It was a dark and stormy night – literally, it was January in the tundra during that whole polar vortex thing – when I arrived on campus to start what Dante would called my vita nuova, the new life, as a TT faculty. Needless to say, it was a much much much different experience than arriving for the first time on other campuses as an adjunct. Arriving as an adjunct, (a) no one gave a shit and (b) no one knew and (c) even if they knew, they woudn’t have given a shit. I mentioned the polar vortex? My new colleagues asked when the moving van arrived so they could help me unload. As an adjunct, not so much.
I arrived on campus; I had to meet with HR about benefits and a parking spot. Adjuncts park on the street if they can (and again, we’re talking cold enough that even walking from the faculty lot is too cold. I pity those poor bastards walking from wherever they can park. I didn’t worry about frostbite so much, since, well, at that HR meeting I found out I had health benefits, another perk denied me as an adjunct. Then to my new office, which I don’t have to share, supplied with the latest technological wiz-bangs from my faculty start-up package. I thought back to my adjunct days, when, yes, as recently as three years ago, I had to peel the perforated edges of the old dot matrix printer I shared with 30 other adjuncts in the office. And we had these support staff whom we lovingly referred to as the hellhounds, because they were fire breathing bitches who would stand over our shoulder as we made photocopies, so that we didn’t go over our 30 page/day limit (in a cl ass of 40 students… tough…). Now I have a copy code! And the support staff treat me with respect, not because I’m any different, but because of the title I bring in there.
What I want to say is this: being on the tenure track… wow! holy wow! Everything they said was true! It is the dream. I teach two classes a semester to graduates and majors for four times as much money as teaching four classes to those drooling first year students. We talk about, like, ideas and shit. And students do the reading. And ask questions. From top to bottom, the tenure track, it’s just a dream. The money (not just the salary, but the research stipend, the travel benefits), the time, the treatment, the security, the health and retirement benefits, the absence of that psychological squeeze, no longer worrying about financial security in life or my security in academia… what a load off! It’s indescribable, and everyday I am just a bit more relaxed and a bit less anxious (I think it takes some time to shed the old psychological habits and realize the new situation).
I also wanted to say this, though: I am startled on how quickly my perception of adjuncts/adjuncthood has changed, and I wanted to share it with you before I lose all sense of perspective. Much like the screen legends who nostalgically considers his days as a poor struggling young actor the best of his life, so too have I started thinking fondly of the dynamism in the overcrowded adjunct office, all the interesting peope I met, and how some of them are now made too, and others aren’t. But it’s a nostalgia from privilege, from having made it. I think more and more how lucky I was to have the struggle and to have it with those with whom I had it, so that I (and we) can appreciate our current golden goose better.
But I also think the acting metaphor is more and more apt. I consider myself something like a working actor – regular enough parts to make a living, but no franchise superhero flick (yet?). And in many ways I am losing my sympathy for contingent faculty. I suppose this is an almost inevitable part of my growing into a new role and losing my class solidarity. But I think tenure-trackdom has also given me a new perspective on academic life generally, and I think the acting metaphor is more and more apt. Does anyone really think that Pamela Anderson (I don’t know who the modern equivalent is…) is actually a better actress than any of the thousands of other bleach blond booby bimbos out there? No… part skill, part luck. And then, like, Nick Cage or someone, who is in the family business. Is he better than all those struggling actors, or just better connected? Or all those other superstar actors who got “the big break” because of this or that or the other reason. Sure, there will always be a Meryl Streep or Dustin Hoffman, who just are superlative in their field and will necessarily rise to the top. But then there are the spousal hires (like that Judd Apatow’s wife who he insists on putting in all of his movies), and all the other marginally qualified people who can do the job well enough once they get it, but how to get it?
And this is how I think of adjunct life. Do all those aspiring actors demand Brad Pitt share his wages? Would that be fair? Does every never-made-it aspiring basketball player demand LeBron share part of his earnings with them? There is no justice in this world, and yeah, it’s heartbreaking that some people make it and others don’t, but that’s the (often arbitrary) nature of pyramidal capitalism. Not everyone who wants to work as an actor can work as an actor. Lots of them take shit acting jobs for no money and hope. Lots of musicians play the same crap bars for the same crap money for years hoping to make it big. But should U2 and its opening act earn the same amount? Many people’s sincerely held dreams are crushed. Many people spend the better part of their early lives honing their skills but never getting the chance to shine for it. So you can keep acting for the artistic pleasure, or you can give it up for financial security. Not sure there’s a better or worse, but only the exceptionally skilled and lucky few get both.
I think I am excellent at what I do and I know I have worked very very hard for it. But I also know that there are many other people just as excellent who worked just as hard and will never make it. They can go on about the terrible nature of their employment, or they can find other employment – most aspiring actors are now in regular jobs. Them’s the breaks, right? What does Brad Pitt owe the guy who plays the guy Brad Pitt shoots in the opening scene? Or the girl in the red dress who does nothing but stand in the background. The fact is that most actors spend their lives as extras; a few make it as character actors with regular work, and some walk the red carpet. It’s mostly about skill, but also about a lot of luck and privilege. But how much does each owe to the other? And is academia really any different?
-- Chicago Charlie