The daylight divide in academia

Go read “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” a sadly provocative essay in The Atlantic by “Professor X,” who is an adjunct instructor at a private college and at a community college.  (H/t to Lance Mannion, via Suburban Guerilla.)  The article is a report from the front lines by an instructor who teaches introductory composition and literature courses to people who frequently don’t have the skills it takes to pass hir class, let alone earn a college degree.  It’s not snarky at all–ze is a compassionate person who truly dislikes failing hir students, but ze dislikes even more the falsely egalitarian notion that college is the only path to success.  I sheepishly identify with this:

The full-time, tenured professors at the colleges where I teach may likewise feel comfortably separated from those whom they instruct. Their students, the ones who attend class during daylight hours, tend to be younger than mine. Many of them are in school on their parents’ dime. Professors can fail these young people with emotional impunity because many such failures are the students’ own fault: too much time spent texting, too little time with the textbooks.

There are some returning students and other students with more complex lives taking courses in the daylight hours, but I agree with Professor X’s point about “daylight” versus nighttime students and faculty.   There is a large class and status divide between those of us for whom teaching and learning are our “day jobs,” and those for whom teaching and learning are pursued in the second shift.  To those students and faculty, our day shift must look like beer and skittles.  Professor X continues: 

But my students and I are of a piece. I could not be aloof, even if I wanted to be. Our presence together in these evening classes is evidence that we all have screwed up. I’m working a second job; they’re trying desperately to get to a place where they don’t have to. All any of us wants is a free evening. Many of my students are in the vicinity of my own age. Whatever our chronological ages, we are all adults, by which I mean thoroughly saddled with children and mortgages and sputtering careers. We all show up for class exhausted from working our full-time jobs. We carry knapsacks and briefcases overspilling with the contents of our hectic lives. We smell of the food we have eaten that day, and of the food we carry with us for the evening. We reek of coffee and tuna oil. The rooms in which we study have been used all day, and are filthy. Candy wrappers litter the aisles. We pile our trash daintily atop filled garbage cans.

That’s right–not only are they pursuing their second jobs and educations after hours, without the company of colleagues or even the minimal courtesy of the department office having the door open and a staff member to help with the copier, or to lend a stapler or a dry-erase marker.  These faculty and students are literally working amidst the refuse that the day faculty and day students have left behind:  the overflowing trash cans, the chalkboards already hopelessly smeared with dust. 

Professor X is the George Orwell of adjunct faculty and night school students.  Ze should write a book:  Down and Out in Amherst and Madison?

0 thoughts on “The daylight divide in academia

  1. Greetings from a long-time/first-time–

    This adds another dimension to the case at Norfolk State University (, where it’s called the “subtext” that the professor was fired for giving bad grades to students and seemingly being unwilling to either adjust his teaching methods or his interest level in having students meet his standards.

    In an issue that reaches from extension school to branch universities abroad, how and when should elite universities enforce standards to be attached to their name? And more pointedly, if most universities should work to encourage students not cut them off at the knees, should bridging this divide among student bodies be a higher-education goal, or will that replicate the school busing/separate lunch tables debates about elementary schools?


  2. I found that piece vaguely annoying. Professor X was obviously serious, hard-working, and thoughtful. But the essay was loaded with assumptions. After all, teachers in day classes also flunk students. Maybe they are less likely to have a 40 year old who has never surfed the web, but still. . .

    I think the issue towards the end is about working with adults. And after more than 15 years working with adults, I can safely say that life intervenes. For the most part, my adult students lives are more complicated than are those of traditional age students — they are often dealing with aging parents, troublesome teenagers, etc. They have forgotten academic skills while doing whatever else they do for a living. And one of the principles of adult pedagogy is that students need to find connections between their class and work; they need to draw connections between ideas. So the problem is an institution that does not adapt to the needs of adult students.


  3. I’m sure these generalizations are basically accurate for almost all cases, although I must say that my one personal anecdote from this category cuts in completely the opposite direction. I did some non-tenure track gigs along the way, but my one actual “adjunct” experience was at a quite good but not top-of-the-brand small university in let’s say greater suburban Trenton, NJ. The students I saw in the daytime class I taught ran the gamut from o.k. to not so o.k. Over half of the ones in the 3-hour once a week evening class, however, were middle managers from the Pharmaco-Industrial Complex stretching from Princeton Junction to the business parks of New Brunswick. They were not that crazy about a survey of U.S. History to 1877, but they were averse to failure or even to underperforming in anything. They arrived week after week in business attire, suits that probably cost more than I was making for the whole course that semester. How they got these jobs while presumably at pre-BA level was unclear to me.

    The biggest challenge was teaching them and their traditional student classmates in once-a-week three hour chunks. You absolutely had to teach sick, as I did through a Nyquil haze one evening in February (appropriate for teaching Big Pharma students, I guess). In early March a rookie night school dean panicked and cancelled all classes for what turned out to be a two inch showfall. As a result, we had to teach through a foot of snow four weeks later on March 31. (Historiann, you were probably in Boston about then? This was the I guess legendary circa three-foot “April Fools Blizzard” by the time it made it that far up the East Coast). All this said, I think that Prof. X’s points are doubtless very well taken, although your experience may vary from situation to situation.


