Teaching at the University of Dante
August 21, 2016 3:38 PM   Subscribe

 
For more hilarity (*): Death of an adjunct

A couple of years ago Seattle University dean Jodi Kelly (currently on leave after student protests) said adjunct faculty unionization is the "single greatest challenge to our community".

(* - Yes, I'm being sarcastic, if that isn't obvious.)
posted by splitpeasoup at 3:55 PM on August 21, 2016 [3 favorites]


The situation with adjunct offices is even worse than that suggests: many universities don't assign any office space to adjuncts, meaning that they have no place to meet with students or to stow their materials between classes (other than their cars).
posted by thomas j wise at 4:09 PM on August 21, 2016 [6 favorites]


Really should specify what kind of sinner is in each.
posted by thelonius at 4:10 PM on August 21, 2016 [4 favorites]


Some of these are kind of funny, but this is stupid and shitty:
Ninth Circle – Teaching Composition

The most challenging and depressing circle of adjunct hell. Realize that after the first day your students are reading and writing at a fifth grade level. Spend eternity trying to teach them grammar and the basics of syntax. Realize it is going to take a lot longer than eternity to teach them how to write.
Sorry if you thought you'd be a best-selling author or tenure-track at an Ivy by now, but come the fuck on, dude.

Yeah, the system is fucked and a goddam scam, and adjuncts are treated inexcusably shittily at a lot of institutions, but nobody's holding a fucking gun to our heads--certainly not our students who don't deserve to be smugly shat on just because the system failed them too.

We need to meet our students where they are, use the limited time we have with them to show them what we can about the writing process (including--and especially--how to dread it a little less), and not be stuck up, snotty dicks about it.
posted by dersins at 4:34 PM on August 21, 2016 [42 favorites]


Amen. If you don't like students, please don't teach.
posted by splitpeasoup at 5:16 PM on August 21, 2016 [8 favorites]


dersins, I actually read that as a criticism of an institution that admitted students who should not have been eligible, and also did not provide funding from their tuition to provide the actual level of support they needed.
posted by saucysault at 5:19 PM on August 21, 2016 [24 favorites]


The situation with adjunct offices is even worse than that suggests: many universities don't assign any office space to adjuncts, meaning that they have no place to meet with students or to stow their materials between classes (other than their cars).

Wouldn't the clear implication be that you aren't being asked to meet with students at all? Which is unfortunate for the students, but only makes your job easier as an adjunct.
posted by Mitrovarr at 5:19 PM on August 21, 2016


If you don't like students, please don't teach.

Yeah, but, it's the students themselves that drive you to hate them.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:39 PM on August 21, 2016 [3 favorites]


Really should specify what kind of sinner is in each.

Are you kidding? You need at least a PhD and a book to be considered for even the first circle these days. Most souls make ends meet commuting between two or three planes of limbo for nine-month listless despair contracts.
posted by No-sword at 5:57 PM on August 21, 2016 [9 favorites]


Still better than leaving Hell and going to Industry.
posted by miyabo at 6:00 PM on August 21, 2016 [8 favorites]


You can like your students quite a bit and still lose your shit over the fact that they are woefully underprepared for college classes.
posted by ktkt at 6:12 PM on August 21, 2016 [28 favorites]


Fifth Circle – Office Hours

I was lucky enough that nobody cared if I cancelled my office hours. For $500 a credit hour they could get bent. If they wanted me to care about the students they could've at least given me yearlong contracts instead of leaving me hanging till august or december every semester. I know I was a bad teacher for not giving it my all in spite of the compensation, but... you know, I don't buy that you have to be a happy slave to meet the ethical standard of college prof.

No, I'm not bitter about this at all.
posted by dis_integration at 6:12 PM on August 21, 2016 [5 favorites]


For $500 a credit hour

Jesus, that's criminal.

I think worse than having a crappy office as an adjunct is having a crappy office that you have to share with people you hate. Nothing like listening to your fellow adjuncts be awful people while you are stuck for 3 hours a week in a place you don't want to be anyway.
posted by chainsofreedom at 6:38 PM on August 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


Wouldn't the clear implication be that you aren't being asked to meet with students at all? Which is unfortunate for the students, but only makes your job easier as an adjunct.


