Category Archives: A(djunct)cademia

Salting the earth with hypocrisy.

It’s the last week of classes, and my course announcements, as usual, have stacked up like this:

Hey class,
Due to travel hazards/laryngitis/an ongoing family emergency/my sick cat, I will be unable to attend class today. As such, I will record a lecture in advance of our meeting time and hang out in the chat room during class to field any questions you might have about the material. As always, you can email me directly with comments.
Best,
Prof. Mani

Also featured are stories of delays: #NJTransit and #PennStation have trended at least twice this month due to massive breakdowns, delays, and crowd control issues. After a NJTransit train derailed on Monday, April 3, damaging switches and rails, train delays and cancellations, platform crowding, and overflow trains infected the entire week, including the Tuesday and Thursday I commute to Rutgers for a 2:2 course load. At Penn Station, Amtrak, LIRR, and NJTransit were all affected. According to news reports and angry commuters on Twitter, the less crowded Penn Station’s platforms and trains looked like this:

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That’s hours of delays, jostling shoulder to shoulder on the platform, followed by a standing-room only commute for an hour on the Northeast Corridor.

Thousands of commuters were doing this, so I couldn’t say it wasn’t doable. But I didn’t do it. I cancelled my Rutgers classes that week, citing only my concerns that I wouldn’t arrive on time, and we wouldn’t be able to hold class anyway.

This was true, but it wasn’t the real reason.

Coincidentally, after I returned to campus I heard from a former student that I have a reputation for canceling, and I’ve been trying to dismiss my concerns about it because I’m not sure I get to be defensive. Like a good faculty member, I am dishonest with my students about my reasons, despite insisting they be honest with me about theirs. I lie because, as long as I can power through without dying mid-lecture, the truth sounds like an excuse. I’m in pain. I’m exhausted. I just can’t.

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For Every Student Who Ever Has to Complete an Analytical Writing Assignment

Only not really because that would just be a blanket generalization, now wouldn’t it?

Tongue-in-cheek remarks aside, I finally decided to try to shortcut an answer to the questions that come pouring in right before the first analytical paper assignment, regardless of the course subject: What’s a theoretical concept again? How am I supposed to use it? What do you mean, “apply”?

My use of “the lens” dates back to my teacher training in Columbia University’s Undergraduate Writing Program, and it was a confusing concept for students then and it’s still confusing now. Since today was a snow day and I like procrastinating, I decided to take a stab at a video explanation of what a lens is and how to use it.

The materials I used were a notepad, a pencil, a strip cut out of a transparency sheet, and a Batman plushie. Hopefully that was enough. I think one slide may have been out of order but still, you get the idea.

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In which I reflect on Fall 2014 and ASP 2014.

The effects of airplane turbulence aside, I’m feeling more like myself and realizing how much I’ve been meaning to write about. The surreal nature of being classified in the ER. The progressively decreased emphasis on quality of work in favor of quantity of interpersonal drama on Inkmaster. Something about Crossed‘s Cindy or Crossed: Family Values‘ Adaline and/or her Mom for a CFP. And, for months now, my recent experience teaching first-year writing in Columbia’s summer bridge program for the second time, as it has kept me afloat through a rocky semester of teaching in which I had to power through the pain and fog of recovery in order to make money to survive, and simultaneously ignore the nagging feeling that, maybe, I shouldn’t have had to.

Mark Strand once wrote: “We all have reasons for moving./I move to keep things whole.”

As I faced the pale shadow of myself, floundering in my work load and trying to find my way back to the teacher I knew I used to be, the memory of ASP 2014 sustained me. As professors we talk warmly about students “getting it,” and I knew, whatever my pedagogical lapses as I recovered, I had helped those students “get it” and, as dark as my map had become, that was a place my teaching could return to.

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“Depression drives me to gaze into abysses.”

I’m quoting Jake Jackson, from this article at phdisabled, which I skimmed when it was published but read more closely yesterday, on the subway, legless and crawling before the realities of health care. Again it brought me to the edge of tears, as words do when they tell my experiences back to me in a form I was previously unable to grasp.

This is my current abyss.

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Really, we’re calling adjuncts “whiny” and “entitled” now?

Been watching this unfold in my inbox on WPA-L all day. As one such adjunct, I have not the words yet, but eventually I expect I will, once the anger dies down about how the people who are actually entitled, or lucky enough to be secure, or secure enough to not have to recognize that sometimes there are no other options, are always going to exist, say shit like this, and completely ignore the fact that if all adjuncts had other (emotionally, physically, etc.) viable options? The machine, sans cogs, would stop working.

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Consolation prizes.

