A bit of Academic science fiction for your Tuesday morning enjoyment.
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“I’m sorry,” the dean said as he rested his coffee mug on the heavy stack of CV’s littering his desk, “we just don’t have any demand for your class this semester. Maybe in the Spring.”
“What if I add another core credit? I could include a writing module. I could add a history component.”
The dean leaned forward. “You know I can’t do that, Doctor…”
“Dr. Thomas. It wouldn’t be fair to the students. We’re not going to pad out a class just so you can get paid. I’m sorry. It’s just not in the cards. Maybe next semester you can stir up some interest in Introduction to Genome Editing.”
“So what do I do now?”
“Well,” the dean paused, earnest and thoughtful, “if you want to keep your office, you’ll have to volunteer to TA one of the chemistry lab units. Otherwise, I’m afraid your campus access expires at midnight this Friday.”
Richard excused himself wordlessly.
His e-mail pinged as he walked down the hall. POSTDOC OPPORTUNITY. He opened it.
I am very interest to work in your lab…”
Spam. Everyone at the university, from grad students all the way to emeritus professors, and sometimes even undergraduates and technicians, got the same messages. Random students sending out form letters, with no indication that they had any idea who Richard was or what he did. If they knew, they wouldn’t be trying to join him on his path to obscurity.
He deleted it.
Richard wandered into his shared office. Only 4 of the 14 occupants were in today. His desk mate, an adjunct in the history department, had once again covered every inch of real estate with freshmen compositions. The red ink flowed like blood across the manuscripts.
“How’s it going?” he asked, not really interested in the answer.
“Great,” he sighed, “I almost gave someone a B-, but then I remembered that evaluations go out next week. You teaching this semester?”
“Tough luck, Dick. Maybe next semester?”
Richard sat in the corner by the radiator, pulled out his aging phone, and began browsing, absentmindedly through LinkedIn, hoping for a new lead. Something caught his eye.
WANTED: DISENFRANCHISED ADJUNCTS. TRAVEL THE WORLD. MEET INTERESTING PEOPLE. GET HEALTH INSURANCE. FLEXIBLE MORALITY A PLUS.
There was nothing for Richard Thomas in the spring, either. Student enrollment was on decline, and even the assistant professors were struggling to fill their classes. Tenure review was on permanent hold and no one was advancing through the system. With so few adjuncts teaching classes, and so few students filling seats, the university’s college rank improved. The student-to-full-time-instructor ratio was at a historic high. The endowment was at a record low.
The university made sure to let the adjuncts know just how great this was as, one by one, they were punted out of their crowded offices. The adjuncts went back into the CV pool to wait for another round of hiring. Richard’s desk mate was off slinging coffee for a local chain while writing his alt-history novel.
That ad had burned in his bookmarks for months. After another semester of barely-there adjuncting, Richard hit reply.
Now he was here, interviewing for a job he knew absolutely nothing about.
Richard was sitting in an incomprehensibly comfortable leather chair, across from a man in a tailored suit who introduced himself as Desmond. The questions had been basic, if a little specific. They came in rapid succession: “Do you have a valid passport?” Yes. “Are you comfortable with e-mail?” Yes. “Can you manage multiple threaded conversation at once?” Of course. Richard still had no idea what he was interviewing for.
“So tell me, what are you good at?”
“Well,” He paused, struggling to answer. “I’ve got a Ph.D. in Cell and Molecular Biology. I haven’t been active in research for a couple of years now, but I was pretty handy with a pipette. Even better with big data. I’m a good teacher, all my students give me positive evals…”
“No, no, no, Richard.” Desmond interrupted him. “That’s just what you do. I want to know what you’re good at.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t think I understand?”
“Do you run? Can you fly a plane? Can you drive a truck? Can you learn to do any of those things? Are you clever? Can you think on your feet? Do you work well under pressure? Can you feign ignorance? Can you talk your way out of a traffic ticket? Can you talk your way out of jail? Can you talk your way into jail? Can you get angry, fast? What… are you good at?”
Richard attempted to stutter out a reply, but the words caught in his throat. He swallowed hard and told the truth.
“To be honest, I have no idea. But I think I’d like to find out.”
Desmond leaned back and smiled.
The old truck rumbled across the barely paved road as Dr. Richard Thomas left Ulaanbaatar behind. He drove slow, taking care not to draw attention to himself or cause too much discomfort to his passengers, nervously hiding in the darkened trailer. He smiled as he was waved through the last checkpoint. The officers were well-bribed.
Richard was happy. He felt good about his job. He felt that, for once, he was actually contributing to something. Doing something meaningful, even just.
In retrospect, it made sense, so much so that he was disappointed in himself for not piecing it together, sooner. Even as an adjunct, he’d gotten the e-mails. Hundreds, over the course of his academic career. Students looking for post-docs, lab positions, faculty appointments. Often stellar CV’s from places no one had ever heard of, with publications he couldn’t access. Always unsolicited. Always generic.
Now he was writing those e-mails. They weren’t students. They were never students. They were dissidents, political prisoners, indentured laborers. They cashed in whatever savings they had, sometimes their entire family’s life savings, to hire Desmond and his people, in the hope that someone would take the bait, that someone would write back and say “Sure, come in for an interview. Here’s a letter of sponsorship for your short-term visa.”
And then, with luck, asylum and amnesty.
Everything Richard learned about the Academy, all the ins and outs of the bureaucracy, all the hoops that he jumped through just to get an interview, to scrape together enough term contracts to feed himself, had prepared him for this.
Next Fall, the university would be interviewing a lot more adjuncts.
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