William Pannapacker

DuMez Professor of English at Hope College

Q&A: The Novelist Who Chronicles Life as an Adjunct

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Alex Kudera’s novel, Fight for Your Long Day, is to my knowledge the only major fictional treatment of the experiences of adjunct faculty members. Since its publication in 2010, the novel has developed a growing cult following. Arguably that is because, with each passing year, it has become more representative of higher education today than more famous recent academic novels such as The Blue Angel by Francine Prose and The Human Stain by Phillip Roth.

Both of those books deal with that increasingly rare species: the tenured professor. In many respects, Kudera’s novel is a portrait of a teacher like Mary Margaret Vojtko, the adjunct at Duquesne University whose tragic death in poverty has become a symbol and rallying cry for the academic-labor movement.

I reviewed Fight for Your Long Day last spring, and I have since caught up with Kudera to ask him some questions about the novel and higher education more generally.

William Pannapacker: What makes this book even more relevant now than when it was published?

Alex Kudera: In 2013, we are probing even farther and deeper into the downsizing, neoliberal, dog-eat-dog world that Cyrus Duffleman is trudging against in the course of his long day. Only 44 percent of working-age Americans have a real full-time job (worker-participation is 60 percent or so, lower than it was when I first imagined and wrote the rough draft in 2004).

In Fight for Your Long Day, as an aside, an elderly adjunct gets mown down by a public-bus driver in her desperate attempt to get to work and supplement her social security. And now, with only half of Americans having any inheritance at all to leave to their spouse or children, and that median being comparable only to the cost of four years of undergrad, we are seeing this paradoxical "working retirement" as increasingly the norm in our society.

Far from being able to provide for future generations, half of American seniors are just desperately trying to subsist, while millions of other laid-off Americans are deciding between begging for adjunct classes at their alma mater, spending down the rest of their 401K, or snagging holiday temp work at the mall before Amazon renders last century's "retail environment" obsolete. As far as "solutions" go, our country seems even more polarized than how I described it during the election year of 2004, so I feel that America today is even more like the world Cyrus inhabits than Duffy’s “long day” of America in 2004.

WP: When I first read the novel, what struck me most was the it depicted the weirdness and inscrutability of “successful” people from the perspective of people who feel unsuccessful. Could you say more on that subject? How does the protagonist, Cyrus Duffleman, see those people?

AK: Bill, thanks for asking. Cyrus has incredible feelings of inadequacy, marginality, deep-seated feelings of failure, based in part on the conditions surrounding him—the society that dictates he must work twelve or more hours a day and is not worthy of decent health coverage or pay, and that he is supposed to be grateful for this exhausting life. And yet, as with many overworked depressives, there are these moments of clarity that can include outbursts of extreme laughter, often at one's own expense.

The novel intends to communicate an essential absurdity about Cyrus's "basic predicament," the fact that he has to work five jobs in one day. And it is supposed to be funny, yes, an “entertainment,” and I hope it does what I. B. Singer famously expressed about all literature—that is, I hope it “both instructs and entertains.” At the same time, to an extent, Cyrus's feelings of inadequacy are based on Cyrus's perceptions and not necessarily an expression of how America, or its "educational leaders," genuinely feel about him. The book is full of contradictions that cannot necessarily be resolved. To me, that's legitimate expression of life for so many in our country.

Also, the successful in his departments, the tenured professors, intimidate Duffleman. They appear to be whirling dervishes of talent and industry. Although implicit in the book is the understanding that Duffleman quite honestly has no time to write, or even think, clearly about much more than the stack of papers right in front of him, he still feels this pain and disappointment that he has not lived up to expectations in any way. I'm guessing millions of Americans, both in and out of academia, also feel this way.

WP: Would you say your novel is primarily about class?

AK: I would say yes, it's about economic class, but race as much as class, and there's obvious overlap between these categories. Cyrus Duffleman has a strong feeling that he is teaching both black and white students who may feel underrepresented in their cities and academic communities, but the novel, as well as Cyrus, also shows sympathy for other peoples who inhabit American cities and colleges. At times, Duffleman is depicted as categorizing by race even as he is berating himself for doing so; he knows he is not supposed to see the world the way he sees the world, and yet he doesn't always see the world in the same way. There is supposed to be a moodiness and emotionality to his character which is connected to the sheer quantity of physical, mental, and emotional exertion of teaching.

Duffelman's inconsistency is meant to at once show his humanity, his weakness, and lack of judgment, but also to expose the absurdities of the categories of race and sex. As well as the absurdities associated with any rigid, politically-correct insistence that we approach such categories in a perfectly consistent way, using the same exacting vocabulary—and then change the vocabulary, and then learn the next decade that the categories don't even exist. It makes teaching even more exhausting, and yet Duffleman does his best to use the appropriate terms during class time.

The book also has history of Philadelphia in it, and it explores the fact that the working-class communities that have been displaced by university expansion have usually been minority communities, so-called "black neighborhoods," and that Philadelphia's black communities are not well represented on the major college campuses in the city. It's clear that the African-American students and teachers on campus are often imported from the suburbs, other parts of the country, or from around the world. There are active voices today on college campuses who are aware of this and want to change it.

