The Mercenary Adjunct, or What Would Machiavelli Do?

English: Cover page of 1550 edition of Machiav...

Taken from Svenska: Furstens omslagsbild. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Chapter XII of his world renowned, sixteenth century instruction manual to Lorenzo d’Medici of Florence, The Prince (1532), Niccolo Machiavelli states that “The chief foundations of all states… are good laws and good arms” (Machiavelli, all quotes taken from Gutenberg & are public domain). What he meant is that a nation should produce its own military forces, and never hire outside forces to defend its own land. If they do so, then they will suffer penalties he articulates later on in the text. But he makes clear that these two foundations are contingent upon one another. He states: “there cannot be good laws where the state is not well armed, it follows that where they are well armed they have good laws” (ibid.). Essentially, one is both a determinant of, and a dependent upon, the other.

Over the past few years there has been debate and general discourse concerning the allowance of the coveted “tenure-track” position within academic institutions. Many argue that this provides teachers with a “free-ride” where they are allowed to do or say anything they wish, regardless of university approval.

Santi di Tito’s famous portrait of Niccolò Mac...

Santi di Tito’s famous portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli, now residing in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy; headcrop. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Their rivals argue that tenure is one of the last bastions of organized labor, and a reward for the excruciating intellectual labor that takes place in academia. I believe that there are allusions that can be drawn from Machiavelli’s The Prince that would lend credence to an argument against the way universities and colleges employ adjunct professors. While I am not wholly in favor of tenure, I do take issue with the use and abuse of the adjunct’s position. As would Niccolo Machiavelli, but not for the reasons we may at first assume.

Before I put my opinion into the hat (as they say), I want to make something clear: I’m an adjunct professor of English. Out of maybe seventy general education instructors at the college where I teach, which shall remain anonymous, maybe twelve are full-time employees of the company. The rest are adjunct. Mercenaries. Hired guns used exclusively to fortify a business and protect it against closure. We work for a flat, per-credit remuneration, with the only chance for an increase being the coveted full-time position. Furthermore, we have no guarantee of further employment, since we are on a contractual basis. Our contracts state that it may be cancelled, or prorated, at any time the employer feels necessary. We have no health insurance, nor life insurance. No 401k. And no vacation time accrues. We are simply mercenaries.

Machiavelli is quite opinionated when it comes to mercenary forces. He states: “mercenary and auxiliary forces are useless and dangerous; and if one holds his state based on these arms, he will stand neither firm nor safe; for they are disunited, ambitious, and without discipline, unfaithful, valiant before friends, cowardly before enemies” (ibid.). Well! That’s a bit of an overstatement, but it does hold some basic truths. What is the motivation of the adjunct to be disciplined and faithful to a particular college’s ideals? What is their reasoning for teaching beyond personal ambition? The mercenary doesn’t attend regular staff meetings because he or she has outside responsibilities, such as other jobs, and has little loyalty without immediate reward. So, he or she is less informed of important matters. And less likely to recognize, and thus respect or empathize with, his or her superiors.

Henry V of England

Henry V of England (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The truth is that the mercenary has no loyalty, save for her art and her livelihood. If you fought in a national army, you would be surrounded by fellow countrymen. What a joy to discuss your lives and your country with your co-combatants, and then fight for your patriotic ideals as one! Waving a flag high and singing patriotic tunes, as if you were fighting with “God for Harry! England and Saint George!,” screaming “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!” (Shakespeare). The patriotic spirit is precisely what the mercenary lacks, and precisely why Machiavelli sees them as the eventual ruin of a nation.

What is then created is a state protected and guarded from failure by those who harbor no loyalty to the state for which they fight. Machiavelli continues: “they have no other attraction or reason for keeping the field than a trifle of stipend” (ibid.). Essentially, the adjunct goes where she is called. If the college is unable to hire them, or they find a more lucrative position, then they move on. Plain and simple. Someone else may come and fill the position, but all this does is create a stressful and bureaucratically laden administration whose sole job is to hire/re-hire on a whim. This then creates a college/university of which the majority of its inhabitants are administration, rather then serving their most elementary function: teaching (see note 1). With instructors routinely coming and going, attaching themselves to a university based on only a few basic personal factors, at the bottom of which resides loyalty. The university does not harbor camaraderie, intellectual engagement and interactivity amongst co-workers, or a shared notion of the universities or department’s ideals and mission. The deterioration of not only the universities status, but the educational standard of the university, is at stake. And it seems eminent from what Machiavelli warns.