Except that the students (quite reasonably) expect you to be available. And getting a contract next semester depends often on how the student evaluations are. "Never available for meetings" may or may not be a problem depending on department expectations. But the fact that the numeric scores the students give you are impacted by them feeling that way is definitely a contract killer.
posted by lollusc at 7:14 PM on August 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


The first circle of Dante's hell was Limbo, the home of unbaptised infants and "virtuous pagans". I expected the author to relate that to, oh, student placement and new hires, something that's relatively gentle. But no, the author starts with "the worst circle of adjunct hell". To be consistent the descriptions of punishments could have increased as you descended through "adjunct hell" until we reach something that would correspond to the ninth circle, which Dante assigned to traitors (to family, community, guests, and lords). Instead, it's just something random: teaching composition.This would have been a lot funnier if it had had any relationship to the Inferno, rather than just being a list of nine things the author didn't like.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:34 PM on August 21, 2016 [19 favorites]


the college I attended staffed almost all its core curriculum classes with adjuncts. One time after a student started a small fire during an physics lab involving electricity in resistors our prof put his head down the the table and stopped talking. He did not get back up again and was still head down when everyone left the room.
posted by Ferreous at 8:16 PM on August 21, 2016 [4 favorites]


The ninth circle, for traitors, should have been a job as a go-between between adjuncts and tenured faculty.
posted by benzenedream at 8:37 PM on August 21, 2016 [6 favorites]


lollusc: Except that the students (quite reasonably) expect you to be available. And getting a contract next semester depends often on how the student evaluations are. "Never available for meetings" may or may not be a problem depending on department expectations. But the fact that the numeric scores the students give you are impacted by them feeling that way is definitely a contract killer.

Well, the cynic in me says that any problem with student assessments can be easily fixed by making the class slightly easier. But really, if students ask about it, couldn't you just tell them that adjuncts aren't requested to conduct office hours by the department, or that you aren't allocated space to do it in? I doubt many students will go after you for something that isn't your job or you aren't provisioned to do.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:13 PM on August 21, 2016


I doubt many students will go after you for something that isn't your job or you aren't provisioned to do.

Your experience with academia must be very different from mine.
posted by dersins at 9:19 PM on August 21, 2016 [24 favorites]


Well, the cynic in me says that any problem with student assessments can be easily fixed by making the class slightly easier.

Yeah the solution to keeping your job as an adjunct if you depend on student evals goes like this:
  1. Be amusing in class and don't challenge them too much.
  2. Grade easy, and get a few easy grades in early on (before they have to do evalutions!) so they feel like they're doing well befoe final exams/papers
  3. You might skip out on your office hours, but definitely meet students by appt if they request it.
  4. Never fail a student who meets with you, those fuckers get real bitter and they think that if they met with you to talk about the class then they should get a good grade just because
It's a good thing to remember all of this when you're driving to the other college campus an hour away that you adjunct at to try and get your yearly pay over the minimum wage.
posted by dis_integration at 9:20 PM on August 21, 2016 [17 favorites]


Well... if it makes you feel better, remember that the reason you are an adjunct is because the system worked too well and we trained so many highly qualified people that we reduced their value to nothing.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:31 PM on August 21, 2016


I had a really bad year about 7 years ago and adjuncted for peanuts due to a stupid teaching aspiration that I really should have gotten over sooner. I bounced back pretty fast and don't even list it on my resume today. But I just realized that when I google my own name, one of the first hits is my page on ratemyprofessor.com. Argh.
posted by miyabo at 10:34 PM on August 21, 2016


Although apparently I got a 4.5/5 and a chili pepper. Not sure how future professional employers will interpret that.
posted by miyabo at 11:09 PM on August 21, 2016 [8 favorites]


In the nine circles of supporting teachers hell:

For the 65-year-old in the Fourth Circle, read "a teacher of any age". For the student in the Ninth Circle, read "a teacher of any age".
posted by oheso at 11:12 PM on August 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


One thing I find interesting about the "students are woefully unprepared" and "reading at grade 5 level" is that it reveals how little instructors remember about their own classes when they were undergraduates. The instructors by and large are the cream of the crop. Likely the top 1 percent of their classes. The rest of the distribution always existed. You've just forgotten about them being your classmates by the time you're an instructor.
posted by srboisvert at 4:24 AM on August 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


Serious question: why don't adjuncts try and look for another job--any other job--outside of academia? The pay is nothing, its not like the locations are generally flexible, its hard, the hours are nuts if you give a shit, and there's no security. I don't see the benefit of doing this at all. It seems like literally any job is better.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 4:29 AM on August 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


Sunk Cost Fallacy? Or concern that you don't know how to really do anything besides teach? Hope that one day you'll find a position at a four-year college?
posted by Elementary Penguin at 4:34 AM on August 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


There's about 10 minutes after (many) classes when you walk out of there on cloud nine. Beaming. Full of energy. It's exhilarating when it goes the way it should and that keeps you coming back for more... and hoping you can figure out a way to manage or eliminate the bullshit.

It's kind of like golf that way.
posted by notyou at 4:37 AM on August 22, 2016 [3 favorites]


If you want to be a University professor (which is still a pretty great job) you need teaching credits. This is one of the ways to get them. Also, those industry jobs everyone thinks they can fall into when they get bored of academia are really hard to get, and getting more difficult all the time. Even this job is better than no job.

