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The Good Marxist
A Memoir of Contingent Academic Life
Today’s guest post, by a pseudonymous humanities professor employed at a major research institution somewhere in America, airs grievances and records a descent into disillusion familiar to most who have entered the humanities in a time of austerity and decline. It does so through two indelible portraits: of the one who accrues power through matchless hypocrisy and sanctimony, and the other who toils without reward to keep the perpetually endangered spirit of the calling from being snuffed out entirely. It marks the return to Year Zero of the author of a classic post recounting a paradigmatic Zoom meeting from the summer of 2020.
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by Kevin Finnerty
I was hired out of grad school as a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Humanities at a large R1 university around the start of Obama's second term. Visiting Assistant Professor was a new faculty title they had made up in the aftermath of the Great Recession to provide more administrative flexibility to manage the layoffs and financial uncertainties besetting higher-ed at the time. I was neither "visiting," nor a "professor.” This was not a tenure-track job. Though my title sounded impressive to my mother, the job did not offer me the union protections available to the rest of the teaching faculty. I was beneath even the adjuncts. I was paid less than the retail job I'd had during grad school. I was paid less than the university’s custodial staff. I was expected to teach too many classes, in subject areas I was not qualified for. I could be fired without cause.
Do not mistake this for a complaint. It was the path I had chosen. These were lean times in academia. I had a job that, if framed in just the right way, was a point in my favor to the girls at the coffee shops in the Arts District. After a long graduate school apprenticeship, I was at last practicing my chosen vocation.
At the time, the politics of the university did not avail themselves to my modest struggle. By "politics" I mean two different things: on the one hand, the broad set of ideological commitments espoused by my colleagues and central to their intellectual output, and on the other hand, the power dynamics that determined how the department was governed––the budgets, the promotions, the grants, the budgets again, the opaque internal factions, the jealousies and accusations. Also, the budgets.
These two modes of politics were often in direct conflict. Of the former, I am sure you can guess. I would place the department's center of ideological gravity somewhere in the orbit of, say, Dennis Kucinich. This was pre-Trump, pre-BLM, before the political paroxysms that would tilt the whole boat over in the years to come. Those who would later find themselves marching with ANTIFA, or attending campus DSA potlucks were still then mostly content with Obama-style feel-good liberalism.
To be a "leftist" in this milieu meant something. It marked you out from the ordinary political posturing. Though everyone considered themselves on the left (even the token-libertarian economists and the Christians doing theology––especially them), to be a leftist, per se, meant you were actually doing politics. It was an active identity. You went to rallies on climate change, you picketed with the labor unions when they went on strike, you canvassed, you agitated, you displayed proper contempt for The Man.
But in the local politics of the university, this also made you subordinate to those who professed leftism but were not leftists in the above sense. Here, expediency took precedence over ideology. The chairs and directors, deans and provosts, while paying lip-service to the "righteous" causes of their leftist colleagues (which they would later come to embrace with the zeal of the converted), were motivated firstly by their own elevation in status and rank. All decisions were made with this desire in mind. What pleased the bean counters? What made life easiest for the man (usually a woman) two rungs on the ladder above me, so that I can be promoted to replace the man (also usually a woman) one rung above me? Politics, in the first sense, the politics of the leftists, were an obstacle to be managed. This was the game, the hopeful bureaucrats, the Yes Men, and the court mandarins, betraying whatever ideological commitments might hold them back from scrambling their way up the mountain of administrative authority.
It was in my second year that I learned about Kathy. We'll call her Kathy. Kathy had been teaching at the university for almost 30 years. She taught in an adjacent program. She taught poetry. She was a poet herself, a "language poet" (you might be surprised there are other kinds), and in the early 90's had some modest notoriety in her niche literary scene. Kathy was getting close to retirement. She had a nice pension waiting for her on the other side, and would have all the time in the world to teach her meditation classes and to write her chapbooks. She did not have a family of her own, and teaching had been a kind of spiritual succor for her, a way to balance her otherwise lonely writer's life (this would later be revealed in letters and emails shared by her former students), but she no longer had the energy for it. By this time she was teaching only one class per term (about a quarter of an ordinary workload), but even that was too much.
One day, halfway through the Fall term of her would-be final year, Kathy began stuttering in class. Try as she might, she could not speak. The words were not there. Something had happened to her mind. She dismissed her students and immediately drove herself to the campus hospital. By that evening doctors had discovered a glioblastoma the size of a golf ball in her frontal lobe. She would never go home again.
Kathy did not die right away. Over the course of several weeks she had two surgeries to try to excavate the tumor. She was only in her mid 60's and the doctors were determined to do everything they could to save her. Unfortunately, Kathy’s employment status had dwindled to the lowest level possible within the university at the time she was diagnosed. This meant she was not eligible for her full benefits. The university was strict about this sort of thing––budgets were tight, after all. She was denied a third surgery.
