Near the end of one recent semester, word began filtering back to the pooh-bahs at a certain eastern liberal arts college, where I then served as an adjunct instructor of writing, that despite my lack of a terminal degree (surely the most ominous-sounding of academic laurels), perhaps I wasn’t such an unqualified disaster in the classroom after all. A horrific glitch in the registrar’s computer had placed some of the English department’s most promising wordsmiths under my supervision, and their feedback on my evaluations suggested that perhaps I wasn’t doing too badly for a guy with a “lowly BA.” (That’s how I actually used to list my degree on my CV, until one of my deans told me to “stop being an asshole about it, please.”) Students made a particular point of my emphasis on “preparing us for success in the real world.”
Normally, this is the point at which I would have been fired on the spot. I’d already gotten flak for making a classroom case history out of a lengthy investigative piece I’d done for Playboy, which had earned me a cool $8000; equipping students to aim for that kind of payday is strictly forbidden in college writing programs, which teach their young charges to concoct marginally coherent pieces for arcane, artsy journals with titles like Zephyr of the Ephemeral Consciousness. Among academics, it is considered a badge of honor to be paid in copies, or not at all. After all, you can’t put a price tag on genius!
But like many liberal arts colleges these days, my then-employer found itself dealing with an exigent, alarming phenomenon: a surge in the number of writing students who’d come to realize that not too many magazines or book publishers seek trenchant manuscripts that pointedly deconstruct Beowulf. Students in this category had begun demanding classes with a more pragmatic tilt. Thus, after undertaking an exhaustive inquiry intended to ensure that I was neither molesting the coeds nor—worse, from academia’s perspective—promoting a classroom climate tolerant of political views to the right of Mao, my department chairman approached me one day in the office I shared with eight or nine other adjuncts, at the end of the building’s most forbidding hall, as far removed from students and any significant aspects of campus life as they could put us. (I never saw any of my fellow adjuncts in the office, for the school carefully scheduled us so as to avoid the inevitable comparing of notes on wages and such. But I knew they existed by the proliferation of Styrofoam coffee cups with all that caramelized brown sludge at the bottom.)
“You know, we really like you, Steve,” said my chairman, even getting my name right. “You think you’d be able to teach an extra course for us next semester?” For this, he offered me the school’s customary adjunct pay times two. “If enrollment is strong enough, maybe we could even add a third class?”
Now, I’ve been around the block a time or two (mostly because adjuncts don’t qualify for parking in the faculty lots). So I cogitated on this a while, cogitating being what one does in airy venues like academia, where mere thinking would never suffice. I finally decided that the school’s covert objective here was the addition of another faculty member at wages more appropriate to jobs that require one to ask such weighty questions as, “Would you like fries with that?” A few days later I found my way to my chairman’s rather more sumptuous office in a much nicer hallway and told him I’d be delighted to teach two classes for the school. Even three. With one condition.
I wanted an actual professorship. At commensurate professorial remuneration.
I assume that his laughter subsided in time, although I still heard it echoing down the hallway when I got back to my office, several pay grades and tax brackets removed.
The following day he returned, grimacing, to my dank end of the hall, to inform me that, although he had no visiting professorships to proffer, the school might conceivably make me its writer-in-residence. He was careful to point out that this posed problems of some delicacy, for I was not exactly the prototypical author contemplated in such august arrangements.
My chairman didn’t elaborate, but I grasped his meaning. In keeping with the ethos described earlier, colleges tend to bestow writer-in-residence appointments upon the sorts of littérateurs who are forever in danger of having the heat in their feline-scented garrets shut off, or are under active investigation by the FBI for links to groups plotting the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. Every decade or so, these artistes disgorge some impenetrable poetry or fiction (never anything as squalid as nonfiction or, God help us, actual journalism). As part of their duties, they’re expected to host semi-regular public readings of their work, which, for many of them, may be the only time that said work is experienced by anyone other than family members, other writers-in-residence, or their fellow terrorist-sympathizers. I, on the other hand, had written books people could actually order on Amazon, and sometimes did. One of those books had become, of all things, a Warner Bros. TV movie! (That alone had almost queered the deal during my original job interview.) My byline also appeared in glossy newsstand publications, even ones that didn’t feature naked women. All of which stood me in very bad stead indeed. How could the department justify giving so prominent a platform to a writer whose output could be (a) found in mainstream media and (b) understood without the ingestion of mind-altering substances and/or a crash course in subversive ops?
My mind swirling in such dilemmas, I asked my department chair the all-important question.
“So how much would you pay me to be your writer-in-residence?”
We went back and forth on the matter of compensation for several days. No doubt blue-ribbon committees had to be convened, and input solicited from the rest of the faculty—that is, the real ones, with those damn terminal degrees. Perhaps a quick search of local homeless shelters was conducted to see if any starving poets could be unearthed who were mad and incomprehensible enough to be more worthy of the post. At week’s end the department chair reappeared in my office door to inform me that the school had upped its offer to three times its usual rate for single-course adjuncts—or, put another way, about half the rate for bona fide, PhD-bearing professors. That was their final offer, and it came with a catch. In return for this largesse, I would have to agree to work with my chairman or his appropriate designee to “find something I could do” (his exact words) to justify my existence as writer-in-residence—a caveat that clearly implied I couldn’t simply give readings from essays I’d written for the likes of Harper’s, or Esquire, or The New York Times Magazine.
I won’t keep you in suspense; I took the deal. After some discussion, we settled on having me discharge my debt to my new position by giving talks in local at-risk high schools about the various ways in which writing skills can enrich one’s life. Why at-risk schools? I can only assume that the English department sought to avoid the certain embarrassment of parading its poorly pedigreed writer-in-residence before the more culturally erudite seniors at conventional high schools (who divide their time between booty calls and conquering advanced levels of Grand Theft Auto).
But I resolved not to feel glum about such matters. No sir. That night, I broke out the bubbly and reveled in my writer-in-residency, secure in the knowledge that my new title, plus the usual four quarters, would get me a cup of coffee in the school’s vending machines…located in a much nicer hallway than the one I called home.
Steve Salerno is a widely published essayist and professor of journalism. His 2005 book, SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless, explored the self-improvement industry’s wider footprint in society. You can follow him on Twitter @iwrotesham