March 19, 2003

The Only Emperor is the Emperor of Ice Cream

Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
-- Wallace Stevens

I am very new to blogging. Indeed, about three months ago, I actually had to ask someone, "What is a blog?" I had a vague notion that it was some sort of online diary or journal, but beyond that, I was so absolutely clueless that I didn't even realize that blog was a shortened version of weblog. Three weeks ago, I didn't know an anchor tag from a hole in the ground. Yes, I have been online for several years, and I have participated in several listserves and discussion boards. In terms of access to new technologies: why, I've been fully wired and web-ready for years. But until recently, it had never occurred to me that I might learn to do just a little bit more than type, point and click. It literally had never crossed my mind that I might get myself a book on xhtml and try to muddle through the basics.

Well, I'm a bit of a Luddite, I suppose. Though perhaps this is just another way of saying that I'm an ignoramus? I stand in awe of those who know code. I stand outside and wonder, as though contemplating from afar and through a glass darkly the inner workings of some vast mysterium from which I am by definition excluded. But by definition of what, exactly? Partly, of course, by self-definition: I do words, not numbers, English grammar not standards-compliant code. I settled on this self-definition by about the age of 6 or 7, and old habits of course die hard. And I'm sure I will always be a bit of techno-blunderer, though I do now know the meaning of anchor tag.

So I am new to blogging -- late to the party as usual, "always a bridesmaid never a bride" as the saying goes (I've been both, by the way, and it's more fun being a bridesmaid, despite those ghastly polyester dresses). And I am just finding my way through the blogoshere, and at the moment, I am so impressed by what's out there! Yes, there is a good deal of nuttiness and more than a little of nastiness. But there is also something very different indeed: some really sharp stuff by any number of smart and interesting and engaged people. I'm sure they all know code; I stand in awe before them. Myself, I am still trying to figure out how I want to blog and what it is I want to blog about.

I had originally intended to devote this space to a discussion of issues faced by academics, and especially by those of us who occupy that strange space on the margins, where we are in but not of, or perhaps of but not quite in, the academy. There are now some 400,000 of us, and our ranks continue to swell. And yet we remain oddly isolated and alone, and for the most part I think it is fair to say that we lack a shared space in which to discuss the issues and problems that characterize life as an adjunct faculty member.

To be sure, there is a dawning realization -- on the part of many full-time faculty and, more importantly, on the part of those various professional organizations and associations that can give a voice to our concerns -- that the trend toward adjunct teaching staff is indeed a serious problem, and not only for those who occupy adjunct positions but also for the future of the academic professions as a whole. And there is a growing literature (essays, editorials, position papers and the like) that addresses itself to the problem of de-professionalization. There is a good deal of information out there, which I diligently seek out and avidly devour.

But much as I welcome the position paper, I am also searching for something else entirely. What I want, what I would like to see, is a space that is somewhere between the level of the personal and the level of policy (I don't and won't call it the political, for reasons about which I will blog at some other time). I have yet to find this space ("Adjunct Nation" is a start, I suppose, but it is overall too cheerful, too decidedly "can-do" in its stance, to answer my -- perhaps unanswerable -- expectations). And so this blog is my small, my very small, attempt at carving out a space that I otherwise do not find. And who the hell am I? three weeks ago I didn't know an anchor tag from my own bellybutton (now where did bellybutton come from? ah! my 20-month old son is currenlty obsessed by bellybuttons, before long it will be dinosaurs, and before I know it he will be off to college, and who exactly will be teaching him?... )

Anyway, I don't want this space to be just another me-zine, all about me and what I ate for breakfast and what are my complaints: Poor me, I don't get paid enough; Pity me, I lack an office; but damn! my husband makes a mean panckake, and so on. At the same time, I certainly do have some complaints and I would very much like to express them. As I've said elsewhere, the adjunct faculty member is a blot on the copybook, an embarrassment to the profession to which he or she (at least marginally) belongs. And we who are adjuncts internalize this sense of shame and embarrassment, which is one of the reasons, I believe, that we are so reluctant to speak out. So ok, it's my page, and I can say what I like, even if I myself am the only reader, addressing myself, Frances Burney-style, to "Nobody." Though in truth, I would like to attract, among other readers, a half dozen or so of those 400,000 adjuncts out there (many of whom, I've little doubt, have yet to hear about blogging: don't underestimate the backwardness of humanities academics!). So I want to be able to get some things off my chest, but don't want this blog to be a narrowly focused and inward-turning me-zine.

