CATHERINE WAGNER's new book Nervous Device is forthcoming in September from City Lights. She teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.


one of the jobs that poets are supposed to want at our moment in history. I work at a park-like sharecropper estate called a university. I am not myself a sharecropper; I am an associate professor of creative writing. I make $62,500 a year, wildly more than I made when I was a sharecropper (I was one for thirteen years). $62,500 is supposed not to be very much for my “rank,” and I am to be given a raise this year, partly because I am underpaid in comparison to my colleagues locally and nationally. I asked for the raise. I have decent health benefits, dental/mental, etc., and money is deposited for me into a retirement fund every month. I also have access to about a thousand dollars a year to travel to conferences, exclusive parties to which sharecroppers can’t afford to go. I have worked at the park-like estate for six years.

I work in one of the heavily used mansion-like buildings that dot the estate. Every weekday I walk down the hall past many doors. Behind some doors work my peers (tenure-line teacher-scholar-writers). Behind other doors work the sharecroppers (adjunct teachers, graduate teaching assistants).

The sharecroppers are inferior to me under the terms of the hierarchy on which the institution insists, and which it requires in order to continue to support itself (and me) as it did formerly. The support to which the university and I have become accustomed is collapsing. There is a terrible drought and a weevil. The drought we call a recession (although recession implies recovery and the recession as it affects sharecroppers is not going to end). The weevil is an infestation called student loans. It affects the robustness of the plants grown on the sharecropper estate. When everyone has cottoned on to the weevil infestation, they may begin growing their plants elsewhere without the help of the sharecropper estate. Then the estate will transform into I don’t know what.

In the meantime, when they are not out in the fields, the sharecroppers work in ten-by-ten-foot rooms that each contain three desks. The sharecroppers make $2400 per course (i.e., less than $20,000 a year if they teach full time) with no benefits, no participation in governance and no guarantee of renewal ($2400 is the national average paid for adjunct labor). More than seventy percent of faculty appointments at US universities now go to sharecroppers.[1] Some of the sharecroppers are my former graduate students. They hope that sharecropping will lead them to a job higher in the hierarchy, a job like mine. While they were still my graduate students, I tried to explain that the sharecropper estate was broke and broken and that I was not sure myself how I had managed to snag one of the few non-sharecropper jobs remaining on it. In response, they shrugged and said that they loved teaching. The sharecroppers like making plants grow; this is their agency and their participation in the life of power. I am lucky not to be a sharecropper. Sometimes I feel a little ill walking down the hall.

One day I was on my way to a meeting of adjuncts and graduate students. The meeting was about adjunct and graduate student labor conditions nationally and locally. It was an information-sharing meeting, not a planning meeting, though there were hopes that ideas for concrete activism might emerge. I ran into a friend who is an associate dean and told him where I was going. With a half-smile he said, if working conditions improve for the sharecroppers, your salary will go down and your teaching load will go up.

He is right of course. I still wanted to go to the meeting but I began to have doubts. I am a single mother with no family or ex-partner living anywhere near. In addition to my mortgage and groceries and house repairs and whatnot, I spend about $350 a month helping to pay for my ex’s visits to my son and (during the school year) about $300 a month on babysitting. My job and son keep me busy and I have little time for activism or writing the poems that keep me sort of sane and which I must write to keep my strange job and get “merit points” toward raises. If my salary went down and my teaching load went up I would enjoy my son for even shorter portions of the evening and I would write and think less. Perhaps I could find some sort of communal living situation to compensate for the loss of time and money, but that is unlikely in my village. Denise Riley said in the seventies that single-parenthood is a conservatizing force[2] and though I fight that force in myself I feel its weight.

Nevertheless I don’t think I can handle for much longer the way my stomach feels when I stroll past the sharecropper doorways. I fantasize about giving my raise to a fund for sharecroppers and thus guilting my colleagues into action; I fantasize about going on a hunger strike; I don’t do these things and my stomach feels worse and I wonder what sort of antacid I should take. Then I remember, I am already taking an antacid and it is poetry.

One antacid I have tried was developed through research that suggested poetry might somehow be able to be useful: to affect, draw attention to, resist, the situation that is driving a wedge between the adjuncts and me, the same wedge that is being driven between groups of people in all industries. The research on which this antacid is based is unreliable and maybe completely made up but sometimes I believe it anyway. Shelley wrote a probably spurious defense of this research claiming that poetry’s efficacy is invisible and beyond our time. Then he died before going up for tenure. Not very many people buy this antacid because it’s a little bit embarrassing to swallow it; but once in awhile new versions of it turn up in the drugstore.

Another brand of antacid was developed through research that concluded that forces arrayed against the sharecroppers are impossibly strong. For those persuaded by this research, antacid poetics serve as a protective retreat or playground in which we can find compensatory pleasures and understandings and from which we can view, with new eyes, the situation that led to the necessity for retreat.

A third antacid ignores questions of efficacy and realpolitik; when I take it, I am trying to write poetry that remains as unknown to me as possible while I write it. My writing will always reproduce the park-like infested trap, but maybe the reproduction will fit together oddly and something will be different and a corner will emerge that was not there before. My son explained to me that “one wall has a different history from another wall, so a corner is an impossible place.” The impossible place is the best antacid I have found, but like the other antacids it is a placebo.

I forgot to mention one important thing about the sharecropper estate: its fields. There, suddenly made equal (but separate) the sharecroppers and I come to the head of a particularly rigid and visible and occasionally fertile hierarchy: grades-based teaching. There we can, from our unsettlingly different angles, talk about the hierarchy-turbines through which the writers we read, and ourselves, and our students, are rotating, and what they power.

Maintaining a field for debate, that’s necessary. It is an excuse for universities. There is no excuse for the sharecropping system, and there is no excuse for poetry and I don’t want to make one. I’m trying to describe the part of the trap I am homesteading.

So what’s to be done.

A colleague and I are planning to ask the University Senate to support a resolution that when raises are given, adjunct laborers should get a share. (Their fee per course has been the same for fifteen years.) I already know the arguments that will be arrayed against us, which amount to “If we pay them more we will have to cut our programs/salaries/etc.” and “They’re willing to do it for the money: there’s no shortage of them.” We will reply, “True; but let’s notice that if we don’t support the resolution we are electing consciously to participate in an oppressive situation.” It will be a rather hopeless and symbolic gesture.

I fantasize about academic sharecroppers organizing with contingent workers across industries, a category (taxi drivers, seasonal workers in agriculture and tourism, truckers, office temps, construction temps...) that has exploded over the last twenty years. Together their power would overturn cities.

But for that to happen, academic sharecroppers will have to tear their allegiance from the people who love what they love, that is, they will need to understand that my job is funded by their oppression, that there are more of them than there are of me, that they are the shaky foundation on which people like me totteringly stand. There are more and more of them and fewer and fewer of me.

[1]Michael Stratford, “A Simple Spreadsheet Strikes a Nerve Among Adjuncts,” Chronicle of Higher Education, February 19, 2012,

[2] Quoted in Sam Solomon’s yet-unpublished dissertation, which includes a chapter on Riley; thanks to Sam.

1 comment:

  1. As an adjunct who has recently gone from exploited to unemployed, thank you for listening to that feeling in your stomach and for translating it so thoughtfully into words. Your fantasy about contingent workers organizing across industries and overturning cities is beautiful...