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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

Title

A Moving Read About the Adjunct Underclass

Thoughts on a new book by Herb Childress 

May 9, 2019
 
 

Normally the only contingent faculty career that could bring me to tears was my own, but the latter stages of The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission by Herb Childress had my eyes filling sometimes with sadness, sometimes tinged with anger.

In earlier times that anger might’ve been rage, and more plentiful than the sadness, but there is a passage in the latter third of the book that struck me as true and I could not muster the necessary emotional resistance to be angry, rather than sad:

“There will always be teachers, sure. But the idea of ‘the faculty’ is as dead as the idea of coal; it’ll carry on for a while because of sunk costs and the gasping demands of those still left in the industry – but really, it’s gone.”

Looking back through my posts on this site I see a clear evolution in my own attitudes towards these issues. Early on I see someone eager to fight the trends, attempting to rally opinion around shared values and mutually beneficial goals.

Eventually, I came to realize that tenure was already dead. In fact, for most of us, it had never been alive. 

Now, I’m focused on how contingency and its effects are not confined to academia, and are in fact endemic to our labor systems. For example, being a journalist is now likely to make one subject to the gig economy, even if you’re working for NPR, or writing for the New York Times

In The Adjunct Underclass, Herb Childress dutifully walks us through the different forces at work in the creation and maintenance of the adjunct underclass, the defunding of institutions, the role of prestige, and the corrosive effect of competition on institutional mission, the malevolence of the powerful, the neglect of the comfortable. It will be a familiar story for those of us who have led this life, but it’s important to remember that it is a book meant to extend beyond those inside of higher education

I forget this sometimes, but those outside the industry really have no idea what’s going on. When I was at Clemson, teaching a 4/4 as a full-time instructor, making $25k a year I would occasionally play “guess my salary” and the lowest guess of the couple of dozen times I did it was $65,000. Many assumed I was making six-figures. Very few know that people working under those conditions (and much worse) are a majority of instructional faculty. Some of the unknowing work inside higher ed institutions.

As Childress says, “These stories are all around us,” and yet they’re largely hidden from public view. Childress sprinkles these stories around the book, using them to illustrate different aspects of his critique, and over and over I thought, I know someone like that.

And like that, and that, and that. 

As the book makes clear, it’s a lousy way to go about things for all involved, very much including the larger institutions and tenured faculty themselves, not to mention the students, who are in Childress’ view (and mine), too often not mentioned. It is a system that has led to the erosion of mission, and the degradation of those left behind. 

This is where the sadness seeps in, as I consider the sheer tonnage of highly capable, extremely dedicated people I have known who have left teaching in higher education because the circumstances under which they were asked to work were simply impossible. In the penultimate chapter Childress analogizes the fate of we contingent to the mass dying off of alewives in Lake Michigan in the 1960’s, twenty billion dead fish washing up on the beaches of the lake’s southern basin: “Fish bulldozed into mountains, gleaming pyramids of dead alewives decomposing in the summer sun.”

Childress explains how the extreme overpopulation of alewives expiring in mass die offs in the 1960’s had roots in the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, which introduced the species into the Great Lakes ecosystem where the native lake trout would have taken care of them except that people massively overfished the (tasty) lake trout, which made way for a far worse invasive species, the lamprey, who hitched a ride in the empty ballast holds of ships who would return to the East Coast laden with grain. More bad stuff happened in succession. 

Rather than leaving the ecosystem alone, as could have been done, Childress describes the steps taken to return balance to the ecosystem, removing the conditions which allowed for the thriving of the unwanted interlopers, re-establishing the atmosphere which allowed the desirable species to thrive. It was expensive, time-consuming, and required mass buy-in and cooperation.

In this analogy, contingent faculty are the alewives, the rotting byproduct of dozens or hundreds or thousands of decisions often made with good intentions, but which have resulted in a poisoned ecosystem. Unlike the Great Lakes, however, little to nothing has been done to restore the ecosystem into balance.

The Adjunct Underclassis a powerful read, an emotional read as Childress peppers his analysis with his own experiences, and concludes the book with a chapter on the “aftermath” in which he makes the personal cost of his desire to engage in work he believed to be meaningful, only to be one of those bulldozed into rotting piles of bodies on the shore. 

One of the most common responses whenever I write about the fate and treatment of contingent faculty is inevitably that these individuals should’ve made different choices. Of course, this does nothing to address the poisoned ecosystem, but perhaps it allows those who express these views to ignore the stench of the rot, at least long enough for them to escape mostly intact. They may have to smell the decay, but at least they are alive.

Childress is clear-eyed. He recognizes that he could’ve chosen differently, but this particular passage hit home for me: 

“The rationalists might say that we should walk away, that we should refuse to support an industry that behaves as it does. But intellectual work, paradoxically, is not solely rational. It is a form of desire. It is our identity. It is a community we love that does not love us back. So we build a dysfunctional story in which we have at least some role, in which we can name a way in which we belong. And the industry is happy to help us manufacture that story, since it keeps us close and useful for a little while longer.”

I personally found it extremely difficult to break this spell, only the blow of being rejected from a position that could offer security and reasonable pay at the place I’d worked successfully for five years as a “visitor” finally caused me to realize that there was no person or policy or force that would make space for me in the institution, no matter what level of excellence and dedication I’d demonstrated. There was only going to be one slot, and it wasn’t going to be mine.

Rather than make space for more, everyone was willing to live with the rotting pile of dead things. I had to leap free before the bulldozer came for me. 

It really is a strange emotional space to inhabit. While I remain, I must admit, both angry and bitter, no matter what success I have found having left, I do not harbor any specific regrets about my own choices, and even with hindsight, do not see where I would’ve chosen differently. The only possible remedy was to care less about things that I believe are very much worth caring about. A different path would’ve required a different self.[1] It strikes me as particularly cruel that people are punished for exhibiting human traits that under better circumstances we would consider both admirable and valuable.

I am trying to figure out how a book can be both utterly despairing and yet not entirely hopeless because this is where I wound up after reading The Adjunct Underlcass. Childress makes a strong defense for the work so many of us would like to do, even as he is clear that we should doubt conditions will materially change any time soon, if ever.

Childress leaves us with a vision drawn from what he calls his “four guiding principles” of how higher education institutions should be oriented:

“A worthy college works to foster and to respect its web of relationships. It is a culture shaped and steered by its faculty. It places everyone into a place of continual learning. It asks for regular public demonstration of that learning.”

Sounds good to me. 

Here is his description of life lived under the opposite of these four principles:

“A college should privilege content knowledge over the people who carry it. It is a business steered and shaped by its managers. It places people into fixed roles of fixed expertise. It examines and measures the proxies of learning, evaluated only be an internal disciplinary audience.”

Which vision sounds better to you?

And which vision sounds more like life as it is lived on today’s campuses?

 

[1]I am also in the fortunate position of not having been irreparably damaged financially by my experience. I can envision numerous scenarios where regret would be present had that aspect of my life turned out differently.

 

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