The Rise of Adjunct Lit

Adjunct Hell

The rise of a new kind of campus novel.


Not so long ago, there seemed to be something radical in rejecting the future. Looking back, it’s easy to see why. In the 1990s, history was over; the United States and capitalism had won. Strutting conservative televangelists and smug liberal technocrats took turns running the world. Globalization promised more of everything: more productivity, more innovation, more wealth. Economic prosperity and regressive moralism went hand in hand. The nuclear family was once again sacred, and non-normative sexuality remained stigmatized: Don’t ask, but also don’t tell. Conservatives—as well as some liberals—supported any policy that promised to protect children, born and unborn, so they might take advantage of the bright future that awaited them. Meritocracy was supposedly thriving, even as inequality prevailed everywhere.

In response, a reasonable nihilism emerged in the era’s counterculture. If conservatives, and even some liberals, were “pro-life” and “focused on the family,” all in the name of a bountiful future provided to us by the end of the Cold War, then what positions should radicals take? Against globalization, against procreation, against the nuclear family, sometimes against children themselves—these politics took shape in the late 1990s and early 2000s in some radical circles. The literary scholar and theorist Lee Edelman presented one version of them in a 1998 essay, which became part of his 2004 book No Future. In the book, Edelman argued that American society’s fetishistic attachment to its children always came at the expense of queer people and other marginalized adults. Present happiness was sacrificed at the altar of some idealized future. Queer resistance, he argued, worked against this kind of “reproductive futurism.” Instead of fighting for our children, we should fight against the future itself. “Fuck the social order,” Edelman wrote, “and the Child in whose name we’re collectively terrorized; fuck Annie; fuck the waif from Les Mis; fuck the poor, innocent kid on the Net; fuck Laws both with capital ls and small; fuck the whole network of Symbolic relations and the future that serves as its prop.”

When I first read Edelman’s book as a graduate student in literature, it thrilled me. I loved how he eviscerated so-called family values, extolled by liberals as well as conservatives during the 1990s and early 2000s, and how his book promised that joy could be found outside of social norms. Now, 17 years after the book’s publication, the argument lands differently: “No future” has become more of a lament than a rallying cry. The future is no longer something to protect or reject; it’s something that’s slowly being taken from children and adults alike. We’re facing climate apocalypse, widening inequality, and a global pandemic. Is it any wonder that birthrates and rates of happiness are down in the United States, while rates of mortality and suicide have been rising? Can any of us honestly imagine the future?

This is the question posed by two new novels about adjunct professors trying to make ends meet: Christine Smallwood’s debut, The Life of the Mind, and Lynn Steger Strong’s second novel, Want. In The Life of the Mind, we meet Dorothy, a PhD living in “adjunct hell.” She teaches “two or three or sometimes four” English courses at the same New York City university where she earned her doctorate. In between classes, she tries to “write the sample chapter that would get her the [book] contract that would get her the job that didn’t exist.” In Want, we meet another struggling adjunct, who has a lighter teaching load— only one course a week—but, in typical adjunct fashion, also has a second job, as a teacher at a charter high school. Only part of the book explores her work as an adjunct, but this is entirely appropriate: She’s a part-time academic, earning a fraction of a full-time professor’s pay. When she’s introduced to the wealthy couples who have hired her husband, a carpenter, to build closets or cabinets in their Long Island homes, she struggles to explain her career to them: She’s a professor, “except no health insurance.” She calls herself a “professor of failing to find a way to make a living wage.”

Both books can be read as twists on the campus novel, a genre mastered by Mary McCarthy, David Lodge, and Zadie Smith, among others. Both provide doses of academic satire. Smallwood makes satire central to her project, introducing us to insecure grad students who, in her words, read aloud “in the same tone one uses for driving directions or a recipe.” She describes “paradigm-shifting” work in literary studies that seems trivial to the untrained eye (and often to the trained one). In a scene so funny I cried from laughing, she describes a grad student’s dissertation on “the politics of doors.” Strong, meanwhile, is great on the small details of the literature classroom: the dead silence in response to a question, the student spooning yogurt from a large plastic tub throughout the first hour of class. When her narrator, unnamed for most of the novel, teaches Imre Kertész’s Kaddish for an Unborn Child to her students, one complains that book’s main character is “mansplaining Auschwitz to his wife.”

