The Vanished World

“The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print -- the love which he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, tentatively at first, and then boldly, and then proudly." John Williams

I first read Stoner long after I left the academic world. Each time I read it, it’s truth rings true to my experience, as William Stoner’s life in some respects mirrors mine.

Like Stoner I was a tenured teacher at a college I had always dreamed of going to. Like Stoner I loved teaching and always thought of it as my occupation. And like Stoner I doubt if few students remember me now or the research I did then.

But that is where our similarities end. As Maggie Doherty writes in her article, “The Vanished World of Stoner” (New Republic 11/3/15) in Stoner’s day, as well as mine, most full-time faculty members were in a tenure-track position.

Doherty writes that is no longer the case, which makes an academic life increasingly precarious. In the interests of cost-cutting, administrators rely on adjunct or part-time faculty members. “In the 1970s roughly two-thirds of university faculty were tenured or tenure track. Today, only 24 percent of faculty on on the tenure track.”

Doherty is a part-time lecturer in literature at Harvard. She says she was hired on a multi-year contract and is well compensated for her work. Apparently, this makes it unnecessary for her to teach at other nearby universities. Other part-time teachers are not so fortunate.

She says the median adjunct salary for teaching a semester-long course is $2,700. How can anyone get by on that kind of salary? As a result, many adjunct professors teach courses at one or more other colleges, are not eligible for benefits and spend hours in traffic traveling from one to the other.

“…a study…found that roughly one quarter of the nation’s one million part-time college faculty receives some form of government aid.”

In my day there were a plethora of full-time tenure track jobs. Quite the opposite in true now. Doherty says this will be the third year she is applying for a tenure track position. She says there are 67 job openings in this country for scholars of American literature.

“I am qualified to apply to fewer than ten of these jobs. To say these are highly competitive positions is an understatement. I’ve heard of openings that receive upwards of 700 applications.”

This month The New York Review of Books will publish The 50th Anniversary Edition of John Williams’ Stoner. Ian McEwan said, “It’s a marvelous discovery for everyone who loves literature.” If you’ve not yet read it, I encourage you to do so.

Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.”

Note: After I wrote this blog, the New Yorker published a short piece on commuter teachers. It's a sad tale confirming everything Doherty wrote. If you are a New Yorker subscriber you can read it in the "Here to There Department" in the November 16th issue. Unfortunately the magazine will not allow me to post a link to it.


Stefanie said...

Stoner is on my TBR I will definitely read it one of these days, which day that is remains to be seen! Sadly, academia has become a hard place. I had originally intended to go that route back in the day but I am glad I changed my mind. The wave of retirements and the flood of new jobs never happened as my adviser promised they would.

Richard Katzev said...

Stefanie: This is a good time to read Stoner. I'm sure it's been on your TBR for years. Well, one of life's greatest pleasures is to be a teacher, a teacher of smart and receptive young men and women. Maybe I was lucky. And I don't know if there are many academic teaching positions in Library Science. But I'm sure you would qualify for one and I'd be happy to recommend you for what that's worth

Linda said...

I've read about the plight of adjunct professors. It is shameful. I wonder if it is an example of a larger trend of "gigs' as independent contractors in the workplace without benefits or job security, which is troubling. I have heard both criticism and defense of academic tenure. In one more year, my daughter will be eligible for tenure, which she believes will give her more flexibility and autonomy in how she teaches her students. I don't know, we'll see. After reading Stoner, it seems a good thing for dedicated, ethical professors and teachers, but not so much for the Hollis Lomax variety.

I love the book. I've read it twice now, and I imagine I will continue to re-read it. It is that good. I have my 50th anniversary edition now, and one also for my daughter's birthday on the 27th.

crofter said...

The tenure situation to me is very sad. I have several friends who are in this situation. They work their butts off to share the knowledge they have with a younger generation, yet a common laborer with a 3rd grade education makes more than they do. How in the world did we get to this point? When it comes to education, seems we are in a race to the bottom, and have a comfortable lead.

Richard Katzev said...

I'm glad you feel that way about the book. On tenure: When I came up for tenure, I wrote the president of the college where I was teaching that I didn't believe in tenure and would be happy for an extended and renewable contract. He replied that this wasn't possible, that the college subscribed to the American Professors Association rules and tenure. It was mandatory for those who qualified. So I got nowhere and decided to accept tenure. I liked teaching at the college and didn't want to search for a new position, even though I had plenty of invitations elsewhere.

I'm glad you will treat your daughter to a copy of Stoner. It also interests me that you don't have to be a teacher to enjoy Stoner. That is true for you, as well as countless others, as the book becomes better know in this country and Europe too.

Richard Katzev said...

To Crofter: Colleges that subscribe to the Association of American University Professors must adhere to it rules on tenure. You can read the rules here: http://www.aaup.org/report/1940-statement-principles-academic-freedom-and-tenure

I agree it's a terrible situation for young professors, whose chances of tenure today are slim. The arguments for tenure are unnecessary in given the legal guarantees we have in this country. I was lucky in the days when I was teaching. It was a period of many tenure track positions. Sadly those days are over. I'm sorry to hear about your friends. I don't know how we got to this point. But I don't think nothing can be done about it.