Then she died.
She likely would have died anyway. Poor Kathy.
In the meantime, somebody needed to teach her class. It would have been much too difficult to get a union-represented employee to take over, so they asked me. I did not hesitate to say yes. I was trying to earn good favor with the administration, and to demonstrate I was a team player who could be counted on in difficult circumstances. I was already overworked, but what was a single poetry section to me? It might even be fun.
I first learned of Kathy when I learned of her hospitalization and death. So many of my colleagues were like ghosts––vague, nameless forms floating through the hallway. A rep from Academic Personnel emailed me her class schedule and roster. I was givenno further instruction. Quickly I discovered just how much Kathy devoted to her teaching. The syllabus, lent to me on the first day by one of her students, was a half-inch thick, filled with a carefully tailored reading list of a few hundred poems, book excerpts, and essays. It included a 3,000 word statement on her pedagogical philosophy, and detailed, to the hour, expectations for every class and assignment.
This may seem a bit overbearing for an undergraduate creative writing elective. The students did not balk at any of it. They had all, to a person, stayed up to date on their work and reading. Kathy had written paragraphs of rigorous feedback for every submitted assignment. It would take me multiple hours every day, as much as all of my other classes combined, to attend to these students in the manner that Kathy had. I was in over my head.
Enter Ira. Ira was a leftist. More precisely, Ira was a Communist. And proud of this fact. I am calling him Ira because of his likeness to Ira Rhingold, the titular character from Philip Roth's novel "I Married a Communist." Ira, much like his namesake, was full of righteous anger. He walked angrily. He spoke angrily. He ate his bagged tuna sandwich on rye angrily. But it was a resigned kind of anger, inflected by a lifetime of disappointments and bitter ironies, the anger of never seeing your side achieve any lasting victories.
Ira was an adjunct. A lifer. He'd taught at a dozen or so colleges in the area, mostly community colleges, picking up classes all over the valley, as many as five at a time. Freeway flyers, such people were called. Ira by now was in his late forties, living comfortably through the good fortune of his wife's career as a physician. They had a nice house in the hills. He drove a Prius. The slogans on his bumper stickers inveighed against fracking, Bush's war crimes, and corporate greed.
All things considered, I liked Ira. I considered him a friend. He was a kind man, despite his anger, and lived out his beliefs. He spent his weekends driving around the state attending union rallies and protesting on behalf of various leftwing causes. On off days he worked with a conservation group doing trash cleanup at a local nature preserve. He once confessed to me that he'd been a part of the violent Black Bloc protests against the WTO in Seattle in the 90's. There was a wild, romantic streak about him I admired. What can I say?
When he found out about the Kathy situation, Ira was livid. We shared a big windowless office in the basement of the old English building. The building had once been host to the conference where Jacques Derrida coined the phrase "hauntology." This was a point of some pride among the older staff who had been around during the glory days of the Continentalists.
Ira sat at a computerless desk in the opposite corner from me, framed by a poster of Assata Shakur. "A FRIEND OF ASSATA LIVES HERE," it read. He kept a pencil in his ear like a carpenter, a stack of midterms in front of him, wearing his trademark Tevas and cargo pants.
"It's unconscionable," he said. "Who was it? Deborah what's her name? The Creative Writing Director? Did she put you up to this?"
"No. I told you, I volunteered."
"Volunteered? It's called coercion. No one volunteers to be an indentured servant. It's forced labor."
"I could've said no. I wanted to do it. It was a choice."
"And if you'd said no, and earned a reputation as the kind of person who said no, do you think that would help you get a tenure track job? Do you think they would've found someone else to do it…what's her name…the one who does the 'tech learning'...Gretchen…and when it comes time to decide who gets a full year contract, you or Gretchen––you, who said 'no,' or Gretchen who said 'yes'––do you think your 'choice' to say no would influence their decision at all?"
"Of course, Ira. That's why I said yes."
Ira rolled his eyes. He stomped his Teva on the stained, tiled carpet. "They still have to pay you, Kevin! You know what they call work without pay? There's a word for this kind of arrangement."
"I'm not a slave."
"No, you're…I don't even want to say it."
"It's ok. I have thick skin. You can say it."
"They prey on people like you. They take advantage of your good will to back you into a corner and once you're trapped they skin you alive. We have to stand up to these pigs. It's pure exploitation. This is 101, man. This is how the sausage is made. You're the meat and they're the butcher. We have to fight them. Don't you understand this?"
"What am I supposed to do?"
"We'll file a grievance. We can protest, man. We can make it hurt."
"There's three weeks left in the semester. No one is going to protest over this."
"Sure. I agree. It's unjust."
