You know that scene in Harry Potter 7, part II, when Harry dies and goes to “Limbo” and has a celestial chat with Headmaster Dumbledore, and there’s this god-awful disgusting bloody skinless manbaby in a fetal position on the white marble bench that’s supposed to represent the part of Voldemort that survived in Harry from the time he was a baby, and is now dead?
That’s pretty much how I feel about my professional life.
I’m 38-years old. I’m healthy. I have a partner I love so much that, last night, we wept gratefully in each other’s arms while watching the end of The Shape of Water. We co-parent our two beautiful, healthy, beloved children. We have a lovely, spacious house. In two weeks, I go to London to present on Sylvia Plath and whiteness at a prestigious academic conference, for which my institution is footing the bill.
And, oh yeah. I have my dream job.
After five years of adjuncting at five different institutions, I am now one year away from the end of my tenure clock, after which time, barring some kind of unforeseen disaster, I fully anticipate being tenured and promoted. I am working steadily and realistically toward two book contracts, and publishing other pieces in excellent journals regularly. I coordinate my program. There is absolutely nothing, right now, that indicates I won’t achieve the goal that, as recently as spring 2014, seemed a total impossibility.
And yet, there’s my bloody skinless manbaby over there, hugging his pathetic knees to his chest.
In Harry Potter, Voldemort is the embodiment of evil. He tries to kill Harry Potter at the start of the first book; Harry’s mother, Lily, stands in between her infant son and this embodiment of evil, sacrificing her own life for Harry. When she does this, she triggers a powerful, old, notably feminine magic which does two things: it saves Harry’s life, and harms Voldemort in a seemingly irreparable manner.
Except that rather than die, or go away forever, some little part of Voldemort stays alive inside of Harry. Harry becomes a repository for Voldemort’s evil, his self-doubt, his most abject fears. Of course, by extension, these also become Harry’s dark side, his self-doubt, his most abject fears. So when Voldemort finally offs Harry, we also get to meet his dark side, embodied–albeit in the afterlife.
It’s not pretty.
On Saturday, I received one of those institutional emails so common, I imagine, for any full-time faculty member in higher education. There was a shortage of representatives from my school (General Studies, the school for interdisciplinary studies) on the faculty senate, and wouldn’t one of us consider running? It would be an honor to serve our school and university in this way…
Delete, I thought, and clicked. I had already received an email personally inviting me to run from the faculty senate president, a woman I admire and look up to. When I got it, I walked into my good friend and unofficial mentor’s office and told her. The words hadn’t left my mouth before she said, NO. Nope. Hard no. You’re already doing too much. Uh-uh. She shook her head so hard, her dark curls unloosed from their bun at the base of her neck. Tell her no, she said.
But instead I wrote back, Well, I’ve definitely considered running…
If I were to write a novel about being a woman on the tenure-track, I’d start it, Call me Molly Bloom. In this way, I’d riff on both Melville’s famous opening line, and Joyce’s famous heroine, who is beloved by the feminist theorists beloved by me for her beautiful soliloquy that closes out Ulysses: again yes and then he asked me would I say yes to say yes. Molly is known for her affirmation, which is understood by the Algerian feminist Helene Cixous as embodying and encompassing difference (chiefly, bisexuality) rather than forcing it into a false “either/or” binary.
This is all well and good, but I write to you from the wan March sunlight of my office, and not, in fact, from a roman a clef. My armpits are unshaved and sweaty and I’m hungry. I know that Vince is home with the kids and that everyone is fine, but I’ll spend a good amount of time torturing myself for not spending enough time with my family, and then when I’m home, I’ll tell Vince, We can do a movie, but I’ll have to grade while it’s on. Which is not, actually, watching a movie, but instead watching a much smaller screen, where my students’ work lives.
Watching this smaller screen is how I spent almost all of my spring break, last week. I had the flu, and then this gross rash all over my body. I was so weak I could barely leave the couch. So, I didn’t leave the couch, and my laptop didn’t leave my lap, and I typed 13,000 words of my manuscript on Sylvia Plath in five days and when I emerged, my hands were so swollen I could barely move them, and my arms and shoulders ached as though I’d just done a tri-athalon. And then I cried because I didn’t get enough done. I didn’t catch up. I never catch up.
Last week, while I continued to mouth the words Yes to everyone and everything I was asked at work, my body gave a resounding No.
When my colleague’s email about the lack of General Studies representation on faculty senate came through, I was proofing the prospectus for The Precariat & The Professor, the edited collection about precarity that Jillian Powers and I are co-editing. I was reading and rereading stirring, brilliant arguments by precarious faculty about everything wrong with higher education today, and how to begin to tackle these complex issues.
Almost none of these scholars are on the tenure track, and the numbers indicate they never will be. In other words, my dream job makes me a white elephant. One of the contributors to our book began adjuncting the year after I was hired full-time; I was one of the people who interviewed her. She’s an excellent teacher and a stunning writer and she has as many publications and one more advanced degree than I do.
It’s not just an injustice to her that she’s not working full-time at our institution. It’s also a disservice to everyone who is working full-time at our institution. We lack her (and many other adjuncts’) smarts and talents outside of anything but the first-year writing classroom. She is barred from doing any service. When I rack my brain to think of who could run for senate, she doesn’t even enter into the equation.
