Kathryn Ionata’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.
During my first semester as an adjunct instructor of English at two universities, I had come to dread Wednesdays. In the morning, I taught composition to a class of sleepy-eyed freshmen whose staunch refusal to participate in class discussions rivaled their unwillingness to crack a smile. After an interminable fifty minutes, I retreated to the “bullpen,” as a colleague referred to the small, windowless space packed with adjuncts gearing up for their next class. The room had probably been a supply closet at one point, and students routinely wandered in and asked for staplers, black ink, or help with the printer in the computer lab next door. One particularly audacious student even tried to use one of our computers.
After eating lunch and attempting to ward off a panic attack, I would teach my second comp class of the day, this time in a science lab whose blackboard contained no erasers. I came to rely on a left-behind plastic water bottle, stained green around the mouthpiece, to pour onto a paper towel to erase the board. This class found my lessons as entertaining as did the first.
Then it was time to leave campus and drive to a train station where there were often no free parking spaces. The train took me to my alma mater, where I taught a 2.5-hour-long fiction writing class. It was my favorite class to teach, and talking about James Baldwin and Sandra Cisneros with a group of engaged students would have normally delighted me, except that the timing of this class meant that I wouldn’t arrive home until 9:30 at night. This gave me an hour or less to see my husband of one month, whose job, which allowed us to maintain a comfortable standard of living, required him to wake up at 5:30 a.m.
None of this is unusual for an adjunct, of course: raise us four classes at two universities and we’ll counter with six classes at three universities. It’s not a new story or unique story, but the stress that came with the territory took me by surprise. My coping mechanism was another surprise: I started recording and watching Days of Our Lives every night.
Perhaps I should say re-watching. When I was a child, my mother sometimes watched the now-canceled Another World with me in the room. (Imagine my surprise years later when the show’s villain, Carl, showed up as a painter of female genitalia on Sex and the City). Then, when I was a teenager, my sister, mom, and I got into watching Days together. These were the years of elaborate balls in unnamed, fictional European countries, of doppelganger princesses, of a virtual garden of Eden that I still don’t fully understand. I think we stopped watching when two new characters hatched from an egg during a meteor shower.
I don’t remember making a conscious decision to watch the show again, although it probably had something to do with the show’s “reboot” effort that year: in order to avoid the fates of All My Children and Guiding Light, producers brought back beloved characters who had been written off as part of a belt-tightening effort over the past several years. Much like universities which try to save money by not offering instructors benefits or competitive salaries, axing high-paid but highly watchable actors was a short-sighted move that Days was now attempting to correct. One day I turned on the TV, and there they were: Marlena and John and Hope and Bo, Jack, Sami, Nicole, and everyone else. It was like no time had passed. Yes, Sami had three additional children and was married to Luis from Passions, and the egg aliens were nowhere to be found, but Jack was still doing things like reappearing from a long mysterious absence and falling into a large cake. Even the characters my grandmother watched in the 1970s, Doug and Julie, popped in from time to time.
The sameness was sustaining. In real life, friendships fade and health declines; people disappear. The economy collapses so profoundly that you become sick of hearing about it, and things we once took to be fact—higher education and hard work as a path to security—fall away. Everyone I knew began getting laid off. The semester now nearing an end, I only had one course scheduled for the spring and started looking for new jobs. The only thing that was certain was that, come nighttime, I could turn on the TV to find Sami Brady cheating on her husband with a man from the most evil family in town. A safe house might explode, but everyone would get out in time. Everything would end up okay.
There was a period of time in that first year of adjuncting when I went three months without one day off. Every weekend, I lesson-planned and graded for hours. I felt as if I were constantly choosing between eating, sleeping, and going to the bathroom. This was certainly the case on teaching days, when an hour between class became a marathon of marking essays I had been sitting on for two weeks or more, and I would pray no students would catch me in the five minutes I had allotted to use the restroom, because that would cut into my ten-minute walk across campus time, which would mean running and arriving in an out-of-breath frenzy. But no matter how much work I had, I allowed myself one hour each night to watch my show. No matter how tight my chest felt with anxiety, knowing that another two-school Wednesday started in less than twelve hours, the tension would loosen as I lost myself in the saga of Nicole’s long-desired but inadvisably fathered pregnancy. When I inevitably remembered what would happen when the sands ran out of the hourglass for this particular episode, I learned to tell myself that I was going to get through work tomorrow, and then I would have another episode to look forward to.