But The Life of the Mind and Want are not typical campus novels—because for most of us the prototypical campus experience no longer exists. Capitalism and corporatization have ravaged the university, making the stakes of academic work extremely high rather than comically low. For working-class students, first-generation students, graduate students, and adjuncts, the experience of academia is primarily one of insecurity. Contemporary students still go to college or graduate school to get an education, but once there, they realize that their degree likely won’t help them find a stable job or a secure social position.

In this sense, these adjunct novels are versions of the bildungsroman, the novel of education—but here education means learning just how precarious your future is. Will these adjuncts be able to pay their rent, afford health care, bear and care for children? Will they have anything like the future they dreamed of when they were young? The protagonists are stuck in limbo; there’s nowhere to go but down. Processes that should be linear and finite (a course of study, a school term, a pregnancy) become unpredictable and unending. In both novels, plot—the literary structure that signals progress—gives way to an atmosphere of anxious uncertainty, one familiar to many of us who came of age during a moment of financial and ecological crisis.

The Life of the Mind begins with an ending—specifically, with an ending that just won’t end. It’s the final week of March, and Dorothy is shitting and bleeding in a university bathroom stall. She’s having a miscarriage and has been hemorrhaging for six days straight. She hadn’t chosen to end the pregnancy, nor had she made the conscious decision to keep it. She had learned the fetus was no longer viable and jump-started its expulsion by administering misoprostol. Observing her blood—“thick, curdled knots of string, gelatinous in substance”—and avoiding calls from one of her two therapists, Dorothy wonders when the miscarriage truly began. “She would never know when it exactly had happened—when it had stopped happening—only that she had persisted for some time idly believing that she was persisting, her body busy fulfilling its potential like some warehouse or shipping center. How typical of her not to know something was over when it was over,” Smallwood writes in the close third person, with occasional forays into free indirect style. It’s hard to say what “it” even is: “When she self-administered the uterine evacuation, terminating a—what was it, exactly? What did you call it when a life stopped developing, but didn’t end?”

This opening scene, impressively executed, sets the tone for the rest of the novel. It’s a scene focused on waste: bodily excretions, dead cells, the detritus produced by reproductive processes gone awry. Dorothy, a clinically detached narrator, is an observer of waste—you might say a student of it. At one point she takes a smartphone picture of her vagina, searching for the source of some rogue bleeding. At another, she requests a sonogram of her empty uterus, only to be disappointed to see that what she thought were tendrils of wispy somethings were in fact just “dead pixels.”

Dead pixels and dead embryos are coupled with a dead-end career: As an adjunct, Dorothy is socially dislocated and pushed outside of time. She’s neither at the conclusion of her graduate studies nor at the beginning of an academic career. She’s neither single nor married, neither broke nor financially stable, neither a mother nor childless by choice. She’s on the faculty but not a professor. When she’s mistaken for a student, Dorothy announces that she’s a professor, then immediately questions this identity: “She didn’t believe herself. She looked down at her clothes. They were shabby and studentish. Her hair was unwashed. She was probably shiny.” Her graduate school friends who have secured tenure-track jobs treat her with an infuriating mix of condescension and pity. Her former adviser—a woman who “always operated in total confidence that her orders would be obeyed”—treats her like a daughter, or a serf.

Dorothy may not be an adult like her wealthy friend Gaby, whose purpose in life is raising her son (and looking good while doing it), but she’s also not part of the politically energized youth, those who have never known anything but crisis. When a student explains that she’ll miss class in order to attend a climate action, Dorothy bristles. She longs for “the simple privacy of not being a political actor.” Several times, she imagines a dialogue with the children of the nonexistent future—she pictures them malnourished, on a raft—and thinks they would “mock her mercilessly,” not just for failing to take the necessary action (such as chaining herself to a power plant) but also for feeling bad about not taking action. “I was raised to expect a future,” Dorothy tells them in her defense. “Everyone said that to increase my standard of living, all I had to do was follow my dreams.” The raft children respond, “What is a dream?” and then, “What is the future?”

Is Dorothy a student or a professor? A failure or a success? A child or an adult? The answer to all of these is something like: neither, and it doesn’t matter anyway. Existential questions like “Who am I?” and “What is life’s purpose?”—traditionally the stuff of coming-of-age stories—no longer seem important. Dorothy’s education involves learning that her in-between state might be permanent.

