Working Class Guilt in the Academy (and other gristly bits to gnaw on)

January 30, 2014 at 1:40 am (Uncategorized)

I am still employed and have been consulted about my schedule for next fall, so even though there is  no guarantee that my only-ever-yearly contract will be renewed, and even though the statistics on my classes’ performances last semester were *my worst ever,* despite my having taught one of these classes for almost ten years now, it seems that nobody is pushing to have my contract *not* renewed. Last semester was among the worst of my life, and I’ve said that several times over the last few years. There are reasons for this that are more personal than professional, though larger questions about life path and trajectory and goals and inertia and a lack of upward mobility all fed into that, along with the plain old pedestrian pressures of moving, starting a new job, and raising a teenager. But so far, as I’d hoped, this semester is indeed a lot more manageable, and this past week has been the first week since August that I have been able to even look at anything related to my dissertation. For all of this, I am deeply grateful.

But I’m also conflicted. I’m so grateful to have a teaching job that, ostensibly, pays enough to live on, to be working for a university that is making some small steps away from the wholesale and rampant abuse of adjuncts. I am grateful that I am not an adjunct, because if that had been my only option, I’d have had no choice but to bid farewell to academia. As a single parent and sole provider who has amassed an incredible amount of debt in grad school, I simply *cannot* adjunct. I can’t. I would have no choice but to find a full time job outside academia, the quicker the better. And I would be grieving — deeply.

And I am grateful for this job even though, given that debt, I don’t actually make enough to live on  — and I’m not even paying all my bills. I can’t afford to, and I am watching my credit explode like a slow motion drone striking an oil refinery. (In fact, the financial situation has been such that I had to take a leave of absence from my PhD program this semester because I could not afford to pay the fairly modest tuition charges that ABD students are billed for.) But compared to our adjuncts, I’m sitting pretty despite my still living paycheck to paycheck and not making any progress at all on getting out of debt, because at least I can eat and pay the gas bill.

But I share a hallway with adjuncts housed six to an office, sharing three desks, and I know full well that the only difference between them and me is luck. In fact, I got this job because a member of my MA cohort who is currently adjuncting gave me a heads up about it. We both applied. I got hired. I feel *incredibly bad and conflicted* about this fact. I don’t really need to say anything beyond the personal about this, since the impact — on TT faculty, on contingent faculty, on departments, on institutions, and on students and their educations — of contingent faculty being “the New Faculty Majority” has been articulated so many times by so many articulate people already. More on this later, in another post (hopefully after I’ve checked in with the emerging campus adjunct group to find out what is going on around here).

In the meanwhile, I’m dusting off an old piece I started back in 2009 and that still rings true today even though I now have actually had non-freshmen in my classes (including two actual English majors last semester, for the first time ever in a decade of teaching — thank God for Brit Lit I). I’m going to see what it looks like again now, a few years later, and figure out what I want to do with it, if anything; it may be that the adjunct issue + freshmen comp grading just takes up too much of my cognitive real estate these days for me to even worry about some of this stuff. But maybe it’s all related, after all.


Stealing Time

I am perhaps too cynical in wondering, in response to these recurring questions about “the crisis of the humanities”
and “what do we tell our students about majoring in the humanities” etc., just how much of a chance I even stand to ever be in a position to answer them.   And in this I find a surprising similarity between myself and some of my non-major students, those who clearly resent the liberal arts curriculum that requires their presence in the English classroom.  I find myself wondering about the use or practicality of graduate students answering the “why major in English” question when time and resources are finite, and when we are feeling the increasing apprehension of a dismal job market and the pall that pundits have cast over the future of humanities in general.  I’m aware of the sacrifice of time invested in articulating such a thing when in fact the real difference between whether or not we get a job teaching English majors may depend on luck, or an article we did or did not publish that we could be working on right now instead of grading or sleeping or finishing our dissertations, or on where we stand with regard to larger trends within our various subdisciplines.  The question of majoring in the humanities in general, or English literature in particular, has some parallel to our situation as graduate students.  We may scoff at the mindset that asks “what job will taking this class get me,” but we may be asking ourselves the same question as we face uncertain futures at this stage in what is on one level our vocational training.  So I’m hesitant to scoff too long or too loudly, having more empathy at this point in my life than I’ve ever had before for the student who grumbles, “why do I need this stuff, anyway?”