And yet, she, and her fellow adjunct colleagues, make up the bulk of the teachers at the institution.
The new faculty majority walks the halls of the university: a silent, brilliant, underutilized force for good who can perform almost no service they not only want to do, but which their full-time colleagues desperately need from them.
When Dr. King wrote in his famous letter from Birmingham Jail that “we are caught up in a network of inescapable mutuality,” he might have been talking about adjuncts and full-time faculty members. We tend to frame the adjunct conversation so that it focuses on the oppressed (the adjuncts) rather than the oppressors (the full-time, tenured and tenure-line faculty). This is right and good, in that it focuses on people with the same degrees and credentials as their tenured colleagues who are living in poverty, doing sex work to survive– the list of adjunct abuses and desperation is long, and borders on gawking exploitation by the fascinated masses.
But my colleague’s email pointed to the reality that we are desperately short of bodies. And yet, all the while, the bodies we need work in the crowded office next door.
In the fall, my program, First-Year Writing, was at an impasse. That’s a nice way of saying we were in crisis. The administration had accepted a massive amount of new first-year students for fall 2017 after the spring semester had already finished. We suddenly needed ten new instructors and classrooms that were literally non-existent, and we needed them by September. We understood after a certain point that no matter what we did, no matter how hard we worked, we weren’t going to fix the problem. And we didn’t.
An email chain about this started up and went around between faculty coordinators, deans, and administrators, as those things sometimes do. This led to me trying to rationally explain to a higher up, privately, how dire things had become. I made the mistake of including in this explanation the fact that I had been forced to abandon The Precariat & The Professor in May and June so as to handle this crisis. I was now behind getting presses the sample chapters they had asked for, and Jillian was doing the bulk of the work.
I don’t know why I expected they would care about any of this. But I did.
And they didn’t. Given the situation you describe, they responded, it seems you should step down as coordinator.
And then who, I thought, would step up? Every possible person is just like me– untenured, with small children. I read somewhere recently that having a child is like having 2.5 jobs. By that calculation, most of the people in our department are working, including their professional positions, six jobs.
And, yes. Most of these people are women. Molly Blooms: Yes, yes, yes. Yes, I’ll head this task force, yes, I’ll read your novel, yes, I can, yes, I will. A student this morning asked me what can be done about the gendered nature of service.
I don’t even want to think about it, I said.
But why not? she said, eagerly, looking to me like I had all the answers for everything wrong in the world. A look I am now damn familiar with.
Because the senate would ask me or one of my female colleagues to form a task force, and the same six women would be on it, and we would work like dogs to find the right answers and write a great report and then nothing would change and we would just have made more work for ourselves, and when someone said, “What can we do about the gendered nature of service?” the university would say, “We made a task force!” and think they had solved the problem.
She stared back, horrified.
Then she said, Can I tell you a story about a job interview I had recently?
And I said, Yes.
I remember the first time I was coopted into the academy, its dark little in-jokes, its tiny bloody man babies. I was in a department meeting, and someone mentioned that an adjunct had burst into tears in front of a class. The person talking was concerned, and wanted to make sure the adjunct was ok. What was happening, that someone so capable was having emotional breakdowns in classrooms?
What was happening was, time is linear. She was on year 6 of teaching multiple courses at multiple institutions for horrible pay and less recognition. She was losing it, “it” being the thing that had allowed for her to work at all of these universities in the first place: incredible composure and grace and smarts and charisma. No one can sustain that lifestyle forever. But for so many adjuncts, there is no alternative.
But I didn’t say any of that, even though, at that time the preceding year, I was at-risk of becoming the adjunct who cries in class. Even though, at that time the preceding year, I wasn’t invited to those meetings– exclusive to full-time faculty– and no one noticed my absence.
Because, as an adjunct, I didn’t really exist.
As the meeting closed, one seasoned full-timer made a joke to a newer, tenure-line hire. One older man to a younger version of himself. “It’s so hard, I just might have to cry in the classroom!” he said. “Oh, boo-hoo,” said the younger man back to him, “me too! I’m so sad!” They both mimed weeping into their hands, and everyone laughed.
And I did, too.
To the outside world at school, I’m all blown-out blond hipster hair, bright red lipstick, a real smooth talker. Loose cannon. Gets shit done.
Inside, I’m an adjunct, driving home from my 6 pm class on a black country road in Cumberland County College, with $6.37 in my bank account, starving, buying two sleeves of trail mix to keep me from a blood sugar crash for the hour long commute, my three-year old son’s face in my mind’s one eye, my mother’s disapproving look in the other.
Tell them NO, my friends and mentors say, It’s too much, you’ll make yourself sick.
I’m so low on gas, I’ll be amazed if I make it home. Gas, or trail mix? If I run out of gas alone in the sticks, I might be raped or killed. On the other hand, if I don’t eat, with my tendency toward low-blood sugar, I might pass out behind the wheel and be killed. Or kill someone else.
When I was hired full-time, when the ink dried on the contract, I thought, It’s over.
Be gone with you, spirit!
But my adjunct self is my bloody Voldemort manbaby. Molly Bloom’s macabre doppelganger: Yes, yes, yes, yes, I can, I will, I can, ok, sure, no, I can do it. I’ll get it done.
That bitch is alive and kicking. She gets it done.