As a result, she detaches. She neither works feverishly toward a better future nor invests in her present life. She isn’t particularly energized by her teaching, or by the book she’s trying to write (about female confinement and the gothic novel), or by her relationship. She doesn’t care much about what her more successful friends think of her; she rarely emotes. Once, she pretends to cry, at the urging of her former advisor; it’s one of very few instances of overt emotional expression, and it’s fake.

Instead of feeling or acting, she observes. She notices, for instance, that her mother “had told her so many times that she was not disappointed by Dorothy that Dorothy had to assume her mother was very disappointed.” She notes that everything she touches turns to shit. (“That sounds like self-blame,” says her first therapist.) But these observations—and Dorothy is a keen observer of herself and others—never prompt action. What would be the point, when the apocalypse is just around the corner? The best she can do is “teach the conflict,” as pedagogues say. One of her four courses is called “Writing Apocalypse,” in which students read texts like Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” She occasionally hides in the bathroom before class, in order to avoid awkward exchanges with her students, and as a result is “late to the Apocalypse.”

Smallwood’s achievement is to describe, with humor and precision, the affective conditions—what Dorothy’s students might call the “vibe”—of a generation living at the end of the end of history but with very little sense of the future. “These days, Dorothy was pretty sure that she was actually living at the end of something, or too many somethings to say,” Smallwood writes.

But as an end, it didn’t have the texture of kairos, of, as Frank Kermode wrote, “a point in time filled with significance.” It was instead the gruesome slog of chronos, of “passing” or “waiting” time. Ends came and came and they did not end. They sputtered and limped along. The walls of the world crept with something scabrous and bacterial, something that hovered between life and death, something that dripped and dribbled out and was flushed away. The word the doctor has used was “blighted.” It sounded like something the government bailed out, a Midwestern crop failure. The dictionary on her phone said that “blight” referred to a plant disease. But Dorothy was not a plant. Of that much she was certain.

The paragraph—like the apocalypse it forecasts, like the novel itself—is anticlimactic: It begins with a titan of literary studies but ends with a dictionary search on a smartphone. The slip into free indirect style also shows Dorothy’s penchant for understatement. At the same time, there’s a wonderful excess to the writing: the ancient Greek, the quotation from Kermode, the crop metaphor, the adjective “scabrous.” Excessive education might not earn you a job or help you achieve financial stability, but it can help you narrate desperate circumstances with a kind of indulgent accuracy.

This linguistic superfluity prevents Smallwood’s novel from sliding into nihilism, even in its more cynical moments. Although the novel presents emotional detachment as a way to cope with apocalyptic conditions, it also demonstrates a kind of giddy, resilient attachment: to texts, language, art, to what we might call the life of the mind. The novel is a critique of academia and its abhorrent labor practices, but it is also a celebration of humanistic learning. There are citations from and sometimes lively discussions of Pierre Bourdieu, Silvan Tompkins, Lauren Berlant, and Franco Moretti. Reading these books doesn’t help Dorothy become a functioning member of society, but Smallwood suggests that maybe that shouldn’t be the point of reading anyway.

In this sense, Smallwood is close to Edelman: There’s a kind of ecstasy to be found when the future is foreclosed and all the productive activity of bourgeois life begins to appear pointless. Dorothy experiences this ecstasy while grading her final papers: one about dying coral reefs, another about the death of the novel. “She felt a thrill spread like hot milk throughout her body as all the endings that had ever been piled up before her,” Smallwood writes. Dorothy gives each paper an A- before “dumping each one carefully, respectfully, into the trash.”

We don’t know what the future holds for Dorothy: another term teaching the Apocalypse? A new adjunct gig? A tenure-track job? (Probably not the last.) The elegant yet abrupt ending suggests that we shouldn’t waste too much time wondering either. We can simply close the book on Dorothy; her future is itself foreclosed.

If Dorothy faces a crumbling world with detachment, Strong’s narrator attaches herself to it all the more fiercely. She hates the ethos of the charter school where she works but loves her students. She can’t stop teaching college literature, even though it pays nothing. “It feels good sometimes, pretending, that I got what I set out to get,” she explains. Nor can she leave New York, though the city’s high cost of living is crushing her family. She knows that the city is “too hard for not-rich people,” but to her “it’s the place where I was formed, long after forming should have happened.” It’s part of her Bildung.

The narrator and her family are decidedly “not-rich.” Her husband cares for their two daughters during the week and does woodworking on the weekend; this arrangement spares them the cost of child care but prevents him from working at other jobs. On Thursdays, the narrator gets up before 5 am to work a full day at the high school before commuting uptown to her college class, always with a book in hand. (Kertész aside, Strong’s canon is nearly all women: Marguerite Duras, Gayle Jones, Magda Szabó.)

