I hadn’t intended to write one of these letters, ever. I thought that loyalty was part and parcel of being a colleague; however, I wasn’t put on the course schedule after two decades of teaching here.
You let me discover this by myself – with no explanation. And the timing could not have been worse. My spouse is unemployed; our child is in college. We may have to leave our home.
I know: There are hard times all over. Why should it -- or could it -- be different for my family?
When nonrenewals happen, one’s imagination runs wild. If there was some perceived deficiency for which I was nonrenewed, it’s probably better to know, though my self-esteem is currently flattened. And if it were simply an error, it would seem natural that an error could be quickly fixed. Instead, I am in limbo.
If my nonrenewal was (as someone close to me suggested) due to adjunct activism, that could be devastating – but true. “Oh, now I understand why that topic was important to you,” a family member said.
Alternatively, you may not be mulling over any of this. As a distant member of the busy department, I am probably not on your radar. Perhaps the department never really knew me fully as a teacher or scholar. The few times I tried to discuss my own intellectual life or community activities or writing, tenured colleagues appeared uninterested. A friend was even told: “Don’t talk about your ideas to colleagues too much.”
Like others in academia, you may assert that responsibility for sustaining or creating positions lies above or beyond – the dean’s office, the provost, the VPs , the president, the board of trustees, even trends around the country.
But while I am wondering how I will meet next year’s expenses and pursue what I consider my vocation, I am also wondering if you could help stem the erosion of positions. You might be able do this: if not for my generation, then for the next. You do have the power.
Perhaps you can show me that my bad-day comparison of the role of adjuncts in the university “family” as comparable to forgotten kids in the homes of the distracted rich is not valid. Perhaps you can show me that fierce battles you fight elsewhere in the university arena and within your scholarly discipline can be fought for less visible colleagues. Perhaps you can go to the mat for your department as a whole and possibly the future of your … our … academic discipline.
Some people think instructors of a certain age have lost their currency, in every meaning of the word. I may find it hard to buy groceries and may need to take out a loan to buy required health insurance – I lack that currency -- but I never lost my intellectual currency. If you think your adjuncts are stagnant or too tired to excel, do something. Evaluate, provide in-service … and be prepared to discover that you might be wrong.
An energetic, dedicated colleague with 40 years as an adjunct was extremely depressed in fall. I had never seen her as anything other than capable and charismatic. Nonrenewed. No perceived deficiency in her skills – rather, new colleagues, new chair.
Another colleague has left the country, tired of not knowing how she would pay her bills.
I am now down at least one-third of my anticipated $30,000 income in a good year for teaching 10 to 13 courses annually at various schools. Ultimately, there is no Machiavelli guide to being an adjunct, though one might try to be strategic.
Personally, I rolled with the course assignments and never fussed when things didn’t go my way. It has been suggested to me by someone outside of academia that too smooth an employee may be perceived as disengaged. Want two classes? Get one … or expect two, then get one, if that. Always be prepared to be “bounced,” no matter what your load. Risk overload at multiple schools rather than not being able to pay bills. Teach morning, noon, night, weekend, online.
Some may be thinking: Get a real job? Jobs are not abundant in my region. Publishing? Dwindling. Libraries? Shrinking. Bookstores? Nonexistent. Human services? Despite rhetoric about our society’s mental health needs, few openings.
Alt-ac jobs on campus or lectureships at two-year schools? Have tried. Private high schools? Few slots, no go.
Someone said recently: I can’t imagine why an adjunct would keep at it after three years. I tried to find other paths. Ironically, every time I have applied for a full-time job that has not come through, full-time and part-time colleagues have said, “But you don’t really need the job. You have a spouse.” Is this the 21st century?
A well-meaning friend offered that a door shutting might mean a window opening. It feels, to me, like the door is shutting and the windows are painted shut.
Exit strategy and career plan are, of course, ultimately one’s own responsibility.
While I figure out what I can for myself: Can there please be forward thinking in colleges or universities on how to cultivate, advance or utilize existing talent without strategies that boot talented instructors out – deliberately or accidentally -- in our maturity? Other industries value retention and experience.
