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‘The Adjunct Underclass’

Herb Childress's new book is a painful, necessary read for anyone looking to understand or empathize with the costs -- human and otherwise -- of higher ed's gig economy.

April 16, 2019
 

The human costs of academe’s festering adjunct problem tend to get lost against the scale of it. We know that the contracting higher education job market entails suffering. But what can be done when, by some estimates, 70 percent of professors are part-time? Every once in a while, though, a human take on the adjunct issue cuts through the collective too-big-to-fix mentality. The Atlantic’s recent piece on the late historian Thea Hunter, “The Death of an Adjunct,” is one such take. Herb Childress’s new book, The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students and Their Mission (University of Chicago Press), is another.

Through interviews with adjuncts and his own story of working off the tenure track, Childress describes what happens not just to academics’ careers and teaching bandwidth but to their souls when they become workers in the academic pin factory. It’s not pretty. Among other analogies, Childress compares the dynamic to an abusive relationship, where dysfunction becomes the norm but the damage builds too often to breaking.

Still, it would be a mistake to describe Childress’s book as about human costs only. Part memoir, part manifesto, it’s also a rigorous, data-driven analysis of how we got here, why adjunctification hurts the academic enterprise and possible solutions. There’s a full appendix of charts, facts and figures. The mix makes for a book that anyone, novice to expert, can read.

Childress, who also wrote 2016’s The PhDictionary: A Glossary of Things You Don’t Know (but Should) About Doctoral and Faculty Life, recently participated in a Q&A with Inside Higher Ed.

Q: The Adjunct Underclass was not what I expected. I expected to be saddened by the stories of many adjuncts you interviewed for it, and indeed I was. But I think I was most gutted by your own story. Can you share a bit of that here?

A: My parents had no college experience -- in fact had one high school diploma between the two of them. So I dropped out of college the first time; I’d done well enough, but I wasn’t really aiming at anything. When I went back, first to community college at Laney College in Oakland and then transferring to the University of California, Berkeley, I discovered the joys of unfettered curiosity.

I got my bachelor’s degree at 31, worked for a couple of years to save some money and then went back to a wonderful doctoral program, where the doors of intellectual life were really thrown open. My work was nationally recognized, the dissertation was published quickly as a book. But I was 40 years old and still didn’t really understand white-collar life, much less the larger structures of how universities work, the day-to-day facts of hiring and faculty careers. The blunt reality of higher ed as a business was never discussed; like any culture, the things that matter are the things we rarely make explicit.

So I sold furniture for a few years, a job that I’d taken to support writing my dissertation, then a professional job somewhat related to my field, then a nonprofit research position also somewhat related. And although the work aligned with my skills, I discovered that the business world doesn’t need us to be curious. It needs reliable expertise that can be sold quickly, over and over, and doesn’t challenge any standing power. I had committed myself to a life in which questions could be followed wherever the trail led and was bewildered and saddened by a life in which the path was predetermined by the business model. The community I’d loved had ghosted me, and the community I’d joined felt cynical and remote. I felt exiled, longing for home.

So when a Duke University teaching postdoctoral position came open, I gratefully gave up $70,000 a year to move completely across the continent for $36,000 and a chance -- for a five-year maximum term -- to rejoin that culture of curiosity. But I was 44 years old, and the deadline loomed right from day one.

Grief became the central fact of my life. And grief makes you crazy. I lost my marriage. I stopped running, ate randomly as an act of self-soothing. I threw myself completely into the work, into my final courtship of academia. I was a terrific teacher, I kept publishing journal articles and book chapters, I quickly became a productive member of a higher ed professional group, but I could see that none of it would matter. I was closing in on 50 years old, and I knew that those doors would never open.

After the postdoc, I got a job with the Boston Architectural College as its director of liberal studies. And I discovered quickly that the work of running a college could be just as cynical and just as constrained as any other business. I likened administrative work to living next door to your old girlfriend -- you got to see her every day, but you were always reminded of the life you'd never have.

I did that for seven years, once again successful, promoted and lost. And the day came when I could no longer do it.

Q: The book is a feat in that it’s highly readable and starts at the beginning -- describing what lurks beneath the surface of most campuses (your term: an army of content providers) -- but also packs in data and interviews for those already familiar with the problem. Given that anyone could read the book, who should read the book?

A: The book was specifically built for a general readership, which is why the storytelling plays such a large role. As Stalin said, the death of an individual is a tragedy, but the death of a million is a statistic. And I wanted to work both sides of that line, to employ the data and to show the lives it represented, to talk to the producers and the consumers of collegiate life.

I think it comes at an important moment, too. Three colleges here in Vermont announced their closing just this spring. Wealthy people bribe their kids’ ways into elite colleges. Our young (and middle-aged) people carry a trillion and a half dollars of student debt. It’s time for a serious conversation about what the hell this “college” thing is, what it’s for, who gets to participate …

Q: You call most of the book a “diagnosis” of the adjunct problem. What are some of the symptoms -- and what is the prognosis?