Famous posthumous portrait of Niccolò Machiave...

Famous posthumous portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What the college uses the adjunct exclusively for then is their skills and capabilities as an instructor. But Machiavelli warns about this as well: “if they are [skilled], you cannot trust them, because they always aspire to their own greatness, either by oppressing you, who are their master, or others contrary to your intentions; but if the captain is not skillful, you are ruined in the usual way” (ibid.). The best interest of the college would be to hire those who are not too skilled so that they leave for a better job or a specialized degree, but someone skilled enough so you retain students. This is not easy. One has to make sure there is a minimum requirement of intellectual activity, but not too much so that the adjunct doesn’t wander for better employment. It should better them in their art, but not so much that their confidence grows beyond its place. The result is a lack of educational standards that are necessary for the globalized workplace. In other words, there are not “good laws where the state is not well armed” (ibid.).

I cannot conceive of any immediate solution to the problem of the use and abuse of adjunct instructors. In fact, I think it is here to stay for quite some time. The influx of work can often be a perk, allowing for a sort of “freedom” from responsibility. No classes? You’ve got time to right that novel! Or polish your resume! Or backpack across a state or two! But with this supposed “freedom” comes the life of the mercenary adjunct. And the realization that you never know where or when your next paycheck is coming, what would happen if you became ill, or if you will ever find steady employment. And with a mercenary army comes the lack of “good laws” along with “good arms,” in the shape of falling educational standards and the inability to understand how those standards can be measured (see note 2).

As Machiavelli warned Lorenzo d’Medici so long ago: “the ruin of Italy has been caused by nothing else than by resting all her hopes for many years on mercenaries” (ibid.). So should we heed his warning by conceiving a negotiation between the sacrosanct position of tenure, and the vulnerable predicament facing the mercenary adjunct.

1. A quick Google search will display numerous articles regarding the dwindling ration of instructors vs administration employed in colleges, universities, and public schools.

2. See debates on No Child Left Behind, and other modifications, thereof.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Trans. W. K. Marriott. Project Gutenberg. Ed. John Bickers, David Widger, and others. Oct 2010. Web. 14 Jun 2012.

Shakespeare, William. The Life of King Henry V. Project Gutenberg. Tudor Edition. Nov 1998. Web. 14 June 2012.


Book Review: On Beauty, by Zadie Smith

On BeautyOn Beauty by Zadie Smith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I guess it was inevitable that I would compare On Beauty (2005) to White Teeth—Zadie’s debut novel published in 2000. I had just finished White Teeth and with subtle interest I picked up On Beauty at a local used book store for around $6. I had just returned from a trip to Boston and thought that this would be a perfect way to further my authorial interest, with a little local flavor. As it happens, one of the rare references I got was one alluding to the shady characters hanging out at the Harvard T-Station—spot on.

First of all, the novels share a basic plot point: two culturally, socially and intellectually different families become entangled when one child disapprovingly becomes infatuated with the other family. Very “Romeo and Juliet“. And very White Teeth. In this case it is Jerome Besley, his early obsession with Victoria Kipps, and his eventual adoption of the Kipps’ favored religion: Christianity—an enormous faux pas in the eyes of the liberal-secular majority that is the Besley household. There are numerous other similarities between the novels that I will spare you, but there should be trivia about them somewhere!

As for a novel of “culture clashes” and “culture wars,” I didn’t find much of interest. As a text detailing academia, you are better off going for David Lodge’s triumvirate of college novels: Changing Places (1975), Small World (1984), and Nice Work (1988).

But, what I found in On Beauty was a matured writer. It had been five years since White Teeth, and Smith has grown in her writing. OB isn’t as biting, or loose with it’s pop culture references, nor is it as playful with the postmodern elements of style. While this style is THE hallmark of Smith’s first novel, and although I often expected those same sarcastic and layered references in OB, that same style wasn’t as prevalent. Her descriptions were not saturated with obscure references (seriously, how many Americans will get the Last of the Summer Wine reference in WT??), nor were they as biting.