Ira relaxed. His episodes of high dudgeon only ever lasted for a few minutes at a time. He leaned back in his chair and put his graying hair up into a ponytail before speaking again.
"Look, do me a favor. The new Associate Dean, Radinsky. Stanley Radinsky. They just promoted him from the Philosophy department. He was a big shot post-structuralist when that was a thing — de Man, Barthes, et cetera. Real radical guy from what I hear. Go see him. Tell him what is going on. Give him the full story. He's a good Marxist. Maybe he can help."
A week later I got a meeting with Radinsky. He was on the 4th floor of the new "zero emissions" School of Humanities building on the opposite side of campus from the dreary basement office I shared with Ira. The architectural style might be described as neo-brutalist, large linear blocks of concrete checkered by multi-story panes of blueish glass. It had cost $30 million to complete, a point of some contention in the midst of the university's budget crisis, but I liked the way the new building looked. The sun reflected off the glass in sharp, daggered light. Walking toward it from a distance, this tall lonely structure on the southern edge of campus gave the impression of better futures, a rare monument to optimism in an otherwise gloomy and strictly utilitarian architectural landscape.
Radinsky's office interior was another matter. Against one wall, he had an Ikea sofa you could tell he used for napping. Against the other, old metal shelves of academic texts and dog-eared journals. There was a glass plaque of some kind on his desk, an award for "Commendable Service to the Arts and Philosophy Consortium." There were no other adornments. No posters or art. No family photos. No personal touches at all, except his burnt-orange Schwinn parked by the door. Throughout our meeting, he kept staring at the bike, as if daydreaming of riding away.
"Sorry to bother you about this whole business," I started.
"No, no." He waved a fat hand at me. "Not a bother. Academic Personnel has filled me in on everything. I'm quite troubled by this whole situation."
"It's just, I'll cut to the chase here, I'm not getting paid. I don't mind the work. There's a lot of it, but I don't mind. It's enriching work. Truly. But even just a small stipend would go a long way."
"Yes, of course," Radinsky said. "Of course you should get paid. Everyone agrees."
"Great," I said. "Thank you, Dr. Radinsky."
Radinsky had a large, round head, barely painted over by a few last wisps of white hair. He squinted his eyes and looked up toward the ceiling, searching around in his great dome of a skull for something to say. I had a hunch I was in for disappointment.
Radinsky clasped his hands together, still staring at the ceiling, and then focused his attention out the window looking down on an empty quad. "The issue," he said, "is one of precedent. You see, what we do once, we might be compelled to do again, so we have to be very careful when we do things once." He looked my way. "Are you with me so far?"
"Sure," I said.
He looked back out the window. "The central question is one of definitions and meanings. So much depends on our language. I've spent a lifetime on such questions and I still don't have answers. What does it mean to 'volunteer,' for example? What is 'service work?' What is 'community work?' How do we define and then value this labor––assuming 'labor' is even the appropriate sign here––contingent on such definitions? What is the precedent for remuneration of work, of labor, outside strictly contractual arrangements?"
"Right," I said.
"So you understand?"
"Sure," I said. "I understand the nature of precedent."
"Precedent, yes. The meaning of our labor relative to how the university compensates us. It's a tricky subject. I'm sure then you see the predicament we're in."
I nodded along, pretending to see the predicament we were in. "The precedent of paying instructors for teaching?"
Radinsky came forward in his chair, refocusing his attention on me. "Well, that's rather glib, isn't it?"
"I don't mean to be glib, Dr. Radinsky."
"I'm sure you wouldn't mean to be glib. This is a serious matter. Professorial work is a serious matter, wouldn't you agree?"
"Of course, I agree."
"This was all brought about by a very serious illness, isn't that correct?"
"That's correct," I said.
"One of our dear colleagues is in grave medical condition. Is that not true?"
"That's what I've heard," I said.
"That's not something to be glib about either, wouldn't you agree?"
"Of course not."
"You don't agree?"
"No, I mean about being glib."
Radinsky uncrossed his legs and looked over to his bike against the far wall. He suddenly seemed less combative. "I'm glad we agree then. You know I'm on your side on this. I'm not here to take the administrative line."
Of course, that was exactly what Radinsky was here to do.
"I'm a Marxist," he said, as if to reassure me of his good intentions. "That means from where I'm sitting we're all in this together."
"Look, I get it," I said. I thought this might be my chance to insinuate myself as fellow-traveler, and lean on his ideological self-image. I reached for the first thing that came to mind. "It's like what Derrida said about 'hauntology,'" I asserted. "The specter of Marx, and all of that."
Radinsky raised an eyebrow. He gestured for me to go on.