And when it comes to classroom management, literacy acquisition, writing skills, minority outreach: Believe me, adjuncts can enter a campus discussion, given the chance.
Those on this path should be careful. One may end up vulnerable while sick or dead after a termination, or -- as I sense myself becoming -- dejected. And as the case of Mary-Faith Cerasoli recently retaught me, I may be one illness or mishap away from the street.
This century may see things getting worse for adjuncts. In the unsolicited words of a former full-timer who left for greener pastures, “Don’t get caught” in the part-time pool.
But one could get caught.
Or set free at the absolutely worst moment.
The author has been a college instructor for more than 20 years.
In 1869, Charles W. Eliot, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote an essay in The Atlantic Monthly entitled “The New Education.” He began with a question on the mind of many American parents: “What can I do with my boy?” Parents who were able to afford the best available training and did not think their sons suited for the ministry of a learned profession, Eliot indicated, sought a practical education, suitable for business “or any other active calling”; they did not believe that the traditional course of study adopted by colleges and universities 50 years earlier was now relevant. Less than a year later, Eliot became president of Harvard. Among the reforms he initiated were an expansion of the undergraduate curriculum and substantial improvement in the quality and methods of instruction in the law school and the medical school.
The debate between advocates of traditional liberal learning and partisans of a more “useful” education, Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University, reminds us, has deep roots in American soil. In Beyond the University, (Yale University Press) he provides an elegant and informative survey of the work of important thinkers, including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, W.E.B DuBois, Jane Addams, William James, John Dewey, and Richard Rorty, who, despite significant differences, embraced liberal education because it “fit so well with the pragmatic ethos that linked inquiry, innovation, and self-discovery.” At a time in which liberal learning is under assault, Roth draws on the authority of these heavyweights to argue that “it is more crucial than ever that we not abandon the humanistic frameworks of education in favor of narrow, technical forms of teaching intended to give quick, utilitarian results."
Most of Beyond the University is devoted to claims by iconic intellectuals about the practical virtues of liberal learning, which Roth endorses (with occasional qualifications). Exhibiting a “capacious and open-ended” understanding of educational “usefulness,” Roth indicates, Thomas Jefferson opted for free inquiry at his university in Charlottesville, Va., to equip citizens in the new republic to think for themselves and take responsibility for their actions. Ralph Waldo Emerson resisted education as mere job training; but, he indicated, it should impart knowledge to develop individuals willing and able to use what we now call “critical thinking” to challenge the status quo.
Acknowledging that different people need different kinds of educational opportunities, W.E.B. DuBois nonetheless insisted that the final product of training “must be neither a psychologist nor a brick mason, but a man.” Liberal learning, Jane Addams emphasized, inculcates “affectionate interpretation,” which prepares individuals not only to defend themselves against those with different points of view, but to empathize with others and act in concert with them. And John Dewey, the most influential philosopher of education in the 20 century, looked to a liberal education, according to Roth, to help students learn the lessons of experiment and experience, by trying things out and assessing the results, by themselves and with others, and, then, if appropriate, revising their behavior.
Roth’s approach – a reliance on the authority of seminal thinkers – is not without problems. As he knows, the nature of higher education – and its perceived roles and responsibilities – has changed dramatically since colleges focused on liberal learning. In 1910, only 9 percent of students received a high school diploma; few of them went on to college. These days, about 40 percent of young men and women get a postsecondary degree. Undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral degrees, moreover, are now required, far more than were in the days of Emerson and Eliot, for entry into the most prestigious, and high-paying, professions. Jamie Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation, is surely right when he asserts that “to deny that job skills development is one of the key purposes of higher education is increasingly untenable” – and that integration of specific skills into the curriculum can help graduates get work and perform their assigned tasks well.
Roth does not specify how liberal learning might “pull different skills together in project-oriented classes.” Nor does he adequately address “the new sort of criticism” directed at liberal learning. A liberal arts education, many critics now claim, does not really prepare students to love virtue, be good citizens, or recognize competence in any field. As Roth acknowledges, general education, distribution requirements, and free electives are not effective antidotes to specialization; they have failed to help establish common academic goals for students. And, perhaps most disturbingly, doubt has now been cast on the proposition that the liberal arts are the best, and perhaps the only, pathway to “critical thinking” (the disciplined practice of analyzing, synthesizing, applying, and evaluating information).
