Class Distinctions

Inevitably, when I attend a certain kind of party — namely, the kind at which the tequila luge is not a central activity — I am asked what I do for a living. This is always an awkward situation for fiction writers, because if we admit we're fiction writers, people immediately ask what we've written. And when we tell them, there's an agonizing silence.

So I've gotten in the habit of telling people I'm a university professor, which sounds incredibly respectable, even a little intimidating, and causes them to view me in an entirely new light. Unless, of course, there's a tequila luge on the premises.

It is also, more or less, the truth. I am what's known in the professorial biz as an adjunct. Adjunct, as you may know, is a Latin word meaning “slave.” Adjuncts are basically part — timers who are paid a few thousand dollars per class, have no office, no health insurance, and no job security, and are sometimes asked to carry spittoons for the tenured professors. Not that I am bitter.

What we adjuncts do have is a unique perspective on the city. We are the ones, after all, who are on the front lines of higher education (canon fodder, if you will). For us, this time of year means only one thing: not foliage, not sweaters, not even another Red Sox choke job. No, it means the entire world is suddenly 22 again. Yes, the students are back, full of faulty wisdom and inside jokes, caressing awkwardly in public and spending their parents' money on skimpy clothing, seeking knowledge on an elective basis, and retiring each evening to bars with sad loud music where they holler words such as word and shizzle.

Yet we adjuncts are not without our own form of power. And here I am not referring to our professional power, which is the power of the grade. I am referring to that much greater cultural power: the power to make cruel and gratuitous judgments.

And judge we do. Any Boston — area adjunct who's been in the racket long enough has a cheat sheet on the local student population, which is transmitted from one adjunct to the next by word of mouth, like an ancient text. A few years back, my pals and I considered actually printing an Adjunct's Guide to Boston. But we quickly concluded that such a book would (a) make no money, as adjuncts live below the poverty level and couldn't afford to buy it, and (b) get us fired (see “no job security,” above).

In honor of the returning students, however, I'd like to break ranks and offer up a slice of this collected lore. I myself have taught at only two local colleges, so I have relied on a crack team of adjunct correspondents, all of whom have agreed to furnish me with the inside skinny, provided I use pseudonyms and never, ever call them again. Fair enough.

I have to start with Emerson, the crown jewel of downtown Boston campuses. The best place to spot Emerson students is in the Public Garden at 2 a.m. They're the ones with the bongs. During the day, they can be found milling about on Tremont and Boylston streets. Look for clumps of youngish panhandler types. Those are them.

The average Emerson student has misanthropic tendencies but didn't have the guts to truly screw up in high school. Emerson kids were class clowns with decent grades and substandard tattoos. During my years at Emerson, I used to like to see how many piercings I could spot, per class, on the first day of each semester. (Personal best: 17.) It was especially fun to listen to the kids with new tongue studs.

My sense is that the school has cleaned up its image since (or, perhaps, because) I left. But the lion's share of Emerson students remain grubby hipsters who hope to become slam poets, radio personalities, and failed musicians, in that order.

Boston College, by contrast, where I have also taught, specializes in suburban Catholic kids who are sweet, sheltered, and extremely well dressed. The entire campus looks like a J.Crew catalog with a slight hangover. I mean this as a compliment.

What the average BC student lacks is edge. These are not the kind of kids who are going to light the world on fire with their rebel energy. They're smart enough, though, and well mannered. The guys wear those silly baseball caps with curled bills, but they are not violent unless they drink Zima, which makes them crazy. I often feel irrationally protective toward my BC students, as if the world will prove a bit too cruel for them.

I describe this sentiment to my pal Keith, who teaches at Boston University, and he just laughs. Sympathy is not something Keith generally extends to his BU students, who he describes as “the snottiest, most insufferable kids in Boston, by far. On the other hand, there are some genuinely nice — looking ones who could give a reasonable facsimile of character, perhaps as extras in a party scene in a Wes Craven movie.” I try to get Keith to tell me how he really feels.

Another friend likes to call the place the Upper East Side of Children, a tribute both to its affluence and the sense of entitlement of those enrolled there. The sunniest, most entertaining students, she claims, are the sons and daughters of diplomats, who have lived abroad and who seem to understand — for whole minutes at a time — that they are not the center of the known universe.

I find the hubris of BU kids almost cute, given that they go to school in the shadow of Harvard, the alpha male of American higher education.
I myself have never taught at Harvard (my SAT scores were too low), but folks I know who do report a student population that is simultaneously smug and terrified. Smug because they're used to being the smartest, most ambitious people in their world; terrified because they're now immersed in a hothouse of fellow hotshots.

Harvard students don't grade — grub. They grade — litigate.

Are they stressed? “You could bounce a nickel off their foreheads and it would land in Cleveland” is how my Harvard adjunct friend Shelly puts it.

Should you want an explanation for the physics of this, MIT is the place to look. Cambridge's other university is, of course, the undisputed local champ of geekdom. The kids here are grinders, plain and simple. My friend Andy says he tends to like his students, many of whom are foreign — born. They're hard — working and respectful, if slightly socially autistic. “Sometimes I'll try to crack a joke,” he notes, “and the response from the class is, like, 'Does Not Compute.'” He also reports a disturbingly large number of malodorous students. (“Bathing isn't, like, priority one for them.”)

The aroma runs more toward patch — ouli at Tufts. Tufts is the area's premier liberal arts college, which is a fancy way of saying Ivy League wannabe. Many of the students there applied to Harvard (or Yale or Brown) but didn't make the cut.

They are, nonetheless, exceedingly polite. “No one wants to argue or get riled up about anything,” says my friend Sandra. She is uncertain as to whether this is the result of spiritual enlightenment or lethargy. She suspects the latter.

I know only one guy who works at Northeastern, and he appears so utterly defeated by the experience that it's hard to get him to discuss it. “They've got a great gym over there,” he told me once in a noble attempt at seeing the glass as half full.

The crème de la crème of the adjunct world, such as it is, is Berklee. My pal John describes teaching there in such a way that it almost sounds like . . . fun. The students — they call themselves cats, which John loves — all believe that they're the next Yo — Yo Ma/Miles Davis/Thurston Moore, which can make them kind of obnoxious but at least guarantees class participation. They also — get this — serenade their teachers.

This vibe extends to the academic program. When John asked the dean of his department about the curriculum, the dean rolled back in his chair and said, “You are the curriculum, baby.” The remarkably diverse student body has only one thing in common: an addiction to music, which strikes me as one of the more psychologically healthy addictions.

The most important thing to remember, of course, is that most 22 — year — olds are really the same basic person. They're full of hope and bluster, monumentally self — absorbed, but also susceptible to moments of unearthly kindness. As much as I hate having to hear the word like six times in a sentence, I love watching my students' minds stretch to accommodate new ideas. It has occurred to me more than once (actually, almost constantly) that I'm really envious of them, of their youth, of the sheer quantity of possibility that lives inside them. They could be anything!

Every semester I do find a few special ones, students I can see are destined for greatness. Toward the end of the term, they'll screw up their courage and ask me for advice. I tell them to just keep doing what they're doing: Be humble before wisdom, full of love for the world, voraciously curious. And for God's sake, if they must teach, not to become an adjunct.