Adjunct-A-Go-Go! (1): 'It Is Hard to Feel Like Anything You Do Actually Matters' | The Nation

Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

Adjunct-A-Go-Go! (1): 'It Is Hard to Feel Like Anything You Do Actually Matters'

Higher education stamp from 1962. (Wikimedia Commons)

On August 21 I published an essay in which I offered several anecdotes in the service of the argument that with the rise of a class of permanently under-employed college instructors, alongside a class of “tenured professors…hardly aware that they’re aristocrats and that they oversee an army of of intellectual serfs,” American society has reproduced the era of the “gentleman scholar”—because the only people who can afford the soul-satisfying profession of adding to the world’s store of knowledge, and passing it on to the next generation of college students, are the independently wealthy.

I also made a broader social argument: First, that the historic expansion of liberal arts education “made America more decent, more lovely, more cultured, more critical, even—ask anyone who went to college in the 1960s or ’70s—more fun. It made America richer too, both spiritually and materially; though in an important sense the first condition fed the second, as the liberation of intellectual imaginations midwifed a thousand productive careers in every field, careers that were productive precisely because they were inspired by a ‘liberal arts’ attitude, not merely pinched Babbit-like commercial aspirations.” And that therefore, atrophying this professoriate was one way “a healthy capitalist society eats its seed corn.”

The piece received a staggering amount of attention among the sort of people I was writing about—graduate students, and adjunct and tenured professors. So I invited people to write me with stories of their experience within this rapidly transforming space.

Before I turn to those, let me address a criticism. I called the post “On the Death of Democratic Higher Education.” Some asked what I meant by “democratic higher education”—after all, a professoriate, any professoriate, is not exactly a democratic institution. And indeed one of the practices I criticized, and will be criticizing more in the future—the rise of “MOOCs,” or massive open online courses—lets people take courses from excellent professors, often star professors, for free. Which is pretty damned democratic. For another thing, I’m not really talking about the democratic failings of the present higher education system that harm undergraduates the most, excellently covered by others at The Nation and elsewhere: exploitative for-profit education; crushing student debt; the death grip an amoral class of professional administrators enjoy over governance prerogatives once enjoyed by more public-spirited faculty.

No, I’m focusing on what I know best: the world of professional intellectualism, whose attenuation makes for more subtle harms to the health of a democratic society—but, I’ll be arguing, may make for equally tragic harms in the end.

And so: on to some stories! I’ll reveal what the professors said later. For now, it’s adjuncts-a-go-go.

A young man writes:

I graduated from college in May of 2009. That previous fall, as I faced an uncertain economy, and since I had no idea what to do with a Bachelor’s in History, I followed the only constant piece of advice my professors gave me, and applied to MA programs in history.

So why would history professors encourage smart college history majors to apply for masters degrees? Some might be myopic, not having given a thought to the class politics of modern education: getting a masters worked for them back in the day, so why not now? Another reason is more cynical—that they have thought about the class politics: keep feeding the pipeline that produces more adjuncts, and you better preserve your own tenured privilege—research without teaching—by building and maintain a reserve army of the under-employed. Or at least by not discouraging one from being built and maintained.

Anyway, he liked the master’s program!

Long story short: graduate school was amazing, stressful, made me doubt my every decision on a 24/7 basis for the better part of two years…but I don’t regret it. One of my friends summed up graduate school very succinctly—“it forever alters how your mind functions”—and I realize nearly every day that she was correct.

But he also

realized that I didn’t want to go back to school for another 6-8 years to get a PhD (I got a glimpse of the hiring process from the inside, and saw that it was basically arbitrary, and that the job market was chock-full of very talented people desperate for jobs, even ones with heavy teaching loads).

