The Disgusting New Campus Novel

Kristina Quynn:

If contingent faculty were being killed at your university at the rate of one per day, how many days would it take for someone in your administration to notice?” That’s the question asked by Geoff Cebula’s murder-mystery novel Adjunct (2017), set at fictional Bellwether College. The mysterious disappearance of faculty members compels Elena Malatesta, an adjunct professor in the modern-language department, to unravel budget cuts from murder and uncover the real cause behind the disappearance of Bellwether’s adjuncts. In the end, Malatesta also disappears from campus. She quits teaching to pursue a life of the mind outside academe. She will, however, advise a part-time colleague to continue teaching. Because a full-time position may — just may — open up in the future. Thus the crisis continues.

Cebula’s novel contributes to a new trend in American campus fiction that features contingent faculty and staff as protagonists seeking to understand the changing nature of higher education and to gain job security, professional recognition, and promotion. Such novels and short fiction — instances of what Jeffrey Williams has called the “Adjunctroman” — include Julia Keefer’s How to Survive as an Adjunct Professor by Wrestling (2006), J. Hayes Hurley’s The Adjunct (2008), Alex Kudera’s Fight for Your Long Day (2010), A.P. O’Malley’s “Vagrant Adjunct” (2012), and Gordon Haber’s “Adjunctivitis” (2013).

Feces, vomit, blood, amputated limbs, corpses — these are some of the motifs by which the new campus fictions announce their difference from the old.
These small-press or self-published narratives of contingency frustrate the most recognizable mode of campus fiction, the “Professorroman,” with a saga of Sisyphean lack of progress. If the Professorroman is a version of Bildungsroman that substitutes a story of coming into tenure for a coming-of-age narrative, in the Adjunctroman no one achieves professordom or even gets close: These are cautionary tales of academic drudgery and professional woe.