My to-do list is a mile long, so obviously I’m updating my blog. In my absence, I’ve been publishing creatively—check out my pieces in r.kv.r.y and DIAGRAM if you haven’t already followed all my buzz about it on Facebook or Twitter—reworking my novel for the final time, and teaching three courses, while attempting to read a book or two for that dissertation proposal I have to write, probably sooner than I’d like to. Besides all that, I’ll break down my life like this: Fuck you, American healthcare system; and fuck you, American system of education that accepts the semi-hazing process of working yourself to the bone to simultaneously finance a higher degree and survive; and fuck you, government standards of disability that indicate that if you are at all functional, you’re not in enough pain to qualify for anything.

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Who we are.

We are your neighbors.  Your friends.  Your long-lost relatives.  Once we were your classmates.  Your roommates.  Your office coworkers.  We play the field.  Work multiple jobs.  We carry backpacks, briefcases, computers.  Grade into the wee hours of morning.  Intellectualize.  Dissect everything out of habit.  We teach because we love it and because we are too specialized to do anything else.  We lack health care.  Job security.  Parking space.  Office space.  Photocopies.  Petty cash.  Any cash.  Vacation days.  Sick days.  But not furlough days, when we are made to work for free.

We are halftime, part-time, anywhere/anytime.  We fall to budget cuts.  Senior faculty.  Tenured faculty.  Even when we are better than them.  We are hip.  We are slovenly.  We are idealistic workers in a political system.  We are jaded and clinging to idealism as though it can save us.  We know it can’t.  We have quotas to meet.  We normalize grades.  Separate them from bad moods.  We are subjective.  We juke the stats.  Our commutes are $15+ a day.  We are not reimbursed.  We have lost free food events.  We are tired.  And damn, we are hungry.

You have seen us on the subways, grading furiously with our backpacks between our knees.  You have seen us on buses and trains, clacking out comments on our laptops.  You have heard us bemoaning Blackboard 9.  You have emailed us asking for extensions, conferences, demanding better grades, threatening to go to the department head, the dean.  We have humored you.  We have covered our own asses because no one else will.  We have no social life.  We miss our social life.  We publish or perish.  We publish and perish anyway.  We crave tenure we are too inexperienced for, too avant-garde for, too bad for, too good for.  We are hired and fired according to experience, qualification, personal bias, racism.  We are hired as late as August.  Fired as early as May.  We smile.  We bear up.  We try to make a difference.  Make it look easy when it never is.

We are expected to be there and we are, work horses, numerous because we are paid less for more.  We are called professors.  We are called menial staff.  We try to form unions only to be told we aren’t allowed to.  Or we would unionize, except we can’t afford the fees.  We live on less than $20K/yr.  We are expected to survive.

We are white, black, Asian, Latino, European, inner-city, suburban, rural.  We are anyplace that will have us.  We are MFAs. MSs. PhDs.  ABDs.  Overqualified.  Underpaid.  Over-caffeinated.  Under-slept.  Desperate.  We are the underdogs of academia.  You know us by our name adjunct.  And we are many.

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This work by V. Manivannan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at vyshalimanivannan.wordpress.com.

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Where we come from.

We come from South Asia; Long Island; Charlottesville, Virginia; Hammond, Louisiana; Springfield, Missouri; Hanover, New Hampshire; New York, New York.  We are English B.A.’s and Fiction M.F.A.’s.  We are Ivy League educated, for what that’s worth.  We teach in Washington Heights.  Harlem.  Morningside.  Soho.  New Jersey.  Brooklyn.  We teach ESL writing, creative writing, professional writing, college writing.  Forget our own writing.  We have taught for seven years.  We teach K-12.  We teach college.  We volunteer.  We get paid.  We gripe.  We call this rewarding.

We are armchair academics in the comfiest of armchairs.  We come from near-perfect grades and test scores, academic parents, science backgrounds, art backgrounds, the pressure to be well-rounded which is what we bring to our classrooms.  We come from the world: television, movies, comics, video games, anime, Saturday morning cartoons, music, music videos, teh Internets and the electronic apocalypse.  We expect a robot rebellion by 2050 at the latest.  We philosophize about it in the meantime.  We’ll be disappointed if it doesn’t happen while we’re alive.

We teach halftime as adjunct faculty and part-time as a tutor at a New York nonprofit.  We love children.  We hate children.  We do our song-and-dance routine and wait for them to get it, for the glow of our reward.

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This work by V. Manivannan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
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What’s on tap.

If I may speak for us Composition & Rhetoric adjuncts, we read.  A lot.  And not all of it’s student papers.  If nothing else we read what we assign, because, well, we have to.  And we list our readings for your perusal, because, well, coming up with a reading list solo is hard.

