EG: Your first novel Fight for Your Long Day followed protagonist Cyrus Duffleman, a put upon adjunct instructor of composition, through a surreal day in the city of Philadelphia. Since the novel was published in 2010 have you noticed any change in public perception on the issues facing adjuncts who must contend with low salaries, zero benefits, and no job security?
AK: Yes, I think there is a greater public understanding of the issues although I’m not certain if the majority of the public has an exact opinion on it. I think that Trump and Sanders are both doing as well as they are because a large portion of the public is not satisfied with the status quo. They see an American workforce that includes 35% contingent positions (that stat includes one to three-year lecturer or “teaching professor” contracts as contingent, I’m pretty sure), a median household net worth of about 80 grand (I’ve seen this as low as 50 grand, and then it is higher if you only include white or Asian households), and a workforce participation rate that has stayed lower than it was before the Great Recession began—between 62 and 63 percent for most of Obama’s eight years (in fact, perhaps surprisingly, it was several points higher during the better years of the W. Bush Presidency).
The adjunct problem is very much related to these more general trends, and that is one reason I have Cyrus work as part-time night-shift security guard at the end of his day—so we can think about the relationship of contingent professors to other contract workers. I think such partnerships would be valuable although academic contingents are often coming from different socioeconomic backgrounds compared to people who guard the campuses, warehouses, or anywhere else.
On the other hand, a more pessimistic view is that regular workers (the rest of America) has a lot of trouble of seeing adjunct instructors at all—the campuses themselves often appear to be booming—professional (haha) or almost professional-level sports, constant construction (sometimes the only construction in a college town is on campus or to build places for students and employees to live) that it is hard to even imagine any worker on those campuses as “marginalized” or impoverished.
Also, to clarify, as is common for many adjuncts, Duffy teaches three different courses during his long day, and one is first-year writing (composition more or less but the specific section in the novel is on the argument essay), and the two others are business writing and 20th century Eastern European and Russian literature. That is, or was, very realistic when I was an adjunct—because the wages are so low, if an adjunct seems eager and able, a wide range of courses may be available.
EG: In Auggie's Revenge, your follow up to Fight For Your Long Day, we are introduced to adjunct teacher of philosophy Michael Vittinger, but the focus is more on his life outside the classroom. Was this a conscious creative decision on your part?
AK: For Auggie’s Revenge, I had both Michael and Auggie at first, and the Auggie character was the dominant one when I first imagined the book. But then I began writing from the perspective of Michael and soon after introduced Jonny November’s voice which was a fun one for me and so radically different from my day-to-day life as a teacher and parent—unless we consider that Jonny is Auggie’s teacher and parent. In fact, a few of the Auggie voice sections were among the last sections I drafted, and Melony Sorbet’s voice was also a relatively late add although I had those four characters as the main four characters from very early on.
I don’t think I saw it exactly as “inside v. outside,” but I’m glad you noticed this. I never intended to become an “adjunct novelist,” not exclusively anyway; I’ve always had different ideas for different books although adjunct novels seem to be what I can get published right now. Although there may be mentions of universities in my other works, I hope to publish an early surreal urban novel, Spark Park, a car-sales novel, and a memoir about my father’s life and his relationship to my immigrant grandfather who served his country during both world wars. I’m not against returning to the classroom for fiction though.
EG: Both novels are set in Philadelphia, a diverse city, and your novels never shy away from how ethnic and racial tensions can manifest themselves in the classroom. Should college instructors be better prepared for teaching in diverse classrooms?
AK: It’s a funny question because, yes, absolutely, and ideally, all college instructors should get paid diversity training, and yet, we aren’t even at the point where every college student in America knows who their teacher will be two weeks before classes start. Also, I should say that although Philadelphia is diverse, I taught at one school where it would not be uncommon to have an almost all white or only white and Asian (often South Asian) class. In the South I had many different sections of up to 34 students that would often include only one black student or two black students and one “HAPA” student or something like that. So some of the college classrooms I’ve been have been incredibly homogeneous—vast majority white to entirely white.
I’d like to note that, yes, Philadelphia is diverse, but even in 2016, it doesn’t compare to New York City’s diversity. In Philly we have entrenched poverty (the highest rate of “deep poverty” of any major city), and we still have strong non-immigrant black and white populations. America’s larger cities, such as DC, San Francisco, and New York City, are far more expensive than Philadelphia, and they also have a far greater representation of the global economic elites. So they say it is possible to walk through Manhattan and see a representative of every nation on earth, but you won’t see American black people. Philadelphia is very different, more ethnically traditional and our metro-region Latino and Asian populations by percentage are not nearly as great as they are in California or New York City.