And I am also struggling to find (or perhaps in some small way to help create, though even that is probably too grandiose a scheme) a space that falls somewhere between the "adjunct as entrepreneur" model which I reject outright, and the "adjunct as activist" model which I haven't yet addressed and about which I have some serious reservations. Don't get me wrong: there's a reason why I include workplace: the journal for academic labor on my blogroll. I think this journal is a must-read for every adjunct, and indeed for anyone and everyone who is concerned about the future of higher education in this country. But to say this is not to offer a blanket endorsement of its analyses, tactics and strategies. At some point in the near future, I want to take a critical look at Marc Bousquet's call for "a dictatorship of the flexible" (for whose work I grateful, but about which I am ambivalent; and no, I don't think he is being entirely tongue-in-cheek about this "dictatorship:" again, of which more anon).

So this was my original intention, and for the moment this remains my intention.

But today? Well, today I am inclined to think, What the f*** does any of this matter? And for obvious reasons. Let be be finale of seem, the only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.

Because much as I am passionately committed to all of the above, at this moment it seems silly -- nay, it seems worse than silly, it seems positively wrong -- for me to focus on my paltry little concerns when we are about to drop bombs on some city and Jesus (descending into me-zine mode, because it's my space and I can addres myself to Nobody), I look at my wee son who is truly the light of my life, and there is probably nothing I would not do for him (I resist the cult of domesticity that dies hard in America, sure, but would I give up my life to save the life of my son? I surely would, you want to believe it, baybee, I would do so without hesitation). And Edmund Burke was right about our "little platoons," he surely was right about this. At some level, I have to care more about my own child: a child requires so much of time and energy and investment (physical, emotional, financial and so on) that none of us would be here, I am sure, if parents didn't care first and foremost for their own children. But though my own child must come first for me, it would be morally immature, it would be morally wrong, of me to think that my child really does matter more than anyone else's.

And so I think of 20-month old children in Baghdad, and gee, I wish I had a tenure-track position in the academy, but for f***'s sake, in the grand scheme of things, my failure to obtain such a position in the field of academic history just does not matter. Clio doesn't care, and why the hell should she? It is as nothing compared to the possibility (probability?) that someone else's 20-month old child -- who does, who must, matter as much as my own child -- will die a horrid and gruesome death for reasons which, at this point, are really beyond my ken. At some point in the future, I mean to take on the "graduate students [unemployed and underemployed Ph.Ds.?] are among the blessed of the earth" which sometimes makes me angry, which sometimes makes me feel luminous with anger. But tonight I cannot be angered by that which does not really matter. Tonight I must acknowledge that I and mine are indeed among the blessed of the earth, through no virtue of our own, mind you, through a mere accident of birth, of space and time and geography. And I must humbly bow down before the awful truth that the only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at March 19, 2003 04:49 PM

What's an adjunct exactly?

Posted by: meika von samorzewski at March 20, 2003 11:43 AM

An adjunct is a part-time instructor who is paid by the course, and who is not part of the regular faculty of assistant, associate and full professors. Adjuncts receive very low pay, and often no benefits at all, and they lack academic freedom and academic security because they can be fired (or not rehired) at will.
The move toward adjunct teaching staff in the university is basically the same move toward contingent, low-wage, part-time work that we see in many other sectors and segments of the economy.

Posted by: at March 20, 2003 12:23 PM

That's what i thought, don't think we call them that here in Australia, leastways, i don't think so

Posted by: meika von samorzewski at March 23, 2003 11:23 AM

Maybe you call them "entrepreneurs"? I'm guessing you have the equivalent, it's a growing trend all over.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at March 25, 2003 12:00 AM

We call them casual or part-time teaching staff. The former are paid by the hour; the latter are paid in terms of a proportionof a ful time position eg. .5 and so they have holidays, superanuation and sick days etc. Such part-time contract positions are for 1-3 years(more 1) and are disappearing.Casual employment is the new way of working cos its cheap.

I did both causal and contract teaching for many a year.

Entrepreneurs relate to bringing the money into cash starved universities----its a new mode of being an academic best contrasted with scholar. Hence it relates to research or consultancy.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson at March 25, 2003 04:15 AM

I don't comment much on the experience of being an adjunct on my blog, partly because I'm not anonymous, and partly because I'm aware that my current students might be reading, and I'd rather they not have a peak at the man behind the curtain. I swear to myself and anyone who will listen that this is my last semester as an adjunct, however, so I might say something about the experience afterwards.

A couple of adjunct friends of mine do comment about teaching on their blogs. They are Alex ( and Bec (

Posted by: Glen Engel-Cox at March 26, 2003 03:54 PM

Casual is a more accurate term than adjunct, I think.

Glen, you have hit upon one of the reasons why I go anonymous. Thanks for those links.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at March 27, 2003 12:50 AM