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The Vanished World of Stoner

A young professor reflects on John Williams’s cult novel on its 50th anniversary.

Fifty years ago this November, in a half-full gymnasium at Southwest Texas State, Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law a bill that aimed to transform American higher education. The Higher Education Act of 1965 promised to make a college education more accessible to more Americans, through federal grants, work-study jobs, and low-interest loans. The effects of the act would be significant; as Johnson put it, “To thousands of young men and women, this act means the path of knowledge is open to all that have the determination to walk it.”

That same year, a teacher from Northeast Texas published a novel about one such determined young man. Stoner, by the professor and novelist John Williams, tells the story of a man whose life was shaped by the higher education system. The book traces the life of Bill Stoner, an upwardly-mobile student who leaves his parents’ farm to matriculate at the University of Missouri, where he studies, and then teaches, for the rest of his life. “William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year of 1910, at the age of nineteen,” the book begins:

Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they took his courses. When he died, his colleagues made a memorial contribution of a medieval manuscript to the University library. This manuscript may still be found in the Rare Books Collection, bearing the inscription: “Presented to the Library of the University of Missouri, in memory of William Stoner, Department of English. By his colleagues.”

The opening paragraph, muted in tone, presents the book’s plot in miniature. Williams takes readers from Stoner’s birth on a farm in 1891 to his death throes on a sunny day sixty-five years later. The novel asks readers to assess the value of the life it describes. During his many decades at the university, Stoner suffers one painful setback after another: a loveless marriage, a ruthless professional rival, a thwarted love affair, and, finally, a cancerous tumor that kills him. Williams recounts each of these events in unsparing detail; his lucid prose renders acute emotional distress without ever tipping into melodrama. The book is as brutal in feeling as it is narrow in scope. It is the story of a man whose suffering, and minor successes, were lost to history.

Stoner itself met a similarly quiet fate. It sold only 2000 copies in the years after its first publication. But it wormed its way into the hearts of academics, writers, and teachers. Over the years, Irving Howe and C.P. Snow championed it in print. According to the writer Steve Almond, grad students in the 1990s passed it around like some form of delicious contraband. The novel was re-released by NYRB Classics in 2006, and it’s been on an upward trajectory ever since. Morris Dickstein sang its praises in the New York Times. In 2013 it was a bestseller across Europe. The New Yorker called it “The Greatest American Novel You’ve Never Heard Of,” while the Guardian named it one of the “must-read books” of 2013. This month, NYRB is releasing a 50th anniversary edition. It’s the perfect holiday gift for anyone who views teaching as a vocation.  

For many of us who teach at the college level, though, reading Stoner on its fiftieth anniversary is an ironic experience. Stoner’s tragic life is, at once, familiar and aspirational. We recognize his love of teaching and devotion to his students. What looks increasingly unfamiliar, though, is the professional stability that Williams describes, and on which the plot of his novel depends. (Williams himself taught for thirty years at the University of Denver.) Today, very few academics ride out their careers at a single institution. This is because very few academics are tenured, or even tenure-track. More and more, universities depend upon the labor of contingent faculty—instructors employed, either full-time or part-time, on short-term contracts with no possibility of permanent employment, no matter how much they publish or how popular, or rigorous, their courses might be. This is a new kind of tragedy for teachers of college English, one that makes a return to Williams’s novel all the more necessary.  

The world of higher education described in Stoner barely resembles the university of today. In the late-19th century, American higher education, once the province of elites, was becoming more democratic and more affordable. Stoner attends a land-grant university, a public institution that offered courses in agricultural science as well as the liberal arts. These universities, which cost less than private colleges, provided farm boys with both a practical and a liberal education. Stoner’s father encourages him to attend—“County agent says they got new ideas, ways of doing things they teach you at the University”—with the expectation that he’ll bring his knowledge of agricultural science back to the family farm.

