The Precarious Being of the Queer Adjunct
Author: Marcie Bianco
October 27, 2013
“Marcie,” my department chair began trepidatiously, keeping her eyes fixed on the paper in front of her, “I heard that you’ve been talking about eating out girls in class?”
The accusation’s intonation gave it a quizzical tenor, one that was met by my eyes’ betrayal of my total disbelief.
Did she really just say that out loud? To me? Was I just accused of lecturing my students on muff-munching?
My eyes continued to blink in amazement until my mouth caught up, “WHAT?!”
My department chair let out a nervous laugh, and then proceeded to tell me that one of my students—a white female who had missed the first six weeks of class of the previous spring semester—was appealing her final grade for the course, the “American Literature” course I wrote about for Lambda earlier in the year. Apparently, to quote my department chair, this student complained that my course “felt too much like a gender studies course,” and, oh, she didn’t approve of the lesbianism.
Because the aforementioned muff-munching accusation was derived from her uncomfortability with Audre Lorde’s Zami.
Yes, let me say that again: Audre Lorde’s Zami.
And here I assumed I would receive the most blow-back from teaching Kate Bornstein’s A Queer and Pleasant Danger (QPD). Perhaps, though, because I contextualized an analysis of QPD’s style with Mark Twain’s “On the Decay of the Art of Lying,” said student felt like the discussion of this text was both adequately “literary” and “American.”
But not a text by “a Black lesbian warrior mother poet” (to quote Lorde’s description herself).
That text was just too full on GAY.
Had the student actually attended the first six weeks of class, in which we read literature by Malcolm X and James Baldwin, among other inspiring thinkers and writers, she would have come away from the course feeling different.
Then again, maybe she would have come away with a whole separate set of complaints.
Regardless of the fact that I am an “adjunct associate professor,” I was not allowed to attend the appeals meeting.
The student won her appeal.
There was little I could do, or actually wanted to do, in this situation. As an adjunct, I have no job security. In fact, I am banking on the fact that, because I apparently shove lesbianism down my students’ throats, I will not be asked to return next semester.
So much for academic freedom—particularly the principle of “freedom of teaching,” outlined as one of the three primary tenets of the AAUP’s 1915 “Declaration of the Principles of Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure.”
Academic freedom, and, simply put, teaching in general, is a precarious enterprise for the adjunct. According to a 2012 piece in the Radical Teacher, “[a]t the moment, roughly 75 percent of instructors in American colleges and universities are part- or full-timers who are neither tenured nor on the tenure track.” Seventy-five percent. No job security, abetted by the fact that there are hundreds of other PhDs chomping at the bit to fill your place if you decide to leave or are asked not to return, means that adjuncts take very little risk in the classroom in terms of pedagogy.
Forget about academic freedom.
The university is particularly hostile to the queer adjunct, especially the queer adjunct who is active in the queer community, whether as an artist or activist, or both—because, let’s face it, the “freedom of extramural utterance” (“meaning speech and advocacy by professors in their capacity not as scholars but as citizens”) can and probably will be held against us. No department wants a rabble-rouser. And this observation pertains not so much to one’s sexual or gender identity as does to one’s pedagogy and research. After my first peer-reviewed publication on sodomy and national identity in Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II back in 2008, for instance, one of my professors warned me of the consequences: “You know this means people will regard you as a sodomy scholar? They’ll pigeonhole you.” Delighted by the alliteration of the appellation, “sodomy scholar,” I initially waved off his concerns and continued both my queer scholarship and my online writing endeavors without hesitation.
Now, however, after few semesters in the adjunct cycle and of mercilessly hunting down any and every open post within a 60 mile radius of New York City, I am beginning to harbor some regret. If you Google my name, all the hits are “sodomy-this” and “lesbian-that.” I can’t help but wonder that all this…queerness…is being, or has been, held against me. Many of my queer friends and acquaintances have voiced similar fears; most have removed all signs of queerness from their CVs and encourage others to do so if they want to improve their job prospects. Even my job market advisor told me to remove a publication from my CV about feminism and political correctness; “People will think that you’re questioning political correctness,” he said, “and they will readily dismiss your application.” He also insisted that I change my job title from “adjunct associate professor” to “lecturer” so as to “not offend” search committee members reading my application: “They may see the ‘associate’ part and think that you have aspirations to take their place.”
Most debilitating to my job prospects, not to mention my desire to teach, is the resistance I have received from the faculty in my department regarding my pedagogy—which, it seems, is wildly queer. In my post-observation meeting last week (all adjuncts face many of the same demands as tenured or tenure-track faculty), I was told that giving my students a syllabus filled with political and queer texts was “too intense.” Most infuriatingly beyond the complaint that I did not list my office on my syllabus (because I was only given access to the “adjunct-pen” a week ago), the faculty member observing my “Justice in Global Literatures” course chided me for teaching texts by people that I know, because, she contended, doing so “creates undue stress on the students to like those texts.”
While she inferred resistance from this practice, I asserted the opposite affect/effect—that teaching a text you are passionate about, by a person you know, stimulates student interest, not just in the text but in the author. This is true for me personally as well as professionally, and this affective phenomenon finds its correlative in the allure of academic heritage—that we study with Professor X because she was a student of Professor Y, and, by association, we too become imbued with that prestige and value in the Academic Cultural Imaginary. Indeed, many of my students in this “Justice in Global Literatures” course continued to read texts by, and texts about, Sarah Schulman after we finished her Israel/Palestine and the Queer International. And, yes, they asked many, many questions about her because I revealed that I knew her personally (she served as my mentor at the Lambda Writers Retreat) the very first day of our discussion of that text. (Of course, I directed them to the infamous New York Times piece about Sarah as a starting point of inquiry!)
The corporatization of the university has ensured a state of precariousness for the entire teaching professoriate (because tenure does not wholly guarantee job security). This precariousness is felt by queer teachers in both senses of the term: by teachers who occupy a queer subjective position, who strategically denude their CVs of all signs of queerness or radicality in the hope of job advancement; and by teachers who espouse a queer pedagogy, who promote the “humanity” of literature and the person “behind” the text, who do not shy away from making literary study “relevant” to students, and who do work against the innate power dynamic of the classroom in an attempt to engage “human-to-human” with their students.
Inhabiting queerness, both subjectively and pedagogically, is a struggle. Yes, it is rewarding, but it is tiresome. For the adjunct with no health insurance, all illness bred from exhaustion is most unwelcome, indeed, even an detractor from continuing their teacherly pursuits.