Go read “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” a sadly provocative essay in The Atlantic by “Professor X,” who is an adjunct instructor at a private college and at a community college. (H/t to Lance Mannion, via Suburban Guerilla.) The article is a report from the front lines by an instructor who teaches introductory composition and literature courses to people who frequently don’t have the skills it takes to pass hir class, let alone earn a college degree. It’s not snarky at all–ze is a compassionate person who truly dislikes failing hir students, but ze dislikes even more the falsely egalitarian notion that college is the only path to success. I sheepishly identify with this:
The full-time, tenured professors at the colleges where I teach may likewise feel comfortably separated from those whom they instruct. Their students, the ones who attend class during daylight hours, tend to be younger than mine. Many of them are in school on their parents’ dime. Professors can fail these young people with emotional impunity because many such failures are the students’ own fault: too much time spent texting, too little time with the textbooks.
There are some returning students and other students with more complex lives taking courses in the daylight hours, but I agree with Professor X’s point about “daylight” versus nighttime students and faculty. There is a large class and status divide between those of us for whom teaching and learning are our “day jobs,” and those for whom teaching and learning are pursued in the second shift. To those students and faculty, our day shift must look like beer and skittles. Professor X continues:
But my students and I are of a piece. I could not be aloof, even if I wanted to be. Our presence together in these evening classes is evidence that we all have screwed up. I’m working a second job; they’re trying desperately to get to a place where they don’t have to. All any of us wants is a free evening. Many of my students are in the vicinity of my own age. Whatever our chronological ages, we are all adults, by which I mean thoroughly saddled with children and mortgages and sputtering careers. We all show up for class exhausted from working our full-time jobs. We carry knapsacks and briefcases overspilling with the contents of our hectic lives. We smell of the food we have eaten that day, and of the food we carry with us for the evening. We reek of coffee and tuna oil. The rooms in which we study have been used all day, and are filthy. Candy wrappers litter the aisles. We pile our trash daintily atop filled garbage cans.
That’s right–not only are they pursuing their second jobs and educations after hours, without the company of colleagues or even the minimal courtesy of the department office having the door open and a staff member to help with the copier, or to lend a stapler or a dry-erase marker. These faculty and students are literally working amidst the refuse that the day faculty and day students have left behind: the overflowing trash cans, the chalkboards already hopelessly smeared with dust.
Professor X is the George Orwell of adjunct faculty and night school students. Ze should write a book: Down and Out in Amherst and Madison?
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