A: When I originally thought of doing the book, I knew right from the start that I wanted to avoid the combat narratives of malicious administrators conquering a beleaguered faculty, or of cynical politicians undercutting intellectual life. The problem can’t be framed as one team versus another; it’s an ecological shift, with faculty as the species die-off that shows us how damaged the lake really is.

Like any ecosystem, there are innumerable influences. Some of them come from the changing nature of higher ed -- its broader participation, its reconfiguration to vocationalism, the changing technological landscape, the changing mix of student choices about majors. Some of them come from overstocking the lake with one species, putting 50,000 new Ph.D.s a year into a system that can sustain 10,000 and letting them fight for resources. And some of them come from the fact that higher ed is a component of a larger culture that accepts gig work as a norm, that protects consumers but not workers, that devalues work done by women, that faces fundamental demographic shifts and a 30-year population trough on the heels of a gigantic boom. All of those forces favor contingency. So whatever responses we’re going to make will involve not merely replacing a broken component, but reconceiving the enterprise for the health of all of its inhabitants.

Q: You also say that you shy away from prescriptions, as the gig economy is so ingrained and we’re so used to doing things one way that thinking about how to solve the problem comes across as naïve. Nevertheless, what is a possible treatment?

A: We have to think of higher ed as a community to which we belong and to which we welcome others. We need to stop treating any of our members as expendable -- not the 25 percent of freshmen whom we expect will never become sophomores, not the graduate students teaching on the cheap and running labs, not the postdocs laboring unseen as fourth authors on papers, not the adjuncts teaching first-year and remedial students and transfer/general education courses while the tenured get the upper-division majors and grad students for themselves. We are not business products with an expected amount of process waste: we are whole, beloved, intelligent people invested with every possibility. Our society is adrift in a cynical and angry sea, and higher ed needs to be the counterforce, enabling a return to earnest, generous care …

Q: You talk about breaking down in your 40s over this wound that will never heal: being denied the opportunity to teach and write in one place, indefinitely -- and not through any real fault of your own (despite a lot of negative self-talk and market-inflicted self-doubt). How did you get yourself out of that particular slump? And how did you "protect" yourself while writing this book? (You write about academe's draw in terms of addiction at one point.)

A: I got remarried, which at first made the despair even worse. I was working in Boston, and [my wife] Nora was living in -- and committed to -- a tiny village in Vermont. So we dated for a few years, me driving up from Boston on Friday evenings and back on Sunday afternoons. We got married in 2011, and I kept doing it. We bought a house in that village in 2012, and I kept doing it. Higher ed was the only kind of work that I knew, even though I hated my role in it.

And by the spring of 2013, I was done. I wanted to live with the woman I’d married, and I wanted to live in the home that we’d made. And we were both older, had careers and some savings behind us, and thought we could keep the wolf from the door through doing contract work here and there. So finally, I handed in my keys and my campus ID and drove to Vermont one last time.

I identify myself now simply as a writer. That’s always been true, of course -- that’s what I was good at as a scholar. But there’s some hubris in taking on that label, and being an academic is one venue in which the writer’s life of rigorous curiosity can be understood as a job title. I recognize now that the fundamentals of being a writer -- of engaging with a set of characters and their context and their struggles -- can be done without the framework of academia. The guarantee of a paycheck makes faculty life appealing, even necessary, for lots of creative people, from historians to physicists. But once I believed that I could work without that net, the world of writing bloomed in new and remarkable ways.

Here's a story. When I was a kid, the first career goal I ever had was to be a Lutheran minister. I loved the pastor of our church, John Beem, a kind and wise man, and wanted that life for myself. In subsequent years, I lost that faith, but higher ed allowed me to have that job anyway. I got to read important texts and think deeply about their meaning and implications. I got to counsel people in need, to welcome members every week to consider themselves in the face of important ideas. I got to write and to do public speaking. I’m no longer Christian, but I still knew what kind of job I wanted. And now, with this book, I have the same job again. The outpouring of stories arriving in my email for the past month has been overwhelming, each unique in detail and far too similar in structure. And I’m responding to each one. It’s not you. It's not your fault. There are other ways to be a generous mentor in the world.

I wrote my prior book, The PhDictionary, right after I quit, both as a culture guide to future generations and as a fond farewell to academia. Once that was in production, I really did let go, spending the next three years writing a series of novels and short stories that are still on the desk, immersing myself in different lives and different problems. But my editor at Chicago, Elizabeth Branch Dyson, brought me back one more time, asking for a book on adjunct issues, though neither of us knew exactly what direction we’d be headed. So by fall 2016, I was back in.

