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 […] My PhD is old and out-of-date.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.




YOU GUYS! “My Academic Metamorphosis” is #1 on the Chronicle Website today! Paywall and all! 5 years since the already-abysmal academic job market cratered (nearly) to the ground, the PostAc movement has gained steam and people are interested in what PostAcs have to say.

Look. I don’t need a jabillion vitriolic commenters (or my partner, heh) to remind me I’m not special (see “Oh. Her again” below–a sentiment with which I happen agree). It’s true. I’m not–I’m just yelling the loudest right this second. And I thank each and every one of you for listening.

Why should we keep yelling? Here’s why: Higher Ed is corporatized beyond repair (at least for this generation), but what IS possible is the destigmatizing of Alt-Ac careers. If I were put in charge of advising bright literature majors (a distinct possibility, by the way, as I am currently applying for several altac or hybrid-ac positions that involve academic advising!), I would, as the non-anti-Semite Ezra Pound to my substantially less-gifted and much-less-affected-accent-having T.S. Eliot William Pannapacker says, transcend the “go/don’t go” dichotomy, which is now, as he rightly points out (if you’re not following him on Twitter, you are missing out!), as “over” as Williamsburg. What the debate should be about is reimagining graduate study with diverse goals in mind–prep-school teaching, International school teaching, public school teaching (you do know that many public-school teachers abroad have doctorates, yes? and it’s not even considered weird!), journalism (AHEM!), regular-book-writin’ (DOUBLE AHEM), museums, government, nonprofit, grantwriting, start-ups, R&D.

But this also (and very importantly) requires a change from the top down, not just from the bottom up. If I’m an example of anything, it’s that even when all the information is available to them, grad students, simply by being interested in graduate study at all, are really impressionable, and prone to the seduction of magical thinking when they first get in. This is for a lot of reasons, but it doesn’t help that their program recruited them so hard that it had no choice but to brush the dismal academic employment stats under the proverbial rug. (I have DOCUMENTED PROOF of this, but it’s from a highly confidential source that I promised not to expose, so it will have to remain in my hot little hands alone for the foreseeable future.)

Then (here’s the Akademische Verwandlung Cutting-Room Floor): while in grad school, all around you are only examples of people in the club–because you’re taught implicitly (by not being introduced to any of them) to give adjuncts, lecturers and other contingent faculty a wide berth, lest it be contagious. In graduate school, your world shrinks down to you, your (very rewarding but also very difficult) work, your mentors, and your fellow grad students.

As you get closer to defense and start to present at conferences, your world grows…but only to other scholars in your own field–again, usually only The Fortunate. By the time you defend, these examples are all you know–so when reality (in the form of 100- or 200- or sometimes 1500-1 odds on the market) comes crashing in on you, no matter how much you think you’re girded for it, usually you’re not.

Graduate education needs to stop this cycle, by giving grad students the resources to explore their options from Day One, by reminding them of the job market stats every single day, by inviting them to shadow adjuncts for a week and see what the “life of the mind” is usually really like, and by changing the content of mentorship to include every career option possible. This involves–gasp–RETRAINING SENIOR FACULTY. This involves getting senior faculty to change their paradigm. This is going to be very, very difficult (judging from the reactions of many insiders to just my writing alone)–and, as such, it is going to require a shit-ton of yelling and screaming.

Organizing adjuncts? Awesome. Encouraging people to do all sorts of awesome jobs instead of adjuncting? EVEN. BETTER. So–and forgive the disjointedness of this blog, I’m on an AIRPLANE! IT’S THE FUTURE!!!–keep yelling, PostAcs. And thank you for the support.