Why Are Adjuncts Only Fit for the Glue Factory?

Today my homegirl Lee Skallerup Bessette has a thoughtful rejoinder to a patronizing MOOC defender, which she begins with a depressing round-up of hooey from her detractors, which—despite being a mild-mannered composition professor at a small regional college in Kentucky who largely minds her own business—she possesses in droves. She writes:

 I am, as many of the comments on my blog posts enjoy reminding me, a nobody when it comes to academia. […] My PhD is old and out-of-date. I get it.

Our editors and friends tell us “don’t read the comments!” (Except il miglior fabbro William Pannapacker, who religiously reads all of his!) But it’s hard to ignore comments when they’re riiiight there staring at you, and some of them stick with you. Take this gem, for example, which I’ve excerpted from one of the many blinkered, self-congratulatory responses to Lee’s honest reaction to being in a search that had five hundred flipping applicants:

I suspect that any advertised position these days generates at least a score of CVs from people who both meet the basic qualifications and, in addition, have more impressive scholarly records [than you do]– I can assure you that by the time our Comp Lit PhDs are defending their dissertations, they have several peer-reviewed articles and chapters published, and benefit from the fact that they are new PhDs: they present a world of possibilities to a potential employer, while job applicants who finished several years earlier may have revealed too much about their limitations.

You read this correctly: in academia, it is better to be a brand-spanking-new PhD with a “world of possibilities,” so that your limitations are not yet manifest, limitations, which everyone has—this guy, for example, has the “limitation” that he is a raging asshole, although honestly in academe that’s often considered an asset.

Let me repeat, just so that I can have some more time to wrap my head around such nonsense: Academic employers would rather hire someone who is completely untested, so that they have not yet had an opportunity to show any failures, than someone who (to use Lee as an example) has years of successful experience going above-and-beyond with students from a staggering array of backgrounds.

This is absolutely ferkockte. It’s just backwards, and ludicrous—and it also provides a new angle on the reality of which everyone in “new academe” (as opposed to Old Academe Stanley) is quite aware: if you have been working for several years as an adjunct, you are considered too “revealing” of your limitations to be attractive to a search committee—your main limitation, by the way, being that you are an adjunct in the first place.

 I’m reminded of one of my favorite books, Michael Kohlhaas, a dense and dizzying masterpiece by Heinrich von Kleist that I have sadistically enjoyed assigning students in the past. Kohlhaas, which Kafka himself claimed to have read “with true reverence” many times, is a highly frustrating tale of a horse-trader in the 16th Century who has been very, very wronged by the “Junker von Tronka,” a Junker (YUN-kah) being a now-obsolete title for some nebulous level of Saxon landed gentry that real Americans should never have to figure out.

The short version (ha! I’m just kidding—it is not humanly possible to do a “short version” of Kleist! So, the hopelessly truncated version) is that the Junker’s people make Kohlhaas think he is lacking the proper permit to cross the border between Brandenburg and Saxony, and after much haranguing, Kohlhaas agrees to leave two of his splendid horses as collateral while he goes to fetch the paperwork—which, it turns out, does not exist (you can see why Kafka loved this book so much). And circumstances only get more tortured from here on in—the bureaucracy widens, its intransigence toward Kohlhaas worsens, Martin Luther gets briefly involved, a lot of things get set on fire, and I guess I could tell you justice was served in the end, but that would be a highly misleading oversimplification.

But the scene I want to talk about here happens when Kohlhaas finally returns to reclaim his horses. What he finds, instead of his “magnificent specimens,” is:

 …a pair of scrawny, worn-out nags, their bones protruding like pegs you could have hung things on, their manes and coats matted together from lack of care and grooming—the very epitome of misery in the animal kingdom! Kohlhaas, to whom the beasts feebly whinnied a greeting, asked in extreme indignation what had happened to his horses. The stable-boy, standing beside him, answered that nothing particular had happened to them, and that they had been given their proper feed, but that as it had been harvest-time and there had not been enough draught animals, they had been used a little in the fields.

So now Kohlhaas’s horses are but a perilous few decrepit little hoof-trots away from the glue factory—and here’s the important part: during Kohlhaas’s protracted fight for justice, the horses degenerate to such an extent that they are placed into the official care of something called a “knacker,” yet another special job that (I hope) doesn’t exist anymore, which entails killing busted-ass horses and breaking them down for parts. Having a horse in the care of a knacker wasn’t just a matter of handing it over for a few microflorins or whatever they used back then to denote chump change—it involved bestowing upon the horse an ominous, metaphysical change, a designation, if you will, of equus non gratus, which would require a serious and rare ceremony to undo. Knackers’ horses are, in effect, worse than dead.