We read literature.  Margaret Atwood, Jamaica Kincaid, T.S. Eliot, Zbigniew Herbert, Sylvia Plath, Angela Carter, Ursula LeGuin, Flannery O’Connor, Kurt Vonnegut, Haruki Murakami, Andre Dubus.  Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Burning Chrome, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’s Son, Julie Orringer’s How to Breathe Underwater, Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Julio Cortazar’s Cronopios y Famas, Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Jorge Luis Borges’s A Universal History of Iniquity, Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s Saturday Night at the Pahala Theater, Junot Diaz’s Drown, Italo Calvino’s Castle of Crossed Destinies and Invisible Cities and Cosmicomics (we love his versatility in the classroom).  We read graphic novels because they belong in the canon too: Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.  Lucifer, Bone, Bottomless Belly Button.  Jimmy Corrigan.  The Sinister Truth.

We read from Dennis Cooper to Garcia Marquez; we love His Dark Materials, Lloyd Alexander, anything Atwood; we read journalist perspectives on countries stricken with war and ethnic conflict and the places where art and trauma intersect: Chanrithy Him’s When Broken Glass Floats, Anita Pratap’s Island of Blood, Lasantha Wickrematunga’s “And Then They Came for Me,” Greg Marinovich’s The Bang-Bang Club, Ben Okri’s Stars of the New Curfew, Chris Abani’s Becoming Abigail, Michael Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost.  We read manga: Death NoteFullmetal AlchemistTengen Toppa Gurren Lagann.  We indulge our grown-up angst and our inner twelve-year-old boy.  We believe that good writing emerges from good reading.  We change our readings every other year, to prevent ourselves from getting comfortable in our old age with the same old things, because our students keep growing and experiencing the world anew, and if we allow it we—and our reading lists—will fast become outdated.

We read essays.  From Henry Jenkins’s Convergence Culture, Sherry Turkle’s Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, Jessica Hagedorn’s Danger and Beauty, Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You.  Douglas Wolk, Jamaica Kincaid, Jonathan Lethem, Martha Nussbaum, Michel Foucault.  Vivian Gornick’s “On the Street,”Ann duCille’s “Dyes and Dolls,” Robert Scholes’s “On Reading a Video Text,” Marguerite Helmers’s “Media, Discourse, and the Public Sphere,” Julian Dibbell’s “A Rape in Cyberspace,” Jeffrey Cohen’s “Monster Culture: Seven Theses,” Carol Clover’s “Gender in the Slasher Film,” Slavoj Zizek, “The Desert of the Real.”  Picture Morpheus in his armchair and mirror-shades, gesturing to Neo as he speaks that phrase, the sky boiled by thunderclouds, lightning.  That’s the force we want in our essays.  That power.  That ability to fascinate and engage.

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This work by V. Manivannan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
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Composition & Rhetoric: A List.

1.  Pre-semester, we lesson plan.  We outline course policies, syllabuses, calendars.  This involves figuring out what readings we’re going to use, when we’re going to assign them, what assignments we’re going to pair them with.  Forget about approaching this linearly.  This is holistic creation or bust.

2.  I believe in transparency.  Triangulation.  Collaboration.  Anything that strikes the beat of idealistic manifesto.

3.  I spend most of the year brainstorming assignments in the back of my mind.  Make notes.  Fill thin unlined Muji notebooks cover to cover with diagrams, handwritten handouts, assignments & caveats.  I avoid using the questions in the textbook if I’m required to use one.  By August I start by picking my readings.  Sometimes this involves reading the whole textbook.  Often it involves re-reading several stories, trying to compile them in five coherent units.  Then, question time.  Should I theme each unit around the theme of the essays or stories?  Or should I theme each around a particular rhetorical skill?  What rhetorical skills do I want to focus on?  What rhetorical skills are modeled by the readings?  I try to find answers.  I organize essays into units by rhetorical skill, literature by theme.   I organize units so that skills build on one another and culminate in a project that encompasses them all.

4.  You know what a class calendar looks like.  They look easy.  They aren’t.

5.  Calendars consist of readings, activities for the day, assignments due that day.  Once I’ve organized my readings, I invent or reimagine assignments that work with the readings.  These are reflections.  Distillations.  Reader responses.  Creative assignments.  Close-readings.  Mock arguments.  Anything students can potentially use in their papers.  Anything to familiarize them with this kind of legwork.  Because if they get to drafting without knowing it, boy are you screwed.

6.  There are three drafts in an essay progression.  Turn-around for comments is about a week between each.  This means that once you receive the first set of drafts, you’ll be grading every week until the semester ends.  Plan accordingly.

7.  Protip #1: Weekends are safe.  Under no circumstances should you allow drafts to fall in the middle of the week.  You will kill yourself.  I should know.

8.  Have all materials to the department before the deadline.  Me, I’m lucky if I submit it the day it’s due.  Then again, I enjoy killing myself, if my procrastination track record is any indication.

