I'd been offered it last-minute, of course, a week and a half before summer session started. It was an upper-level course -- a survey but restricted to majors. It covered a period of about 400 years, only half of which fell within my field of primary expertise. Hence, I had about a week and a half to cobble together a syllabus, through only half of which I might be able to offer students something resembling the educational experience they deserved. And even when one is working within familiar territory, a week and a half is hardly enough time to put together a truly thoughtful syllabus for a course one has not taught before.
Scheduler of Adjuncts didn't care about quality, though, only about staffing the class. Only seven students enrolled initially, but the department chose to run it anyway (normally such a class would require at least twelve) because six of the seven were paying out-of-state tuition, which meant that one-and-a-half of them covered my adjunct salary and the university could pocket the rest.
I didn't really want to take on the class, but I needed the money. I didn't have a tenure-track job lined up for the fall, didn't know if I'd be offered any classes (or how many) to teach as an adjunct in the fall, and had no other summer work lined up but an SAT prep gig that didn't pay enough to cover my expenses for the summer.
Commencement, at which I newly became "recent Ph.D." was the last week in May. It felt good for a day, upon which family and friends reveled in pomp and circumstance, while I sweated in ridiculous regalia, posed for pictures, and later consumed a ridiculous abundance of good whiskey. Then it was back to prepping for the class that should have just been cancelled -- or at least scheduled a month or two earlier (oh, wait, it was, but the second most highly paid professor in the department decided ze was too busy, well into May, to be bothered with such responsibilities).
But I digress. I pulled a syllabus together, ordered books, and generally got my shit together in order not to embarrass myself and, at the very least, to offer the students something that made them feel like the class was "worth it."
I shouldn't have worried too much, though. Six of the seven students were there to earn credit they needed to graduate the following year -- and that was pretty much all. They did the readings, wrote the papers, talked more or less enough to fill the time in class, and were more or less glad to get on with their summers when the class ended. They helped a class that should never have been turn out OK, for which I am grateful, but we need say no more about them. They are not my subject.
The seventh person who had initially enrolled already had a college degree. And a law degree. And, ten years since graduating from college, was gainfully employed at a law firm.
And ze thought ze wanted to go to graduate school.
Because ze had Deep Questions that couldn't answered anywhere else. Because Academe represented a Beacon of Light and Hope that cast the Enlightenment that comes through living the Life of the Mind upon the Intellectual Darkness of day-to-day drudgery at the law firm.
Really, ze was too old and experienced not to have known better. But the Life of the Mind was calling, and ze had signed up for my course as a kind of refresher and also because ze had attended an undergrad program that didn't have traditional majors (actually, an excellent program, but, alas, such consequences!), like English, and so ze was seeking, through my badly planned, half-assed, last-minute excuse for a class, an immersion in the discipline, a true experience of Intellectual Inquiry through the study of Great Literature, an introduction to the Great Gods of Theory, a journey towards Wisdom in the Word. Indeed, ze burned with a hard, gemlike flame.
Our conversation went something like this:
Student (after first class, clearly beneath hir intellectual functioning): "Do you think this is the right course for me?"And so ze withdrew. I was sincere in saying that I would have loved having hir in class -- ze had a lot to contribute. But the class wasn't what ze was looking for, and I felt an obligation to disclose at least a glimpse of how things really are to someone aiming to throw away a career ze already had for a naive ideal.
Me: "Well, I don't know. You have a college degree already, and a law degree. Why are you taking an undergraduate course?"
Student: "I felt I needed to take an English course to enhance my knowledge of the Discipline before applying to Graduate School. I also feel I need to prove to Admissions Committees that I'm serious. Because, you know, in my program we didn't have majors, and I need to prove that, for sure, Literary Studies is the Right Field. Because I'm working as a lawyer, not doing what an English Major would do. And because I've never taken an English course."
Me: "How can you be so sure you want to get a Ph.D. in English when you've never taken an English course?"
Student: "Because it is in my blood. Because I have burning Intellectual Questions, and I feel that English is the field most suited to answering them. I want to be a Professor."
Me: "Having burning intellectual questions is great, but you already have a career. And you don't need to go to graduate school to pursue your intellectual interests. You already have enough education to know how to learn on your own. And do you know how few professor jobs there are? Most 'professors' just end up doing what I'm doing, teaching semester-by-semester, course-by-course, not having enough time to prep their classes, much less pursue Deep Intellectual Concerns. And never having enough money. I'm pretty sure you're better off as a lawyer."
Student: 'IknowIknowIknow. I've read all the 'stay away' articles. I've read Thomas H. Benton. I've read Marc Bousquet. But I know this is really for me. That I'm meant for it. If there are not jobs when I graduate, I can always go back to lawyering, or I can teach high school. Or I can just be an adjunct, because my spouse is a lawyer, too, and ze makes even more than I do. So, it's just irrelevant, the job market."
Me: "The job market is irrelevant?"
Student: "Well, for me it is."
Me: "For fear of spewing cliches, you do know that 'no man is an island,' right? I mean, the job market may not be relevant to you, but it is for most of the rest of us. And the reason we're having this conversation -- you wanted to know if this summer class is the right one to nurture your intellectual curiosity -- well, the reason I would say it's not the right course for you is that it will not be the kind of intellectually stimulating course you may be expecting. It may not be what you're expecting at all, and the reason is directly tied to the academic job market and, more broadly, the labor structure of higher ed. I wish I could tell you differently, but I'd be lying. Honestly, I'd love to have you in class --and I hope you'll stay -- but you'll be wasting your tuition."
Student: "Oh.................but, you know, I thought so-and-so was teaching this course. Ze has a really impressive scholarly profile. I wanted to Learn from hir..........Why are you teaching this class?"
Me: "An explanation at this point would be futile. I'm telling you these things because I think the next generation of academics has a responsibility to be concerned about the state of the profession they are entering, not just their own Intellectual Interests. I wouldn't say that no one should go to graduate school, but if all you care about is yourself and your own 'interests', well.....what about your future colleagues? What about your future students? Your choices indirectly but ultimately affect their working conditions and quality of education. Those things should matter to all of us, above and beyond our petty individual interests. Because what do those interests matter, if the learning community of which we are a part falls apart?"
Student: "I don't like you. You're scaring me. I'm not taking your class. Who can I talk to in this department that will tell me what I want to hear?"
Me: "Over there. There's the door. Many people here, unfortunately, will tell you exactly what you want to hear."
* * * * *
I'm not sure there was a course being offered that summer that was what ze was really looking for -- or that graduate school, more generally, would have given hir what ze wanted.
Self-interest, self-absorption, self-aggrandisement, self-deception, self-delusion. Academe encourages these qualities by mislabelling them idealism and commitment to "the life of the mind."
I'm not saying I'm any better than this student. I fell into the same trap a decade ago -- had a career as a high school teacher, had a gainfully employed partner, ignored the signs of a sick sad academic world because my Intellecktaulle Interests took precednece.
Why do so many people keep falling into this trap over and over and over and over again? Doing the same thing over and over and over again and expecting different results? Isn't that the definition of insanity?