And the whole 'why don't you just leave' flips into victim blaming pretty fast. Someone has to teach undergrad students after all, is it so difficult to give those teachers a living wage and the other stuff they need to do a good job while doing so? There's no rule that says teaching university students has to be hell, it's not always in other countries for example, so why not focus on fixing that instead?
posted by shelleycat at 4:53 AM on August 22, 2016 [11 favorites]


Serious question: why don't adjuncts try and look for another job--any other job--outside of academia? The pay is nothing, its not like the locations are generally flexible, its hard, the hours are nuts if you give a shit, and there's no security. I don't see the benefit of doing this at all. It seems like literally any job is better.

For one, not all adjuncting jobs are terrible. As long as the pay and benefits are adequate, which they often are, it's not a bad gig, and you are off the hook for all of the committee meetings, advising, and publishing that tenure-track professors are stuck with.

And for another, it's not so easy to just magically switch careers. Long ago I was on the academic track and left, and even with practical skills and real world experience it wasn't an easy or seamless transition.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:13 AM on August 22, 2016


Three things:

1) In the US, this is not true that you need 'teaching credits' to get a tenure track job.

2) I'm not saying the only alternative is a job in industry (presumably related to the adjunct's specialty) . I'm saying that it appears that literally any job has better pay and hours and stability than adjuncting.

3) One of the reasons there are few non-tenure but well-paying and stable lecturer positions at universities is because colleges can just hire adjuncts. Part of this reasons is that there are many people who are willing to do the work for next to no money. There's literally no reason for colleges to do anything different until people threaten to withhold their labor at the current price colleges are paying for it.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 5:17 AM on August 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


There's literally no reason for colleges to do anything different until people threaten to withhold their labor at the current price colleges are paying for it.

that's why we fought for (and won, yay!) a union at one of the colleges I adjuncted for. Although I quit to do something else entirely before negotiations were anywhere near completion. But really I only had that option because I had skills (software development) gained pre-gradschool, really pre-college, and got lucky rolling the dice in that relatively cushy job market.

I agree that adjuncts should quit. Even better: they should strike until they're treated with dignity and respect. But they're in the bizarre position of being the people who did everything right and yet get no reward for it. They got straight As, they went to grad school, they passed their comprehensive exams, they usually wrote and defended a dissertation at great personal emotional cost. Then they got on the job market and there was bupkis. First you keep doing it because every fall you're applying for non-contingent faculty jobs that everyone else is applying for, and eventually you're doing it because its what you've been doing and you don't know what else you're supposed to do. Then you start not putting your phd on your resume and applying for other jobs, because nobody knows what the fuck to think of a professor of philosophy. And that burns. Your whole life you worked your ass off to get those credentials and now you've got to act like it never happened so you can get some soulsucking job in, i dunno, marketing. But the American job market doesn't treat people who task-switch very well, and you've got to tell them what you've been up to. And nobody has any idea what to do you with you, you weirdo professor.

Anyway, colleges need adjuncts. Without them they would cease to function. So the answer isn't: adjuncts should quit. It's that they should be recognized as the essential faculty that they are. They aren't adjunct to the main faculty. They're the bedrock of the institution. Give them contracts, give them a middle class salary, treat them with respect.
posted by dis_integration at 5:31 AM on August 22, 2016 [14 favorites]


Wouldn't that just be the same as having no adjuncts and having lecturer positions instead? long term, well paying contracts where the only responsibility is to teach?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 5:34 AM on August 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


You've just forgotten about them being your classmates by the time you're an instructor.

This is so true! I had the same realization in my first few weeks of teaching.
posted by Drab_Parts at 5:47 AM on August 22, 2016


There's always going to be a need for short term and even last-minute adjuncts to cover for someone taking medical leave or whatever. So while the long term contract situation and stability issues definitely need addressing, that will never cover all adjunct teaching positions. Even the short term, single class adjunct jobs deserve decent pay and treatment, which many institutions are not providing.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:48 AM on August 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'm saying that it appears that literally any job has better pay and hours and stability than adjuncting.

My backup plan was to be a dildomonger at the local sex toy mail order firm, which was always hiring for decent money because dildos are embarrassing . Never actually did sling dildos but having a concrete alternative was a useful point of comparison to job ads.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:55 AM on August 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


The rest of the distribution always existed. You've just forgotten about them being your classmates by the time you're an instructor.

Oh, yes indeed.

I am not an academic any more, but back when I was, one of the projects I worked on involved looking through old student disciplinary records in a university archive. By 'old', I mean pre-1800, at a time when students at this university were meant to carry a Bible with them at all times and converse only in Latin.