Despite the long days, Strong’s narrator still can’t pay her bills. She and her husband are drowning in debt. Early in the novel, they file for bankruptcy. Later, after receiving notice that their apartment building is going to become a co-op, they realize they don’t have the funds to secure a cheaper apartment elsewhere.

In Smallwood’s novel, this kind of precarity is in the background, prevented—or maybe only postponed—by the kind of lucky breaks that many people rely on: an extra course assignment, a boyfriend who works in tech. But in Want, financial precarity is the central subject, shaping the characters, the events, the prose. The novel describes downward mobility: a rare plotline in American literature, though not in American lives. Like Dorothy, Strong’s narrator has a fancy degree (“an Ivy-League PhD,” she notes) and had believed that a successful career was hers for the taking. “We were eighties babies, born of plenty, cloistered by our whiteness and the places we were raised in,” she observes of her and her husband’s childhoods. “We were both brought up to think that if we checked off certain boxes we’d be fine.”

Strong’s narrator had reason to believe this, since a meritocratic system once existed for other people in her life. Her parents are lawyers who didn’t grow up rich but have “gotten better over years at being wealthy.” Her husband was the first member of his family to go to college and started his professional life in finance, though he left when the markets crashed; he “had always, secretly, wanted to work with his hands.” The narrator, the more privileged of the pair, was in a catatonic depression through much of college but eventually went to graduate school and wrote a dissertation on “forgotten or actively discarded female writers.” “There was a time when I thought giving books to other people—showing them their richness, their quiet, secret, temporary safety—could be a useful way to spend one’s life,” she recalls wistfully.

The narrator is no longer so naive, and she is well aware of her privilege. Unlike the “underserved” students at her charter school, she has options, though they decrease in number with each passing year. She could grovel before her wealthy parents or move her family to her in-laws’ farm in Maine. Her husband could update his résumé and try to rejoin the financial sector, though the thought of choosing a career that exacerbates inequality makes them both queasy. “We cannot live outside the systems and the structures” that have damaged so many people, the narrator admits, but “I cannot live within them either anymore.” She chooses to do no harm to others, even if that means harming herself.

Strong cuts back and forth between the narrator’s financially unstable adult life and her youth and adolescence, periods when she was supported financially, but not emotionally, by her parents. This narrative structure leads the novel to run up against the traditional linear organization of coming-of-age novels. Can the narrator truly be said to have matured if she ultimately can’t make it without financial support from her parents? When she finally asks them for help, her mother, a cold and dangerous woman, asks when she plans to “give up on this whole dream thing.” The narrator, echoing the raft children in Smallwood’s novel, asks: “What dream?”

The narrator’s uneasy and shifting social position allows Strong to sketch a broader portrait of life than we find in many New York novels about youngish literary types. She attends lavish children’s birthday parties in Brooklyn brownstones, where the women compare self-care strategies (Korean spas versus sensory deprivation tanks). She fields complaints from “young and anxious” literature students about predatory men on campus. She describes her relationship with her co–homeroom teachers at the charter school, both Black women, and how long it took them to trust one another. Throughout, Strong interweaves wonderful depictions of parenting: two children learning to share a stuffed octopus, a child’s joy at seeing her mother wearing a purple dress.

Rather than a story of a miscarriage, Want has one about an unplanned pregnancy carried to term. There’s less about ecological degradation; the crises are more acute and closer to home. While Smallwood’s novel is a study of waste, written in a prose style marked by excess, Strong’s novel is all about lack. Her prose is spare, as if performing the deprivation the book’s title suggests. Her tone is lyrical, even elegiac at times; there’s less irony than we might expect from a narrator with a PhD. Here she is, recalling her first pregnancy:

The first time I got pregnant it was an accident…. I’d never before that been sure I wanted kids—I knew we were too broke to have her; I was still in grad school—I ached for her as soon as I saw that word form. I had an emergency C-section, and my student health insurance didn’t cover C-sections—or it covered C-sections, but only partially. We owed the hospital thirty thousand dollars…. My body almost single-handedly bankrupted us. It also, with a little bit of help, made and then sustained the two best things in our lives.

