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.