Things students were doing at this time:

1) not going to lectures;
2) not doing the work;
3) not going to lectures or doing the work, and then claiming when confronted about this that it's all absolutely fine because there's a small clause in a university regulation somewhere saying that students in your particular group don't have to;
4) duelling (swords);
5) swearing;
6) swearing to the point where half the room is scandalised and somebody important storms out into the night;
7) getting drunk and trashing their student accommodation, leading to furious landlords demanding damages;
8) getting drunk and trashing a sedan chair, leading to furious sedan chair owner demanding damages;
9) getting drunk and hitting on the landlady's daughter to the point where the landlady formally complained to the university;
10) publically accusing particular academic of being jealous of particular student's manliness;
11) getting drunk, getting into an argument, getting drunker, heading out into the night to find the person they were arguing with, and ending up attacking somebody entirely unrelated to the whole thing with a poker they grabbed from the fireplace on the way out, which then has to be literally wrestled out of their hand by the Provost of the city;
12) claiming, loudly and to an audience, that the entire university is worthless and students could get a better education in life by going to the (notoriously seedy) theatre instead.

Numbers 3, 6, 10 and 12 were the same student, but even he wasn't hugely unusual. And he remained surprisingly popular among the academics, many of whom wrote to defend him during the actual trial the university put him through because he was that much of a persistent nightmare.

(When I get more time to write it out I'll tell that whole story - it features more student drunkenness than the undergraduates I taught ever dreamed of, various expulsions from the university for bad behaviour, one trial, one fight, the exact amount you got fined for hitting one of your students over the head with a walking stick in the 18th century, and a digression to a kidnap attempt by John Paul Jones during the American revolution.)
posted by Catseye at 6:43 AM on August 22, 2016 [40 favorites]


4) duelling (swords)
..
8) getting drunk and trashing a sedan chair


plus ça change...
posted by dersins at 7:17 AM on August 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


It gets better! The sedan chair was a hire sedan chair, which was a surprisingly big thing at the time. Most people couldn't afford their own but the wealthier could afford to pay to get from A to B, in a city full of tiny winding muddy streets you couldn't get a horse and carriage down. It was popular enough that the city was actually regulating the market at the time, with approved sedan chair pick-up points on some streets where they queued up waiting for passengers, and set fares within the city.

So the students basically did the 18th century equivalent of going out, getting drunk, and throwing up in the taxi on their way home.
posted by Catseye at 7:27 AM on August 22, 2016 [6 favorites]


Also, I say this as basically a academic army spouse, if you want to actually find tenure track jobs in your field you have to be willing to move anywhere in the country. You have to be willing to move to the shittiest states, and grungiest cities, move every fucking year because everything is a sabbatical replacement, and hope that in some random circumstance you stumble upon the position left by a baby boomer who refused to retire until they had a stroke that paralyzed them that wasn't immediately converted to adjunct.

It's miserable and can only be done by people with zero ties to their life and community year to year.
posted by Ferreous at 7:29 AM on August 22, 2016 [9 favorites]


Once you get there be prepared to be told by innumerable new deans, chancellors, vice presidents, and directors of academic affairs about how lucky you are to take a 4/4 load at rock bottom pay, how there is no money for actual long term positions while they hire more 5 full time administration positions every semester.
posted by Ferreous at 7:40 AM on August 22, 2016 [7 favorites]


Obviously I was kidding above, but RateMyProfessors is a real negative effect of adjuncting -- even if you're making $500 teaching night school at community college for one term only, you will be rated publicly online for the world to see, forever. I can't think of any other low-paying profession like that.
posted by miyabo at 8:52 AM on August 22, 2016


It's miserable and can only be done by people with zero ties to their life and community year to year.

At least you're in show business.
posted by thelonius at 9:20 AM on August 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


Serious question: why don't adjuncts try and look for another job--any other job--outside of academia?
I'm an academic. I'm 33, I've lived in three different states in the past eight years, and I have made approximately $20k a year my entire adult life until last year. I am a nomad. I do not really have roots anywhere. I am unmarried, because let's face it: I am kind of married to my job. Behind closed doors, I joke with friends that I am in another abusive relationship, but this time it's with my career. Academia is not the same as most jobs, because you do not just learn skills -- you learn a way of life. You are essentially an indentured servant or an apprentice, with a specialized set of skills that are not applicable anywhere else and the absence of a strong social network outside of the system. It breaks you and leaves you fairly unprepared to do anything but it: I have absolutely no idea what I can do, what I am qualified to do, when I get denied tenure in five years. I don't know many non-academics and the ones I do know are not good contacts for finding other work. Asking us why we do not just leave ignores a whole set of structural factors that surround academia. As an academic, you have very little money or time, and it's difficult to stay in one place for very long so you don't have a good support network. And there is always promise that a little more work might get you the permanence you crave. Academics are part of the precariat class now, and it's very difficult to wrench your way out of precarity.
posted by sockermom at 10:17 AM on August 22, 2016 [17 favorites]


I have absolutely no idea what I can do, what I am qualified to do, when I get denied tenure in five years.

