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A warning from the academic underground of adjuncts and contingent faculty

Over the years countless articles, reports, studies, and white papers have decried the systematic exploitation of adjunct and contingent faculty members. Working on temporary appointments, often with disgracefully low pay and widespread lack of job security, health and retirement benefits, professional development possibilities, scholarly recognition, and even such basic amenities as a desk or office space, these academics provide the majority—and at some institutions, the overwhelming majority—of undergraduate instruction in this country. (Those contracted to teach individual courses are generally called adjuncts. Those teaching full or almost full time are often called contingents.) 

But there’s a deeper, more corrosive injustice that an essay I recently encountered reveals: the emotional, even spiritual, cost to qualified Ph.D.s who will never be invited onto the tenure track or recognized as full-fledged faculty members no matter how many adjunct courses they may teach. This lyric lament for the traditional faculty career that its author, Herb Childress, spent decades trying but failing to attain conveys a raw longing and naked grief that left me stunned.

The essay is an excerpt from his new book, The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission (reviewed in Science earlier this year). Childress’s decades in academe’s minor leagues—working as an adjunct, an administrator, and in other roles while awaiting his chance to move up to the majors and into a tenure-track position—form the framework for his explanation of how contingency works, and how it always benefits powerful institutional interests. Childress is an architect by training, and the adjuncts he profiles generally teach the humanities. But the book holds lessons that are relevant to aspiring—and struggling—academics across disciplines, including the sciences.

Shrinking careers

The fact that Childress never got the call to the majors is no surprise, as contingents exceedingly rarely get to take that step. The series of tentative jobs he held at the tantalizing threshold of faculty life, he explains, constituted “hope labor,” the badly remunerated work that aspirants to highly competitive goals often accept on the off chance that the desired opportunity may open.

This may sound familiar to postdocs—who, Childress notes, are also cheap, disposable, contingent labor, with a different job description but not much more chance of reaching the tenure track. As if to reinforce the point, the week I read the book, I heard a reliable report of a postdoc scientist at a top-10 university living, along with family members, in a car. Beyond that, a recent study of three representative disciplines—astronomy, ecology, and robotics—found a “dramatic shortening” of academic scientific careers over recent decades. Of the cohorts that entered their fields in the 1960s, half were still active as academic scientists 35 years later. By the 2010s, the “half life” of scientific careers—the point at which half of a cohort’s entrants had left the field—had fallen to 5 years.

I suspect it’s no coincidence that 5 years is also the “generally recommended limit” on the time that funding agencies and universities should finance postdocs. Knowing that their support will end mercifully pushes wise trainees toward thinking about nonacademic options and about the fact their desirability on the tenure-track job market is inverse to time since the Ph.D.

Lying perpetually open for unwary scientists, however, is the trap of adjunct jobs teaching the vast numbers of undergraduates enrolled in the introductory science and math courses offered by every institution in the land. The cautionary tales that Childress offers ought to make them think twice. Childress notes that a quarter of the nation’s part-time college teachers receive “some form of public assistance” and introduces us, among others, to another, longer-term, resident of a car. He recounts the 2013 death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, an instructor of French who, at the end of a long adjunct career, had no way to pay for cancer treatment. 

He couldn’t cover a similar, more recent outrage that happened after the book had gone to press: the December 2018 death of historian Thea Hunter after years of adjunct teaching during which she did not have health insurance to cover regular checkups. A Columbia University Ph.D., Hunter had been on the tenure track early in her career. As an African American woman at an overwhelmingly white university, however, she had felt so isolated and demeaned that she made the ultimately tragic misjudgment of leaving before attaining tenure, confident that her credentials and excellent student ratings would land her a more congenial permanent post.

A warning

Everyone even considering becoming or remaining a graduate student or postdoc absolutely must read The Adjunct Underclass. The chapter “Life in Exile” (the main source of the striking essay I mentioned above) should be a requirement for filling out an application for a Ph.D. program. And for the stubborn naïfs who believe that they will be the ones to win the academic equivalent of Powerball, Childress has helpfully devised the Academic Career Calibration Protocol, an objective, or at least quantitative, tool for predicting the kind of academic career that likely lies ahead.

This creation encapsulates what Childress has learned about the factors that determine careers in academe. Ph.D. programs, he notes, are not created equal. In every field, a clutch of top-ranked departments produce the overwhelming majority of those who actually get tenure-track jobs. The many other, lower-ranked, programs routinely crank out frustrated also-rans who rarely find permanent posts. These departments, he shows, exist not to train future professors, but to enhance their school’s shaky prestige and give its permanent faculty a shot at grant funding. 

Elite schools, in fact, don’t even hire many adjuncts. Because they admit only a small percentage of their applicants, Childress explains, they can precisely predict the size of their entering classes and therefore have little need for cheap instructors they can employ or lay off on short notice—unlike less selective schools, whose admitted classes can vary in size widely and unpredictably from year to year. The top schools, in addition, can deploy troops of graduate students to instruct undergraduates (and also to do the labor of professors’ research grants). Adjunct jobs thus tend to cluster at less prosperous institutions, which can provide far fewer resources to enhance either their students’ or instructors’ experience, making disappointment like what Childress endured the likely fate of those who accept adjunct employment.

Another fine writer who also knew a lot about suffering, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, once commented that if suffering alone taught wisdom, everyone would be wise, because everyone suffers. But attaining wisdom, she added, also requires “mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness, and the willingness to remain vulnerable.” It should cheer Childress that he appears to have managed that transformation, and that his wisdom, if heeded, can help many others to suffer less.

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