Note that, professors: from your side of the divide, your world might look like a meritocracy. From the students’ side, though, it looks “basically arbitrary.” Consider that: a smart guy who loved graduate school but can’t imagine continuing for the sheer hopelessness of the employment prospects. Why are they hopeless? Maybe because they can fill so many teaching spots with those ever-eager adjuncts…

Anyway, this fellow, realizing “I had no clue how to leverage an MA in history when applying for jobs” (profs: maybe that’s something you ought to think about, especially if you’re giving out “constant” advice to students to apply for MAs in your field),  “bounced around a little bit. For the most part I’ve been working a seasonal job in the educational testing industry.” Then:

Last October, I essentially stumbled into two adjunct jobs. One was at Xavier University, which is a local Catholic school known for a student body a little on the affluent side. The other was at a two-year, open enrollment college operated by the University of Cincinnati, located a bit north of the city.

My job at Xavier was as follows: I played second fiddle to a full-time faculty member who had developed a new take on the standard 100-level European History survey course. Instead of relying solely upon lectures, students would do analytical exercises related to major themes in European history. For instance, students would read a chapter in their textbook about population trends in the late eighteenth century, and would then, in assigned groups, look at records of birth and death rates, diary entries, etc, and would then piece together graphs, written reports, or some other presentation that demonstrated that they not only had a basic understanding of how to read and make charts, graphs, etc., but that they could relay information in a cogent and practical manner. After all, students are not likely to write essays once they leave college and enter the workforce, but they might need to read graphs.

The class itself went well enough once students realized that we expected them to do more than just sit passively through lectures. We ran into the normal problems presented by a reliance upon group work—chronic absences, students not shouldering enough of the burden, etc—but overall we could see real progress being made. Moreover, the students were thankful that they had a chance to do more than just write essays. At the end of the semester, I met with the faculty of record and one of the deans of education to discuss this course. While I don’t want to sound bitter, I was astounded by how out of touch this dean sounded. There was some discussion about course content and assignments, but most of it was about “innovation”—as if we hadn’t completely redesigned a course already. He was more interested in social media and remote learning where students attend classes in groups independent of the classroom (I’ll admit that I am biased here. But when administrators talk about things that render faculty unnecessary, I get a little worried.) and a bunch of other “solutions” and “bold ideas” which didn’t really seem like solutions, but more like unimaginative corporate-speak.

Awesome, huh? These are the awesome folks who more and more are taking over the design and vision of the higher learning in America. (Tom Frank recently wrote brilliantly about this here.)

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

But let’s hear about working conditions, shall we? At this guy’s two-year college, filling in for a tenured full-timer off on a fabulous Fulbright (those aristocrats…),

I taught two classes on my own, and co-taught two others, and was thus in the classroom five days a week in some capacity. Aside from the stress of going back and forth between different campuses (and policies, cultures, etc), what I felt most was a feeling of impermanence. I felt it, and I also observed it in the words and actions of the other adjuncts I encountered at the two-year college. For them, every semester held the promise of work, but also the fear of a course load reduced to such an extent that their meager salary would barely cover the cost of driving to campus.

I labored under these conditions for only half of a year, but I cannot imagine how other members of the faculty, many of whom finished their degrees a decade or more ago—and who found out firsthand that the wave of retirements that were supposed to open up the job market didn’t exactly materialize as they had hoped, and didn’t lead to tenure-track jobs—and who have families to feed and a myriad of other issues/expenses cope with this situation.

… No matter the rewards that result from teaching (and there were real rewards, such as when my students at the two-year college, several of whom mentioned that they were descended from coal miners, watched part of Germinal and reacted favorably to seeing the miners assert themselves) I could not shake the feeling that my job did not matter, that I did not matter, and that with every lecture I was merely whistling past the graveyard. After all, a semester is only so long. And when you work at a job where your position is tied largely to enrollment numbers which you cannot control, and where your performance is not the deciding factor in whether your contract is picked up for another term, it is hard to feel like anything you do actually matters.

Wow. Next time: “Please do not refer to me by name in anything you write, as I am on the job market yet again and I do not want anything to jeopardize my chances…”

Want to share your story? Reach out at perlstein@aol.com.

Student Nation talks about a new tuition plan, “Pay It Forward, Pay It Back.”

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.