My mother transitioned into being a technical writer. But that was in the early 80's. Now they have degrees in technical writing and you probably can't just talk your way into a job doing that.
posted by thelonius at 1:14 PM on August 22, 2016


I have absolutely no idea what I can do, what I am qualified to do, when I get denied tenure in five years.

I don't know what your field is, but if you can teach, you could be a, y'know, teacher.
posted by dersins at 1:35 PM on August 22, 2016


(I say that as someone who has made the decision to hop off the adjunct roller coaster and teach at the secondary level, starting next year. Pay is worlds better, health benefits and a modicum of job security are actual things, and, instead of sitting around moaning about how my students didn't get what they needed in high school, I can make sure that they're actually getting what they need in high school. )
posted by dersins at 1:39 PM on August 22, 2016 [4 favorites]


I left academia to work in government doing policy stuff, in a subject that has pretty much nothing to do with my academic specialism. (Turns out, all the "transferable skills" stuff I used to peddle to my students was actually true! Who knew.)

But I did go through an awful time towards the end of my academic career, where I was pretty sure I didn't want to be an academic any more but I couldn't imagine anything I could do instead. And then when I started applying for non-academic jobs and actually getting interviews - it really, really rocked me, because I'd been so sure nobody else would ever want to hire me. Thanks for that, academia!
posted by Catseye at 2:46 PM on August 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


I had a very different experience. I mostly loved my postdoc position, but knew before my last year that I was not going to be applying for tenure track jobs. That whole time I felt incredibly free, like I could do ANYTHING. I went through this long string of job ideas -- get rich consulting, quit regular life and become a dive instructor in the tropics, be a spreadsheet wizard somewhere, take up coding, work for the FBI, etc. These were all ruled out for different reasons, but it seemed like there was a whole world of opportunities in front of me. (It's possible this perspective can be attributed to me being overly optimistic and/or arrogant.)

I ended up starting my own tutoring business, and then later picking up a part-time lecturer job as well. Every time another article about adjuncts pops up, I'm incredibly grateful for my lecturing job. I'm paid well, I have good benefits because of our union, I have my own office, my students are generally great to work with, and my department has been really good about working with my picky schedule. There's no real job security at this point, but otherwise I've been very fortunate.

It still seems crazy to me that anyone is able to hire adjuncts for around $3k/semester course. I really hope the various efforts to unionize adjuncts gain traction and improve working conditions and pay dramatically.
posted by ktkt at 3:15 PM on August 22, 2016


T ktkt, it's much harder to dry that sort of thing now that most people with degrees that could allow them to teach come out with 80k+ debt
posted by Ferreous at 3:35 PM on August 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


Ferrous, what sort of thing? Going into business for yourself? I'm not necessarily recommending taking up tutoring for everyone; it was something I started because the rent had to get paid somehow. I intended it to be temporary, until I figured out what to do with myself, but was really happy with how it went, so now it's something I'll be doing for the foreseeable future.

But definitely we could be making it clearer to academics that they really do have a lot of transferable skills, and there are options for what to do next. You aren't trapped being an adjunct just because you've been an academic so far and more prestigious academic jobs didn't work out for you.

Are people really coming out of advanced degrees with so much debt? Is it left over from undergrad? I feel like we are constantly telling people in AskMe not to go to grad school if they aren't getting a stipend and tuition waiver.
posted by ktkt at 4:19 PM on August 22, 2016


My father was a lecturer. He didn't make a lot of money, but our family had a house and access to the culturally stimulating university environment. Both of us kids went to that University and (in theory) have better jobs than he had. When my father's health failed, his retirement benefits and health insurance gave him a gentle death. His ordinary middle-class job made our whole family prosper. If not for the money he left me, I would never be able to retire. It is incredible to me that adjuncts do not have access to this type of life and future.
posted by acrasis at 4:19 PM on August 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


It's mostly debt from undergrad, most of the people I know who went toward academia were teaching in grad school so that was near free, undergrad though is still often 20k/year in out of state or private schools. Also, screw anyone who acts like 17 year olds should have known better when applying for colleges!
posted by Ferreous at 5:16 PM on August 22, 2016


Are people really coming out of advanced degrees with so much debt?
I have no debt, but I was not able to save a single penny when I was in school. I got by on $16k in my last year of my PhD, and was one emergency away from having to take on debt. Getting a leg up and starting my own business was not really in the cards for me when I graduated. Some doctorates are much more transferrable than others. This truth is that you often need to have some kind of structural support, financial or otherwise, in order to leave academia easily.
posted by sockermom at 6:09 PM on August 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


Sure, not everyone is in a position to start a business. But for pretty much every PhD, I would say there are options other than adjuncting and the tenure track. It is apparently easy to lose sight of that.