I’ve really only got significant experience teaching freshmen, with the occasional procrastinating sophomore and guest lecture spot thrown in for good measure, so I have no experience with having to field such a question about undergraduate majors from a student.  I have fielded questions from students about the concept of a major in general, about core curriculum and general education requirements, and most often my response has involved encouraging students towards delaying such a choice, or being willing to change it or at least willing to question it.  Ï’ve told them that if they are changing their minds as a result of their first semesters in college, then they’re doing it right.  I’ve probably encouraged my students not to be in a hurry to choose a major more often than I’ve tried to lure any of them over into English.   I have encouraged students to sample courses and departments, to take this time offered to them to do something they may have few opportunities to do later: to enjoy themselves intellectually, to wallow in complications and complexity, to read things and do things and think about things that have absolutely nothing to do with one’s future career at all (on the face of it).   Alonso refers to the common complaint “that we are professionalizing our students too early” (403), but in fact our students are professionalizing themselves, urged and even compelled by various non-professorial influences to “make the most of themselves,” to “develop their potential,” and, far too often, to consider the question of success in the narrowest and most starkly fiscal terms possible.  And in this too I empathize, with six-figure student loan debt, a teenager to feed, in my 40s with empty retirement and savings accounts.   The passionate love affairs that Hadda invokes are well and truly good things, but for many, such a yoking of vocation and passion remains an elusive desideratum; certainly I share her sentiments or I wouldn’t have lasted this long, but an abiding and almost religious commitment to the study of literature will not, after all, feed the kids or pay the mortgage.

For some of the students in our futures, these are painfully real considerations, and appealing to notions of mystical love with no sensitivity to the pressures and problems facing them as a result of these choices seems unconscionable.  Having already begun and ended several careers before I began PhD work, I am quick to bridle at pedagogical rationales that invoke the mystical, such as Hadda’s equation of “the realm of literature” with “the realm of the soul” (500).  I do in fact happen to personally believe this, and I might in fact engage such an articulation in some contexts, but I would not proffer it as an answer in all rhetorical contexts, to be sure.  I remain a devout believer in the humanities, but I think the invocation of love, well-meaning as it may be, risks being naïve at best, patronizing and alienating in some cases, and, when couple with bald lies about prospects on the job market, downright unethical.

So in a way, I see the question of “why major in literature? what do we tell our students?” as the least of my concerns right now.  The effort I make toward answering it, fully aware of a certain responsibility to engage it lest English departments become nothing but places to house adjuncts teaching composition and technical writing, I make fully aware of the fact that the question is inseparable from the larger question of “why liberal arts?”  But given the rhetorical and political contexts, I am also aware of the danger which Richmond-Garza points out, that if we do not defend literature as literature, it will cease to be in all places where budgets are not permitting “after writing and analytic reasoning have been addressed” (507).  The bottom line on a bad day, though, is that I feel pretty far away from certain that I will ever be asked such a question by a potential major, and I am losing confidence in the value of answers that do not clearly and carefully take the realities of the changing face of our future student populations into account.

This is perhaps a long and slightly weary way of saying that any answer to such questions must in each instance consider audience, purpose, and genre. It may be regrettable, but it is nevertheless true, that for many students, a literature major is an indulgence, perhaps even a sacrifice.  We owe it to these students to be honest with them about the comparative sacrifices, and we owe it to them to do our best to articulate the less tangible but very real benefits as well, even though these benefits do not make good bar graphs or PowerPoint slides.

