Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Camille Paglia on Adjuncting (Commonplace Book)

For those of you not familiar with the world of academia, there are tenured professors who can never be fired, tenure track professors who are salaried, teach, write books, and work on committees as much as possible to be approved for tenure in 5-7 years, and then there are adjuncts, who are hired to teach one course at a time, often at the last minute, often replaced, often given no health insurance. 40% of all English Ph.Ds will not get tenure track work, in part because there are so many more people than jobs, and because hiring adjuncts is cheaper for obvious reasons. NYU, in a staggering statistic, has 41% of their classes taught by adjuncts. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently said that unless an individual adjunct can lift himself above the herd (with, in their words, books, awards, or winning the lottery), "adjuncting becomes more like an expensive hobby." Around here Stephen Frug and I are adjuncts, and I know Neil Shyminsky is a graduate student teacher. Tim Callahan teaches high school, I think. I am sure there are more, possibly lurkers.

So I give you Camille Paglia, from the introduction to her book Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World's Best Poems:

One result of the triumph of ideology over art is that, on the basis of their publications, few literature professors know how to "read" anymore -- and thus can scarcely be trusted to teach that skill to their students. Cultural Studies, for example, despite its auspicious name, has been undone by its programmatic Marxism and is a morass of misreadings and overreadings. During the past quarter century, humanistic principles and honest practical criticism could be more reliably found among low-paid adjuncts faithfully teaching service courses at community colleges than in the vain, showy professoriat of the elite schools.

Paglia has a flair for the dramatic, and like Bloom has been known to over-state her case, but I appreciate the compliment. I put it here, because I know it applies to some of our readers.

11 comments:

Voice Of The Eagle said...

Reading this blog breaks my heart. I'm having a hell of a time finding work myself.

neilshyminsky said...

While there's plenty to dislike about our system in general, I'm not sure that it helps to valorize the adjunct guys, or the grad students for that matter - we teach 'the basics' because a) we're paid to do that specifically, and b) we can't risk alienating people with our crazy pet projects until/unless we get tenure. Otherwise, we'd be totally there with the tenured folks, right? (Which is to say that our willingness to teach the basics is born of poverty and/or desperation - and to claim, then, that Paglia is actually praising that state of desperation.) I don't particularly enjoy teaching composition to people who need this course in order to fulfill the requirements of their Minor in English - instead, I live for the moments that I get to slip superheroes into a discussion of critical race theory, or Judith Butler into an essentialist debate about gender.

The irony that i'm feeling with this quote, too, is that Paglia can tell her peers to fuck off in this way because she, too, is untouchable. Some of her dismissals of theorists i really enjoy (like Foucault, Butler) is frustrating, in part, because, well, a graduate student or low-paid adjunct could offer a more convincing and well-crafted critique than anything I've read that's been authored or spoken by (the vain, showy) Paglia.

Anonymous said...

"During the past quarter century, humanistic principles and honest practical criticism could be more reliably found among low-paid adjuncts faithfully teaching service courses at community colleges than in the vain, showy professoriat of the elite schools."

Having been a student at a few community colleges, those adjuncts seem to also posses more real world attributes to better provide a reality normal students are looking for.

Geoff Klock said...

Neil -- boy I hit you twice this week with aesthetics v theory without even realizing it! What is up with that. Paglia and I value aesthetics over theory and you don't and/or don't even recognize the split since its all theory anyway. I DO want to have to grade less papers per terms, but I do not think I will be that different with tenure. And my crazy pet projects work pretty well in basic writing -- such as Samurai Jack, and the connections between poetry and pop culture, so it is not so much as issue for me as it might be for someone whose crazy pet project was Lacan.

You are right that Paglia can only say this because she is untouchable, but a lot of untouchable professors don't EVER think about the adjuncts, and I am glad she is praising us, for whatever reason.

And, of course, I like showy.

Anon -- thanks!

Geoff Klock said...

VoE -- good luck.

neilshyminsky said...

Lacan is a 'crazy pet project'? In my program he's canonical. In fact, your Samurai Jack project would be far 'crazier', I think, within the programs I play/work in (my program's interdisciplinary, so i jump around as i want) than nearly any project that's structured around Lacanian psychoanalysis. But my school is a bit kooky like that. (In my MA program, I was out of place for wanting to do work on a period after the Early Modern; in my current one, it's expected that i have a finger on the pulse of the latest developments in critical race/gender/sexuality theory. But some knowledge of psychoanalysis seemed an expectation in both.)

I can appreciate the love for the unloved and underpaid, though. Especially because my union starts a 'work for rule' campaign on Monday, as we approach what looks to be an inevitable strike...

Voice Of The Eagle said...

Thanks Doc Klock, I need it.

Timothy Callahan said...

Meanwhile, I have to teach Ethan Frome.

But, I probably get paid more as a high school teacher than you poor adjuncts. Or maybe not...

Geoff Klock said...

Neil: The Lacan was maybe a bad example; I was just using him as short hand for something a tenured teacher could teach without the fear that the whole class would turn on him.

Tim: I LOVE that line from Grose Point Blank where Cusack meets his old high school English teacher after 10 years and says "so what about you? Still teaching that Ethan Frome damage?"

Timothy Callahan said...

Yeah, I mean I know why we teach it--Edith Wharton wrote it only a few miles from my house and the novel is set in the neighboring town, but why would anyone who doesn't live in Western Massachusetts even think about teaching it? Ugh.

Although it is an important tract in the anti-suicide sledding movement.

Dr. K said...

You can add me to the list of academics who read the blog, though I don't comment much. As a recently tenured academic, I can say that things haven't changed much for me in the classroom, largely because I've been lucky all along to have a lot of freedom to choose what I teach (and to establish niches for myself--for example, prior to my employment, no one at the school had ever taught film or graphic novels). I teach at a small, two-year college in South Carolina, with only 9 English faculty (6 tenure track and 3 adjuncts). As one of two British lit generalists on the faculty, I wonder if Paglia's comment would apply to generalists as well. Her dichotomy of adjuncts at community colleges and "the vain, showy professoriat of the elite schools" seems to leave out a vast middle of liberal arts and teaching college faculty who still focus on "humanistic principles and honest practical criticism" because those are the very things that our students need.

On the matter of the job market: As often as I can, I serve on search committees, mainly because I find that by reading application material I can maintain a connection to the most recent developments in the job market, especially what type of candidates we get. Seven years ago, we would get hundreds of applications for a single, tenure-track lit position, and many of the applicants had been in journeyman adjunct positions for years. Over the last few years, the applications have dwindled to the low double digits, with many of those applicants being ABD instead of Ph.D.'s with adjunct experience, and we've occasionally had extraordinary difficulty filling some positions in certain years. I've heard similar anecdotal evidence from other institutions in the region. Also, finding qualified adjuncts has become a near impossibility, unless the adjunct has some connection that requires him or her to be in this particular area of the country.

I assume that most of these problems stem from our location and status: few would think of a two-year college in a small South Carolina town to be an ideal place to work. But I wonder, too, if there isn't a bigger trend at work here, where the job market is starting to shake out in such a way that applicants can be pickier (even if, by "pickier," it's changed from "I'll take whatever tenure-track job I can get," to "I'll take whatever tenure-track job I can get, as long as it's not in the South [or at a two-year college, or whatever].")