English lecturer’s book explores the plight of the adjunct professor
By Angela Nixon
Alex Kudera, lecturer in the Department of English, knows how difficult being an adjunct instructor can be. Before joining the faculty at Clemson University in 2007, he spent a decade as an adjunct instructor, teaching English courses at various colleges and universities in his hometown of Philadelphia.
In 2004, Kudera spent seven weeks in Seoul, South Korea, teaching and tutoring students in conversational English. Relieved of the time-consuming duty of grading papers, he found time to write. The result was Fight for Your Long Day, a novel about a day in the life of an adjunct English instructor — Cyrus Duffleman — who must work five jobs at four universities in one day.
The book, which is both comical and tragic, brings to light many issues affecting adjunct instructors across the country — low pay, lack of benefits and health coverage, heavy workload and limited academic freedom. It is also highly focused on how the working conditions and concerns of adjuncts relate to America’s undergrads, so many of whom are taught by adjunct instructors in multiple, or even a majority of, classes. It has garnered national attention in the world of higher education, with reviews in Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education and Academe. Fight for Your Long Day was submitted for a National Book Award, and earlier this year it received the 2011 Independent Publishers Gold Medal for Best Fiction from the Mid-Atlantic Region.
Media Relations staff writer Angela Nixon interviewed Kudera on his writing, the book and the impact it has had.
Q: How did a guy from Philadelphia end up down here in Clemson, S.C.?
A: In Philly, I was feeling overworked and exhausted teaching five or six writing classes at once, often with evening tutoring as well, and to an extent, I was bored with my routines. An opportunity to teach at Clemson presented itself, and I’d been to South Carolina twice in the previous two years, and it seemed like a quiet place where I could write. So far, so good.
Q: How long have you been writing? What else have you published?
A: I’ve been writing fiction since my last semester of college — on and off for about 20 years. My true first novel is one I wrote over three years just after college, and I am in the process of revising and preparing it for publication. On amazon.com, and everywhere else e-books are downloaded, I have a sample story (a long story which is being marketed as a “novella”) called The Betrayal of Times of Peace and Prosperity, and it explores college life from the perspective of a graduating student’s uncertainty about the future. I also have some stories published in both English and translated in Romanian in a Romanian print journal affiliated with the University of Bucharest, and I have a range of interviews with other novelists published mainly at the online journal When Falls the Coliseum (a journal of American culture or the lack thereof), but also in Clemson’s South Carolina Review and on the Atticus Books website. I also blog on books and related topics at The Less United States of Kudera.
Q: What authors have influenced or inspired you and why?
A: When I first began writing, “big” novelists like Thomas Pynchon and John Barth were on my mind a lot. They wrote books that were long and difficult, sometimes called “postmodern” or “metafiction,” but also often hilarious, surreal and strange. It seems rather silly now, but at the time, I was certain they were the best — and perhaps even the only writers who mattered — and that I should try to write like them. As it turns out, it’s difficult to write like those guys. So I think I’ve steered much closer to traditional realism with Fight for Your Long Day, although its setting and action could seem somewhat surreal or slightly unrealistic.
But for this book, more recent influences would include John Gardner’s Mickelsson’s Ghosts, Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Fred Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, Dan Fante’s novels and Iain Levison’s A Working Stiff’s Manifesto. In different ways, these books all concern alienated men and American working life, and they mix comedy with more serious themes, so I think a reader familiar with these authors would be able to recognize their influence in Fight for Your Long Day and its protagonist, Cyrus Duffleman.
Q: I read in another interview you gave that you said you wrote this book in a “walk-in closet in Seoul, South Korea.” Can you explain that a little? What brought you to South Korea?
A: For seven weeks during the summer of 2004, I lived in Seoul, South Korea. Although I was teaching and tutoring, mainly conversational English, I was not grading writing assignments, and so this became an opportunity to write. I did live in a very small room, smaller than the walk-in closets of many homes in America, and the Korean nationals I stayed with were quite busy. I could write for 10 to 16 hours a day, and that was enough time to produce an entire draft of Fight for Your Long Day. I returned to America with about 280 rough pages and then slowly, over six years, revised it. When I read the published novel in 2011, in my head, I’m still revising.
Q: How much of this novel is based on your own experiences? How much of yourself do you see in Cyrus Duffleman?
A: Duffleman is a composite and an amazing exaggeration of many different people, and what he faces in the course of a day is perhaps an extreme look at what millions of adjuncts and contract workers, as well as underemployed and unemployed Americans, are going through. It is not a novel about one American man’s reality but rather a hyperbolic look at reality for so many. So I’m thankful that I’m decidedly not Duffleman and that no real person could be Duffleman. He’s fictional.
At the same time, I feel strongly that it would be dishonest for any reader, including the author, to deny his or her own connection to Cyrus. He is a product of our times and at times, a rather desperate man trying to navigate and survive contemporary America. In this way, perhaps, we are all complicit in the production and maintenance of Dufflemans. So to speak.
Q: This book seems to resonate with a lot of people in the world of higher education. Why do you think that is?
