"In many disciplines, for the majority of graduates, the Ph.D. indicates the logical conclusion of an academic career." Marc Bousquet

Monday, April 18, 2011

Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here

Over at Tenured Radical today, there's a post offering up TR's advice to adjuncts for surviving adjuncthood. It's mostly sound advice (e.g. finish your dissertation if you're still ABD, stay out of student politics, continue working on your research if you have your degree). Regarding adjuncts' career prospects, TR also sagely advises adjuncts to be wary of senior colleagues who tell them there is soon to be a tenure-track line opening up in their field and that they are ideally positioned for it (idealistic bullshit, of course, to make everyone feel better about a bad situation) and suggests broadening horizons when it comes to what kind of work in academia you're willing to do (e.g. consider admin positions) to get off the adjunct track.

However, what TR understates -- as do many on the tenure track who offer well-meaning advice but have difficulty putting themselves in the shoes of an adjunct -- is that no one on the adjunct track wants to be there permanently. No one sets out to make a career of being an adjunct. And very few people currently on the adjunct track are not seeking an exit -- that is, unless they have unusual life circumstances (e.g. a wealthy partner or spouse who makes it possible for them to teach for the love of teaching).

Yet, the reality is that very few of those currently employed as adjuncts will ever find tenure-track employment. They'll stick around until they can no longer stand it or afford it -- or until they finally realize it's a dead-end -- and they'll move on, after they've already given away too many years of their lives to thankless administrations.

Now, to be fair, TR would probably say, "Well, of course, of course. No one wants to be stuck on the adjunct track, but contingency has become the new normal. Adjuncts should find ways of dealing with their lot without losing their sanity and while doing everything they possibly can to make themselves the best possible candidates for those few positions that do come up."

Except that this advice, as sane as it sounds, only holds up under the premise of hope. You've got to hold out hope that you've got a reasonable shot at something better in order to put up with the shitte that is your current lot as an adjunct. But the odds are against you. Even if you landed a VAP this year, the odds are greater that you'll be back to adjuncting again next year rather than working on the tenure track.

What TR misses is that if you're an adjunct, hope is not your friend.

Indeed, your exploiters are benefiting from your hope because your hope is preventing you from seeing the reality that you most likely will never leave the adjunct track for the tenure track. Instead of walking away and finding something else to do with your life, you are bound by hope to stick it out. And as long as y'all are willing to stick it out and sacrifice yourselves for hope, well, the powers-that-be will be happy to continue exploiting you, and the system will never change.

But start walking away in large enough numbers, and it will have to change, as I've been saying for a while now...

Rather than figuring out how to survive, the question you should be asking yourself if you're currently an adjunct is the following: "If I could look into a crystal ball and see that -- no matter how hard I worked, no matter how much I published, no matter how well I networked -- I'd never get off the adjunct track, how long would I be willing to stay on it?"

What would your answer be? One year? Two years? Five years? Ten years? What the hell are you waiting for? The odds are against you, and TR's current advice, though it might help you survive today, won't help you in the long run.

The question you should be asking yourself if you're on the tenure track and would like to offer some helpful advice to adjuncts you know or who work in your department is the following: "If I could have looked into a crystal ball and seen that I would never land the tenure-track job I have now, how long would I have been willing to work as an adjunct?" Asking yourself this question before offering advice will give you some perspective. However bad the job market was when you did your search, it's exponentially worse now. Don't encourage anyone to believe otherwise -- or to believe that working harder, making great personal sacrifices, and surviving within the system long enough will ultimately lead to better results. It won't. If you're an adjunct, you have no control over your fate. Period. You can leave, and that's about it.

Good people like this, with book contracts and outstanding teaching records, can't get off the adjunct track and are punishing themselves with the false hope they've internalized that does nothing but perpetuate the system. For crap's sake!

So, what is the point of my rant today? Adjuncts, be wary of advice that is premised on hope -- no matter how well-intentioned. I remain a loyal reader of Tenured Radical and respect her for always speaking up on behalf of contingent faculty -- and for having the courage to talk about problems with the system that many  in her position are unwilling to talk about. But this particular offering of advice is not radical enough.

Adjuncts, you are living in the Ivory Tower's equivalent of hell . Abandon the hope that's preventing you from clearly seeing and evaluating your choices. Without much hope for something better, why the heck are you staying?


  1. I hated TR's advice because it seems to presume that if I just do a little bit more, work a little bit harder, get another job offer, someone somewhere will decide stop exploiting me. Even as the article begins by effectively throwing up the hands and saying, "Well! I guess adjuncting is here to stay!" Are you kidding me? And at what point is apparently sage and well-meaning advice a simple act of complicity in an inhumane system??

  2. The more I've thinking about her post since I put this response up the more irritated I've been getting. I was trying to give her the benefit of the doubt because I do think the advice is well meant, which is a lot more than we get from a lot of people in her position...but, yeah, the implication is that adjuncting is the new normal and that we should all just get used to it and not even be angry.

    That's what's really been bothering me the most since I put this post up and didn't even mention that particular item on her list.

    That we should just suck it up and NOT BE ANGRY!!!???

    Right. Well, you already know that my answer is to walk away.

    I think it says something, too, about who has power to control this conversation that I did not find myself able to post a comment over at her place -- yet another blog that I read yet where I cannot comment...

    (thanks for stopping by, BTW. you were one of the bloggers I'd been following for a while whose story helped me decide to jump the adjunct ship before the nonacademic shore started to seem unreachably far away -- and to start my own blog)

  3. You cannot presume to dictate my inner life from a position of power and privilege and then tell me I lack perspective when I object. All things considered, the moniker "tenured radical" is starting to look pretty ironic.

    And hello! I put you in my feed a while ago but I've been so swamped I'm hardly commenting on anybody. And glad you're moving in a positive direction. :)