Going adjunct

When all the postal workers have been sedated and locked away, will adjunct professors follow in their gun-powdered footsteps?

Topics: Academia, College, Books,

I first noticed my symptoms two years ago. It was January and I was
running a slight temperature. I’d backed out of a visit to my in-laws in
order to attend the American Historical Association conference in New York
City. Hundreds of academics crowded the lobby of the mid-town Hyatt.
Earlier that week, I’d learned that I’d been bumped from one of the
classes assigned to me for the next semester in favor of a full-time
professor. As the day progressed, I grew more and more fever-addled.
Around me milled groups of graduate students in a miasma of anxiety and
halitosis, while the professors schmoozed happily, already anticipating
next year’s shindig in Seattle. By Day 2, as I slouched in my seat
listening to a talk on war memorials, I found myself daydreaming about
blowing up the hotel.

Help! I thought. What’s going on here? My analyst had no advice.
She’d never heard of such a thing, doubted it was in the literature. I
felt ashamed and tried to keep my sick fantasy to myself, unnerved by the
image of mayhem lurking within my fevered brain.

But the urge to confess was too great. My friend Jonathan Skolnik came
to my rescue. “It’s called ‘going adjunct,’” he told me: homicidal
impulses directed at the academic profession. He cited an incident in New
York’s public school system, in which a beleaguered substitute teacher
became unglued and started hurling chairs at the wall. Perfectly normal,
he assured me. I felt instantly better.

But my symptoms didn’t go away. As I studied the job listings in the
Chronicle of Higher Education I found myself contemplating scenes of
bloodcurdling violence, followed by cheerful scenes in which fellow
adjuncts fed me cupcakes and made toasts in my honor. Hundreds of
tenured faculty gone! Yikes! I needed help and fast.

I talked to some of my fellow adjuncts, hoping they could tell me
something, anything, to reassure me. But they only seemed to agree that it
was just a matter of time before adjuncts replaced postal workers as
symbols of downtrodden, disgruntled laborers.

- – - – - – - – - -

The life of an adjunct is dismal indeed, as anyone who’s experienced
it can tell you. The worst part, according to Columbia grad student
Patrick Young, is the rude discovery that one is in a dead-end rather than
an entry-level job. Over the past two years Young has held down jobs at five
different institutions while working toward his Ph.D. in history. His
toughest days have included shuttling between three different campuses
spread over two of New York City’s boroughs. Young says he’s reached the
point where he feels more like a menial laborer than someone following a
linear professional path.

“The whole idea that you’d be that transient is so antithetical to the
idea of the engaged teacher,” says Young. Between bad pay and lack of
benefits and office space, Young is reminded on a daily basis of his
status as second-class citizen. Some of the most destructive aspects of
this existence are less easy to define. Confronted with the apathy of
academic departments, he says, most adjuncts have little choice but to
internalize their resentments endlessly. “The level of cynicism is
harrowing,” says Young. I ask what he means. He explains, “There’s a
constant temptation to avoid working hard because you’re simply
participating in your own exploitation.”

Hunter College adjunct lecturer Barbara Desmond has toiled for five
years in Hunter’s English department, where she describes working
conditions so crowded that one colleague sometimes uses the bathroom to
prepare for classes. Other disincentives include not being paid for
preparation time or to hold office hours; with classes of up to 35
students, this can add up. Desmond discounts the possibility that being an
adjunct has affected her performance; though conditions outside the
classroom are bleak, she claims that, in the end, her cynicism has been
short-circuited by her classroom experiences. Yet she tells me that in
her spare time she’s writing a script called “The Adjunct,” a horror movie
about an unstable part-timer who one day decides she’s had enough and
“goes adjunct.” “Kathy Bates would be perfect for the part,” says Desmond
a bit wistfully.

Tim Coogan is another denizen of this brave new world of academic
nomadism. He works as an adjunct lecturer at three schools in the New York
metropolitan area: Rutgers University, LaGuardia Community College and
Cooper Union. Last year he taught a total of 18 classes, ranging from U.S.
history and Western civilization to the history of technology and labor history.
In the past he’s also taught introduction to sociology, the history of
minorities and the history of New York City. He’s been doing this for 15
years and claims that he’s taught at every school in the greater New York area,
with the exception of Columbia and the New School.

Hired as much for their willingness to work for low wages and no
benefits as for their expertise in English composition or American
history, adjunct teachers have become an integral part of the new
market-driven university system. According to the National Adjunct
Faculty Guild, there are currently 400,000 adjunct, part-time and
full-time temporary college educators in the United States. Approximately
40 percent of the country’s total academic work force, in other words, is treated
as temporary labor — roughly double the 1970 figure. The reasons
for this expansion are complex — according to a report recently released
by the Modern Language Association, they have something to do with the end
of the nation’s Cold War-era educational funding system.

It’s no secret that schools balance their books with part-time
teachers. Downsizing and flexibility have become the mantras of academic
administrators. In the past, an implicit trade-off was assumed: In return
for providing cheap labor, graduate students and recent Ph.D.s could get
classroom experience that prepared them for life as members of the
professoriate. With the current crisis of oversupply, however, more and
more find themselves joining a new academic proletariat.

