitz takes a few minutes to clean and resettle himself: “Then he returned to his desk. He read the second sentence of the essay — Reality TV is the most popular type of TV show for Americans worldwide — and immediately puked again, this time directly onto the floor, as he had left the basket outside to dry.”
The Adjunctroman is incapable of representing anything other than the failure to move forward, to build a career.
Rabinowitz’s triggered vomiting offers an obvious commentary on the quality of undergraduate writing and instruction. It is also a rich characterization of professorial abjection. And Rabinowitz is hardly alone. In the first pages of James Hynes’s The Lecturer’s Tale, Nelson Humbolt loses a finger in a freak accident while walking across campus. In Kudera’s Fight for Your Long Day, Duffleman (a.k.a. Duffy) spends an inordinate amount of time thinking about his bodily functions. In O’Malley’s “Vagrant Adjunct,” an obese, middle-aged adjunct who teaches at a for-profit business college burps and farts as he copies and pastes his afternoon lecture from Wikipedia. Keefer’s protagonist in How to Survive as an Adjunct Professor by Wrestling dies multiple times, her corpse ultimately dispersing into the digital stratosphere of online instruction. In these tales of professional decay, the adjunct protagonist may once have aspired to the professorial ideal but has since been reduced to a waste product, the “jettisoned object” (as Kristeva has it) that “is radically excluded” not from the machine of higher education but from the realm of the professorial, the expert, the tenured or the tenure-track. In this way, then, the abjection of the adjunct threatens to undo the very meaning of professor.
In a review of Fight for Your Long Day, William Pannapacker judges Kudera’s “depiction of the life and psychology of an adjunct teacher” to be “realistic.” But Pannapacker balks at the repellent quality of Kudera’s protagonist: “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,” which “undermines any sympathy the reader might have for him as a representative of adjuncts.” Perhaps it is the rare artist who can craft gastrointestinally challenged characters with high literary merit — James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and Monty Python come to mind. Pannapacker recognizes that Kudera’s novel participates in a significant shift in the representation of faculty on the contemporary campus, but he misreads its “sexual and digestive preoccupations” as distractions. On the contrary, they are the abject essence of the novel.
Duffleman’s musings on and fantasies about bathrooms, bowel movements, and farts parallel the abject conditions of his employment as an adjunct who moonlights as a security guard. His search for a clean public restroom at the close of his evening security shift at Liberty Tech is, as Pannapacker complains, a bit of a slog. The nearly 30 pages through which Duffy carefully considers his routine evening toilet break — its time, location, and stall — also signal his “overworked adjunct state” and his equally routine shame that he “hasn’t written anything beyond email in several years.” Soon the reader, too, begins to long for relief from his digestive issues. Duffleman’s lack of gastrointestinal and professional movement reflects another common quality of the Adjunctroman — neither the protagonist nor the narrative progresses.
Ultimately, as a narrative form inextricably bound but supplemental to the Professorroman, the Adjunctroman is incapable of representing anything other than the failure of an academic to move forward, to make progress, to build a career. Cebula, Haber, Keefer, Kudera, and other writers of the contemporary Adjunctroman remind us that the stories we tell ourselves about who we are as professionals — as professors — are important. In these novels, we confront the deprofessionalization of higher education in stark terms and grotesque figurations. Showalter once quipped that “the daily life of a professor is not good narrative material.” The daily life of the contemporary adjunct is even less so.
As Mark Bousquet says, adjuncts are “treated like shit.” To use Kristeva’s language, adjuncts are the “jettisoned”; they are “radically excluded” from the decision making and professional opportunities of their departments. They may even be excluded because they remind tenure-tracked colleagues of the deprofessionalization of the academy more broadly, bringing faculty “toward the place where meaning collapses.” The adjunct professor swims in stagnant pools of unstable funding, rather than along the designated streams of institutional investment and professional development that support tenure. The adjunct’s institutional place recalls the Kristevan subject’s sense of horror when confronted with such emissions and expulsions of waste. In the toilet bowls that contain the waters of faculty funding pools, adjuncts sink, reminders of the excess and waste of the professorial pursuit.