Nevertheless, even in a required freshman composition class populated by non-humanities majors at a large state university, the genuine, seeking, pressing questions they’ve asked of me have had more to do with larger questions of living than with anything else, certainly anything career-specific.  Out of an admittedly small sample size of about 600 students who have occupied my classroom for a semester since I began teaching college, perhaps only three have spoken to me about majoring in English.  But on the occasions when they do check in, they often want to ask me things about being on the other side of the college degree, regardless of major.  They ask if I knew what I would major in when I was a freshman (I did). They ask if I always wanted to be a teacher (no).  They want to know if I ever dropped a class (yes), or got a bad grade (yes), and they want to know if I ever met literature I didn’t like and how I handled that (and are often amused and even gratified to hear that I dropped American Lit as an undergrad.  Twice).  They ask us questions as reasonably approachable adults; they ask us questions as representatives of the academy.  They ask us questions as ostensible specialists in everything (because of course we know when the library in Alexandria burned – we’re professors).  But they also ask us questions simply as human beings with other, perhaps broader and more knowledgeable, perspectives, and the ability to bridge experiences, relate, and make connections.  They ask us questions as human beings who study the humanities.

These anecdotes suggest to me – if only in retrospect, given the leisure of reflecting on them – that some of the very same students who are professionalizing themselves are also inquiring beyond the realm of the practical despite having packed for college with the practical on top.  Some of them, like the student who resents having to read boring old Beowulf, will simply go through the motions.  It’s sometimes all we can do, perhaps, to simply be ready for that spark, and be grateful for it when it happens, and do our best to encourage its growth, regardless of the final form that growth takes in the student.  Pope urges us to consider “how to make a stronger case for majoring in literature beyond the advantages for the practical student” (504).

But I imagine that we also have to be attentive to the subtext behind the student’s question, to the values, attitudes, and beliefs implicit in the rhetorical context.  Some may in fact be pondering the feasibility or ethics of compromise, negotiating the facts of their financial dependence on their parents or the student loan people with their desire to spend a little more time in the literature or art classroom before they graduate and lose that opportunity.  Some may be looking for help in articulating why impractical thinking is beginning to feel more important to them than statistics or chemistry.  Few, I expect, need to be tutored on how and why to love literature if they are already circling the question of a humanities major in our hearing. The extent to which we can read the question’s subtext and be sensitive to what’s at stake is the extent to which our answer will really answer them.

Pope invokes Socrates in the Theaetetus, noting that philosophers had leisure time to make their conversations as short or long as they needed, in contrast to the orators (more accurately lawyers), engaged in a paid profession and, in Pope’s citation, “hurried on by the clock” (in Pope 505).  But one of the meanings, or morals, here, emerges from Plato’s specific language; the Greek in question is not our clock but the clepsydra, a sort of water-clock, its name derived from the Greek kleptein (to steal) + hudor (water).  The clepsydra is the water-thief.  The clock of employment is the thief of time.  The employed speaker is at the mercy of the water-thief, but the student (philosopher, child of leisure) makes time, or takes time, borrows or even steals time, to follow (apparent and possibly useless) digressions.  The passage immediately following, which Pope does not quote, he yet might have in order to illustrate what remains one of the most valuable things about training in critical thinking and careful reading: Theodorus responds to Socrates that “the argument is our servant, not our master” (132).  The full weight of Plato’s means for arriving at this set of figures and the suggestive, embedded reading emerging from my thinking about the clepsydra is precisely the sort of thing that specializing in literature and its modes of thinking and analysis offers, and it is precisely why I keep doing this work and why I believe in teaching it – not to uncover The Definitive Reading, but to show students how (and hopefully why) to immerse themselves in a text, to take or borrow or even steal the time to do such luxurious reading.

I’m aware of several deadlines myself at the moment, some of which make a digression into the Theaetetus feel a bit self-indulgent, perhaps even irresponsible right now.  Probably my inner teacher, who has more experience teaching at state schools than at places like my PhD institution, would be better appeased by my addressing  statistics that show us that “socio-economic status is more powerful than academic ability in determining who goes to college and who eventually achieves a baccalaureate degree” (Lingenfelter 4).  Time spent rereading the Theaetetus feels rebellious or irresponsible, not germane to the matter at hand… feels like stolen time, time purloined from other, more practical endeavors jostling for position and attention on my to-do list.

