Dispatches From Adjunct Faculty at a Large State University
Read more by Oronte Churm at insidehighered.com/churm.
On the Unknown
BY Oronte Churm
I was glazing the Christmas ham when my son’s shrieks of delight, audible over the storm and stress of a busy kitchen, set my parental senses tingling. Out in the living room I found Starbuck in his Buzz Lightyear suit, wings, spats, and flashlight glasses, flying over the heads of our guests in the arms of his uncle Richard. There were a couple of things my brother-in-law didn’t know.
Starbuck spends 40 hours a week at an expensive Montessori school poring over superhero taxonomy with his pals. (Is there really a Super Fantastic Strong Man?) He came home the first day and said it was agreed: David was Superman, Inhoo was Spider-Man, and he was Batman. In a way, I was proud. Superman is so obvious, with his square jaw and puritan rectitude, like Ronald Reagan with a spit curl. Spider-Man is OK, but just a kid. Given the choice, I’d be Batman, too. At least he worked for his powers. But I wasn’t sure I wanted our 3-year-old emulating an angst-ridden, middle-aged angry guy in latex who calls himself the Dark Knight.
Blame it on my upbringing. My mother was there when Thich Quang Duc immolated himself in Saigon in protest of South Vietnam’s anti-Buddhist policies, and she never capitulated on pop-culture violence. For comics I had Richie Rich and Scrooge McDuck, with some Baby Hueys handed down from my sister. (Mom didn’t mind MAD magazine, mind you; she was a nonviolent subversive.) Our television broke when I was 4 and was never fixed, so I dropped out of the TV Zeitgeist at Daktari (co-starring a cross-eyed lion named Clarence) and didn’t return until the fifth season of Magnum, P.I.—a gap of some 20 years.
Sure, when other grade-school kids, avid as New Yorker critics, parsed the performance of Andre the Giant as Big Foot in The Six Million Dollar Man, I suffered. Then I went home and cataloged all my books by the Dewey Decimal System ( William H. McGuffey: Boy Reading Genius, j.921/MCG). And I’m OK.
Still, I thought, maybe Starbuck would benefit from leniency. If we let him hide under the dinner table and gobble Pez from his Batman dispenser, he might become one of those superhumanly cool kids who succeed at everything. He’ll be a running back and class president; he’ll snowboard Whistler and start a band; every summer he’ll build houses with Habitat. Eventually, he’ll practice medicine with Doctors Without Borders, where he’ll meet a beautiful daughter of France, and together they’ll run a clinic and raise babies in Paris while he writes his trilogy on the human comedy, in which there will figure largely a beneficent, wise father.
Before I could enjoy all that, I had to face the first tenet of superheroes, their reason for being: to “poom” bad guys, as Starbuck said. (This is not to be confused with the infinitive “to boom,” an intransitive verb: “The dog boomed” means she slipped while running to the food bowl. “Poom” is a transitive verb requiring a direct object. Correct usage dictates: “Starbuck poomed the iPod with a plastic golf club until his father boomed to the floor in a fit of apoplexy.”) We sat together and talked about cartoon pooming and real pooming, and how people get hurt, and how the only time we ever hit another person is in certain sports, such as one called boxing, which I don’t really watch, because violence of any kind is antithetical …
“What’s boxing, Daddy?” he asked guilelessly.
I try to reward curiosity, so I explained that certain athletes who train very hard to be strong and tough use their skills in carefully monitored sporting events called …
“What’s training?” Starbuck asked.
I said boxers hit punching bags, but we don’t have a bag or even a picture of one, so here, hit my palms, like this. He slapped at my hands with an overhand flail that promised to jam his wrists, so I showed him the mechanics of a jab and how to tuck in the thumb. He got the form but was hesitant, and since I want him to embrace physicality, I encouraged him to hit harder and then harder still. He grimaced and punched and grunted and punched. “Harder!” I said. “Come on, hit me!” Only after an hour or two, when he could really drive one in, did we stop to ice my hands.
My brother-in-law, who loves Starbuck as if he were his own son, knew none of these facts; they lay under the surface of happy times like a drowned tree waiting to rip open a riverboat. Richard simply saw that the boy was getting too excited and set him down, making the excuse that he, Uncle Zurg, needed to catch his breath before he destroyed this measly planet. That’s when Starbuck, a.k.a. Buzz Lightyear—Defender of the Galaxy—poomed him in the testicles, as superheroes will.
I didn’t know if I would get poomed by student work at the end of the semester. I had told creative-writing students to not just revise their stories but to re-envision them, and rhetoric students to shape 20-page essays from messy, massive project notebooks and earlier drafts. Who knew what I’d get? I had become so immersed in their projects that I felt trapped in them, blinded, as in a dream where you try to run in hobnail boots while some unseen evil, smelling of those shrimp you ate that sat out too long, chases you. Strangely, I also dreaded letting go and facing the sudden silence that comes at the end of every semester. But a number of stressors prevented that from happening.
One was the inevitable squawking over grades. A demure student with downcast eyes listened to my reasons for her participation grade (she never spoke in class, even when called on), then sprouted claws and fangs, and jumped at my throat. Another told me that a D in my course meant he’d have to join the Marines and would be in Iraq by Easter. (This is a variant of plea-demands by foreign students who tell me their government will recall them in public disgrace, possibly for dismemberment, if they don’t get at least a B-plus from me. An A-minus would be more in line with Amnesty International guidelines.)
There was also—mirabile dictu—notification of a job interview for a tenure-track position at a good liberal-arts college, ranked somewhere between Amherst College and Transylvania University by U.S. News & World Report. I couldn’t have boomed over any harder if I were poomed.
