As part of our ongoing discussion of issues of equity in contemporary academia, LGM is proud to present this guest post from longtime friend of the blog Carrie Shanafelt, a scholar of 18th century literature currently teaching at Grinnell College. Enjoy!
I began teaching college courses 14 years ago, which, considering I’m only 35, might sound impressive to anyone unfamiliar with 21st-century academic employment practices. Those first classes were a supervised part of my MA. But in 2003, when I moved to New York City for a doctoral program (in which fellowships were at that time reserved for second-years and above), I found employment as a genuine adjunct instructor, making $2500 per course. I was 23 years old, without a day of PhD coursework, and little more than a 100-page thesis to my name. The hiring process consisted of a walking conversation with an associate professor as she grabbed a coffee between classes. While many of the people who are hired this way might be perfectly qualified to teach college, I certainly wasn’t.
Compare this to the process by which tenure-track hires are made. Hundreds of applicants, most with PhD in hand and many with multiple publications, send extensive dossiers to committees who agonize for months over long lists and short lists, interviewing and re-interviewing at conferences and on campus, making offers, negotiating terms, and, finally, hopefully, creating a professional home for this person in whom they have already invested a year of work and imagination. Committees and applicants alike keep Tums in business as they make and announce heartbreaking, life-altering decisions.
For the freshman composition student, though, the outcome of both of these methods is the same. Her transcript will not indicate which of her instructors is finishing a third book, and which one scavenges for food on the way home. She will go from one classroom to the next mostly unaware of the difference, calling everyone “professor” no matter how they introduce themselves. Instructors are distinguishable to her because they are boring, funny, intimidating, helpful, or demanding—not because of the conditions under which they were hired.
It is tempting to chalk the adjunctification of college and university faculty up to money alone. That is, of course, what administrations always offer as the reason, so there can be no more discussion about it. Since that first adjunct position of mine in 2003, I began to feel that something didn’t add up. None of my new colleagues spoke to me as if I were a junior professional working my way through the tough lean days of youth. Most of them spoke to me, if at all, like I was a dog.
It wasn’t true at every college, or in the same amount from every colleague, but the harassment I experienced as an adjunct wouldn’t have been tolerated in any other workplace. I was mocked for my lack of familiarity with upper-class New York life, quizzed about my sexuality, sneered at that I must be wasting my students’ time. I learned to regret reporting academic dishonesty or threats of violence. My students called me “professor” out of habit, though I begged them to call me “Carrie,” because I knew how much it irritated my colleagues to hear that title conferred on someone like me.
The first possibility I considered, in tears on the subway, was that I was obviously and unusually stupid. I asked around, and discovered that other first-year adjuncts at certain schools were enduring similar harassment from senior colleagues. I heard about blatant racism, sexism, and transphobia, but mostly just a fog of contempt that seemed to follow adjuncts everywhere. If we’re so underqualified to participate in this glorious career for elegant intellectuals, I thought, then why did they hire us? You could throw a rock in Park Slope and hit five PhDs with publications. Why hire starving MAs and then mock them for being hungry?
Whenever one encounters a pack of sadists, it’s a good idea to back up and look at the institution that encases them. There they always are, right in the middle, squeezed by increasing demands from above, shoved sweatily down onto an underclass of hopeless, helpless, undignified workers. That underclass is not just the product of administrative corner-cutting or fiscal belt-tightening; it’s a management strategy to keep the faculty divided against one another.
When I was an adjunct, I had to suppress my rage whenever an assistant professor complained about assembling a tenure file, revising an article, or applying for conference reimbursement. I was sick to my stomach to hear associate professors complain about having to serve on curriculum committee or meet with advisees. My academic aspirations were not limited to mere survival. I was desperately jealous of my senior colleagues’ worst problems.
I didn’t realize at the time that their joylessness wasn’t just bourgeois ennui; it was as surprisingly bitter to them as it was to me. They really had once been young, and had fantasized about how great it would be to one day do the job of a college professor. But, at colleges and universities that heavily depend on adjunct labor for long-term teaching needs, the job of the tenure-track or tenured professor becomes ridiculously hard. Someone has to advise all of the students, sit on committees, chair the departments, review the curriculum, report to administrators, and—most time-consuming of all—hire, train, and supervise those always-already-fired adjuncts, some of whom are bumptious naifs (just me?) who seem to think an MA qualifies them to the same title as a career scholar. But what scholarship can get done with all those adjuncts to supervise?
I don’t want to excuse or explain away unprofessional sadism in academia. What I’m arguing is that sadism is not an accident or a byproduct; it is what perpetuates the two-tier system that is destroying colleges and universities. In this excellent Chronicle essay, Jordan Schneider urges tenured and tenure-track faculty to join adjuncts in the fight for bigger, longer contracts—not out of altruism or even solidarity, but out of self-interest. A larger, more secure, better-fed faculty has more power in shared governance. They attract more qualified colleagues who don’t require constant supervision. They confidently share advisement responsibilities and collaborate on research and teaching. And best of all, they might, on good days, wake up feeling glad to be professors.
Currently, I’m in what might be considered the growing middle tier of academic employment, something like the role Schneider suggests for non-tenure-track faculty. I was hired in an open, national call, and gave a formal talk on my current research during a campus visit. My contract is renewed, with review, a few years at a time, as the need is not predictable or permanent, but I have a decent salary with benefits, the same course load as my tenure-track colleagues, and support for my conference travel and research. I don’t have advisory responsibilities, but I also don’t get a research leave. I sit on committees and support extracurricular activities as I have time and interest. But most importantly, I have a vote and I have dignity, because my colleagues see me as a peer.
The creation of the vast academic underclass is so often blamed on too many people going to graduate school, as if we are expected to reenact the climax of Jude the Obscure, and leave a note behind: “Done because we are too menny.” It is absurd to declare that there is no demand for college instruction when we have 23-year-old MAs teaching ten huge courses in a year. The problem is that many colleges and universities have ceased to treat the instruction of college courses as a profession worth supporting with a living wage. Fixing that might even help senior colleagues to remember who they dreamed of becoming when they applied to graduate school.