And it is this, more than anything else, and more than any specific argument for a specific discipline, that I feel I could legitimately and responsibly recommend to my students right now when they ask the sort of questions they ask: steal the time now, while you can, because if your life has been anything like mine has been, and like it is statistically likely to shape up to be post-grad-school, it may be the only chance you get to luxuriate in the impractical and enriching before stealing the time to do such things equates to actually stealing bread out of your own children’s mouths. (For some of my students, it’s too late; they are already gambling their financial health and children’s stability by spending so much time in college paying to learn rather than bringing in income. For them, such mystical rhapsodies as Hadda’s are simply insulting.)  But as our training makes us so keenly aware, such an answer must always take the rhetorical context into account, must consider audience, purpose, and genre before giving an answer.  Bell argues that our responses must go in “two directions: an argument against the impoverishment of language and an argument in favor of the richness of the literary text as a locus for playing with and testing knowledge” (488).

I imagine that our responses must go in more directions than that, depending on our audiences.  To a student in an upper-level literature classroom, the pleasures of the text do not have to be sold; the seminar can be a retracing and deepening and expansion of familiar territory, acquired skills that can be honed.  To the policy maker and distributor of funding, I might invoke the clear failure of testing-based curricula to produce high school graduates capable of critical thinking, reading, and writing.  To the anxious parent, I might offer deNaples argument for the reality of career change and lifelong learning (498), and the role of literary studies in teaching students to “make connections” and to “reason rigorously across and between the disciplines” (498).  To the freshman literature student, I might emphasize that “I hate Beowulf” can be a perfectly valid starting place from which to develop a reasoned response, if said student is willing to identify and think about what produces those feelings of impatience, alterity, boredom, frustration, mistrust, and unrewarded or insufficiently rewarded labor.   To a job search committee, I might offer the same sort of answer I give when asked to defend my existence as a medievalist: Beowulf and Grendel are still talking to us in films, and Malory is still talking to us in gender studies, in children’s lit, in Walker Percy, in 21st century police procedural television shows.   Plato and Augustine and Alfred and Alcuin and Aquinas are still talking to us when a Congolese archbishop advises his parishioners, at risk for HIV infection, against condom usage in 2009. Future historians, economists, parents, social workers, citizens, and policymakers need to be able to trace, to appreciate, these things, and literary studies teach us to make the depth of these issues audible to an audience larger than the classroom, or the twelve Anglo-Saxonists who might read our article.

And as to the question of why literature – versus philosophy, or sociology, or anthropology, or art – I might only be able to offer literature as a storehouse of human achievement, as a microcosm of experience, as a rich center from which to move towards any sorts of considerations of political, historical, social, artistic exploration.  In short, I might only be able to offer a rhetorically sensitive response that keeps the pragmatic in view without sacrificing the joys of the particular and the very “uselessness” of studying literature as a major or concentration.  We have to refer to literature at times in the universal, to invoke its democracy, at the same time that we have to make a case for needing training in its specialized ways, to enjoy a deeper appreciation for our humanity, and the time – perhaps taken, perhaps even stolen, from more ‘practical’ pursuits – to delve into the record of humanity that our literatures record and interpret and its ways of thinking unique to the discipline.


Works Cited

Alonso, Carlos.  “Editor’s Column: My Professional Advice (to Graduate Students),” PMLA 117.3 (2002),  401-406.

deNaples, Frederick.  “You Can Always Teach.”  PMLA 117.3 (2002),  496-498.

Hadda, Janet.  “Being In Love.”  PMLA 117.3 (2002), 498-500.

Lingenfelter, Paul.  “Probing Policy Resistance to Liberal Education: Why the Chasm? Can it Be Bridged? And Who Loses if We Miss?”  President’s Speeches, Articles, and Presentations.  State Higher Education Executive Officers.   23 Jan 2011.   <;

Plato.  Theaetetus.  The Dialogues of Plato: Parmenides, Theaetetus, Sophist, Statesman, Philebus. Vol. IV.  Jowett, trans. and ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1892.  107-280.  Print.

Pope, Randolph.  “Why Major in Literature–What Do We Tell Our Students?”  PMLA 117.3 (2002),   503-506.  Web.

Richmond-Garza, Elizabeth.  “Concentrating on and in Literature.”  PMLA 117.3 (2002), 506-509.  Web.




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