  4. Indyanna–I remember the April Fool’s Day snowstorm of 1997 fondly! We sledded and staggered down the middle of Mass Ave in Cambridge, just because we could!

    And Susan–your points are well taken, although ze doesn’t say that day-shifters don’t flunk their students, ze says that he envies us because we don’t have to care as much. As a privileged day-shifter, I agree with him–the lives of my 19-year old screw-ups (and the reasons they screw up) aren’t that sympathetic or compelling compared to Professor X’s students, whose lives are spilling out everywhere. (I’ll say this about my “snowflakes”–they mostly take what I dish out and leave me alone.) I agree with you that institutions should adapt to the needs of adult learners, but that would take more resources and planning than most institutions are willing to do. And as Professor X points out, the second shift is all about maximizing resources and squeezing every penny out of those otherwise empty but electrified and heated classrooms, it’s not about, you know, actually educating people!

    And Adam: welcome, and thanks for stopping by to comment. I have considered a post on that Norfolk State case, but (for once?) Historiann just doesn’t know what to think or say about it. I’m mostly sympathetic to the fired faculty member, although I wonder about flunking so many students all the time–that can’t have been a great place for him to be (either literally or emotionally) for his development as a teacher and scholar. I guess it’s one of those cases where I feel like I’d need to see his file (which isn’t going to happen, obviously) before spouting off confidently about what the problem really was (as most commenters on this case seem to be doing.) The NSU case may be another situation where, as Susan suggests, the institution needs to adapt to the students better, perhaps by offering remedial classes that would prepare the students to take the fired guy’s classes. It just seems totally weird and dysfunctional that the situation has apparently been allowed to fester without a more creative institutional response.


  5. The day/evening split doesn’t really work at my university. Daytime students often include parents (usually Moms but there are also stay-at-home Dads) who are attending classes while their children are in school, or they are coming off of a night shift, or they’ve worked a second shift and then come in after not much sleep. We have a large number of evening students of all ages and there are full-time faculty who prefer teaching evening sections, and there are adjuncts who teach during the day. I agree with what Indyanna says about teaching adult students (wish there was another word — aren’t 18 year olds adults?)


  6. That storm presaged a way-cold spring in New England, Historiann. I got off the train at South Station on Memorial Day for a month-long fellowship at the Mass. Historical Society dressed for summer and totally froze well into June! (But you could at least leave the archive at 5 p.m., walk across the Fens, and buy Red Sox tickets for that night’s game–even YANKEES games–another age!)

    The only thing I’ve ever been able to figure out for teaching unskilled students our gen. ed. classes (mostly daytime) is “teach hard, grade easy.” We have a large what amounts to open-admissions cohort and it would be a shooting gallery to uphold what used to be called “college standards” of grading. But we also have sharp students who turn down more selective schools to stay close to home, for whom it would literally fry their brains to teach at the “college is the new high school” level. Thus, I push pretty hard in the classroom, and slack off a lot in the “assessment-and-metrics” function. Not a great solution, but there are no really great solutions as far as I can see. Some of the stragglers actually step up and expand their horizons while we also have what some of my more cynical colleagues call “Radon Row” at the increasingly-distant back of the room, as they jam more seats in.


  7. What resonates with me here is the identification with the students’ situations. I don’t find that the “adult” students lack academic skills – quite the contrary, even if they didn’t get their critical thinking skills, information, and so on, in school. But they are genuinely beleaguered and so am I, and part of my beleagueredness involves dealing with theirs. My more successful colleagues don’t deal with the beleagueredness and either just pass ’em or just flunk ’em, but I, although I’m not one to say I “love teaching” or went into this profession to teach, am genuinely interested.


  8. Finding candy wrappers in a classroom aisle must be psychologically devastating. I could have had a Snickers. The horror. The horror.

    The tone is unbearable. And the author’s attempt to associate himself with the students is yet another attempt by adjuncts to sound something like working class. But his elitism betrays him. “Even the cops-to-be feel driven to succeed in class.”

    If the students need to learn to write coherent sentences, shouldn’t the teacher spend some time teaching sentence construction? Most students need to work on their writing. Some instructors also.


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  11. Thanks for this post. Reading the essay, the turning point which the author describes really stood out for me:

    “The bursting of our collective bubble comes quickly. A few weeks into the semester, the students must start actually writing papers, and I must start grading them. Despite my enthusiasm, despite their thoughtful nods of agreement and what I have interpreted as moments of clarity, it turns out that in many cases it has all come to naught.”

    It sounds like this teacher feels good about what he or she is doing until the grading comes in. Perhaps the students are enjoying the class and are learning something until this part of the semester begins. Maybe the grading and the paper writing is the part of college that is inappropriate for these particular students.


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