- Fight for Your Long Day
While adjuncts teach the majority of college classes in the United States, they also suffer the plight of invisibility. It is easy to understand why universities are eager to keep these labor practices hidden and why workers who lack job security are scared to speak out. Most contingents who yearn to join the tenured-class keep [End Page 47] quiet with the hope of being one of the few who will land a tenure-track position, odds be damned. And if they do not, then it is sometimes suggested that there is something wrong with them, the evidence found in their willingness to work for degrading wages. It is not uncommon to encounter the tendency among administrators and tenured faculty to view long-time adjuncts as defective, despite the realities of the current academic marketplace. For those settled into adjunct life, there is also the difficulty and shame of calling attention to the fact that if they are overworked and underpaid, they are not always able to give students what they deserve, or do so at great cost. And rather than voice that problem, it is often cast inward.
Alex Kundera's novel Fight for Your Long Day is an admirable effort to speak to both these anxieties and working conditions. In it we follow Cyrus "Duffy" Duffleman, an adjunct working on four campuses scattered across Philadelphia, across a day as he migrates from class to class in order to scrape out a living, absent job security or health insurance. Some of the universities and scholars featured in the book are thinly veiled real-life examples; others such as the University of America are an amalgam representing the rise of for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix, where faculty are paid $10 an hour. We watch as Duffy also takes on tutoring jobs, highlighting not only the need to take on additional work to survive but also the way in which this practice further subsidizes the universities who employ him part-time.
The novel is set against the backdrop of post-9/11 culture that has prioritized war profiteering and is simultaneously privatizing institutions that serve people's basic needs. The book features a visiting Undersecretary of Homeland Defense and a scheme to create an Institute for Homeland Security at Liberty Tech, one of Duffy's many employers. At one point, Duffy encounters protesters chanting lines that include: "War on terror is an error/no more defense contractors/ our country needs tractors/jobs, training, schools and books/we don't need your terror crooks."1 Kundera invokes an ongoing debate here: as the American Association of University Professors has argued, we must act now to rebuild our "collapsing faculty infrastructure" just as we need to invest to salvage crumbling bridges and highways, rather than choose the business of war.2 Even without the war economy, though, today's colleges are propped up on the backs of contingent workers and Kundera captures the hollowing out of higher education.
The book is at its best marking the toll that this system takes on adjuncts who manage to remain dedicated to teaching. Duffy is rushed, disorganized, and does not take the best care of himself. Kundera uses descriptions of obesity and excess flesh across the book to identify something out of balance, both in Duffy as well as alienated post-industrial workers riding the train to and from mindless and automated employment. This also captures the elements of shame, frustration and humiliation that echo across Duffy's life as a damaged worker, unable to advocate for himself.
The pace of the book is intentionally slow as we slog along with Duffy across his grinding day. I sometimes found myself wishing for something pithier or perhaps even more heightened satire, even while appreciating Kundera's ambitious aim. The problem reminds me of [End Page 48] the one David Foster Wallace wrestled with in The Pale King, released after his recent death as an unfinished manuscript. Wallace struggled with how to portray boredom and the numbing repetition of contemporary labor in a novel...