Dispatches From Adjunct Faculty at a Large State University
Read more by Oronte Churm at insidehighered.com/churm.
BY Oronte Churm
Ceci n’est pas une histoire d’un pigeon.
One night in Hanoi, before official U.S. rapprochement with Vietnam, Frenchy and I were in the Piano Restaurant and Bar awaiting the house special—Roasted Pigeon With Five Tastes. Frenchy wanted the dish, he said, because he didn’t think they could do it.
We were exhausted from a month of backpacking, and I was sick with what I can only describe as sinking spells, brought on by the strange rain-mist in northern Vietnam the French called crachin, which my dead grandmother would have called “pneumonia weather.” Our brains were saturated with an anti-malarial drug that caused psychotic episodes in some users, and both of us were feeling odd.
(Before we left on our trip, I was jogging after dark and came up behind a man with a guitar case walking in the road. We were a mile out of town, and it was sleeting. He was 6 feet tall, but I knew he was a leprechaun and was afraid to look at his face. Thinking on it, I’m sure it was the mefloquine. Why would a leprechaun have a mullet?)
Frenchy and I drank beer and watched workers in gray coveralls just outside the open doors of the restaurant. They lifted a sewer cover in the street with a pry bar, lowered pails on long hemp ropes, and pulled up gallon after gallon of night soil for the fields. As they poured the muck into a waiting cart, the stink bloomed.
Now the waiter arrived with the silver tray. He bent, smiled, and lifted the serving cover. The Pigeon With Five Tastes lay flattened on its dish like a bird accidentally cleated into a soccer pitch. Its back was broken, head thrown back, and beak open wide in a silent squawk of agony. It might have had a better plucking. We thighed the squab, and it collapsed under the weight of the blade into the puddle of its muddy gravy. Across the room an old woman played the theme to The Godfather on the eponymous piano, last tuned for Emperor Bao Dai, as her daughter tortured a violin.
Frenchy took a bite. “I don’t know about five tastes,” he said. “I don’t like the one I’m gettin’. It’s not even a good smell.”
A few shreds of meat, dark and slick, stuck to the jackstraw bones. I gave up and finished my rice, but Frenchy bent over the plate and probed the corpse for sustenance.
“Listen, this is an old bird,” he said. “He must have run a long way before they finally caught him.”
He pried apart the bones with knife and fork, then sucked gristle from the wing tendons.
“I’m tryin’,” he said, sounding confused. He wiped his forehead with a greasy napkin. “I swear to God I keep tryin’ and tryin’ to eat this thing …”
Tenacity is not all virtue, and the more difficult the task, the more we invite judgment on our efforts. The problem is revealed in the etymology of the word: it comes from the Latin tenere, to hold. The metaphor connects holding on and its reward, naturally enough, but it’s easy for tenacious people to look ridiculous.
(Being tenacious started in A.D. 270 when an unpopular Roman centurion “slipped” over a cliff near present-day Manchester, England. He managed to grab a snag, and one of his legionaries yelled down, “Tu teneas, Hercule! Ego Londinium redeo ad auxilium petendum! [Hold on, for Hercules’ sake! I’ll walk to London for help!]”)
Some find the tenacity needed to be a lecturer in the university comical as well. (I can’t speak for professors. I’ve heard they’re just like adjuncts, but with copier accounts, book allowances, mail privileges, laptops, travel stipends, professional development funds, research grants, clerical staff, and espresso machines with integrated, six-setting, conical burr grinders.)
One reason we’re funny is, we keep tryin’ and tryin’, meeting infrequently for just an hour at a time, to profess something of value to a diverse and often large audience, who may not have had enough interest in the subject to look into it on their own, and who, over the previous 12 to 16 years of their educational lives, may have developed an antipathy to schedules, textbooks, the English language, teachers who remind them of their plumber fathers, and the screech of chalk on slate.
Every time students catch sight of us coming through the door, they examine us as if we were exotic moths lured with acetylene lamps on a moonless night, judging, measuring, classifying, and pinning us to the board as types.
They make me out to be the sardonic Kevin Spacey type, their evaluations say, the Geoffrey Rush/Woody Allen type, the knock-kneed, humpbacked, pigeon-toed, google-eyed, snaggletoothed, potbellied, baldheaded, chicken-necked, horse-faced type who tries to sell them on the brilliance of Chekhov’s stories while the sun shines and bees buzz in the begonias. It takes tenacity—and several class meetings—to dissolve their quick judgments. (Sometimes, for effect, I stop discussions and have them consider my competition: the strangled cry of Reverend Jimmy, an itinerate charismatic who roosts on the quad and crows himself hoarse about “sorority hoors and their fornicaturrs.”)
It’s human to pigeonhole, but as the tacitly mature one in this artificial relationship of teacher and students, I have obligations they do not, so I try to remember that perceptions change with context and experience. For instance, the students I taught at La Universidad de Cuba Libre a decade ago were generally very different from students at Hinterland University today.
But I’ll tell you what: At the start of the fall semester, when I’m forced to wear long pants for the first time since April, and I remember I’m so shy that I faint if other shoppers stare at me holding up my ticket when the butcher calls my number, I’ll forget all that. Instead, I’ll look at the murder of new students facing me and greet them as generic types.
At the top of the grade scale there will be one or two Buddy Fasttracks, for whom the game of institutional education comes easy. Most Buddies are the real thing; they have other interests, ambitions, even brilliance, and will take their drives and talents out of the academy when given the chance. But some are so narrowly focused that they couldn’t, as Frenchy would say, pour the piss out of a boot if the instructions were written on the heel. And while I rely on their zeal for class discussions, I’ll have to work hard to balance it with their peers’ desire to strangle them.