To my mind, this is exactly the way adjuncts are treated on the job market—as Untouchable, tainted, contaminated beyond redemption, when in reality, though they might have been worked to near-death like Kohlhaas’s horses were, they are not actually two hoof-trots away from the glue factory. No, in reality, experienced adjuncts—and experienced VAPs and really all long-term non-tenure-track faculty—possess exactly the qualities that should be considered laudable, incontrovertible strengths on the job market: work ethic, tenacity, and most importantly a searingly authentic commitment to undergraduate education. And on top of this, many possess striking research agendas as well (although, as Lee points out, the vast majority of college teaching positions available today are at liberal-arts colleges and service-oriented regional universities, where teaching is, and should be, Job #1).

The funniest part of all of this (not “funny ha-ha” so much as “funny ARE YOU EFFING KIDDING ME?”) is that nowhere is the unwritten adjunct-knacker rule truer than in a given adjunct’s home department (or, oftentimes, a VAP’s). On the increasingly rare occasions when a tenure line opens up in a department, the absolute last place the search committee usually looks is to the cadre of people who have already proven that they work there successfully.

Again, I repeat: this is ferkockte. Can you imagine if this were standard practice in any other field? Take food service, for example—you know what you need, absolutely, to get any job in food service today? Prior experience in food service. Period. I am lucky that in the summer of 1996, I worked as a busser/low-level janitor in an upscale food court. This counts, and thus I could potentially, maybe get hired to be a busser today. Could you imagine if the new artisanal vegan pizzeria down the street advertised NOW HIRING INEXPERIENCED STAFF ONLY. THOSE ALREADY KNOWING THEIR STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES NEED NOT APPLY? Or medicine: “Oh, you worked for ten years as a lowly medic or nurse? We couldn’t possibly admit you to med school”—except guess what? According to my loquacious ophthalmologist Dr. Lembach, his best med students, interns and residents are consistently former military medics and, you guessed it, nurses. Could you imagine if the number-one criterion not to get hired at NASA was “multiple years of relevant experience doing space shit in a lower-level sector at NASA”?


The professoriate has the minutest sliver of hope in the face of ArMOOCgeddon if its rank and file can admit, for even one second, that there is literally no reason to treat adjuncts like they belong to the knacker, other than unfounded snobbery borne of fear that “there but for the grade of God go I, with food stamps and $14,000 a year.”

Otherwise, entire departments are going to keep ending up like Kohlhaas did—possessed of righteous indignation to the moment the axe hits their neck.



Friends of Pan Kisses Kafka Guest Blog: Tales from the Trenches I

By far the best thing that came out of “Thesis Hatement” was the outpouring of mail I got from folks all over the world sharing their experiences. Sometimes, these messages thanked me (what? no, thank YOU for reading!!!) for my willingness to put my name on an experience that so many of us share, but that very few have little enough to lose so that they can speak about it freely (I spoke exactly as freely about it today in the Chronicle of Higher Ed—this piece is available to subscribers only, which has protected me from the usual torrent of vitriol).

ANYWAY. One of the best messages I got—really have ever gotten—was from Dr. Rachel Burgess, an English PhD and an essayist who pays close attention to all the variations of Belizean and Caribbean creative nonfiction. William Pannapacker tells us, wisely and rightly, to listen to long-term adjuncts for the real story of working in academia today. 

Dr. Burgess’s story appears below in her own words, and is the first in an ongoing series of guest blogs by Friends of Pan Kisses Kafka (hereinafter FoPKK, catchy, right?). I couldn’t pay much, but I paid for this contribution—and if you have a story to tell about your experience in academia, I will pay you for yours. Email me or leave a 100-word pitch in the comments.

And now, without further ado…

On Having a J-O-B

When former students run into me rocking my United States Postal Service uniform on the streets of northeast Portland, Oregon, they’re pretty surprised.  With my navy blue satchel around my waist, flats resting on my left forearm, a stack of letters in my left hand, and letters-to-be-delivered in my right, I’m walking at a pretty good clip to cover about ten miles of terrain.  While they’re answering my questions about their current classes, their lives, and “Are you still writing?”, their nonchalance betrays the “But you have a Ph.D.” look on their faces.  A few even seem to feel ashamed, sorry, for me—as if I took a step down from something great.  In their estimations, my having a Ph.D. means that I should be teaching at a university, not carrying mail.