For the current crop of Ph.D.s, the glad tidings of generational change
have turned sour. The anticipated faculty turnover of the 1990s has
failed to materialize. Tenured professors tenaciously defend their closed,
guildlike world from the challenges of administrators and public
officials. Academic superstars, who nowadays easily command six-figure
salaries, often refuse to teach introductory level courses, which creates
an increasing demand for part-timers.

With declining budgets and escalating costs, overproduction of Ph.D.s
and an embattled professoriate clinging to its privileges, no one is
predicting changes any time soon. As NAFG executive director Patricia Lesko
puts it, “What would prompt college administrations to change their basic
employment practices?”

The problems are too “structural,” says part-time faculty advocate
Karen Thompson. When she’s not teaching English classes, Thompson
works as president of Rutgers University’s part-time chapter of the
American Association of University Professors. She stresses that academic
labor should be seen within the larger context of economic restructuring in which
new forms of contingent work are becoming the norm.

“Higher education is increasingly being transformed into a kind of
vocational training system,” she says. In the new information economy,
educators will continue to play an important role, maintains Thompson, but
an increasing number will do so as migrant workers. The ramifications are
already being felt at every level of the
higher education system: by an increasingly demoralized part-time
work force; by full-timers, whose own bargaining position is undercut by
the existence of this large reserve force; and by students, who are
inevitably shortchanged by the system.

I did manage to find a small glimmer of hope amid the ruinous
statistics. Over the past five years, I learned, NAFG and other
organizations like it have made “academic labor” one of the hottest topics
on campus. Efforts at organizing have injected a new militancy into the
hushed groves of academia. Though small, the tangible gains of these
developments are not entirely negligible. Thompson cites the granting of
recent concessions at CUNY, including better pay and pro-rated health

But who can launch a movement, when you’re teaching four, five,
sometimes even more classes, often at more than one school, while trying
to finish a dissertation? Organizing also assumes a degree of
identification with one’s status that many are not ready to make. “Having
gone into adjunct teaching thinking it was a transitional phase,” Desmond
says, “I didn’t want to accept this as what I’m doing with my life, and
don’t want to have to defend it.”

Each conversation was confirming my worst fears about my future. By the
time I met Tim Coogan for coffee, I was thinking about a new career. He
seemed to read my mind. “It’s easy,” he nodded, “to get frustrated by the
sense that the profession has not made good on its promises. I know my
Marxism and my labor history, and I know I’m being super-exploited.”

Yet Coogan himself does not fit easily into the
adjunct-as-object-of-pathos mold.
Wiry, bearded and bespectacled, he exudes fearlessness. His is a
situation most would find singularly unappealing. Yet he’s managed to
carve out an enviable existence at the margins of academia. He ticks off
some basic facts: at around $3,000 a class (for up to 18 classes a year) he
makes as much as an associate professor. At Rutgers, where he’s
taught for more than 10 years, he has an office and is on the pension plan. He
also gets medical benefits from LaGuardia. And he gets to live in New York
City, a major plus.

“In the hierarchy of adjunctification,” Coogan says with a certain
sang-froid, “I’m at the top.” He publishes occasionally, thus escaping
the condescension that many adjuncts say they feel from full-time

Doesn’t he
ever find his situation depressing? Coogan admits that his career
trajectory has taken him down some strange byways. For instance, he’s
taught murderers and rapists at Riker’s Island, where New York’s Department of
Corrections maintains an educational outreach program. But Coogan says that he ultimately found the experience tremendously
rewarding. His inmate-students sent him a Christmas card at the end of
the semester.

Coogan seeks such challenges out. Not only do they pay well, but he’s
generally given carte blanche. He’s the hired gun,
the one who’s brought in to take the job when no one else would dare.
Indeed, Coogan finds hidden benefits to his situation. “In some ways,” he
points out, “I’m liberated from the tedium of academic life.” He
gets his pick of classes, and best of all, he never has to
attend departmental meetings, the bane of every professor’s existence.

He’s seen lots of his friends move on, and concedes that his life is
not for the fainthearted. Yet he himself still has energy to spare, a
fact he attributes to the pleasures of the classroom. Despite the
obvious drawbacks, Coogan says, “I can live with being an adjunct.” As he
rushed off to catch the subway to yet another class, I had to admit that
anything, even the subway, sounded better than a departmental meeting.

I wasn’t a violent person; I wouldn’t harm a fly, much less a professor.
Anyway, I mused, they already had plenty to worry about. I’d seen the future, and it
wasn’t pretty, but neither
was it completely discouraging. One day, when tenure is finally
demolished, academic cowboys like Coogan — smart, resourceful and
independent — will be the ones who thrive. Only the truly brave
will apply to graduate school in the first place, and they’ll wear the badge of
adjuncthood with pride.

Andreas Killen is a happily underemployed historian and new father living in New York. Any job offers should be forwarded to him care of Salon.

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