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Adjunct angst.

A Fortnightly Review

The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission
by Herb Childress.

University of Chicago Press | 207 pp | $15.98

By Christine Gallant

UK READERS OF this American book should remember that the unenlightened United States does not yet have a national labor union for professors, unlike the UK with its University and College Union. But the UK and the United States share the disturbing problem of a large population of untenured adjuncts (or “fractionals” or “casuals”) who don’t belong to unions: well-qualified faculty who teach in their colleges and universities for a while and then move on. As William Blake wrote in Auguries of Innocence, “A dog starvd at his Masters Gate/Predicts the ruin of the State.” Adjuncts are the academic equivalent of the undocumented immigrants here in Georgia who come to pick our famed Vidalia onion crops, and then leave before the federal authorities come.

However, academic notice of adjuncts is finally being taken, as witness this fine book. The Adjunct Underclass was written by an American educator who garnered a doctorate, then positions as a Mellon Lecturing Fellow, associate director of the University Writing Program at Duke University, even dean of research and assessment at the Boston Architectural College — but never the one he most desired: a TT (tenure-track or “permanent” in the UK term) college teaching position. An adjunct par excellence, he has written this 207-page indictment of the profession of college teaching with biting accuracy and memorable passion. I can attest to its veracity as one who spent nine years as a part-time Instructor, four of those a doctoral student, and 34 years as a TT faculty member at two American state universities.

The opening chapters are immediate and anecdotal, giving us the reality of the adjunct’s world now. They’re full of vivid tales of adjuncts who never got tenure-track positions, the dual jobs they take, and their desperate situations: driving from job to job to teach a few classes at far-flung schools (UK readers, remember the wide, open spaces of the U.S. freeways), not knowing from term to term how many classes they would teach or even what they would teach.

Parents of college students, and those thinking of entering doctoral programs, should read these chapters for a cold, plain-spoken description of the reality. Most doctoral students serve as part-time Teaching Assistants or Instructors of undergraduates for the length of their graduate studies—they are adjuncts. They teach most of the freshman-sophomore courses. Those who don’t find academic positions when they have finished their degrees are very often allowed/encouraged to continue teaching as non-TT faculty. This is condoned as “supporting our graduates while they find real positions.” The difficulty of the American academic job-market with its increasing scarcity of tenure-track jobs often allures new Ph.D.s into continuing as such. (Next year’s job-market is sure to be different…it’s always good to get more teaching experience…X-number of years of advanced study surely can’t be in vain…) Meanwhile, the University doesn’t have the expense of paying these faculty TT salaries and benefits.

It takes someone with substantial administrative experience to be able to explain so clearly just where the large American universities get their money. It doesn’t come from student tuition.

Childress’s discussion of university economics is equally bracing. It takes someone with substantial administrative experience to be able to explain so clearly just where the large American universities get their money. It doesn’t come from student tuition. Part comes from research grants won by TT faculty, whose courses are then taught by adjuncts. But a larger part comes from the money saved by using contingency faculty wherever possible.

An interlude follows about the fortunate TT faculty who have avoided the adjunct’s fate (“The Comforts of Those Inside the Castle”). Here, I must protest that we American “TTs” are not as indifferently callous as we may seem to outsiders. Significantly, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), our august professional organization of college and university TT faculty formed in 1915, has just become an American version of the UCU: a faculty union. Its membership has been opened to adjuncts, graduate students, and part-timers; and is now kept confidential as it wasn’t before.

Up until 2012, the AAUP had been a well-regarded professional club for TT faculty. If a university violated AAUP guidelines on “academic freedom” and “shared governance” between faculty and administration, then it was “censured.” This seemed to matter less and less to the schools, I noticed. In 2012 the AAUP changed. It split into two associations, with the AAUP-CBC (Collective Bargaining Congress) following collective bargaining where legal and the national organization of AAUP supporting collective action where it was not. (It’s illegal in 28 states, including Georgia.) CBC members held successful strikes in several states over issues such as adjunct salaries, graduate student healthcare benefits, and contracts. In mid-June 2019, the AAUP changed its Constitution and the CBC branch rejoined the greater AAUP. By that time, fully 75 per cent of its membership belonged to collective bargaining chapters.

Childress doesn’t record this sea change in the profession. Too bad. His entire book is a justification of the rise of this nemesis of college administrators: the faculty labor union. He dismisses “a push to unionization” as one more ineffectual action. (We will see.)

Childress has no concrete proposals for change or reform, no specific guidance for the transformation of higher education.

Childress’s final chapter asks, “What To Do?” What he really asks is how to eliminate contingency. But he has no concrete proposals for change or reform, no specific guidance for the transformation of higher education. He approaches his answer “in the spirit of Red Cross triage” by suggesting “Recommendations for Survival in the Current Climate.” All are good practical suggestions to avoid relying on adjuncts, or becoming one, for prospective undergraduate students and their families, graduate students, and college administrators.

And then the dream behind the entire book bursts forth, his long-imagined Utopia of the college classroom where Plato’s Academy lives again. He continues, “But let’s get bigger.” Let’s make college a Safe Place where contingency isn’t even an option and all faculty are TT. Here, administrations only encourage mentoring and supportive relationships, faculty only dream of passing on their love of learning, and students only wish to expand their minds. He sets forth his “four guiding principles for any college worthy of its station.”

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. These four principles would make contingency unthinkable.”

That was the point where he lost me. I thought of what I have seen over my 34 years as, yes, a privileged TT professor. The brilliant but disruptive student who, other students told me when the course was over, routinely came to class drunk. Or the student who stood up in class to suggest that all take off their clothes. Or the University that eliminated funding support for its nationally recognized literary magazine while it added more mid-level administrators.

Childress’s final chapter, “Life in Exile,” explores his own experiences of the last two-plus decades as an adjunct. It is not pleasant reading.

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.

This is the description of someone living in a Diaspora, who thinks of the college classroom as the mythic Homeland, the Jerusalem or Africa that never really existed.

Christine Gallant is Professor Emerita of English at Georgia State University (Atlanta, GA). She is the author of Keats and Romantic Celticism; Tabooed Jung: Marginality as Power; Shelley’s Ambivalence; Coleridge’s Theory of Imagination Today (editor); and Blake and the Assimilation of Chaos.


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