Hanging up on a calling



The call came just as I was about to step on a plane to visit my brand-new baby niece: It was the associate dean of the tiny honors college where I had taught my first year out of graduate school. I’d left them for a much fancier gig at Ohio State, a high-profile postdoc that was supposed to be my ticket to the tenure-track victors’ circle. But now, victory not forthcoming, I wished I’d never left. “I just had two courses open up, last minute. Do you want them?” I didn’t even have to think about it. I had arrived at the airport in full professional limbo, but by the time I boarded, I was a professor again—at least in the broadest sense of the word. A week later, those two courses turned into three, and now I had the load (though not the pay) of someone full-time.

At first, I could not have been happier. Just a few months prior, I had walked in to the last day of class at Ohio State to find the room pitch-dark. The lights flipped on and my students, huddled in the center, yelled “Überraschung!” (“Surprise!”) They had baked me a cake. As we finished our last activity of the year, German karaoke, the tears flowed (mine, I mean).

I wasn’t coming back to Ohio State, and I had nothing else lined up. But how could I leave teaching? From the first time I tottered, on feet unaccustomed to “teaching heels,” into a college classroom—age 25, with an M.F.A. in fiction and zero experience, to teach composition at a for-profit secretarial college in Montclair, N.J.—I knew I was home. For the past decade, although I have certainly had my off days, I’ve stepped into the classroom and felt an electric current of anticipation zapping through me. I’ve had a lot of jobs in my life—from mall janitor to a brief, disastrous stint at Esquire—but teaching has been my only vocation. As I left what I thought would be my last class ever, I wept for the death of a calling.

But then, that calling called back—or at least I thought it did. Getting to teach three courses for bright, inquisitive honors students had been a dream the last time I did it, right out of grad school. But this time, I found myself wondering how I’d get through the day. I’d always prided myself on my passion in the classroom, but now I could see that passion turning to anger when students gave me a hard time.

One day, I was leading an essay-revision workshop, and I heard an audible, dramatic exhalation—you know, student-ese for any number of maladies that no experienced instructor should take personally or seriously. But I snapped: “If I hear one more sigh, that’s it.” Ugh. That is some bush-league pedagogy, hardly befitting someone engaged in her “vocation.”

What happened? It wasn’t the students—they were their usual wide-eyed selves. It wasn’t the job—I’d had it before and enjoyed it immensely, and my colleagues were just as kind as they always were (in case you were wondering, the Honors College at the University of Missouri at St. Louis treats adjuncts well).

It was me—it is me. I’ve changed. But why? Well, I’d spent two years as a slightly less-disposable faculty member, with a salary, full benefits, course-design autonomy, and my own office. My return to real contingency, however humane, had suddenly put into stark relief just how disposable I was—and just how dead-end adjuncting really is. For even without my bigmouthed rabble-rousing, I’m unemployable as a “real” academic. My 2010 Ph.D. is stale, and my years as an adjunct are an indelible stain on my CV, marking me as tainted, engendering whispers of: There must be something wrong with her. That doesn’t stop adjuncts from returning to the job market year after year, at their own expense—but it does stop the vast majority of them from ever breaking out, before they eventually give up.

Speaking of giving up—obviously, my return to disposability was getting to me. What I’d thought was a “calling” was actually just the enjoyment of a very good job, with good pay, good benefits, and respect. The teaching itself, as it turned out, was not the independent source of magic I’d thought it was. But was I alone here? Were these feelings normal? Rather than stew about it (instead of grading papers), I reached out to my considerable adjunct network and asked them: Did you ever see college teaching as a calling? If so, how is that affected by your precarity?

George Washington University’s Joseph Fruscione, whose adjunct advocacy has thrust him into the public eye, told me that what “calling” he has felt to teach hasn’t changed—just his perceptions of academe. He wrote to me: “I entered with a (too) idealistic sense of it as a place of knowledge and intellectual inquiry. Being essentially cheap, renewable labor has made me feel cynical and a little angry about how universities are knowingly overusing contingent faculty while adding more administrators, provosts, and the like.”

All of these were familiar feelings, but I still wanted to know: Did anyone else feel “called,” and then have that “calling” stop calling? “I’ve read plenty of critiques of using ‘the calling’ as an excuse to underpay teachers, and I agree with these,” explained Katie Guest Pryal, who currently teaches legal writing at the University of North Carolina. That, she said, is partly what enables the mistreatment of so many adjuncts in the first place.

Another of my contacts, a California adjunct now on the job market who prefers anonymity, agrees and points out that the language of “calling” can exacerbate poor treatment of adjuncts and contribute to the feminization of contingency that William Pannapacker and others have astutely discussed in these pages. “My mother was a second-wave feminist,” she told me, “and taught me to see the use of the words ‘calling’ and ‘vocation’ as excuses not to pay women for labor, especially in teaching and nursing.”

Indeed, my more-intelligent fellow adjuncts have made me realize that my misery is self-inflicted, but not for the reasons I thought. My mistake is a category error, but a different one than I’d assumed. I thought my issue was with my demotion, with believing that my “calling” came from within me and then discovering, too late, that it comes from validation of, and inclusion in, a community. That might be true—but my real mistake was using the word “calling” in the first place, shutting myself into the linguistic prison of vocation, all but asking to be paid poorly, expected to want to work for free.

I don’t know if I will ever love college teaching as much as I once thought I did. But for as long as I continue with it, I’m going to use the word I should have used all along: occupation. My job, no matter what it is, occupies the time I need to spend earning enough money to live. And as work, it deserves dignity and respect, from others and from me. If that sometimes occupies my time pleasantly, then lucky me. But as far as a calling is concerned? This time, I’m hanging up.

Author Bio:Rebecca Schuman holds a Ph.D. in German and is an adjunct instructor of world literature at the University of Missouri 
at St. Louis.