But I was already out over the ledge. I had no idea what I was talking about. These concepts meant nothing to me. I fumbled around for some high-minded, semi-plausible sounding bullshit, Radinsky's native idiom. "You know, how the logic of capitalism forces us into these traps. Our labor, my labor, is being exploited by the university and there's nothing we can do about it. I mean, maybe you can do something, but I sure can't. And at the same time we're pushing against the system, it's also pulling away from us. It's like we're grasping at nothing, at its absence. Wherever you name capitalism, it disappears from view."
Radinsky pretended to be interested. He looked toward his bike. "Yes, I see what you're getting at. You should write something on this."
"I'm sure you've read Fisher."
"Yes, Fisher." I did not know Fisher.
"You should write on Fisher and the university system. On the semantic presence of labor within the academy as an interrogation of itself. There's something beautifully recursive about it all."
"Right," I said.
"Send it to me," Radinsky said. "When you have a draft. I'll read it."
"Sure," I said.
Radinsky clapped his hands and stood up. "Well, I better get some lunch," he said. "A pleasure talking to you."
"Thanks," I said. "I appreciate your time."
After the meeting with Radinsky I gave up on getting paid. I had learned a valuable lesson in administrative double-speak. Radinsky had left me without any options or recourse, without even an email address of some budget office or committee somewhere, even if it was a dead-end, who could at least hear my complaint and make a formal decision on the matter.
Radinsky was the dead-end. And yet he had created the impression, by promising to read a paper he and I both knew I would never write, that he was doing me a favor.
The good Marxist, indeed. The good bureaucrat. The man of no action, no solidarity, no fight nor ambition. The survivor. He may have failed to leave any lasting intellectual mark on the world, but I had to admit, he had mastered the profession of an academic. It was obvious why they had promoted him to the Dean's office. The 4th floor office in the nice new building. The big windows. The empty hours to be filled with daydreaming and private contemplation of no consequence to anyone. If I could be promised his career, his comfortable six-figure salary, his vacation time, his pension, would I take it? I would have.
I finished out my teaching duties for the term. I did my best to follow through on Kathy's promises to her students but I was stretched much too thin and could not uphold her (now my) end of the curricular bargain. For the remaining weeks the students had been tasked with reading H.D.'s Helen in Egypt and Pound's Cantos, two very difficult, book-length poems, and for their final project crafting a 30-50 page long poem of their own in response. There was additional secondary reading on something called "Revisionary Mythopoesis," a term, like "hauntology," I may have encountered in grad school but which meant nothing to me now.
I tried reading the Pound and the Doolittle, and skimmed the secondary analysis, but it was all well above my (non-existent) paygrade. The material was much too dense. I didn't have the vocabulary to unpack it all or provide any meaningful explanation to my students. They had been enthusiastic about the material when I had first taken over, but were now, in the absence of Kathy as an instructor, completely checked out.
I still don't know that I deserved any more from the university than the pittance they gave me, but I can say for sure that Kathy did. To the extent the institution provided anything of value, it was only because of people like her. The material on its own was wasted on all but a few students. To most, it was a fog. It was the Kathy's of the world who gave it clarity, who brought it to life, who made it matter. The politics of the university, whatever else they were or were not, existed to obscure this plain reality. Most of academia was blank and empty intellectual space. A grand Potemkin Village to justify a lot of very comfortable upper middle-class salaries and not much else. No one had a good answer for what we were doing or how we were supposed to do it. The scattered points of light were rare, often underappreciated, and arrived at only by total accident.
I got word of Kathy's funeral at the beginning of our summer break, a form email from the department resource desk with a link to the obituary in the local newspaper. The service would be on a Saturday at a small church about thirty minutes from campus. I had never met Kathy, but I decided to go anyway.
There were maybe ten people in attendance, only one of whom I recognized. Of the hundreds of people in our department, including dozens of colleagues she had worked directly with over her twenty five years at the university, the only familiar face was Ira. A friend from her yoga class read one of her poems. Her nephew sang Amazing Grace. I learned that Kathy had once lived among the Hutterites in South Dakota.
After the nephew's song, Ira came over to sit by me. "I heard about Radinsky," he said.
"That prig. Same as it ever was."
"It's fine," I said.
"It's not fine," Ira said. "We'll get the bastards. We'll make them pay."
"Sure," I said.
"Next fall. We'll organize," Ira said. "We'll raise some good old fashioned hell."
"Maybe now's not the time," I said.
"Ya, you're right," he said. "Anyway, I gotta run. I gotta hit the road and get to the SEIU rally in the city. You know about that, right? You want to come? It'll be fun," he said. "Righteous."
"I think I'll stay here," I said.
"Sure thing, man. Solidarity, brother." Ira raised a fist at me and then slunk out of the church.
Kathy's sister sputtered at the podium. She wiped the tears away from her eyes with shaking hands. She couldn't get the words out. She couldn't bring herself to speak.