President Roth may well be right that liberal learning “will continue to be a fundamental part of higher education” if (and, he implies, only if) it rebalances critical thinking and practical exploration. The key question, it seems to me, is how to rebalance, while preserving the essence of liberal learning, at a time in which higher education in general and, most especially, the humanities are under a sustained attack by cost-conscious advocates of an increasingly narrow vocationalism, who are certain to be unpersuaded by the testimony of long-dead intellectuals. The task, moreover, is all the more daunting, moreover, because it will have to be carried out by proponents and practitioners of the liberal arts, many of whom, unlike Michael Roth, are now in despair, in denial, or have lost faith.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.
Reporting on the Senate's confirmation of Theodore Mitchell as the U.S. Department of Education's chief higher education official, Inside Higher Ed quoted a statement from Secretary of Education: “He will lead us through this important time in higher education as we continue to work toward the President’s goal to produce the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world by 2020.” While this brief remark is hardly a major policy statement, its tone and focus are typical of the way Secretary Duncan, President Obama, and many others in politics these days talk about higher education.
This typical rhetoric, in Duncan’s statement and beyond, makes a good point, but it doesn't say enough. To explain why, I will take a leaf from Thucydides. In History of the Peloponnesian War, he explained that his apparent verbatim accounts of speeches by other figures really articulated what he thought they should have said. With due respect for Secretary Duncan and President Obama, here is what the Secretary of Education should have said, on behalf of the President's aims, on the confirmation of a new Under Secretary of Education in charge of higher education affairs:
He will lead us through this important time in higher education as we continue to work toward the president’s goals for higher education in making America a more productive economy, a more just society, a more flourishing democracy, and a richer environment for what the Founders called, in the Declaration of Independence, "the pursuit of happiness," and in the Preamble to the Constitution, "the general welfare."
A part of that economic goal is to produce the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world by 2020. Another part is to ensure that higher education extends broadly the opportunity to develop the ingenuity and creativity that will drive American innovation in the years ahead.
That means working to ensure that higher education regains its function as an engine of socioeconomic advancement, both for the individual and for society as a whole. This means resisting the increasing stratification of curriculums and opportunities, making sure that the advantages of arts and sciences education are extended as far throughout higher education as possible. This is both prudent, to cultivate the nation's human capital, and also just, to mitigate disadvantages of less-privileged starting points.
Everyone knows that democracy depends on America's capacity to maintain a deliberative electorate, capable of making well-informed choices in a political system they understand and in which they actively participate. It is a responsibility of higher education to enhance this investment in America by helping maintain that electorate. It is a responsibility of government to promote that role.
Finally, when the Founders embraced such goals as " the pursuit of happiness," and securing "the general welfare" of the people, they acknowledged that the well-being of individuals and of society as a whole -- difficult as these concepts are to define -- are legitimate objects of government interest. Higher education has crucial responsibilities of exploration and discovery in this broad field of human well-being. It is here that the perennial American question concerning the scope and limits of government itself is to be explored, and given for inquiry to succeeding generations of Americans.
"So on the appointment of a new Under Secretary with responsibilities toward higher education, we celebrate the many contributions of higher education to American flourishing: its role in contributing to a vibrant economy, certainly; and also its role in sustaining and advancing the broad aims of justice and improvement to which the country has always been committed."
That would have been good to hear from Secretary Duncan, and would be good to hear in any of the administration's speeches about higher education. None of us who are committed to this broader vision of higher education can ever, I emphasize, lose sight of its role in propelling the economy forward. But we cannot permit the purposes of higher education in America to be narrowed solely into the goal of workforce production. More is at stake: access to opportunity, cultivation of ingenuity and innovation, and broad contributions to the future of the country. Phi Beta Kappa joins many voices in advocacy of that vision. We invite Theodore Mitchell, Secretary Duncan, and President Obama to join, as well.
John Churchill is secretary of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.