The book is mainly about higher education in urban America, and Duffleman's job of educating "all of America's classes" should be understood in terms of economic class. But it also should resonate literally with any overworked adjunct teaching too many classes each week in order to pay bills and survive—an ironic survival indeed, in that the quantity of work can lead to poor health, anxiety, feelings of hopelessness, or worse.

WP: What tradition would you place it in?

AK: I wasn't thinking too much about tradition when I wrote it, but I'd say the tradition of the academic novel is one, although every academic novel I've read is about a main character who works only at one school.

The Lecturer's Tale broaches the topic of teaching off the tenure track, but the lecturer-protagonist still has a full-time job and one campus to visit, one group of tenured professors to hate, etc. I think the tradition of muckraking is somewhat valid, and a couple readers have compared it to The Jungle as being an extreme look at working conditions in America, and both books share characters who work extremely long days. There's also the "loser male" or the introspective-to-isolated-male tradition, from highbrow such as Saul Bellow (Mr. Sammler's Planet, for example) to much grittier stuff by Fred Exley and Dan Fante.

There are many allusions to Duffleman's reading tastes, too, and his interest in the marginalized writers of Eastern Europe and Russia is also meant to connect with the marginalization of the adjunct as well as the marginalization of literature itself.

WP: Have you been accused of catering to the rage of white downward mobility?

AK: I think close reading of the novel shows Duffleman has sympathy for African Americans who were victimized by "red lining," all kinds of immigrants who've worked their tails off to "make it" in America, and all kinds of women, but particularly female students who show passion for reading and learning. So I do see the intersection you speak of in the text.

When I was writing the book, I was thinking more of downward mobility of United States citizens, but also everyone on the planet, as we get played against each other in the increasingly “efficient” world economy. (For example, even the shirt that says “Made in China” on the label was outsourced and made in Vietnam.)

I wasn't thinking of Cyrus as representative only of white downward mobility, although I do understand that to be something millions of white Americans experience or feel they experience without necessarily understanding that it was never true that white America, as an entire group, was affluent.

WP: What elements did you hesitate over, given your academic context? What felt most dangerous to write?

AK: It didn't feel dangerous to write this book, but it was sometimes thrilling in the sense that anything transgressive is exciting. The scenes describing tenured professors were certainly transgressive to anyone acclimated to academic departments where you rarely hear anyone without tenure argue against anyone with tenure. At the same time, I was mainly just trying to write the world I saw in urban America in 2004; I was not writing merely to transgress.

WP: How is your inner academic censor different from your voice as a novelist?

AK: I try not to censor myself in the classroom. I try to be very clear and considerate in how I approach topics in literature; it often feels like race and sexuality are the ones that students are most wary of, but sometimes there's an overall feeling that every topic has to be introduced gently to contemporary college kids.

Right now, I teach in South Carolina, but the student body is over 30 percent out-of-state, and I try to force myself to treat everyone the same and introduce a topic in the same way I would if I were teaching in another part of the country. I'm a teacher and a novelist, not a researcher and a novelist, and I do feel that both teaching and novel-writing depend upon some emotionality. As you know, you can't successfully communicate to college kids if there is never any emotion in your voice.

WP: Cyrus seems to have a fraught relationship with what we used to call "political correctness." What are the sources of that tension in him?

AK: I'd say the sources could be in his surroundings, the urban environments we increasingly inhabit that at their best may be multicultural and dynamic and at their worst may be cities full of some of the greatest income inequalities and, even in 2013, segregation, in history.

Cyrus is the urban liberal, and he's also a racist urban liberal, or at least one who sees race and has "racialized" thinking. At times in the book, he is obviously afraid of difference and also hyper-aware of race and ethnicity both in and outside of his many classrooms.

We're living fifty years after the [Civil Rights Act of 1964], after the period from Rosa Parks and Brown v. Board of Education to MLK's passing, and yet where do we live? By some criteria, our educational environments—our K-12 schools in particular, according to scholars such as Jonathan Kozol—are as segregated as ever. And Kozol and others acknowledge that this segregation is in Northern cities, so-called "Blue America," not at all only some rural outlier.

It's obvious that the language of the novel, the telling of it, exceeds the boundaries of what you call "political correctness," and this is meant to draw attention to Cyrus's perceptions, which in fact may be based upon our contemporary realities. I'm also very interested in the irony or paradox that even as universities shed light on these differences and teach us of their damaging effects, it may be the case that how higher education is currently practiced in the capitalist marketplace exacerbates race and class and gender inequalities and tensions instead of alleviating them.

Look at recent stats on how net-worth inequality by race has grown in recent years despite greater access to higher education. Student-loan debt plays a role here in this disparity.

And then there is the absurdity of it all, the possibility that our politically-correct rhetoric is masking great segregation. And each of us, but Cyrus in particular, is desperately attempting to navigate this system, to survive in a dog-eat-dog neoliberal economy. So there are scenes where Cyrus is literally running people down, or getting shoved in the face of another, or doing the most absurd things in order to "score" additional income during his long day.

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