Too Much of Not Enough

Day 2 of Lent: Valentine’s Day

Last night I promised you, gentle readers, a rant. This post is not what I had in mind. I am still working on that one, although I am increasingly ambivalent about it. Probably why I should post it, actually, but it just isn’t ready yet. For starters, I really need to read a lot more Max Weber on rationalization first. That is, if I want to cover the ol’ bases.

Instead, I am home. I am in bed under several blankets because my furnace is busted, and I won’t get a new one until tomorrow. It is 56 degrees in here, but I am surprisingly comfortable. I am at home alone tonight after teaching my philosophy class, and that experience evokes a lot of unresolved things for me.

I decided at the age of fifteen that I wanted to be a philosophy professor. I went to college with that ambition firmly in mind, and I was only scarcely tempted to abandon it once or twice. I dutifully proceeded to a Ph.D. program; it was difficult, but I persevered, finished, and in 2002 received my doctorate. I entered a very tight job market, and that fact, coupled with the adjunct teaching I was doing and a research program I found increasingly tiresome, did me in. In 2008, I quit the search for viable full-time academic employment. Since the academy kills its wounded, especially in such a tight market, I left on the expectation that the academic door was definitively closed.

In fall of 2012, I returned to part-time university teaching. This time, I have absolutely no expectation whatsoever that it will lead to any kind of career. I am simply not viable as a job candidate, and I can’t afford to work as a full-time adjunct. The compensation for my current teaching, while very good by local adjunct standards, still shocks most non-academic people when I describe it to them. They have no idea that people with MA’s and Ph.D.’s settle for fixed-term contract work with no benefits, no job security, and pay that, if translated into an hourly rate, can range as low as $9-$10 per hour. It beats minimum wage, but an advanced degree is a steep price to pay for such a small benefit.

Why do people do it, then? I can’t speak for other people, but I did it for two reasons before I abandoned hopes for an academic career. The first was that one pretty much has to do some adjunct teaching if one is on the job market, to prove that you are still inside the charmed circle. Otherwise, your academic CV gets gaps in it, and your job interviews all end up being about those rather than about you.

The other reason was that I had grown to love the classroom and the life of a college teacher. I was not, and am not, a great classroom teacher. (I am not looking for validation here; I am simply not great. Not terrible, but not great.) But when it goes well in the classroom, nothing makes me feel as alive as that. It is a tremendous privilege to discuss ideas and books and engage in the give-and-take of a good discussion.

Now that I have been out of the academy for four years and all rational hope of a career is gone, it is that love of teaching alone that has brought me back. I teach two nights a week. On my teaching nights, I routinely come home exhilarated, my head full of ideas, my anxieties about the rest of my rather messy life temporarily banished. I feel, despite all evidence to the contrary, like everything will somehow turn out fine.

Then reality sets in. The reality is that, as much as I love classroom teaching, the way higher education works these days means that being a classroom teacher is never enough. Most institutions talk a good game about valuing quality teaching, but when something like 50-75% of undergraduate teaching is done by a contingent work force who is not paid enough to have a stake in the institution and has no say in its governance, the talk seems empty.

Undergraduate education in universities is increasingly treated as a cost center in need of streamlining, not as a goal worth diverting additional resources towards. Part of this environment is fostered by armies of administrators who may or may not have much experience in, or commitment to, teaching or research. Add to this the increasing economic and political pressure to treat undergraduate education like a product to be sold and delivered to students along the most efficient market delivery vector, rather than as an experience in which students and faculty are called into question, shaped, and changed, and what I do largely begins to look like an inefficient dinosaur.

In this environment, institutions retain their armies of adjuncts by holding out the ever-more-rare carrot of a tenure-eligible position or simply prevailing on their sheer love of their students– or their self-limiting conviction that they could never possibly do anything else. And in the end, even that self-sacrificial sort of behavior won’t be enough.

So you may be surprised to learn that this is actually a Valentine’s Day post about love. (Bet you didn’t see that coming.)

It isn’t about heart-shaped boxes or gilded cards or dinner with champagne. It is about how sometimes love simply isn’t enough. I love teaching, and if I was able to make a living at it, I like to think that I would eventually be a good teacher. But the reality is that I can’t make a living at it. The love that we adjuncts put into our work won’t be enough to make it worth it to increasingly rationalized institutions in higher education. (See? I really need to read more Weber.) Love is slippery and resists our attempts to hang a price tag on it. It is like the fresh air we breathe. This would be wonderful, but for the fact that, if you haven’t noticed, capitalism has little ability to place any value on that, either. It simply assumes that it is abundant and limitless, except of course, when it isn’t anymore. Its choices are to pull up stakes and befoul the air somewhere else, or else to start asking the hard question of why it keeps befouling the air in the first place.

I am generally loath to point out problems without having some solutions, but in this case I am without clever ideas. All I know how to do is to keep doing what I love a couple of hours a week, and in doing so holding open a space, however small, in which someone, somewhere, is doing what he loves. For now it will have to be enough.

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