And that’s the point: On Beauty is not White Teeth. So, what do I mean by “mature”? Well, at the base of this story is the Belsey family, and, well, Howard’s End (1910) (sorry for the obvious pun… but you know you were thinking it!). Smith does some of her best writing in this novel when she is depicting the passion between Howard and Kiki Belsey. The fight between the two near the end of the novel left me knocked out. I had to put the book down it was so true. (spoiler) The final sex scene is masterfully done, and bereft of any of the love Kiki and Howard held for another. Smith describes well Howard’s reliance on sexual intercourse as the cure-all, and Kiki’s final realization how little she feels for Howard. The ending focuses on them as a tale of a couple who know one another so well—30 years—that there is both extremes of pain and pleasure in this knowing.

This novel does answer one particular aspect of criticism directed toward WT: that it is a series of short-stories, or vignettes, and not a novel. On Beauty is most certainly a novel. At the heart of it is the Belsey family, and this is what should be remembered. So many other characters pass in and out—Katherine Armstrong, for instance—but there main function is to illuminate our true familial focus. Even the Kipps’ are only highlighted through the Belsey’s vision and not on their own. This familial unity stringing the novel along is what makes this a mature novel from a mature writer.

My read shelf:
Shawn's book recommendations, liked quotes, book clubs, book trivia, book lists (read shelf)

Book Review: Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, by David Foster Wallace

Brief Interviews with Hideous MenBrief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Two things:
1) I did not finish this book, and
2) I did enjoy his style, but this book is not for me.

So, if you feel comfortable with those two things, then read on.

I can see why people like, love, and praise David Foster Wallace. Really, I can. But this had to be one of the most trying, boring and tedious collection of stories I have ever read. Ok, check that: that’s hyperbole. The only other book I never finished was this awfully boring and obnoxious piece of writing: The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771). Again, probably interesting to someone, e.g. my ‘Rise of the Novel’ professor, just not me. So, there you have it: David Foster Wallace is in the same unfinished pile as this fella: Tobias Smollett.

Many years ago when I bought this book, I thought it would be a quick introduction to Wallace (have you seen the size of Infinite Jest [1996]?). Well, it was. And I am glad I never purchased Infinite Jest. I’m not going to criticize much, because that will be boring for me and you. And, plus, if you are a Wallace fan, then you probably have heard all the criticism. Too post modern. Too little punctuation. Too many footnotes. WAY too cynical. Yeap. Yeap. Yeap. And, yeap. I think Wallace is an innovator in his use of style, but it’s just not for me. As he puts it in “Octet”: “the cycle is just a cute formal exercise in interrogative structure and S.O.P. metatext” (Brief Interviews 147). Yeap. That’s what this reader got from it.

I think my criticism is fair: I didn’t care about any one of the characters in these stories. At all. And that’s what fiction should be for me: a darn good story. Style should not take precedence, thus sacrificing the narrative. Style should be there, of course, but it should not be intrusive. And Wallace’s style is overtly intrusive.

From what I read, for Wallace, fiction is a vehicle to practice how many ways you can creatively refer to the narrator, or to the person to whom they are speaking. For example, if there are two people talking and you constantly remind the reader who is being referred to, then you are either a) trying to be obnoxiously fatuous, or b) think the reader is incapable of keeping track (see, “The Depressed Person” and “Octet”). I tend toward the former. All this “fourth wall” business and “metatext” stuff is nice, but if I want theory talk, then I’ll go to Fredric Jameson, Jasbir Puar, Theodor Adorno, or Roland Barthes.

I don’t read fiction to have the author didactically explain theory. I read fiction to see the aesthetic practice of theory.

Oh, I gave it one star because that rating is defined as “didn’t like it”. And, well, I didn’t like it.

My read shelf:
Shawn's book recommendations, liked quotes, book clubs, book trivia, book lists (read shelf)

A Poem in May

A Poem in May

Picking her up.
“that was cool.”
biting. lightly biting.
aggressively holding.
talking long.
spending hours.
laying. loving.

That was cliché.
Shouldn’t there be a better way of saying “loving” without it being cliché?
or overdone.
Like a Hallmark card?

moving beds.
two queen-size beds.
talking long.
spending hours.
laying. loving.


Just Another Day

Just Another Day

She takes a step back and aligns her outfit.

The thought of it has taken quite the life out of her.
The design of his mind has made her uncomfortable in her own skin.

Heels on.
Back to the office.

A sudden conscious appearance—a thought of his future.
Whatever he had is gone.

Get in the car.
Only a passing guilty conscience. He’s not someone’s friend.
Just someone with nothing to live for.
Calmly start the engine.