EG: Do you have any favorite fictional teachers or professors?
AK: Peter Mickelsson of John Gardner’s Mickelsson’s Ghosts was the character that got me thinking that an academic protagonist didn’t have to be “loveable” or an obvious antagonist to be the central figure in an academic novel, or any novel. Murray Siskind a supporting character from White Noise is one I’ve liked, and the scenes of all the professors of American Environments testing each other (“Did you ever brush your teeth with your finger?, etc.) make me laugh. I like the professor as central figure in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain and Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein although again, it is not that these protagonist academics are exactly “likeable” in every way. The latter is based on Allan Bloom, author ofThe Closing of the American Mind, and the narrator of that book may very well be a fictional character of sorts. It’s quite engaging, even if one doesn’t see eye-to-eye with Bloom.
EG: In Auggie's Revenge we meet a character named Jonny November who goes on hilarious and sometimes poignant rants on America being one giant Ponzi scheme. His persona reminded me of George Carlin. Did anyone in particular inspire the creation of Jonny?
AK: I wasn’t thinking of Carlin specifically although I recognize that some of Jonny’s scenes would work well as set pieces apart from the novel. I love novels where a central male character does not fit in with society (from Fred Exley to Dan and John Fante to many different protagonists of Saul Bellow novels), and I think Jonny, Auggie, and Michael are all misfits in different ways. From film, I was thinking a little bit about the character Alan Arkin played in Little Miss Sunshine, the older guy who will spit it out, knowing and not caring that he may offend some listeners and readers. Maybe David Mamet’s films or plays also relate to Jonny’s personality although Jonny is more slapstick, too, and it’s great to hear you found some of it hilarious. Thank you.
(Part Two of my interview with Alex will post next week)
EG: While both novels focus on adjuncts, I think they also explore some of the deeper systemic issues facing higher education. For example, a four year degree no longer guarantees entry into the middle class. To quote Jonny November:
Don't let them fool you. Jobs? Careers? Yes, for the top kids, the well trained ones with the brains upstairs, it all works out, particularly if they smile endlessly and work their parents' connections. But for the rest of us. No fucking way are we gonna leave college with anything other than egregious debt . . . If you're like me, and the system is already stacked against you, against most of us, then college is not the right move.
What are some systemic changes higher education needs to make for it stay viable in the 21st century?
AK: First of all, let me say that the novel is fiction, and Jonny is a character in the novel, and I am trying to capture a personality, and also explore some possibilities that I could feel and see when I began teaching in the late nineties, and that are beginning to get wider visibility, often with statistical proof, twenty years later. Right now though, it is still more of a “let the buyer beware” sort of problem, and unfortunately I have a feeling that the more financial aid the student requires, on average, the less likely they are to have access to the best information when choosing a college or major or deciding to attend at all.
There is also luck involved as well as far as how good or bad the economy is when one graduates. Graduating into the early nineties recession gave me some insight into how bad things can be for college grads in general although it seems like things might be worse, on average, since the much more recent “Great Recession.” I suspect that many high schools and their guidance counsellors are beginning to acknowledge the exorbitant costs, and are doing even more to guide students into colleges and majors that are more likely to lead to financial security.
If we are talking about systemic changes without regard to how to pay for them, then the intervention would be most fair, that would support democracy and the greatest number would likely occur well before college. Make sure kids from pre-K on are getting access to the resources they need to one day make a smart decision about college, and also make sure that decision is not negatively impacted by finances of parents. That would be the ideal, that even the poorest American would be in position to choose a degree for the sake of learning. As a country, and a world, we are amazingly far away from that kind of thing.
What we are doing right now is applying “patches” to the problem, so yes we have some decent loan forgiveness programs that have been improved several times since 2007, but there is not a tremendous amount of publicity about these programs. Because adjuncts are part of the larger trend of contract work (the aforementioned 35%), single-payer health coverage would likely be the best thing for this 35% (and others), but we have patches through ACA, and it seems like they are effective for many, but worse for some in some ways.
You can visit Alex's Blog at http://kudera.blogspot.com/.
You can visit Alex's Blog at http://kudera.blogspot.com/.
(Part Two of my interview with Alex will post next week)