The student I ran into at the Dollar Tree store, for instance, peered above her spectacles to sneer: “So you’re working for the post office now.  Okay.”  Why, indeed, I am.  I have a full-time job where I am respected, where I make a living wage, and where the union has historically done well to protect the rights of letter carriers.  As an adjunct, I was continuously grading over 120 essays in their various stages of disarray, I was a long way from being respected and, worst of all, when a worker in the Human Resources Department where I taught made an accounting error that overpaid writing instructors for their office time for three years (three years!), the union failed to protect them from having to pay a portion of that money back to the institution.  Thanks to their mistake, I had to pay the institution to work there.

I was getting absolutely nothing in return for doing such emotionally taxing work.  I was not getting financial support to attend conferences that would help me remain abreast of all the awe-inspiring knowledge production that happens in the groves of the academe.  I was not making enough money to keep up with my affiliations.  I was most certainly neither writing nor doing my research.  I taught the same courses each quarter, read basically the same tortured essays, and none of that work helped me to remain competitive for a job market saturated with humanities Ph.D.s.  On adjunct wages, I couldn’t afford to keep up with my professional affiliations or fly out to MLA, AWP, or ASS conferences (much less pay for registration fees and room and board). And I’d have been a fool to put any of that debt on my credit card, to be paid back when I got that dream job at Hampshire.  Not.  There are narratives of those who have managed, despite being an adjunct, to land that tenure track or visiting professor position, to jump off the adjunct track and onto one of those vaunted lecturer positions teaching glorified composition with Writing Programs at Duke, Stanford, Princeton, or Wake Forest.  But that’s not my narrative or the narrative of anyone I know.

I needed a job, so I went and found one. And (check this out, Pannapacker! —Ed.) I listed all of my degrees on the application.  I took the postal exam and a urine test, passed both, and I got a job.  The student at Dollar Tree didn’t seem to quite understand how important it is for me to have a job during these times of diminished employment opportunities.  I could not afford to keep going on the market when it was so very, incredibly, clear to me that I wasn’t going to get that kind of job.  I now have a job where the rules for letter carriers are explicit enough and aren’t hidden under some department chair’s someone-pissed-in-cheerios-today button. In my job, I get a steady paycheck, and the union actually works to protect my rights.

Though I didn’t like the Dollar Tree student’s response, I understood her reaction.  For many, a degree in a specific field equals a job.  Whether one goes to a non-profit, a state, or a private educational institution, the current rhetoric around education and the narratives this rhetoric produces frame the B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. (and all the others) as essential to landing a job in one’s chosen specific field.  And, sometimes, this is true.  For a multitude of people, the credential functions exactly as it is supposed to.  The Ph.D. is nothing more than that—a credential.  It signals a number of things to potential employers, namely that the holder is capable of being trained because said person has the capacity to learn how to do a job and can do it well.  In some situations, it signals that potential employees are too overeducated for work that underemploys them.  In others, the credential opens up the door to slightly better or much better employment.

The Ph.D. was supposed to land me a job specific to full-time university teaching and research.  I did not land too far from the teaching patch; however, I landed in the throes of a denselybarbed adjunct bush.  I was never going to get a full-time teaching gig at the community college where I taught; there’s a list of adjuncts ahead of me (years, decades, ahead), an even longer list of higher ups (and sycophants) to propitiate, there’s nepotism, and there’s the whole “not a good fit” drivel with which to contend.  And just because I love to teach and am good at it does not mean I should continue to teach in a setting that depresses me, both financially and emotionally.  The students I’ve run into believe I should still be teaching because I’m a good teacher.  Yes, I love teaching, and, yes, I am good at it, but I needed a job.  A J-O-B.  All caps.  Seriously.

Although the postal service certainly has its share of major issues and some believe the handwritten epistle is a dying art, it is one of the last bastions of a participatory democracy (as are public libraries and museums) in this country, the one we all claim to live in.  As long as there’s mail, there will be a letter carrier (me) to deliver it.  Working for the postal service in no way halts or interrupts the mentoring I still do.  I am in contact with students who took classes I taught three, five, seven, years ago.  My recommendations get students into the schools of their choice; it gets them scholarships and internships.  My advice helps them navigate their own graduate school adventures.  I can actually do this work much better now that I am no longer adjuncting.

A fellow letter carrier at the station wants to call me Dr. Rachel.  He asked me one day, “I understand you have a Ph.D.?”  I blushed at this, my mind racing to figure out how to respond.   “All it means,” I paused, “is that I spent five years studying a set of particular subjects.  It neither means I am the smartest person in the world nor does it mean the only place for one with a Ph.D. is in academe.”  He still insists on calling me Dr. Rachel—which is fine because that is my title.

Rachel Burgess lives, writes, and works in the Pacific Northwest.