The Adjunct Underclass: How America's Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission

The Adjunct Underclass: How America's Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission

by Herb Childress

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Class ends. Students pack up and head back to their dorms. The professor, meanwhile, goes to her car . . . to catch a little sleep, and then eat a cheeseburger in her lap before driving across the city to a different university to teach another, wholly different class. All for a paycheck that, once prep and grading are factored in, barely reaches minimum wage.
Welcome to the life of the mind in the gig economy. Over the past few decades, the job of college professor has been utterly transformed—for the worse. America’s colleges and universities were designed to serve students and create knowledge through the teaching, research, and stability that come with the longevity of tenured faculty, but higher education today is dominated by adjuncts. In 1975, only thirty percent of faculty held temporary or part-time positions. By 2011, as universities faced both a decrease in public support and ballooning administrative costs, that number topped fifty percent. Now, some surveys suggest that as many as seventy percent of American professors are working course-to-course, with few benefits, little to no security, and extremely low pay.
In The Adjunct Underclass, Herb Childress draws on his own firsthand experience and that of other adjuncts to tell the story of how higher education reached this sorry state. Pinpointing numerous forces within and beyond higher ed that have driven this shift, he shows us the damage wrought by contingency, not only on the adjunct faculty themselves, but also on students, the permanent faculty and administration, and the nation. How can we say that we value higher education when we treat educators like desperate day laborers?
Measured but passionate, rooted in facts but sure to shock, The Adjunct Underclass reveals the conflicting values, strangled resources, and competing goals that have fundamentally changed our idea of what college should be. This book is a call to arms for anyone who believes that strong colleges are vital to society.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226496832
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/29/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 985,220
File size: 661 KB

About the Author

Herb Childress is a partner at Teleidoscope Group, LLC, an ethnography-based consulting firm. Until 2013, he was dean of research and assessment at the Boston Architectural College, and prior to that, he was a Mellon Lecturing Fellow and associate director of the University Writing Program at Duke University. He is the author of Landscapes of Betrayal, Landscapes of Joy: Curtisville in the Lives of Its Teenagers and The PhDictionary: A Glossary of Things You Don’t Know (but Should) about Doctoral and Faculty Life.

Read an Excerpt



It's easy to picture colleges and universities as bastions of stability, as resolute lighthouses of knowledge standing in the face of stormy seas. We think of the ivy-covered walls, the tweed-jacketed professor in his indeterminate fifties and sixties looking out his office window overlooking Old Quad as the freshmen toss a Frisbee around. His tenure protections make things stable, as does the physical investment in that real estate, an immovable campus in place for decades or centuries, the oldest buildings on the oldest landscape in town. Ohio State and Michigan have had their football rivalry forever, as have Cal and Stanford, Army and Navy, Texas and Oklahoma. The mascots and the color schemes and the classroom seats and the faculty lines are eternal, even as generations of inhabitants pass through them, individually anonymous as they enact their assigned role in the enterprise.

If colleges were as constant as we imagine, we'd start to see what we might call a mature ecosystem, named species fulfilling predictable roles. We'd have students in their dorms, and dorm mothers supervising curfew. We'd have faculty in the faculty senate, speaking in genteel Robert's Rules opposition to the deans and provost and president, the executive and legislative branches of government in a genial, perpetual balance of power. We'd have a handful of invisible supporters — bookkeepers and groundskeepers and cooks, all working behind the scenes to smooth the operation. We'd have witty sophomores making sophomoric jokes in the campus paper, and the dean of students and head of campus police shaking their heads in wry appreciation of the ingenuity of pranks, of beer kegs snuck through the gates. The founder's statue would be found, the morning after homecoming, in the president's parking spot, painted in the opposing team's colors.

