When I returned to campus, after two years teaching elsewhere, for the final interview that would bring me back full-time, I stopped into the adjunct room to see if anyone I knew was around. The only person there was one I knew only slightly. She asked what I was doing back. I told her. She exploded:
“Why would they hire YOU?”
Taken aback, I shrugged and left.
Her question, though, is a good one. And I have been thinking about it ever since reading the complaint in The Chronicle about “whining adjuncts” and Marc Bousquet’s response–and Martin Kich’s post on this blog, not to mention the extensive discussion thread in response on the Writing Program Administrators’ listserv.
Actually, I think about it every time I serve on a hiring committee, paging through hundreds of CVs, any number of them from people more qualified than I was when hired and, if truth be told, quite a few more qualified now.
We who are tenured or on the tenure track did not get here because we are wonderful. We got here, in large part, because we are lucky. Everything we do could be done as easily and as well by others, sometimes by hundreds of others. Very few of us are real “stars”–and even that few got there by a combination luck and skill.
Unfortunately, we’ve a myth in America, a myth of our own individual might (an aspect of this myth is the focus of my book The Cult of Individualism; the topic is of importance to me). We “made it” because of our own hard work–no one helped us, so suck it up, the rest of you: Respect your “betters” and try your damnedest to join the club. After all, if you don’t make it, it is on you. Don’t expect any help from us.
When I wrote a post, “To My Tenured Colleagues,” I started off with a rhetorical question:
Why is it that we, the lucky ones, try so hard to divorce ourselves from those who have not had the same breaks?
The answer, self evident, has to do with guilt at being more successful than others just as able, just as qualified, a guilt that we cover over with our “by our own bootstraps” myth. Just as people often shun the people they have hurt, we try to rationalize our success, blaming the “failure” of others on themselves. It’s a cultural thing, a delusion almost all of us buy into, the genesis of it described by Bob Dylan long ago:
Advertising signs they con
You into thinking you’re the one
That can do what’s never been done
That can win what’s never been won
Meantime life outside goes on
All around you.
It is a con, and we are fools if we believe it (and we do), especially those of us on the faculty, for we become weaker because of the divisions it engenders. And that life all around? That’s the people taking advantage of our own self-centered mythologizing… the people who have demolished the power of the faculty by taking advantage of its self-created fractures.
As for me, I’m just glad I’ve never forgotten that comment. After all, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” Without lucky breaks, I would still be an adjunct.