9.  During the semester, we teach, revise, and improvise.  Lesson plans are more like guidelines.  Sometimes we should stick to them.  Sometimes, in the face of a class that’s dead or unprepared, we have to deviate.  This has screwed me on faculty review before.  Now I arm myself with a notebook full of back-up exercises, random topics, free-writes, creative topics.  I talk about cyberculture, weird fetishes on the Internet, pro-anorexia, fanfiction and fan culture, 4chan, Twitter, Facebook, Something Awful goons.  I talk about television.  Cartoons.  Video games.

10. Protip #2: Stay abreast of current pop culture.  It will save you when nothing else can.

11. Protip #3: Cannibalism and the apocalypse, as a rule, will always supply an impetus to write.

12. I just realized I didn’t actually look at a single lesson plan all semester, even though I spent weeks outlining in August.  Instead, I rewrote them all the night before class, solidifying my discussion questions regarding the readings, trying to anticipate stumbling blocks.  Students aren’t as predictable as we’d like them to be.

13. Cases in point: students who vehemently believe that soldiers should blindly obey orders, even so far as killing civilians; students who call Islam “monstrous”; students who think the word “fag” is okay, who think that poor, predominantly black/Hispanic urban communities have “brought it on themselves,” who think that women who walk alone at night are “asking for it,” who don’t notice the frigid silence in the room when they announce these beliefs.

14. In class we are performers.  We have to control our facial expressions to a tee.  That means modulating your voice when you say, “That’s really interesting” without really meaning it.  It means always having something positive to say to encourage discussion and make the environment safe.  It means laying down the law when bullying happens.  It means being okay with abandoning a lesson plan to try to ensure your students can think intelligently about issues from racism to sexism to sexuality to genocide.  These are the things they will take from your class, even if they leave without knowing how to write.

15. Protip #4: You can only reach so many of them, i.e., you can’t save them all.

16. Students are humans too.  They’re young.  You can gripe and moan about their behavior but remember, they haven’t been to college yet, and it’s our job to introduce them to college writing.  You can’t expect them to know anything beyond the 5-paragraph model.  They don’t know lenses, or how to unpack terms.  They’re babies.  We keep getting older, but year after year, they stay the same age.

17. If you can’t model an assignment for them impromptu, it isn’t fair to ask them to do it.

18. We are observed.  Usually once a semester.  Sometimes twice.  It doesn’t matter how many times observers say, “Just do what you planned to do”; the class session inevitably devolves into a dog and pony show.  Your future at the institution depends on this class.  You should be experimental, but not too experimental; ask the right questions; don’t be too leading; foster discussion even if students are bored/tired/unprepared/disengaged.  Anything can screw you.  I’ve heard horror stories of observers who fell asleep in the session they were observing.  If the students like you, they’ll perform well.  If not…well.  Try extra, extra hard.

19. The game is rigged anyway.  The whole point is criticism.  You will never do perfectly, however well you do, however much they like you.  It’s subjective.  They are allowed to say what they would have liked to see, even if it has no bearing on the lesson at hand or took place earlier in the week.

20. Student evaluations are awesome.  If your students like you.

21. We grade.  We grade, grade, grade, grade, grade.  Reading for pleasure?  Try staring at comma splices and fragments and unnecessary quotation marks for days on end.  I promise you, you’ll be crying blood by the time you’re done.

22. There is a silver lining: some students try.  Some improve.  Some end up having visibly mastered writing.

23. Faculty commitments: meetings, grade norming sessions, the occasional party.  Since the economy dropped, you can say goodbye to the free food.  Prepare to be hungry.

24. Furlough days have increased.  This means you work a few hours for free.  At approximately $75/hr on salary, and few contact hours a week, this ends up being a lot.

25. Before you think we’re lucky to make that much, consider the fact that we a) have roughly 6 contact hours a week, b) office hours and meetings are unpaid, c) grading and commenting on a set of essays takes a full 24 hours, unpaid, d) we have grading and commenting in addition to essays.  Suddenly it doesn’t seem fair, does it?

26. Post-semester, we grade.  Final papers.  Final portfolios.  We drink a lot.  Snatch a day to see people we haven’t seen all year.  Buckle down and read, comment, evaluate, assign and submit grades.  We deal with students who contest the grades.  We keep careful notes about participation.  We use rubrics for ourselves, even if we don’t use them in class.  We cover our asses.  We sleep for days after classes end.  We wake up.  We prep for our summer jobs—adjuncting for crash courses, usually—and come full-circle, back to pre-semester, when we lesson plan, outline course policies, syllabuses, calendars, figure out what to read, what to do, what to do with our lives.

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This work by V. Manivannan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
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