The mass of students I’ll see lead lives of quiet desperation. Hinterland U. attracts the best of the really-very-good students in the state, but if they could have gotten into or paid for Harvard or Berkeley, they would have gone there. Humanism is not their main concern. They are expected to go to college by their entire middle-class suburban culture and are dutifully doing just that, for the reasons told them: getting an education means greater lifetime earnings, and besides, Zane, if your Uncle Billy can get a degree, anybody can. They take notes and look thoughtful when my facial expressions and tone cue thoughtfulness, but they’re bemused by my readings, such as Harlan Ellison’s story “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore,” a metafictional story-in-fragments that is ethically difficult but suggests mediocrity is a sin.
On the whole, the Unwashed Middle would be happier (and might benefit more from) falling in love to the trumpeting of elephants in the Barcelona Zoo, or pouring concrete in Lower Alabama, but if they ever wanted other experiences, they have agreed to defer them (sometimes forever) in order not to suffer the indignities of, and very real financial penalties for, not finishing the bachelor’s degree they were expected to start. These students will get A-minuses and B-pluses, and I will write many of them recommendation letters based on their “reliability” and “solidity.”
On the lower end of the curve will be those who rebel in the most conventional, passive ways possible: they pull Tommy Hilfiger hoodies over their heads, clack tongue studs on their chipped front teeth, and look pained. Out of 10 such students, nine will put in the seat time (at the back of the room) to collect diplomas. Four will tape the words “HI MOM” to the top of their mortarboards at commencement, and two (both male) will perform rehearsed fist-pumps as they walk across stage to signal their accomplishment.
I keep tryin’, as a teacher, to make my thinking as sound as the good writing I espouse, which is, after all, a linear form: we follow type across the page as obediently as bird dogs. Yet life is one damn thing after another—running shoes and orange juice and that guy who looked at me funny—and the classroom becomes a dense cloud of impressions and perhaps-facts that I shape any way I can—chronologically, emotionally, narratively, rhetorically. It’s those frantic grabs at meaning that can cause problems.
Sure, students fit categories, but none is really like another. If I can summon the temerity to hold many facts before me at once, I begin to see more clearly. But what to make of these student types?
1) Janet was an apple-cheeked sophomore with the hair of Eva Braun. She insisted I call her Raven and filled her class journal with dark fantasies, such as the depiction of my murder in class and students standing around my corpse wondering if they should call the police. There was a long appreciation on the shape of my skull in her response to Maupassant. The cover of the journal was heavily doodled—Raven said she was "creative"—with pentagrams, Japanese animation characters, flowers, hearts, and the title “Not Satan’s Notebook.” Raven lurked behind corners to surprise me with questions and liked to loom over me in the pajamas she wore to class as I sat trapped in my chair. But she read thoughtfully, defended characters who were marginalized, and began to write coherently once I got her “creative” nature channeled. Recently, I saw her sitting in the middle of the hallway in the English department. She had upgraded her wardrobe to jeans and a Hawaiian shirt, but she was still drawing, this time a portrait of George Orwell with demented eyes. She stopped me to apologize for being (flutter hands wildly) back then.
2) Jerry was polite and well-spoken. He gobbled assigned literature like he was starved for it, then asked for recommendations for more. But he wrote short stories about girls so heavy they made Jell-O in the cafeteria tremble as they approached, and about foreigners in his dorm who stunk everything up. When I questioned this worldview in my written comments and suggested empathy as a path to revision, Jerry came to office hours in his “What Would Jesus Do?” wristband and shouted me down. Later, he worked as hard on his portfolio as any student I’ve had. Now he’s asked me to supervise an independent study in his senior year—the revision of a bildungsroman he drafted in high school, presumably filled with scenes of the obese and the garlic-loving, narrated by a young hero keen on Jesus.
3) Mo, a self-professed gangbanger in the Leveled Field program, when asked what subculture he might study for his ethnography assignment, replied, “Pimps or millionaires.” His peers had chosen field sites such as the Frisbee Golf Club and the Pi Kappa Alpha House, so I was down for his originality. But since he couldn’t drive long distances to a big city several times a week, I had to ask if pimps or millionaires congregated in Inner Station. My question was discouragement enough for the fierce young man to disengage and fail the course.
Gertrude Stein had an interest in cataloging human types. Stein said, “I began to be sure that if I could only go on long enough and talk and hear and look and see and feel enough and long enough I could finally describe really describe every kind of human being that ever was or is or would be living.”
The problem, she found, as she became mired in writing The Making of Americans, was that while every person might be a type, every type was unique, and it would take infinite lifetimes to record all the specific characteristics of uncountable types: “I found that as often as I thought and had every reason to be certain that I had included everything in my knowledge of any one something else would turn up that had to be included.”
It was an “endlessly interesting” problem to her, but “I went on and on and then one day after I had written a thousand pages … I just did not go on any longer.”
Stein’s difficulties are those of thoughtful people of all ages and chosen professions. To see students—which is to say, people, and life itself—with any degree of clarity takes time, courage, and tenacity.
It’s night in Hanoi, and raining again. A murderer in canvas shoes pads down an ancient stone alley behind Dong Xuan Market. His hands are those of a strangler—fingers like rebar, rusty with nicotine and five-spice powder. He flicks the simple latch, opens the mesh door. Come, little brother, he coos. His victim sits just out of reach. Birds flutter and panic. The killer doesn’t want to be out here; he’s getting wet, and his cigarette is smoldering, but he holds down his impatience in order to get the job done. The pigeon shifts uneasily from foot to foot, sidles to a far corner. Still, the man is tenacious; he knows the one he wants. Chef makes a grab, but the bird coyly eludes him, like a feathery little truth.
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