Mostly, I think it's incredibly shameful that there is a huge stigma for grad students (and postdocs and so on) to even discuss options other than continuing in academia. Being an obvious sympathetic type (since I've opted out of research and the standard academic track), I've had a lot of conversations where it seemed like someone was going to reveal a deep dark secret, but really they just wanted out of academia. They feel like they have to hide the fact that they are even considering it until it's basically a done deal, lest anyone decide they are Not Serious about becoming a professor.
posted by ktkt at 6:42 PM on August 22, 2016


Even with tuition reimbursement and a stipend, it's not unrealistic to have debt from just living expenses over a number of years. My stipend, around 10 years ago, was around 13k a year, in a state where students weren't eligible for food stamps or any similar assistance, and in an area with no public transportation.
posted by bizzyb at 6:48 PM on August 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


Okay, so I said I'd tell the full story of the perennially misbehaving student from the 18th-century. Here it is! Warning: loooong. (I’ve also probably forgotten some of the fine detail since last time I told this, so apologies to the 18th century and all its inhabitants if I get dates and so on wrong.)

So: This student’s name was David Woodburn. He was born in a small town in the west of Scotland, sometime around the middle of the eighteenth century. His family wasn’t particularly rich or particularly important; his father was a farmer, and David got a bursary as a university student, and those were set aside for poorer students. He was also a tutor, supplementing the bursary by teaching more junior students (the casualisation of academic labour has a loooong history). He might have been planning to go into the church, which is what the bursary was originally intended for, but if he was it isn’t recorded anywhere. (And you might wonder if his later conduct suggests otherwise, but no, no it doesn’t, not at a time when other students were I kid you not writing to the university to complain that their expulsion for getting blind drunk and fighting duels was going to get in the way of their respectable church career.)

He first turns up in the university records for not attending classes. This wasn’t that unusual - the university system was a lot more casual then, formal graduation wasn’t often considered necessary, people dropped in and out of classes. If you were getting a bursary, though, the expectation was that you’d show up at least sometimes, but he was a) missing enough classes for it to be obvious, b) missing all the classes of a certain Professor Clow who was starting to object, and c) spending much his non-class time strolling around the university taking the air.

So one day somebody collars him outside a building he should be inside, and asks why he isn’t in the class. David Woodburn explains that ah, you see, there’s a university regulation which say that bursars only have to attend half of all classes, so he’s in the clear. Cue various people write to each other to say, in short, “I am almost certain he’s making this up but he seems really sure about it, can we just check?”

He was indeed making it up. Slap on the wrist, don’t do it again.

He next gets in trouble during a university debate, for proposing that the University - and specifically, Professor Clow’s Logic classes - are a “dusty shop of logic and metaphysic” and students would learn more from going to the theatre. This did not go down well, not least with Professor Clow, and Woodburn was put through a formal university disciplinary procedure. This, relatively unusually, took the form of an actual trial. It went on for something like twelve days, with a full panel of professors sat to pass judgement, and Woodburn getting legal representation from another student (who would later go on to be an important Scottish lawyer, so that at least worked out).

It was very controversial - a lot of the academic staff saw it as hugely disproportionate to his ‘crime’, and it’s clear from some of the letters written in his defence that he was genuinely liked. The university Lord Rector resigned over this, which was a fairly big deal - the Rector is a senior position whose role is to represent students to the institution of the university, and to chair the University Court. (It’s also a student-elected position, so today it’s often held by people the students respect even if they can’t be there in person - the current Rector is Edward Snowden.) The Rector at the time was Dunbar Douglas, the 4th Earl of Selkirk, who resigned his role in protest that putting Woodburn through a formal trial was in violation of “the inalienable rights of Man.”

[I had another bit here on Dunbar Douglas and the time John Paul Jones tried to kidnap him, but I'll stick it in another comment because this is getting long enough.]

The trial went ahead anyway, under protest (from others more so than Woodburn himself - he comes across as fairly sure of himself). In conclusion, the university decides that he can stay a student and keep his bursary, but this is absolutely his last chance now.

The next year, he turns up in the disciplinary records again.

This time it’s about a particular night in a tavern called the Eagle, somewhere in Glasgow. (Sadly the street name is never given - I was desperate to hunt it down but no, damn it.) It’s St Patrick’s Day, and many students are celebrating by going out for dinner and getting very drunk, including the group meeting in the Eagle. This group wasn’t just students - some of them are students, some of them are student-tutors like Woodburn, and some of them are academic staff, including a John Robison, who taught Chemistry. Robison was young, new, ambitious. He’d sailed with the Navy, something he was very proud of, and he’d been on the Board of Longitude, the commission set up to award a prize for whoever solved the problem of deducing longitude at sea. (He sailed on the journey to Jamaica that tested out John Harrison’s chronometer.) He and Woodburn did not get along well.