But Stoner unexpectedly falls in love with literature. With the prodding of a dry and contemptuous mentor, he decides to stay on at the university and pursue doctoral study. When he attains his doctorate, he’s offered a full-time position at the university. In the years that follow, he publishes a mediocre first book, teaches graduate seminars on the Latin tradition, and achieves tenure. In the last decade of his teaching career, he witnesses the halls of the university overrun by ex-G.I.s, men who “came to their studies as Stoner had dreamed that a student might—as if those studies were life itself and not specific means to specific ends.” The novel ends in these idealistic postwar years, arguably the heyday of American higher education.    

Times have changed. Today, an academic life is a precarious one, thanks to significant changes to the practice of academic hiring. Cost-cutting administrators aim to balance university budgets by relying on contingent, rather than permanent, instructors. In the 1970s, roughly two-thirds of university faculty were tenured or tenure-track. Today, only 24 per cent of faculty are on the tenure-track. The rest are adjuncts, hired on a course-by-course basis, or full-time instructors, often hired for periods of several years, who are ineligible for tenure.

Adjuncts are cheap: for a semester-long course, an adjunct will cost the university only a couple thousand dollars (the median pay across the nation is $2,700 for a semester-long course). Unless an adjunct works thirty hours at the same institution, he or she won’t be eligible for benefits. As a result, most adjuncts teach at multiple colleges and spend hours commuting from campus to campus. Many rely on food stamps or Medicaid; a study by the University of California at Berkeley found that roughly one quarter of the nation’s one million part-time college faculty receives some form of government aid. Meanwhile, since 1975, college tuition has more than tripled.

The gap between our academic climate and the world Williams describes is what gives Stoner its peculiar poignancy. Both the highpoints and crises of Stoner’s teaching career seem nearly unimaginable from our current vantage point. Consider Stoner’s practice of meeting with students in his off-hours, in his study at home or in his office at the university. Today, as U.S. News reported, an equally dedicated adjunct might meet with students in a parking lot, where she’ll pull relevant papers and books from the trunk of her car (few adjuncts have offices at the institutions where they teach).

Or take the mutiny Stoner stages against Hollis Lomax, the chairman of the English department and the novel’s villain. Following a dispute over a graduate student’s oral exams, Lomax strips Stoner of his graduate courses and assigns him three sections of freshman composition, spaced inconveniently across the teaching week, “the kind of schedule that a beginning instructor might expect.” Lomax describes how, without tenure, Stoner would be staring down an even worse fate. “I should probably fire you if I had the power; but I don’t have the power, as we both know. We are—you are protected by the tenure system.” Stoner takes advantage of this protection and goes rogue; he throws out the standard composition syllabus and starts teaching graduate-level material to a bunch of bewildered freshman, forcing Lomax to assign him a schedule more fitting to an experienced instructor. Today, it is the rare college instructor who is shielded by this kind of seniority.

In the spring of his 65th year, Stoner learns that he has cancer. He takes a retirement package that he had earlier scorned, claiming that he “wouldn’t know what to do” with time away from teaching. Before he dies, he is honored at a retirement dinner and then spends a few weeks resting on his sun porch, where he is visited daily by the Dean of Arts and Sciences. Today, some college faculty die far less peaceful deaths. In September of 2013, Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct French professor who had taught for years at Duquesne University but whose contract had not been renewed, died two weeks after collapsing from a heart attack. An op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette demonstrated extreme poverty in which she was living, and her death became a rallying cry for adjuncts organizing for collective bargaining power. This fall brought with it the story of another adjunct instructor living, then dying, in poverty. Dave Heller, adjunct instructor of philosophy at Seattle University, died at 61 from an untreated thyroid condition. He’d been earning $18,000 a year, just one-third the median income for a single person in Seattle. Stoner may have suffered his fair share of indignities, but they pale in comparison to tales from the adjunct community.

Such chilling stories make it easy to be nostalgic for a prior era. But an entirely rosy view of the past obscures real problems with the old way of doing things. Stoner presents readers with a university that is all white, and nearly all male. The literary canon comprises Shelley, Shakespeare, and the Anglo-Saxon poets. The few women who appear in the novel are beautiful and delicate, often discomfited by sex, rarely occupied in serious study. (Katherine Driscoll, the graduate student with whom Stoner falls in love, is the lone exception.) Title IX, passed in 1972, made the university a safer and more just place for women. In the same decade, protest movements decolonized the canon and encouraged diversity in academic hiring. These changes were necessary.

