The Adjunct

May 10, 2013 | 4 7 min read


1. “Corn: The Napoleon of Crops.”
The instructor looked up. Only 17 more to go. If he could grade three more papers, he would be eligible for a hot chocolate or maybe even an entire article from The New York Times online. There was something intriguing in the education section about retired people returning to college. Three more papers and he could find out all about the issues facing the founders of new for-profit companies marketing college courses to Baby Boomers. Seven more papers and he would earn a stretch and a walk around the café. He settled back in. His pain and drudgery was of course entirely his fault (“Corn is the building blocks of the American diet and the American catacomb”) for assigning a book which included a 50 page history of corn (“…infused corn into every orifice…”) to a group of first-year students who were not good enough test-takers to get out of his class. (I cannot make head nor tail of this sentence. See me. Vague pronoun reference. Who’s talking?!) He took a long pull on his gen-maicha.

2. “Humanity and Feelings Are Related to Each other.”
The adjunct sifted through the papers for one by one of his more interesting students, a kid in ROTC who was more progressive than most of what passed for leftists on this campus. (“So overall I can see where the author is coming from with his standpoint but I do not agree and I actually take a contradictory statement.”) The ROTC kid had written on humane slaughter. If they were somewhere else, Middletown or Providence or Oberlin, Ohio, they’d be having spirited class discussions about speciesism, and this kid wouldn’t be in ROTC, and he wouldn’t be teaching comp anyway; he’d be teaching fiction to students who already loved Coover and Pynchon, and he’d say But wait, have you read Gaddis? have you read Borges? have you read Burroughs? and they’d say Oh my god, thank you. (Good insight, Do you have a source? Work on comma usage.) Two down. He realized he was going to need not only the senior citizen article but also the hot chocolate after the third paper, which was then going to ratchet up his tolerance to such a level that he might not be able to outfit himself with satisfying enough rewards for the remaining 14 papers. He envied heroin addicts briefly, then he realized that a five minute fantasy about heroin addiction might be enough of a carrot to get him through two papers later in the stack, so he restrained himself.

3. “Feelings Within An Animal”
A blast of cold air interrupted his grading. A baseball hat guy stood in the doorway, smooth-talking the tall barista. Law students from Temple and Villanova looked up from their contracts textbooks to give baseball hat guy their hairy eyeballs, so he saved his own. His laptop, pushed back on the table to make room for papers, made a whooshing sound to indicate that he had a new email. He checked it immediately. Generally he didn’t open the emails from the university, because he didn’t care about football or biology grants, but he was desperate. (“Yes, we as humans have words that express how we feel, but that does not change the fact that by committing certain actions does not show the way we feel.” ??? Clarify.) He opened the email. An administrator had died suddenly on Friday night; he had loved jazz; he had been very influential in the lives of the students. He’d spoken to the administrator late Friday afternoon, asking him to intervene on behalf of a student who hadn’t signed an important piece of paper. Can’t we just be people? the adjunct had said. Can’t we just agree that the student missed signing a particular piece of paper but that it’s no big deal? We need to teach them responsibility, said the administrator on the other end of the cell phone. They’re teenagers, said the adjunct. They’re not bureaucrats. Let’s not punish them for that. Okay, said the administrator. Have her come into his office on Monday. I’ll do that, he said. A few hours later the man died. But he didn’t know the man, and he had 14 papers to grade.

4. “Mess With Nature and Nature Will Mess With You”
He cursed the fate which brought him to a school where a paper titled “Mess With Nature and Nature Will Mess With You” could turn out to be a passionate and misspelled defense of industry. (“Although many people hold powerful mindsets…”) If he had studied harder in college, if he had studied harder in high school, if he hadn’t failed math in fourth grade, if he had not gotten himself suspended from high school for smoking pot in his junior year, he probably would have been elected President of the Student Body, which would obviously have given him the edge he needed to get off the waitlist at Wesleyan, where they didn’t have required core curriculum courses, which would have meant he would have had a 4.0 and a fancy degree, which would have gotten him into a better graduate school where they actually gave him money because they knew he was a winner, which would have meant no teaching for at least a year, which would have meant that he could have finished his book before he graduated, which would have meant that he would have been a candidate for fiction jobs. He angled his neck down through sheer force of will and instructed his eyes to read three consecutive sentences of the paper in front of him. (Clarify! What is your argument? Who’s talking?! See the handbook for proper in-text citation.) He wondered how much the potsmoking and drinking actually, empirically, affected his brain cells. It was impossible to know, but he felt sure that he had been smarter in high school than he was now. Perhaps there was a test of some sort to measure this loss. Perhaps this test could be located online.