There are lots of versions of this night from various attendees recorded in the disciplinary records, so there’s a lot of detail about what happened. Woodburn arrived late after everyone had been drinking for a while. He seemed distracted, not quite himself. But he joined in when someone held up a glass and suggested they all offer a toast, and offered a toast himself to “Scarlet.”

The meaning of this in 18th-century Glasgow slang - female genitalia - was apparently clear enough to several of the attendees, Robison included. Robison confronted Woodburn about what the word meant, Woodburn joked around that it meant “the whore of Babylon” and/or “the military”, and eventually Robison loudly called him impertinent and stormed out of the room.

Woodburn went to go after him, but was discouraged by a group of students and decided to stay. And they kept on drinking. It seems that many of them were working each other up into a fury about how Robison had wronged Woodburn, to the point where several students went out a little later to find and chastise Robison themselves, taking a fireplace poker with them. They didn’t find him, ended up attacking an entirely innocent blacksmith’s apprentice in the street, someone yelled out of a window for help, and the Lord Provost of Glasgow ended up personally struggling with the student to get the poker out of his hand. (That student got expelled from the university over this - the others with him did a convincing enough job of "I didn't even know there WAS a poker, I swear!" to get away with it.) In the meantime, both Robison and now Woodburn had gone home to bed.

The next day, Woodburn, who clearly could NOT just let things lie, wrote out an anonymous “Advertisement” - a kind of public announcement - on the word Scarlet. In this, he explains that the word no longer means “any word beginning with a C & ending with a T, such as Claret”, but from now on would refer to “a Coxcomb” - a vain, foppish dandy, basically - and follows that up with a few sideswipes about the military and about Robison growing “pale in his passions” and being unable to hold his drink.

Woodburn sent this to Robison at his lodgings, and Robison was predictably furious. He actually threw it into the fire before realising he might need it for evidence, pulling it out, and stamping on it to put out the flames. (The half-burnt document is still in the university archives.) He immediately guessed who’d written it and went out to confront Woodburn, finding him in at the university gate talking to some other students. Robison held up the ‘Advertisement’ and demanded to know what it was; Woodburn said he couldn’t tell, because someone had burnt it. Things rapidly escalated - Robison broke his walking-stick over Woodburn’s head, Woodburn hit him back, and eventually they were pulled apart by the Professor of Oriental Languages.

So there was another trial.

This time both Woodburn and Robison were tried. Robison was fined five shillings for hitting Woodburn with his walking stick, but not punished any further on the grounds that he’d done it under provocation and was clearly contrite, and didn’t have a history of attacking students. (Although, another document in the archives is of a professor who beat a very young student with a candlestick, and they didn’t fire him either, so apparently hitting students wasn’t as heavily frowned upon then as we might wish.) Woodburn, though, judged this one wrong. He refused to engage seriously with the trial, claiming he was the victim and shouldn’t have to defend himself to the whole university. He also denied writing the Advertisement, even though he very clearly had, and refused to apologise to Robison about everything.

At some point during the (weeks-long) trial, Woodburn worked out he was in more trouble than he’d been in before. He threw himself upon the mercy of the university court, and wrote to all the professors begging not to be expelled. It didn’t work. He was expelled. His academic career - and his church career, if that’s what he was going for - was over. He didn’t have large amounts of family money to fall back on. He went off to fight for the East India Company, where you had a small chance of making your fortune, and a bigger chance of dying out in India.

I searched and searched to find out what happened to him once I finished reading the trial records. I was actually worried about him, ridiculous though that is - obviously he’s dead now! But he seemed so unsuited for any military kind of life, and I wanted to know if there was any record anywhere of where he’d ended up.

And surprisingly, there was! From several decades later, here is Colonel Woodburn of the Bengal Artillery.

And there’s actually one last mention of him in the university archives, too - sometime a little before that portrait was painted, a David Woodburn is recorded sending several books from India to Professor Cumin, the Chair of Oriental Languages, at Glasgow - the professor who pulled him and Robison apart at the university gates.

So anyway, that’s David Woodburn’s story, and I hold it dear to my heart any time I hear people complain about how Students These Days just aren’t as respectful and well-behaved as they used to be. If it wasn't any better during the Scottish Enlightenment, the most exciting age of intellectual development in the history of Scotland, then it probably wasn't any better during Back In My Day either.
posted by Catseye at 3:29 PM on August 23, 2016 [182 favorites]


And here's that digression on Dunbar Douglas, who as that "inalienable rights of Man" line might suggest was quite an interesting figure in his own right. He was a relatively obscure Scottish noble and he isn’t much remembered today, which is a shame because I think he’s fascinating.