“Keep it up,” she says.
Someday. The sun will come.
It will rise only for you.
For your eyes only.
Reds, oranges, violets, yellows; all mixed in your eyes.
A chemical reaction. A recognition of a reaction of gasses.
Taste the air.

A passing glance at light.
Just another day.


Book Review: White Teeth, by Zadie Smith

White TeethWhite Teeth by Zadie Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000) is extraordinarily post modern in its breadth. If you are looking for a text with a “grand arc” or timeline, or a text with rich, formidable characters whose inner depths to which the reader plunges, I would not recommend this novel. Try Charles Dickens or Herman Melville

I find defining post modern to be quiet easy in 2012, and especially within the plethora of examples formulated by Smith. For example, “Because there aren’t any alien objects or events anymore, just as there aren’t any sacred ones. It’s all so familiar. It’s all on TV” (436). Here Smith is describing the inner thoughts/feelings of Millat Iqbal, the twin son of Samad Iqbal, who seems comfortable with the notion of being violent even though he has never experienced violence first-hand—with a pistol, that is. Contrast this with Archie, who, along with Samad, experienced the tail end of World War II and a direct, one-on-one, conflict with the gruesomeness of war, violence, etc.—i.e. not on TV (therefore, not post modern). The breadth of this novel is its attempt to juxtapose these notions: the modern against the post modern, real violence in a wanting of peace versus contrived violence in a wanting of war.

To do this, Smith does not rely on a grand tale of heroism and personal discovery. Her novel is composed of vignettes, short stories, images, moments that are all heavily layered with adjectives with which we (the reader) find ourselves familiar. From Archie mentioning Britain’s longest running television show, Last of the Summer Wine, to Millat’s love of De Niro, Ray Liotta, American Gangster films in totem, and his insistence in quoting Paul Sorvino’s character from the 1990 film, Goodfellas. These vignettes are essential to the post modern style, and Smith’s endless quotations and references are equally essential to post modern substance of her novel.

Smith relies on Archibald Jones as the closing and opening “Hero” of her story, and seems to be quite in love with—and at her best—when speaking for and through Archie. Criticize how you may, this is Archie’s story. BUT (a big but), because this story is Archie’s story, the characters merely revolve around him. Archie is stalwart during the storm, and this is what Smith loves about him. He is reliable, durable, and always makes a choice (heads or tails). This is simply what Smith loves about him, and conversely, why every character chastises Archie. Because of Archie, every character can be crazy and irrational, they can be dramatic, licentious, provocative, heretics, or prophets; but only because Archibald Jones is unwaveringly dependable—a trait I feel is specifically rooted in his rescued suicide attempt, or second chance at life.

Finally, there is one last theme in need of exploration. Immigration. Smith poses it in a question, which is pondered existentially throughout either by the narrator or the characters, and uttered by one of the least profound of the many minor character’s: Joely (wife to Crispin, co-founder of FATE (Fighting Animal Torture and Exploitation), and love interest of Joshua Chalfen). Joely says, in a very post modern fashion (a vernacular simile and an unattributed quote): “‘It’s like that quote: ‘If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.’ The choice between duty and country” (410). This theme permeates the text. To whom is the migrant loyal: nation or family? Of course this brings up a multitude of philosophical discussions on the rise/instillation of nationalism that is better referred to in this text: Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983).

But I digress.

This theme is also echoed by Dr. Sick, whom Archie has the “choice” of killing during his stint in WWII. He states: “‘The problem,’ continued Dr. Sick… ‘is that of a young French student who ought to care for his sick mother in Paris but at the same time ought to go to England to help the Free French fight the National Socialists… what should he do?'” (444-45). For Archie it’s easy: He just chooses one: Either heads/Or tails, and deals with the consequences. Again, this is what Smith loves about Archie: his basic simplicity. This theme is also present in the introductory quote to the text: “What is past is prologue”. And it echoes throughout earlier post modern novels such as The Buddha of Suburbia (1990), where the opening line reads: “My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost” (3).

White Teeth is a beautiful exegesis on the struggles of the modern and the post modern. It is a quiet existential fight for the past when the present is consistently interrupting and making decisions the past did not predict. It is the passing of generations who live with one foot in one land, and the other foot in this one. It is the tug of war amongst expectations, disappointments and every day delights. It is often hilarious and surprising, and a wonderful play with the post modern style, form, and content.

My read shelf:
Shawn's book recommendations, liked quotes, book clubs, book trivia, book lists (read shelf)