A quick visit to any college will feel like a historical reenactment, the past lovingly restored and maintained for daily use. But once we go beneath the surface, we discover an ecosystem and mix of species entirely unlike what we might have expected. We find some faculty who don't teach, and some baseball coaches who do. We find a tuition that varies almost from student to student, after financial aid and merit awards and adjustments for part-time status and tuition differentials for popular majors. We find offices that blend functions that used to belong separately to student services and academic services: tutoring centers, undergraduate research programs, study-abroad programs, women's centers, international student centers, and LGBTQ+ centers. We find a bewildering array of quasi-independent research centers, institutes, and public/private partnerships. We find that an extraordinary number of students have transferred into the school or will transfer out, putting pressure on the admissions office to navigate transcripts, and equal pressure on the faculty to make their curricula more or less like everybody else's. We find a ubiquity and constant upgrade of technology.

And, if we ask around, we'll find a significant cohort of teachers and researchers who don't really work there.

I taught as an adjunct from 2009 to 2013. At [community college], I taught first-year seminar and English comp, for $3,200 for a 3-credit course. Those courses had ten to fifteen students each. At [private, not very selective college], World Literature and Writing 1, for about $2,000. Those courses were capped at twenty-three. I tried to teach six courses per semester across both schools at once, plus a couple more in the summer.

Helen sat across from me in the empty lounge at a writers' conference, where she'd responded to my posting to talk about adjunct life. We talked for twenty minutes, and she seemed to get smaller and smaller as she sunk back into the chair, reliving those years in her recent past.

It was just a huge amount of reading. I was married, didn't have my child yet, and my husband was a medical resident, so he was never around. I was driving an hour or more to get to each school. I was new to the area, I didn't know people, and my husband wasn't around. So I taught, did admissions reading for [elite research university], tutoring, freelancing for a tiny little newspaper. ... I was just cobbling a lot together. And the money was a meaningful part of our family income, so I really had to do it.

Let's think about what all of this entails. Helen was teaching writing-intensive courses to more than a hundred students each semester, with at least four distinct course types each week, which means she was reading and marking up a hundred essays a week across four different topical areas. There's no way to do that much work in less than sixty hours a week, likely more. With pre-semester course preparation and post-semester grading, the fifteen-week semester becomes an unacknowledged and only partly compensated twenty.

Helen lived fifty miles from one school in one state, and sixty miles from the other school in another state, in an apartment at the middle, near the university hospital where her husband worked. She was on each campus three times a week for each course, and the school wasn't scheduling around her convenience, so she was easily driving five or six hundred miles a week, ten thousand miles a semester.

Even with her graduate degree in English, she had little input into the courses she taught, all designed by others to meet larger curricular goals that she never knew.

With all that teaching, grading, and driving, there wouldn't have been enough time to hold office hours on either campus, though the absence of an office made that possibility moot anyway. So all of the betweenc-lass contact with students, the casual coaching that shifts confusion into possibility, took place through e-mail. Each of what could have been brief conversations became a series of carefully crafted writing projects of their own, adding more time to the week.

For all that, she made about thirty grand a year, with no contribution to health care or retirement, no provision of computer or software. It was a stipend that required her to find even more pickup jobs, reading admissions essays, working in a tutoring center, and writing news features.

This is not a recipe for the attentive, patient mentoring of young minds. These are not working conditions that allow for either student or instructor to explore promising side roads, to make false starts that later pay off in surprising ways. This is simply the provision of a product at lowest cost.

Every year, the nearly five thousand colleges around the country send out glossy brochures to anxious high school juniors and seniors in an effort to lure some fraction of them to their institution. They feature photographs of their most beautiful undergraduates on the most beautiful corner of the quad, photographs of those same beautiful students standing one-on-one beside their most attractive faculty in a laboratory. The best features of the institution's surrounding landscape — mountains or forests or urban hipster coffee shops — are prominent. If there's snow in any photo, someone is skiing on it, not slipping across it in a parka with an armload of books.