The emotional protection I had while writing this one came from several sources. One was that I didn’t have an existential connection to it anymore; I was writing about a culture that I knew, finally, to be completely external to me. And I kept writing fiction while I was working on this book; there were weeks at a time where I didn’t think about higher ed at all, in favor of stories of other lost men trying to reinvent themselves (which seems to be a core theme). And I have the strength of my home with Nora, a blessing of immeasurable worth. But it was still emotional work. It had to be if it was going to be honest, if it was going to matter.

Q: You have not had the kind of non-tenure-track career that involves (as you describe at one point in your book) eating a cheeseburger on the fly between teaching courses at campuses 60 miles apart. You’ve had some interesting, hopefully well-remunerated jobs. Yet you still suffer(ed). In a way, is that a bit of condemnation of alternative career tracks for people who really want to be professors?

A: Everything about the emotional suitability of alt careers is dependent on your motives for participating. If you’re a chemist who wants to do chemical research, there are tons of pharmaceutical and agricultural labs that will welcome you and give you meaningful work. If you’re a historian or a geographer, there are museums and nonprofits that will let you do cultural analysis. If you’re into economics and public policy, there’s government and consultancies and think tanks. And if you’re a writer, then you’re a writer, regardless of the venue. The job title is not the job, and the job is not the life.

But one major difference between academic life and life in any other industry is in pace and focus. The permanent faculty have the luxury of longer-range projects, which allows for more exploration, allows for productive confusion that suddenly becomes a different approach to the problem altogether. The difference between a political scientist working in a university and a political scientist working as a legislative staffer is that the staffer has to be prepared to be yanked from one idea to another at each news cycle and each new bill coming to committee. When I was a teacher and researcher, I had years to go deep on one thing that I cared about; when I was a college administrator, I was paid to be interrupted.

You just have to know, at a really root level, what motivates you. Even in faculty life, if you’re an elite researcher, teaching a 4/4 [course per term] load at a state college won’t meet your goals. If you’re fundamentally a teacher, teaching a 2/1 load at an R-1 [top research institution] and fighting for grant funding won’t meet your goals, either. “Being a professor” is not a single experience, and we don’t do nearly enough careful thinking and coaching about that.

Q: It’s acceptance season. Social media is full of hopeful posts about grads getting accepted to Ph.D. programs. What advice would you give them?

A: Know why you’re doing this. There’s a terrific book called The Academic Self: An Owner’s Manual, by Donald Hall, in which he encourages scholars to write a statement of personal goals, and to use that self-awareness to manage their work and their commitments, to decide what to take on and what to leave aside. He advocates for doing that every year, knowing that our goals shift and grow; I’d advocate for doing it before you start.

Q: And is Appendix B meant to be read cynically? Just checking …

A: Appendix B, the Academic Career Calibrator, isn’t cynical at all. It’s partly just fun -- it’s sort of an academic career guide crossed with a Cosmopolitan love quiz crossed with a drinking game. But the humor also offers a way for current doctoral students to think about where they are and for the fortunate to check their privilege. So many senior faculty members came from elite schools, and comfortable professional families before that, that their privileges remain invisible to them and to the rest of us. So I hope people will have fun with it, but there’s some serious work to be done in understanding how your life circumstances position you to succeed or to fail in academia, how your family history and your mentorship and your demographics set you up for different paths. And it offers its own form of recommendations about how to frame and build your own work for greater odds of success. My own score -- negative 14 on a scale of plus to minus 300 -- was a pretty apt predictor of my own path. It’s like giving students the grading rubric at the beginning of the semester: knowing the scorecard could have helped me make some changes to my trajectory.

Q: What should I have asked you about this book -- or this issue?

A: We often talk about higher ed with remarkable imprecision. We talk about colleges bloated with overpaid administrators, but the biggest growth hasn’t been in administration at all, it’s been in financial aid and student services and IT and institutional research and co-curricular academic programs, all of whom are central to how the enterprise now operates, and most of whom are not making even close to six-figure salaries.

We talk equally imprecisely about adjuncts, not thinking about the different roles of all of the contingent teaching work force, the TAs and the postdocs and the visiting artists and the professors of the practice and the student affairs staffer who picks up a course at her college every couple of semesters. There are any number of ways to be impermanent and undervalued, and the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System distinction between full-time and part-time hides more than it reveals.

The national data helps us understand some things about the scope and nature of the problem -- it gives us a frame. But the real understanding needs take place on individual campuses. Who, exactly, is in your classrooms? How are different kinds of courses staffed differently, across departments and across early or advanced students? Do we staff up the tutoring center or the biology department? Do we buy the multimillion-dollar fabrication equipment that will need to be refurbished or replaced in three years, or do we let that department have two new faculty? Do we buy yet another institutional membership in a professional society, with its associated conference travel and service loads, or do we increase stipends for our contingent community? A budget needs to be understood, and enacted, as a statement of values. And data needs to be understood as a proxy for an awful lot of humans, each trying to make their way through a challenging world.

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