Sometimes I questioned what I was even doing in this job. The stress of job insecurity aside, I’m a very shy person, and it is not unusual for me to get so nervous at the prospect of leading a new class that my stomach hurts. But I love teaching at the college level. My goal at the end of my undergraduate degree was to have a career where my mind was constantly, unceasingly stimulated. I wanted to think and analyze and be challenged, and academia is the perfect venue for this. I will actually curriculum-plan for fun. I recently discovered a notebook from a class I took my senior year of college, where in between note-taking, I had sketched out a plan for a hypothetical senior seminar pairing nineteenth-century novels with modern-day reimaginings. Today, although my classes don’t always go perfectly, there are moments when class discussions flourish in such a creative, lively, respectful way that it feels like I am witnessing something magical.
The joke about soap operas is that someone is always coming back from the dead or having a great, implausible tragedy befall them, rendering the entire genre unrealistic. All I can say to this is that if the Days of Our Lives writers are ever short on ideas, they should delve into the minefield that are the stories told to professors by students who need to miss class. I don’t mean to gloss over the fact that many students have real, serious problems, and I always try to treat them with kindness. But the tragedies and dramas that occur during the semester are unparalleled outside of the soap world. Professor, my roommate cracked his head open on an unidentified source and has to be rushed to the emergency room. Professor, my girlfriend just got out of the armed services and I need to miss a week of class for some alone time with her. Professor, my house and entire block has lost power and I have no Internet, despite the fact that I am sending this message through the Internet. Every semester, I have at least one case of plagiarism, and at least one student show up the class after a big party weekend on crutches with an embarrassed expression on their faces. I don’t judge them. They have their vices and I have mine.
What teaching and adjuncting have taught me is that the dramatics associated with soap opera storylines are not as far removed from life as we might think. John Black on Days of Our Lives has been a cop, mercenary, executive, pawn, and priest. He is whatever the writers and audiences need him to be in a particular moment, and off comes the collar for the badge. By the same token, I am what my students need me to be. I am a writer who can help them polish their work for potential publication. I am a scholar who needs them to understand why argument-based thesis statements give their writing credibility. My mother, a curriculum consultant for special education teachers, always says that teachers wear many hats: they are instructors, psychologists, disciplinarians. To this I would add therapist, drug counselor, mandated reporter, and plagiarism police officer. I listen when they just need to talk about being new to this country and the discrimination they face. I hear about sociopathic roommates and sick family members and why they want to transfer to a different university. I give them all my emotional energy, knowing that I might not be here next semester.
I’ve been an adjunct instructor for about four years now. Although the academic environment has arguably gotten worse for those teaching (and by natural extension, our students), I have finally reached an equilibrium at which I can teach, write, and maintain a life.
Yet I’m still watching Days of Our Lives. Three years has been a long enough stretch of time that characters have gone down elevator shafts, been recast or murdered. Unrest lies even in certainty. Every few months, the show’s ratings dip and the potential for cancellation looms. Every few months, the semester ends and I begin from scratch, polishing my vita and asking around for teaching jobs that pay well. Teaching jobs that pay.
Something always happens to sustain us. A tenured professor goes on sabbatical and their course trickles down to the adjuncts. A university I applied to years ago finds my information at the bottom of a drawer and gives me a call. Brady Black’s wife hits his father over the head with a fire poker, putting him in a coma, and Kristen DiMera participates in scientifically impossible villainy and steals someone’s fetus. Every season there’s a class or storyline to look forward to, but also a quickly approaching horizon to fear. Every season we hold our breath, hoping that our achievements, talents, and merit might be enough to carry us through.
Kathryn Ionata is a writer living outside Philadelphia. She is at work on a novel and blogs about what she's reading here.