These documents are obviously sales tools, like the dealer's brochure for the Toyota Camry or the Ford F-150. And just as those brochures never show the less appealing aspects of car ownership — cars idling in big-city commutes, or drivers idling in line at the DMV — there are things about the college experience that are never included in the recruitment material. For example, the highly selective research university ... the one for stellar students, the one with the world-class faculty ... won't tell you that your daughter's early courses in academic writing, mathematics, and world languages will almost certainly be taught by someone other than a permanent faculty member.

The brochures from the innumerable lesser-tier schools, the ones that promise upward mobility and access to careers, won't tell you that the majority of your son's faculty will be temp workers. They won't tell you that six, or eight, or even all ten of his first-year courses will be taught by adjunct instructors. They also won't talk much about the related facts that your son will be only 75 percent likely to begin his second year, maybe 50 percent or less likely to graduate. Maybe, at the schools most reliant on temp faculty, a lot less likely.

Any college is a significant business enterprise, with photogenic buildings and grounds, high-performance computing systems, extensive athletic programs, helpful staff in accounting and food service and financial aid, even the advertising team that produces the lovely brochures: expenses that are permanent and unchanging, and easy to market to eager families. The paradox is that the most basic, fundamental feature of college — young people learning from serious thinkers — is the least stable business element, subject to last–minute ad hoc decisions.

There are innumerable terms in use for the vast army of temp labor within higher ed — adjunct faculty, part-time lecturer, visiting scholar, postdoctoral fellow, professor of the practice, artist in residence. They all mask the unified underlying condition: working course-by-course or year-by-year, with no guarantee of permanence, often for embarrassingly small stipends, and often for no benefits. The polite language makes the facts harder to see, so let's state it simply: College teaching has become primarily a pickup job, like driving for Uber or running chores for TaskRabbit.


Just as there are a million part-time college faculty in America, there are a million stories of contingent life. All you have to do is run a Google search using "adjunct," "postdoc," or "contingent" as the first term, and "working conditions," "crisis," or "abuse" as the second term.

Maybe you've read some of those stories. "There is no excuse for how universities treat adjuncts," says The Atlantic. "The disposable academic," says The Economist. The Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California, Berkeley, has found that 25 percent of all part-time college faculty are enrolled in some form of public assistance. But let's get specific.

In fall 2013, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported the death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, who died at the age of eighty-three from cancer she could not afford to treat. She died at her home, for which she could not afford electricity. She had taught French at Duquesne University for twenty-five years, never making more than twenty thousand dollars a year for her six or more courses, and never receiving health benefits or retirement contributions.

In fall 2017 the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Ellen Tara James-Penney, a professor of English at San Jose State University, slept in her car while teaching her four courses per semester.

After class, James-Penney said she often drives to a parking lot to grade papers. When it's dark, she'll use a headlamp from Home Depot so she can continue her work. At night, she'll re-park in a residential neighborhood and sleep in her 2004 Volvo. She keeps the car neat to avoid suspicion.

A month later, the Guardian upped the ante, with a story of a "middle-aged" adjunct who's turned to sex work to augment her insufficient piecework income.

She first opted for her side gig during a particularly rough patch, several years ago, when her course load was suddenly cut in half and her income plunged, putting her on the brink of eviction. "In my mind I was like, I've had one-night stands, how bad can it be?" she said. "And it wasn't that bad."

The stories are all around us, maybe parked at the end of your street. Throughout this book I'll add to them, for all the good it does.

Here, for instance, is the story of Niccole, who was raised in France, achieving both an MBA in finance and a doctorate in art history from prestigious schools. At twenty-four, she was on the fast track to intellectual success — major curatorial publications on two continents in two languages within the first year after her dissertation. I heard her joy in the work within moments of starting our conversation.

This is a life investigation, it's my way of being. I've always worked hard. I love to teach, to have the conversations. I really like being in the classroom.

But she came to the United States with her American husband so that he could go to graduate school in New York City, and the wheels came off.

I was hired by a friend as a full-timer in design at [a private college] in New York. Other teachers there were from Harvard, Columbia. But the school went bankrupt. So I started at [another private design college in a different state, a four-hour train ride away] part time in 2006, also at [local community college] part time, summer classes at [major research university]. Also, I had a job training horses and teaching riding. So I had a full-time and two-part time jobs.

