Friday, June 14, 2019

“The Adjunct Underclass”

“How did we discard the idea of college faculty? That is, how did we decide to systematically eliminate an entire class of professionals whom we once trusted to conduct the final distillation of our children into capable, confident adults? How did we come to decide that college teachers didn’t deserve job security, didn’t deserve health insurance, didn’t deserve to make more than convenience-store clerks?

“It wasn’t hard, really.

“We discarded college faculty in the same way that we discarded medical general practitioners: through providing insane rewards to specialists and leaving most care in the hands of paraprofessionals.

“We discarded college faculty in the same way that we discarded cab drivers: by leveling the profession and allowing anyone to participate, as long as they had a minimum credential and didn’t need much money.

“We discarded college faculty in the same way that we discarded magazine and newspaper writers: by relabeling the work “content” and its workers “content providers.”

“We discarded college faculty in the same way that we discarded local auto mechanics: by making all of the systems and regulations so sophisticated that they now require an army of technicians and specialized equipment.

“We discarded college faculty in the same way that we discarded bookkeepers: by finally letting women do it after decades of declaring that impossible, and then immediately reducing the status of the work once it became evident that women could, in fact, do it well.

“Our contemporary religion of innovation has as one of its tenets the following belief: Rather than defeat your competition, make your competitors irrelevant. This is exactly what we see in higher education. College faculty were not defeated after great struggle, after a battle with a winner and a loser. College has simply been redefined, over and over, in ways that make faculty irrelevant. College teaching, as a profession, is being eliminated one small, undetected, definitional drop at a time…

“The problems with the adjunct structure of higher education are not merely quantitative. It’s not just about how badly adjuncts are paid, not just about the inadequate opportunities for our students to build enduring relationships with the faculty who guide them. It’s also about fear, despair, surrender, shame — the messy, hidden human elements that finance and policy always miss.

“The story of the adjunct faculty, of the postdoctoral scholars, of those in ‘alt-careers’ — that story will be incomplete unless we recognize that we are refugees from a nation that would not have us. We have found our way to innumerable continents, but still hold that lost home in our hearts. We still, many of us, in quiet moments, mourn the loss of our community as we make our scattered way across diverse lands.

“The decision to join a community is never solely rational. We discover a way of life we find appealing, learn more about it, start to make friends with others who hold similar values. We shift our vocabulary, our terms of engagement, our enthusiasms. Our calendars are marked by different constraints — rather than birthdays and Thanksgiving, we attune ourselves to semesters, grant-proposal deadlines, the week of our discipline’s national conference.

“We become new people in order to join this new culture. We know that our proposed membership in that community will be subject to great competition. We offer ourselves as contestants in a pageant for people who can’t even describe their own desires. We imagine that with the right costume or the right theme music, we might be chosen. We sniff the air, hoping for a phrase to borrow, to learn this year’s color, to please the taste makers as we pass by in the parade of the damned, hoping for the rare and unpredictable nod that will allow us to move from the slush pile to the long list to the short list to the campus visit to — dare we think it? — an offer of membership.

Some few will get in. Some larger number will not. But the peculiar cruelty of higher education is its third option — the vast purgatory of contingent life, in which we are neither welcomed nor rejected, but merely held adjacent to the mansion, to do the work that our betters would prefer not to do…”

Herb Childress is a partner at Teleidoscope Group, LLC, an ethnography-­based consulting firm. This essay is excerpted from his new book, The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission (University of Chicago Press).


  1. It is well known that adjunct faculty work without job security, without the benefit of healthcare, and without an ethical living wage. Most universities’ priorities are their development of building projects and technology, renovation of infrastructure, management of revenues and investments and reducing operating costs, administrative/bureaucratic positions and salaries, and athletic programs and their resources.

    There is no equity for adjunct instructors. Courses staffed with contingent adjunct faculty cost the same student tuition and provide the same credits staffed by tenured full-time faculty. Adjunct faculty grade compositions and tests, write recommendations and advise students, devise and develop classes, create lesson plans and course materials and improve curricula, among other unpaid responsibilities.

    There are no due process protections for adjunct faculty. There is no equal pay for equal work. There is no professional advancement. There is no equity in the lack of health insurance and retirement benefits available for adjunct faculty. There is little to no inclusion in the way higher education’s formal decision-making procedures and structures are made. Indeed, adjunct faculty are simply part-time contractors, “lecturers,” or non-essential “marginalized” hires who are disenfranchised from high-level governance and required to carry out most of the responsibilities of the full-time faculty (and sometimes at multiple institutions), but for less than one-fifth of the salary of the full-time faculty and without meaningful job security from one semester to another.

  2. From Tony Harper:

    From the perspective of an active adjunct and one who functions well in the classroom, the interesting aspect of this issue is that the college teaching faculty have in a ssense abandonded themselves. Currently, the so called college teaching faculty are several generations removed from serious teaching responsibility, primarily due to the enormous influence and power of the military-industrial complex a la Eisenhower resulting in the bought (and sold) minds of the Ivory Tower. Teaching has never been a valued profession in this country, and the fact that this devaluation has expanded into the echelons of higher education is unsurprising. Given this cultural bias and the money available from the (now) military-university-nano-biotech complex, I see little change in the near future.