Still, one can long for an academic environment in which teaching was prioritized, and in which dedicated teachers were recognized. This is the world Williams’s novel returns to us. After several years of teaching, Stoner manages to bridge the “gulf that lay between what he felt for his subject and what he delivered in the classroom.” Williams’s description of this change is one that will resonate with teachers today:

He suspected that he was beginning, ten years late, to discover who he was; and figure he saw was both more and less than he had once imagined it to be. He felt himself at last beginning to be a teacher, which was simply a man to whom his book is true, to whom is given a dignity of art that has little to do with his foolishness or weakness or inadequacy as a man. It was a knowledge of which he could not speak, but one which changed him, once he had it, so that no one could mistake its presence.

Stoner, tragic figure though he is, finds something much described and more rarely seen: teaching as a vocation.

Like Stoner, I am an instructor at the same university where I did my doctorate. Like him, I teach freshman composition. Like him, I’ve come to love teaching and to consider it my vocation. But this is where our similarities end. I am a part of the growing demographic of full-time, non-tenure track faculty members. In Stoner’s day, this category was nearly unknown. In 1969, full-time non-tenure track positions accounted for only 3.3 per cent of all faculty positions; by 1998, they accounted for 28 per cent of all full-time faculty. From 1992 to 1998, while non-tenure track full-time positions increased by 22.7 per cent, the number of full-time, tenure-track faculty positions increased by less than 1 per cent. 

The paucity of tenure-track jobs is a problem I know well. This will be my third year applying to tenure-track positions, in the hope of finding permanent employment. As of the time of writing, there are 67 job openings across the nation for scholars of American literature; this number includes positions listed as adjunct or short-term (often called “visiting”). As a scholar of postwar American literature, I am qualified to apply to fewer than ten of these jobs. To say these are highly competitive positions is an understatement. I’ve heard of openings that receive upwards of 700 applications.

In the meantime, I teach. Every Tuesday and Thursday, I ask fall-semester freshmen to take risks in their writing, and they rise to the challenge. On other days, I give feedback back on short assignments, drafts, and essay revisions. I conference with each student individually, multiple times over the course of the semester; these intimate interactions are my favorite part of teaching. I aim to be like Stoner, who “with his young students was gentle and patient,” who challenged his students while guiding them.  

I love the work I do. And I have little cause for complaint. I’m surrounded by smart colleagues and thoughtful administrators. I was hired on a multi-year contract, with the possibility of renewal for several more years, and I am well compensated for my work. A full-time instructor in my program teaches only two sections of composition per semester, and each section is capped at fifteen students, in accordance with the Modern Language Association’s guidelines (the MLA recommends twenty students per section as an absolute maximum). I have almost complete freedom in terms of what and how I teach.

It’s an enviable position, and I’m grateful to have it. Others teach in far more difficult circumstances. In December of 2014, the English department at Arizona State made headlines when it asked its full-time instructors, who were already teaching four sections of freshmen composition per semester, to take on an additional section for no additional pay. This was in flagrant violation of the MLA’s guidelines, which state that instructors should only teach three sections, and no more than 60 students; ASU instructors were already teaching 100. The instructors mobilized and won an increase in base pay, as well as receive additional pay for those who took on an extra section; others would be free to stay at four sections per term. 

Many contingent faculty are excellent teachers. Many are, like Stoner, dedicated and passionate. But one imagines that teaching under conditions of increasing instability would take its toll on students and teachers both.

This November, the story of Bill Stoner will be published anew, and I’ll send out another round of applications to another group of universities. Most all of them will require that I testify to my dedication to teaching, and I will happily do so. Because it’s true: I love teaching. It’s a job I could do happily for the rest of my life. But I’ve learned to be realistic about such things. For now, I hope that I’ll be able to do the work I love for just a little bit longer.