He was politically active after a fashion for a while, as a young man, when he argued very strongly for better representation of Scottish peers in British government. That movement never really got anywhere, and he effectively gave up on London altogether for a good while and withdrew to his estate in Kirkcudbright, where he and his wife Helen mostly concentrated on having a lot of children. He also got interested in land and agriculture, and how different land management methods could maybe improve the land to support more people (and this in the context of the mid-18th century, a time when a lot of the rural population of Scotland was being driven off their land so it could support more sheep.) This is where he was living during the American Revolutionary Wars, when he was nearly kidnapped by John Paul Jones.
ANOTHER BRIEF DIGRESSION on this rather WTF moment of Scotland’s 18th-century history, because you may well be asking why on earth John Paul Jones wanted to kidnap a relatively obscure Scottish noble. The answer seems to be because John Paul Jones had grown up very nearby, so the Earl of Selkirk was the local big important figure throughout his childhood, and clearly his first thought when somebody had the idea to get a few ships together and go kidnap a British noble for ransom.

It was an extremely badly thought through kidnap attempt. The kidnappers arrived, to find that Dunbar wasn’t even there - he was hundreds of miles away in England, visiting some of his sons at school. His son and heir wasn’t there either (he was one of the boys at school in England), and neither were the next three sons. The only family around were Helen (Lady Selkirk), and some of the younger children.

This was obviously not the plan. So they discuss what to do, and somebody suggests they take the only son they can - Thomas, aged five.

At this point, Helen - who, picture the scene, is six months pregnant and surrounded by enemy sailors - says that if they take Thomas it will be over her dead body.

More discussion. And the version of this John Paul Jones told later on was that the sailors wanted to loot and pillage all they could, and he talked them down to taking the family silver instead. But the version you get if you dig into the story a bit deeper is that the sailors were discussing what to do, because obviously this wasn’t going very well but surely they couldn’t just go away with nothing, and Helen herself suggested they take the family silver. They gladly agreed to this, and Helen sent one of the servants to get it and handed it over to John Paul Jones’s men herself - and then told them to write out a receipt. Which one of them *actually started to do* until another one grabbed it out of his hand and told him off. Anyway, they left with the silver, nobody got hurt, and eventually John Paul Jones sent it back with an apology.
Anyway, Dunbar seemed to get gradually more radical throughout his life. When a lot of sons of the nobility went away to Westminster or Eton, his sons went to a school with run by the Dissenting figure Anna Letitia Barbauld. He joined radical societies dedicated to promoting parliamentary reform, like the Society for Constitutional Information. If that sounds like quite a dry topic, bear in mind that this is Britain in the late 18th century at a time when a lot of the world is bursting out in revolutions - the leaders of the Society for Constitutional Information ended up getting tried for treason. He visited Paris during the French revolution with several of his sons including the now-grown-up Thomas and the eldest, Basil, who was even more of a radical figure than he was. They passed through little villages and discussed agriculture with the peasants, and stopped at one point to try out a new plough for themselves.

These weren’t your average nobles, is what I’m saying. They were part of a growing radical movement in Britain that gathered a lot of momentum until it got seriously stamped down by a worried establishment in the 1790s. A lot of people within that movement were quite positive about the American revolutionaries, too. So, well done, John Paul Jones - not only did you not get your high-profile kidnap, not only did you get sent packing by a pregnant woman, but you managed to pick one of the few noble families in Britain who might have ended up coming round to your side anyway, if you hadn’t managed to infuriate them quite so much. All for the sake of a silver plate you didn’t even get to keep.
posted by Catseye at 3:33 PM on August 23, 2016 [66 favorites]


Catseye, those comments are fantastic! Thanks!
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:18 PM on August 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


Amazing comments. Thanks, Catseye.
posted by ambrosen at 9:26 AM on August 24, 2016


This time it’s about a particular night in a tavern called the Eagle, somewhere in Glasgow. (Sadly the street name is never given - I was desperate to hunt it down but no, damn it.)

Long shot, but the page here on the Old Eagle Inn says "according to legend stretching as far back as 1690 but definitely recorded as being in existence in 1818", and doesn't appear to be too far from the university.

However, the location is now The St. Enoch Centre.
posted by fings at 9:53 AM on August 24, 2016 [2 favorites]


David Woodburn letters from India available here. (Not online, alas.)
posted by BWA at 11:34 AM on August 24, 2016 [3 favorites]


The University of Glasgow archives and special collections people (alerted to Catseye's wonderful comments) have tweeted a link to the handwritten records of Woodburn's trial, if anyone wants to try out their skills at reading eighteenth-century handwriting.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 11:03 AM on August 25, 2016 [4 favorites]


Already transcribed! If you follow the link in that tweet and then click 'Return to Text' at the top of the page full of images, you can read the full transcribed version. The (burnt) 'Advertisement no. 45' is there as well.
posted by Catseye at 1:44 PM on August 25, 2016 [7 favorites]


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