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 […] My PhD is old and out-of-date.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.