"He opened the windows and put his face in his hands, reminding himself that he had a loving girlfriend and worked in an honourable profession and that the inability to afford a twenty dollar bottle of whiskey did not indicate that he was a complete failure as a human being."
Gordon Haber, freelance writer and former adjunct, speaks from a place of hard-won experience in his brief novella Adjunctivitis, which he is currently offering for free to adjuncts and education reporters alike. As much as anything in the book, his generosity in this regard illustrates his insight into the realities of adjunct life, where even a $2.99 purchase might seem a wasteful extravagance. By extending this offer to journalists as well, Haber is undoubtedly signalling his commitment to enlightening the wider world to the realities of contingent academic labor.
Adjunctivitis, however, is hardly a polemic. Instead, it reads as a slice-of-life approach to the difficulties that countless teachers in higher education now face, dealing with the everyday injustices of life as a member of academia's lower caste with an understated wit and an eye for the telling detail. The novella, by personalizing a topic that can easily be abstracted into irrelevancy, works to remind all of us who are concerned with the direction of higher education that the human cost of adjunctification lies in the day-to-day trials that, over time, can turn even a devoted pedagogue against a career as an instructor.
The book follows Robert Allen Rabinowitz, a "five-year veteran" of undergraduate writing instruction. Working as a "freeway flier," Rabinowitz splits his time between two Los Angeles schools, Fortas College and Compton Community College, in order to cobble together enough courses to earn a living that hovers somewhere between "substandard" and "impoverished." Desperate for the financial security (and much-needed health insurance) that a full-time teaching position would bring, Rabinowitz struggles to keep his aging and unreliable Lexus in working order while eating rice and beans for the majority of his meals.
Unfortunately, though Rabinowitz has been assured by the department heads of both colleges that his diligence will be rewarded, the unceasing flood of poor student writing has begun to take its toll. He finds himself incapable of grading papers without vomiting profusely at howlers such as "Since the beginning of the universe, American society has always loved reality TV" and "Morals are important because without them we wouldn't know how to act morally in society." Briefly concerned that his symptoms may be indicative of some greater malady, Rabinowitz eventually realizes that he is suffering from a simple case of "adjunctivitis."
Throughout the book, Haber uses a light touch when discussing a variety of topics that will be surely be familiar to anyone who has taught in higher education, from the grueling process of essay grading to the tepid excuses of absent students to the petty squabbles of faculty meetings. However, though he is unfussily self-deprecating in his characterization of Rabinowitz, Haber demonstrates a sincere affinity for the transformative qualities of education, without venturing near the territory of over-the-top, "O Captain! My Captain!"-style antics (though Dead Poets' Society does earn a mention). Rather, Haber dutifully details the nuts-and-bolts minutiae of classroom instruction (taking attendance, collecting essays, distributing reading selections) to ground Rabinowitz even as he moderates the sort of trenchant discussions that routinely alter the course of young lives.
The second-class citizen stature of the adjunct is a theme that Haber returns to again and again in Adjunctivitis, not only in faculty meetings where Rabinowitz is faced with the unenviable task of presenting his ideas to the dismissive and obtuse ranks of the tenured gods, but in the world beyond the academy's walls, where he cannot help but feel ant-like amidst the giants of L.A.'s entertainment industry-fattened gentry. Rabinowitz is on the very bottom rung of an endlessly tall ladder, a space he shares with his economically disadvantaged African-American and Hispanic students. For them, the promise of education is salvation, even if, ironically, such economic salvation has failed to materialize in the case of their instructor.
One by one, the minor indignities and overall air of deprivation add up to a crushing indictment of the contingent academic labor system, which relies on the exploitation of a casualized class of workers like Adjunct Lecturer Robert Allen Rabinowitz, who (to paraphrase Haber himself) in the absence of spousal support or an inheritance, will gradually starve. As Charles Bukowski said, "An intellectual says a simple thing in a hard way. An artist says a hard thing in a simple way." And while the problem of adjunctification has been explored by intellectuals for decades, translating the simple truth that adjuncts are exploited workers into the often obfuscatory language of academia, Adjunctivitis is a welcome artistic response to higher education's dirty secret. Though I am loathe to utter the words "required reading," in Gordon Haber's case, I would make an exception: no one should be permitted to attend graduate school before first seeing where such a path might take them.