Of course, I’ve had many job interviews, including one, after my bachelor’s, that should have inoculated me against anything to come. The small-business owner—he called himself a CEO—twisted an onyx ring around his pinkie and used the time to talk about framed photos of himself with the town’s mayor, later indicted for fraud. As I was leaving, he called me back and pressed a button on a keychain gadget his company sold as a sideline. “Fuck you,” it said in a robot voice. I grinned uncertainly. He pushed another button, and the thing said, “Eat shit.” Then the man did the meanest thing anybody ever did to me: he gave me the job.
But hiring for tenure-track English professors is different from anything else, including adjunct hiring. Interviews are held at the Modern Language Association meeting, between Christmas and New Year’s. Like most big conferences, it rotates among cities with expensive hotels, dining, shopping, and entertainment. This year, it was in Washington, D.C. It’s said that it takes money to make money, and this enterprise cost us several hundred dollars at the Men’s Wearhouse and—since Mrs. Churm and Starbuck would go with me—the price of gas for the minivan in lieu of an airline ticket, three meals a day for three, enough coffee and Pringles to get me over the mountains, and four nights in the Embassy Suites in Georgetown.
The MLA conference has been mocked by the press as irrelevant and elitist. For me it was about the chance at a better-paying, secure job in my field, and seeing old friends. (One of the rarely discussed hazards of adjunctdom is the constant cycle of making and then losing friends as people are forced to move to other jobs. It wrecks community. I’ve seen nothing like it since the Army.)
As it turned out, then, in the last two weeks of December, I needed to: grade more than 1,000 pages of student writing; tally final grades and report them; provide daycare for at least one of our sons, once Starbuck’s school closed for the holidays; find a tree, put up a tree, decorate a tree; document and justify my entire intellectual and creative being in a portfolio of materials for the hiring committee; design a yearlong symposium for first-year students (a requirement at the hiring college); find out what sorts of questions I might be asked in interview and drill myself on the answers; clean the house for guests; prepare the meal for said guests; pretend not to be distracted while they were here, and mediate any pooming; shop for clothes; answer mail; arrange freelance work; plan and prepare spring classes; and participate in Christmas morning under the influence of several mimosas.
This left to Mrs. Churm only: her own job in the College of Education; all gift shopping and mailing; bill paying; laundering; photography of the boys and subsequent Christmas-card writing and sending; sick-cat ferrying to the vet; grocery shopping; planning the 12-hour drive to the coast; and a dozen other tasks. It’s hard to show in print what it sounded like in our house then, but it was something like this:
“Why do you always let the lotion drip from the nozzle when you LUBE YOURSELF UP AFTER YOUR SHOWER SO IT GETS ON STARBUCK’S BATH TOYS AND NOW THERE’S HAIR STUCK ALL OVER THEM?!"
The process of my interview, at least, didn’t have to be an unknown. Hinterland’s Department of English has a method they believe explains the job search and gives their grad students an advantage on the market. (If their grads are hired, the department looks effective. That attracts better new students, who are, in turn, more marketable, and so it goes.) But some here feel that no one else, especially those dangerous Ivy League types, should ever get their hands on The Method.
Couple of years ago, the director of graduate studies (call him “the Little Scholar”) sent e-mails to everyone, announcing an open meeting: Come hear about The Method. At the time, I wasn’t job-seeking, but The Method was for “interested faculty,” too, so I went. Adjuncts were beginning to be let go, and the department promised anything in their power to make the transition easier. But I’d forgotten that adjunct faculty aren’t considered faculty, so this benefit would be withheld. (In one departmental meeting, a bony old woman stood and said, “Why don’t you people go get real jobs?”)
When the Little Scholar saw me—the product of another graduate program—watering down the eugenic stock of Hinterland’s meeting, he asked me in front of everyone to leave. I didn’t know the man and had liked his book on Faulkner, but when I met him in the library a week or two later, I leaned over him and said a couple of things. As my anger grew, I found myself quoting the Ed Harris loser character from Glengarry Glen Ross, which I’d been teaching: “What are you, friend to the working man, Ron?” Needless to say, he didn’t give me the printed pamphlet based on The Method, either.
We left for the MLA the morning after Christmas and drove through the day and into the night, through rain in the valleys and snow on the mountaintops, alongside the big trucks, around the long eastward bends graded the opposite way you’d expect, so it often felt like we were going over, which helped keep me awake. In back, Mrs. Churm slumped into her seat belt, her head on Starbuck’s shoulder. Light from the DVD player flickered on the boy’s exhausted face as he imprinted on his brain the basic rules for mysteries by playing the same five Scooby-Doo episodes in an endless loop. I hadn’t even known there was a character named Scooby-Dumb, and it was a relief to emerge from the mad isolation of the highway into the lights of Wheeling. The city squatted on forested hills that rose from the cold river. Smoke poured from coal-fired plants.
“Starbuck, look,” I said softly. “One of your great-grandfathers was in the coal mines, as a boy. What a hard life. But he went on to be a union official and a state senator.”
Starbuck was obviously awed, because he stayed silent, thinking on it. A Scooby-Doo villain with the voice of Peter Lorre said, “Drats! You meddling kids.”
“What would our ancestors have made of all this, Starbuck?” I said, waving at the detritus of fast food in our rolling living room, the high-speed road ahead, the unseen waiting luxury and artificial stress that deepened credit-card debt. “Don’t you think it’s odd how we move toward specific things but can’t even name them? So much is unknown beforehand, it’s a wonder we start journeys at all. Starbuck, are you listening to me?”
“Huh?” Starbuck said. He didn’t know why grownups got so crazy-gone over nothing when there was a Snow Ghost that needed pooming. Scooby-Doo giggled, “Eeheeheeheehee,” in a descending scale, and I stuffed my mouth with chips. The boy has a lot to learn about quests and the dark hearts of fathers. We drove on, as families will.
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