Part Time Purgatory

Like millions of Americans, I work part time -- caught in a sort of purgatory between the Hades of joblessness and the paradise of full employment.I am classified as an "adjunct" at an Ohio university. This means I teach a full load, but receive no medical or retirement benefits and half the pay earned by professors teaching the same number of courses.As my circumstances show, universities have learned to cut costs with clinical ruthlessness. They have traded the academic gown for the Armani suit, the lecture hall for the boardroom and English literature for American capitalism.These words do not come easily. Twelve years ago, I was an undergraduate at this university, and I retain some of my admiration for it. I care about the professors who once mentored me, and I like the students.And in the classroom, adrenaline rushes through my body as chalk covers my hands and shirt.But outside the classroom, I dissolve into a ghost. The new professors don't know me, so they don't acknowledge me when we cross paths. As an adjunct I have no voice in university governance, because I am ineligible to serve on a committee. I have neither office nor desk, and therefore must carry what I need from room to room.One professor assured me that all this is part of paying one's dues. He was never an adjunct himself. The unspoken assumption is that I am one because I do not qualify for a tenure-track position.One professor asked whether I intended to pursue a Ph.D. and raised his eyebrows when I said I had received mine nearly four years ago.Another urged me to publish an essay or two. When I protested that I had published a book and 20 essays and have a second book and more essays in press, she amended her advice, saying, "quantity cannot substitute for quality."Perhaps the hardest part of being an adjunct is the loneliness. I have no colleagues. I am not invited to faculty parties. My mail slot is on the bottom floor in the maintenance wing on the fringe of the campus. It is just at ground level, so the best way to retrieve my mail is to lie down. In this position, in the silence, I sometimes feel as though I'm in a crypt.In the Greek myth, Sisyphus is condemned to an eternity of effort. He must push a boulder to the tip of Mount Olympus. There it recoils on him and rushes toward the bottom. On the top of the mountain, weary, Sisyphus has no choice but to retrace his steps, find the rock, and begin his labor anew.Every few weeks, I descend toward my mail slot. I cling to the prospect that I may yet find full-time work. The American Dream continues to enchant, perhaps to haunt, my waking hours. I want to believe the tales of boys who rose from poverty to penthouse, that people win jobs and promotions on their merits, and that the economy has meaningful work at a fair wage for all who want it.My desire for success is more acute because I know I'm trailing the pack in the face against prosperity. My college classmates have settled into a career and bought a house in the suburbs. They fret about nothing more momentous than how to apportion their money among a 401K plan, stocks, mutual funds, and bonds.In contrast, I'm treading water. I have more in common with migrant laborers than my college friends -- the migrant is paid by the crop, I'm paid by the course. In fact, if enrollment dips below 10 students I'm paid per student. I've grossed as little as $225 for a five-week summer course. I could have refused the course -- but that might have irked the department chair, the one who has published nothing but derided my work as quantity at the expense of quality.So I remain a ghost. I try to ingratiate myself with those who acknowledge me and avoid those who disdain me. I tell no one at the university of the war between hope and desolation in my soul.But I cannot quiet this conflict, any more than I can suppress my need for full-time work to give my life dignity. Even the gods did not deny Sisyphus full time work.Chris Cumo is a teacher and writer who lives in Northern Ohio.

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