5. “ … ”  (Where is your title?)
The café noise of steaming milk and dishwashers increased by a hair, edging over into unbearable. (“…the pain and moral obligation of humans bores down to the fact that…” Work on word choice.) He decided to take a break to do some long-deferred research on noise sensitivity, in case it turned out that he had an undiagnosed case of Asperger’s, which would explain both his unusual intelligence and his social awkwardness. He remembered that he wasn’t socially awkward, but dismissed it. He found an online test and discovered that he did not have Asperger’s. He decided to race against time, betting that he could grade a single paper in 15 minutes. First he would have to find an alarm clock setting on his laptop, in order to most accurately test himself, so he wouldn’t lose valuable seconds checking his watch. He couldn’t find an alarm clock, which led him to wonder about downloadable gadgets for his laptop. Maybe there’s a stopwatch gadget, he thought. He resisted searching CNet for such a gadget with an almost military restraint. He took off his watch and laid it on the table, glancing around the café to see if anyone new had come in before he began his race.

6. “The fight for What is Right!”
11:45. ( “In today’s society of growing technological advancements and a surplus of information we find ourselves…” Clarify your thesis. Also, titles of books should be capitalized and either underlined or italicized. It doesn’t matter which you choose. Pick one today and format all your titles that way for the rest of your life. You are here to learn that rules are arbitrary.) 12:38. His math was bad but he suspected he had spent more than 15 minutes on the paper. He would try again. But first, hot chocolate.

7. “Can Eating Meat Be Considered Morally Bad?”
12:57. (“It is not until the idea is looked into that it can be questioned.” Avoid passive voice. When you write in the passive voice you sound like a landlord or a lawyer; you sound like you mean to avoid responsibility. Is that true? Do you eschew responsibility? Were you up until four a.m. writing on the walls of girls’ Facebook pages before you started this paper?) 1:21. He was getting closer to his mark. He was the Lance Armstrong of graders. Probably he should start exercising again. His wife had taken to grabbing his stomach and calling him Santy Claus. One more paper. He could still read that senior citizen article; that would be his treat. One more paper would make, what. He counted again. Eight left. No matter what he did, he ended up with eight papers left.

8. “Excess in America”
1:29 (“America is facing an overconsumption crisis which is hurting the American people from the inside out. I feel that we evolved to eat meat and vegetables…” How can you feel a fact? Really, I want to know. I think you must have a poet’s sensibility, Baudelaire in a Hollister sweatshirt. Are you synesthetic? Do you taste the facts or smell them? Have you tried mescaline yet? You should try mescaline. I remember my first trip, roaming around the quad of Boston College in the middle of the night, trying to find Nature.) 2:01. The racing against time was a bad idea. He put his watch back in his pocket. He cracked his neck. He texted his wife (hey babe, hows yr day? dinner? xo) who was in a meeting. He belatedly hoped she had her phone set to vibrate. He checked his email. The student who had been planning to meet with the dead administrator wrote. He’d answer that later, he thought. He was a busy man. The administrator haunted him. People die, he thought, and become anecdotes. He imagined his students telling anecdotes about his behavior in class, whatever crumbs might be caught in his beard, the repetitiveness of his good gray pants. Six more. An unlucky number. If he could get it down to five, he could leave the café. That was the deal being offered. He was prepared to take the deal. (“Since the beginning of time…”)

9. “Globalization and the Ivory Trade in Botswana”
The instructor alphabetized the remaining six papers in descending order by last name, and tucked into the top paper, the shining star of the class. He read the first paragraph and stopped. Maybe he should save it for last. But he deserved some pleasure, surely? Some morsel of thought, delivered from one brain to another via this impeccable method of words on paper, a morsel of thought in direct response to a question he himself had asked. He sat for a moment, enjoying his power, feeling like Louis XIV. If he asked them to dip their papers in gold, they would. He was the teacher; they had to do whatever he said. But mostly that meant that they stapled the pages and cited their sources correctly on the third draft. This kid was the ringer this semester, placed in the class by an insistent universe to prove that students could be sentient beings. He read the entire paper, stopping only to make small red check-marks in the margins. He read the entire paper. The entire paper was comprehensible. He should call someone, he thought. He should tell people that this was possible. He wasn’t going to be able to grade anymore today, that was for sure.

A version of this piece appeared previously in Encyclopedia Volume II (F-K)

's work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Brooklyn Rail, MiPOesias, OCHO 31, Occupoetry, and jubilat. Lawlor studied creative writing at UMass Amherst's Program for Poets and Writers, has been awarded fellowships from the Lambda Literary Foundation and Radar Labs, and currently lives and grades in Western Massachusetts. For infrequent tweets, follow @anderlawlor.


  1. I love this – as a student surrounded by those who start papers at 4 am, I can imagine your pain.

  2. Can’t we get rid of the word “adjunct”? (Not your fault, of course.)

    What else could we be called? That word is rooted in big nothing. It sounds like an unpleasant growth.

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