Along with that, I've been curating art shows, and teaching private seminars through my museum contacts. I was teaching part-time for [another research university] in their continuing education program, doing art history seminars for wealthy collectors. They said to me, "This is crazy, we're paying them a fortune and they're paying you nothing." So now I give private seminars at people's homes, and I get paid five times as much as I did by the university.

[An internationally renowned museum's] director of membership heard a lecture that I gave; she liked it a lot, and so now I do lectures for them occasionally when a curator isn't available. And I got a call to pick up a class two weeks before the semester started at [lower-tier state school]. I taught one course in the fall, two now in the spring, and will have two or three next fall.

This is what faculty life looks like now. In the car, on the bus, on the train, always wondering whether the next semester will be fertile or dry. Living in hope about the promises that are made to keep everyone quiet.

At [the distant design school], I commuted there for ten years. I maxed out as a part-timer, taught the maximum number of credits. I told them I wanted a full-time position, and they told me there was no money to create that; so I quit in summer 2016, after ten years. Then they got the money to create the tenure-track position, and I've applied. [At the current low-ranked state school], there may be a tenure-track line ahead. ...

Niccole is still positioning herself for a permanent faculty job, though she knows her sell-by date has long expired and her elite dissertation research is fifteen years in the past. But even though that hope endures, she's increasingly clear-eyed about her future, and what she sees as the future of the institutions for which she works.

Getting part-time jobs is easy, but real jobs all go to people with political links within the departments. There's a real catch-22 for publishing when you're an adjunct. You have to travel to do your research, to go to archives; you have to travel for conferences; but instead you take summer jobs. There's no time and no money to publish. I'm already middle-aged; I need to start functioning in a different world.

I don't believe that universities will ultimately need tenured faculty. I had students who asked me about going on to PhD programs, and I always dissuaded them from doing it. My generation is being sacrificed, being crucified for the decisions made by others. There's no value placed on the PhD, and I always discouraged my students from doing it. If you need it for your own intellectual life, and you're independently wealthy, then fine, go for it. But otherwise, forget about it, right away.

The part of tuition that goes to professors is ridiculous. Students may pay a total tuition of $6,000 per class, and you get $100. What else are you in university for, but to take classes from professors? The majority of the tuition should go to that. With a PhD, whatever ways to express yourself get no money. You publish, you get 10 percent of that. You teach, you get a tiny percentage of that. The work is an accumulation of undervalue of your production. And this is the compact we've agreed to, that's commonly accepted. We spend ten years doing research, and we get a fraction of what people make for half of the preparation.

Maybe it's good that the system is coming to a crash.


Here's another story. A friend of mine, Jane, took a job teaching one master's-level course at a school in New York City while also teaching in Boston, reading student papers on the Bolt bus four hours each way, staying overnight on her mom's couch in New York (at age sixty, she was really beyond the age when an accomplished scholar with a PhD should be sleeping on Mom's couch). The New York school had a unionized faculty, and the union had negotiated pay for adjuncts as well, with levels based on credit hours of teaching experience. So when Jane got the contract, her years of teaching translated to a pay rate of a little over eighty dollars an hour. That sounds pretty terrific, but it wasn't. Let's explore how eighty dollars an hour works out to be less than minimum wage.


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Table of Contents

Notes on Interview Confidentiality 

Preface: This Is How You Kill a Profession

1. What the Brochures Don't Tell You
2. The Permanent and the Contingent
3. Bronze, Silver, Gold, or Platinum
4. Building the Contingent Workforce
5. If We Don't Pay Teachers, Why Is My Tuition So High?
6. The Comforts of Those inside the Castle
7. Hapless Bystanders
8. What to Do?

Aftermath: Life in Exile

Appendix A. Tracking the Elements of Culture Change
Appendix B. The Academic Career Calibration Protocol


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