A: I think people in higher education read the papers and are highly aware of what’s going on in our country. They see the statistics, the packed parking lots at food distribution centers and the empty residential units and for-sale signs in their neighborhoods. The higher educational community values knowledge, not ignorance, or I like to hope so anyway, and so its workers know that the harsh realities explored in Fight for Your Long Day matter. I appreciate the support I’ve gotten from academics at all levels, and it could be that my fiction brings together many feelings and associations, and even facts, that are already familiar to these readers.
Q: Do you think making people more aware of issues surrounding the hiring and treatment of adjuncts could result in some positive changes down the road?
A: I hope so. In America the 62 percent of undergrads who require student loans are leaving college with an average burden of $23,000. The job market is fragile at best right now, so our next adult generation is facing economic burdens unlike any we’ve seen. Likewise, they are being taught by a professor without tenure in the majority of their classes. Although it is good to know that adjuncts are not in wide use at Clemson, it is not uncommon at other schools to have an entire roster of adjuncts and grad students for one’s entire freshman or even sophomore year. There are over 4,000 institutions of higher education in America, and at some of them, one can even have adjuncts for an entire bachelor’s degree. Forgetting the possible feelings of alienation or exhaustion that individual adjunct teachers experience, from an economic perspective, the reduced earnings of these “professionals” has already negatively impacted growth in our country and contributed to the current malaise. Teachers and students without spending power can conceivably destroy entire industries ranging from real estate to textbook sales.
In other words, the consumption our economy is based upon is disappearing because of the low and insecure wages of too many of our workers, including adjuncts, and the students we are graduating, due to debt burdens, have greatly diminished spending power as well. The protagonist of Fight for Your Long Day is an adjunct who works five jobs at four universities in order to subsist, but his predicament is one lived by millions of Americans. The scariest part is that some current statistics would suggest Cyrus has it quite good compared to many others. In the novel, part of the comedy is Cyrus’ recognition of this possibility even as his long day has pushed him to extremes.
Q: Or do you think we’ll just see more of the same as higher education budgets continue to shrink?
A: As far as openings for adjuncts, it’s possible we’ve entered into a new Golden Age for contingent and contract employment. Across the board, college admissions are booming as people from around the world seek to enter American universities. So we will see an increase in need for instructors, and although it won’t prove to be a perfect fix, and I can see why people are skeptical, the health coverage bill that was passed under President Obama will hopefully provide what millions of American adjuncts and other contract workers need — a way to maintain and further a by-the-contract career while also being able to afford medicine and doctor’s visits. Contract workers constitute more than 30 percent of the American workforce, so to me, it is as if legislation is catching up with reality. I wrote the entire first draft in 2004, at a time when it seemed like national health care efforts would always be doomed to failure. So, unlike Cyrus’ circumstances in Fight for Your Long Day, I’m hopeful that adjuncts and contract workers of the future will not have to work five jobs in a day to cover their bills and pay for an inadequate catastrophic insurance policy.
It is also possible that many adjuncts who teach at four-year universities will find that their courses have moved to community colleges, and this is where they will find some or most of their work in the future. With such a transition, it is possible that earnings will shrink relative to cost of living although in some cases, such as in Philadelphia, the community college has health coverage available to adjuncts, so it is actually a favorable appointment compared to many schools that are seen as superior according to a fancy price tag, public perception and/or regional rankings. An odd reality for students in cities can be that the ones at large universities pay a lot more for tuition but are taught by the same person who teaches the exact same class at a lesser-known school or community college.
Also, in the spirit of staying on the offense, as we are at Clemson these days, I’m thankful there’s no concrete evidence that higher education budgets will always and inevitably shrink, or at least that the total money spent on higher education in America will shrink. So it could be that we continue to grow our numbers of teachers and students, and that things get better, not worse. Everyone I know of who is against “college” or “higher education” bases their argument on current practices; they are not against reading, writing, the cultivation and exchange of ideas, etc. I’m a teacher’s kid; I’m for these things, too.
Q: In the author bio at the back of the book, it says you are known by some for your “mysterious injuries.” Care to explain that? Or would you rather those injuries remain mysterious?
A: That’s more or less an inside joke related to Ultimate Frisbee, a sport I played competitively in college and for a bit afterward, and then continued to play locally in Philly for years. But I was lucky overall and rarely had problems that a few ibuprofen couldn’t conceal.
Q: What else do you enjoy other than reading and writing? Other hobbies or interests?
A: I played Ultimate for almost 20 years, but I’ve barely touched a disc since coming to Clemson in 2007. I have been able to support the Clemson teams by purchasing a few discs, but I haven’t gotten to a tournament yet. After teaching, grading, reading, writing and helping care for our 3-year-old, I don’t have much time to cultivate an actual hobby, but I like to walk in the Botanical Garden. We live without television reception (no cable), and that has proven to be a blessing.
Kudera earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Wesleyan University in 1991 and a Master of Arts in Creative Writing from Temple University in 1998. Before coming to Clemson, he taught at Drexel University, Temple, University of St. Francis and Pierce College.