This kind of paradoxical feeling characterizes much of the novel. The narrator is both desperate and grateful, cursed and lucky, envious and content. On some level, she knows it’s absurd to stay attached to her current existence: How can you love a life that’s been deemed a failure in a court of law? And yet the narrator refuses to give up her commitment to her students, to books, to a way of living that still makes room for the life of the mind, despite her financial precarity. This is one way, though not the only way, to resist the logic of late capitalism.

I was in a PhD program in English right around the same time as Dorothy and Strong’s narrator. I read many of the same books Dorothy did: Bourdieu, Berlant, Moretti. I also read Ugly Feelings, by the scholar and theorist Sianne Ngai. It was given to me by my then adviser, who proffered the book as an example of what one could do with a dissertation—if one were a genius, that is. Published in 2005, the book came out one year after Edelman’s No Future, and it presaged the opposite end of his exuberant nihilism. Like Smallwood’s and Strong’s novels, Ngai’s book is a study of those “minor” feelings that develop under capitalism. These are feelings experienced by the powerless, those whose agency is, in Ngai’s words, “obstructed”: feelings like envy and anxiety, paranoia and irritation, and two of her own coinage, “animatedness” and “stuplimity.” Ngai warns against overestimating the radical potential of these ugly feelings, but it’s possible that by better reckoning with them, we might be able to create opportunities for collective resistance.

The Life of the Mind and Want both beautifully sketch those feelings, which more and more of us are coming to know. There’s the anxiety of wanting or having children without a future on offer, for you or for them. There’s the envy of those who have lucked out or gamed the system or inherited wealth. And then there’s the strange awe those of Dorothy’s generation (and mine) feel at living through the end of an era—of stable employment, pension funds, affordable education, and any chance of containing a looming ecological disaster—and then past it. Such feelings, as Ngai theorized, are not necessarily located in individuals. Instead they float freely, as they do throughout these novels; they might describe each book’s tone, as well as the experience of reading it.

A life made, or half-made, under conditions of academic precarity is often a paranoid, anxious, stupefying life—stupefying in part because, in some sense, you chose it. As any director of graduate studies will remind you, no one forced you to go to graduate school. You went because you thought, like Strong’s narrator, that books were the answer to life’s problems. Or maybe because, like Dorothy, you thought you might become the kind of “scholar who taught at a top-tier research university and wrote books for the general reader that would be reviewed in the daily paper.” For whatever reason, you chose a less remunerative (and possibly less evil) path than your peers who went into management consulting or tech. What you did not choose, at least not knowingly, was a life of permanent gig work and near-poverty wages.

These conditions can also generate another feeling, one that’s found less frequently in Want and The Life of the Mind: rage. It’s one of the emotions I feel most often while working as an adjunct—and not only about my own treatment but about others’ too. I feel it when I watch yet another colleague cut loose after years of excellent teaching, or listen to a dean bullshit us about our “service” to the university (I would simply call it work), or read another obfuscating e-mail from the university president explaining why billions of dollars of endowment money can’t be used to prevent layoffs.

Along with egregious working conditions, rage is fueling graduate and adjunct union drives across the country, one of the small signs of hope in the grim landscape of higher ed. The Service Employees International Union has organized academic workers at more than 60 campuses across the country. The United Auto Workers now represents over 80,000 graduate and adjunct workers nationwide. More than 20 new faculty unions were certified in the first three quarters of 2016 alone. In one 18-month span, graduate student workers voted to unionize at 14 institutions, including at Columbia, likely Dorothy’s employer and the alma mater of Strong’s narrator.

There’s still plenty to be mad about after a unionization campaign is over. The Graduate Workers of Columbia, for instance, won a National Labor Relations Board ruling in 2016 to form a union and have been negotiating their first contract for the past two years. Even though the NLRB recently affirmed the right of graduate students to unionize and their status as employees, Columbia still refused to negotiate in good faith, and the university’s graduate workers have now gone on strike. The GWC Twitter account made this announcement with a GIF of Elmo, arms raised, standing in front of flames: an image of rage that could only delight Ngai, who has also theorized the “zany” and the “cute.” The future for these graduate students—and for the rest of us—remains uncertain, but whatever else, it will entail a fight.

We usually think of rage as destructive. But just as often, rage can be generative: It can help bring about a more just world. In the Edwards sermon that Dorothy teaches, God’s rage is figured as a cleansing flood, a force that clears away the wicked. “Their foot shall slide in due time,” Edwards promises, quoting Deuteronomy. University administrators should consider themselves warned.

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