“Adjunct” by Geoff Cebula


“Was it really worth it? Elena thought as they prepared her for the sacrifice. Was any of this really worth it at the end of the day? Sure, pursuing a PhD. had given her a chance to think deeply about issues that she cared about…But was it really worth it for her? At a certain level, she just felt like academia demanded too much from her. She felt increasingly uncomfortable with how much of her life the job demanded–not only the time, but also the mental energy. There were no real breaks, no moments when she didn’t feel a need to be ‘on.’…Like an overzealous floor manager with only one employee, she had learned to surveil herself at all times, constantly asking how every action contributed to her overall productivity. It was exhausting.”

So thinks Elena Malatesta, contingent faculty of Italian at Bellwether College, when she fears she is facing death. After dedicating a third of her life to the study of Italian language and culture, and achieving the highest possible degree in her field, she finds herself one of the legions of contingent faculty members who now staff American universities, living paycheck to paycheck (if not surviving on food stamps) with no job security and few prospects for the kind of secure middle-class lifestyle that academia is supposed to provide in exchange for the sacrifices it demands. Despite all this, Elena, like most of her peers, does everything she can to demonstrate her commitment to the college that treats her as disposable, while volunteering for extra, largely unpaid, teaching duties even as she works side jobs to make ends meet. But maybe she has bigger problems than that? Maybe the other contingent faculty members in her department are disappearing because they’re being…taken? Or has she just snapped from the strain?

I don’t know if I can review this “objectively” at all, having been pretty much exactly in Elena’s position myself (plus my name is also Elena, although I don’t teach Italian 🙂 ). So I’ll just say that any early-career academic, or pretty much anyone who’s been involved in academia, is probably going to alternately chuckle and wince, or maybe shed a few tears, while reading through this. The closely calculated daily race against the clock, the constant worry that you’re an incompetent failure surrounded by all these brilliant, successful geniuses, the fact that “at a certain level she thought of herculean feats of concentration as the kind of heroic labors a true academic should be able to perform. It wasn’t enough to do a satisfactory job at a series of fairly challenging intellectual tasks. No, she needed to do something that would show unequivocally that she belonged to the scholarly class,” are all so true to life that those who’ve experienced academia from the inside may find themselves shrieking “it’s true, it’s true!” as they read. And for those coming to this from the outside: trust me, it really is true.

Well, maybe not the murder and human sacrifice part, although…”the offerings were actually all young adults who had made unsuccessful bids to joint the priesthood…For those who survived, induction into the upper ranks was celebrated with the elaborate ritual of Ten-Yur, in which they were paraded around in robes and anointed with the blood of a slaughtered calf to symbolize their rebirth among the ruling class.” Yep, sounds about right. Anyway, somewhat like the novels of Robert B. Parker, who got a PhD. in English before turning to writing crime fiction, this is a mystery novel set amongst the absurdities of the worst of academia, although written from the inside, as it were, rather than the outside, and with an element of black magic. Which only adds to the realism. All in all, “Adjunct” is half thriller, half social satire, and 100% a deliciously hilarious, if dark, take on a major American subculture, and the crisis that faces it (and thus, everyone who has anything to do with American education). Not exactly your normal detective fare, “Adjunct” is full of insider insights into the world it depicts. An absolute must-read for any academic, and well worth checking out for non-academics as well.

Buy link (currently free!): Amazon

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