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

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

"A" os for ... Academe, Adjunct, Adviser, Absurdity

In case you haven't heard, a new movement among adjuncts has arisen to raise awareness, assuming a bright, vermilion letter "A" as its new symbol. You can read about it at the Chronicle here:
A red “A” signifies that you are an adjunct, some other contingent faculty member, or that you sympathize with contingent faculty members. The idea is to signify some level of unification and to spread awareness. Imagine if a student sees more and more red letters on faculty doors. The student may even see a room full of letters, or letters mysteriously attached to hallway desks (because there is no office or door). Eventually, a student is going to ask someone what it means.
If I were still adjuncting, I'd have that "A" on my door (of the office I shared with 5 other adjuncts). I'd put it on a t-shirt. I'd have it on a bag I carried student papers around in. Heck, I might even put it on my syllabi, next to the rest of the alphabet soup after my name.

Needless to say, I think this is a great idea for raising awareness. Most students really have no clue about the differences in status among their "professors." They know a TA is not a professor, and that's about it. They certainly have no idea what an adjunct is nor why they should care.

I do wonder how far it will go or whether those who speak up and take this symbolic action and have the courage to answer students' questions will not be censored by those who see a threat to their own status. As one commenter puts it over at the Chronicle:
To engage in free speech you have to have tenure. Adjuncts don't have tenure or any of its protections or privileges. They should be very careful, lest the University or College send its thugs, viz., the tenured faculty, to break up their symbolic action.
But, then again, what are they going to do? Fire all the adjuncts? Not hardly. Maybe if just one or two brave souls showed their resistance. But not if the whole adjunct/TA/permatemp workforce did. It'd be a catch-22. Permit them their symbolic action, which embarrasses you, your department, and your institution, or fire them and teach the comp, gen ed, and other classes you think you're too good for.

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The sheer absurdity of self-delusion that permeates academe at all levels has really started to get to me. It's fair to say it's even beginning to poison how I feel about my own "independent scholar" projects. After all, those projects, should they reach publication, would be intended as contributions to to an academic culture that -- while preserving its intellectual integrity for the most part -- is exploiting its workforce, selling its graduate students a false bill of goods, saddling its undergraduates with an increasing burden of debt yet increasingly weakening prospects for employment, and generally telling itself a bunch of lies about the importance of the work it does produce.

This post and the comments following it say volumes. Now, I don't know a whole lot firsthand about how advisers and others writing letters of recommendation for academic job candidates go about their business, but I do recall a post on this same blog about a year ago (I'm too lazy to find it and link) about how search committees looked at letters, especially from advisers, as neither here nor there. As a matter of course, they expected glowing letters. Non-glowing letters might raise a red flag, but, beyond that, a candidate's own materials (and interview, if it got to that stage) mattered a lot more.

Such is slightly absurd, but at least there's some sense to it. Yes, a candidate's own materials SHOULD matter more (even though we are talking about that always ambiguous matter of "fit"), but references of one sort or another are obligatory. Now, however, I am told, that what letters say DOES matter, especially after your first time or two on the market. And not only that, but who writes them at this stage matters more, too. It isn't enough that your adviser, whom you have worked with for 8 years or so, writes you a glowing letter. No, you need other people from outside your grad institution, too. In other words, search committees "like to see that job applicants are networking, conferencing, and reaching beyond their intellectual cradles (so to speak).  It’s a sign of intellectual and professional maturity."

Two things are wrong with this:
  1. This profession takes it as a matter of course that people WILL be trying for MORE THAN TWO YEARS (!) to get a job AFTER they have earned the credentials qualifying them for those jobs.
  2. In order to be out "networking, conferencing, and reaching beyond their intellectual cradles," they need to retain a foothold inside academe. As adjuncts. As postdocs. As VAPs. In other words, the unspoken subtext here reinforces the "privileges" of affiliation. Just stay in the game, and you'll have a better chance next year. Remain complicit and the system may reward you in time (yeah, like, when Hell freezes over for the majority of us). 
So, I guess I'm already at a disadvantage on this year's market. Not only am I on my third try, but I've not been out networking and blah blah blah like I'm supposed to. Sure, I'm going to a conference in March, but I haven't been to one in over a year. Who has the time or the money? Moreover, I know that at least two of my four committee members can speak outstandingly well about "the importance and value of [my] work." There are two non-committee members I could potentially ask, but why bother these people for the 5-6 jobs I'm applying for, which don't even ask for letters with the initial materials?

Oh, the charades are unending .... because, you know, seriously? Most of this "important and valuable" work will end up gathering dust on the library shelves or off in some obscure, institutionally affiliated, password-protected corner of cyberspace devoted to boring-to-anyone-who-doesn't-have-alphabet-soup-after-their-name academic journals. Really? Lives are at stake? Wars will be won and lost? The rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer if this person doesn't get the institutional support of a tenure-track position?

Come on. I'll be the first to say that I find these same dusty tomes worthwhile. They contribute to an ongoing conversation that is itself valuable and important in a "this is humanity trying to figure itself out" sort of way. But really, most of what we do on its own ISN'T important or valuable to anyone outside a very small group of academics -- to the extent that, once we're no longer "still in school," we're supposed to search far and wide for these few people for whom our work IS important and valuable so that they can explain it to search committees who otherwise couldn't figure it out for themselves!!?

This says more about how too many folks on the tenure track see their own work than about the actual work of job candidates.


We. Have. Already. Been. Doing. This. Job. For. Years.

You search committees are fooling yourselves if you think you're doing a service to the profession, the field, or even your own department by believing this process is getting you the very best "fit." For every person you hire, there are a hundred others who could do just as well if not better. Stop wasting your time. Given the number of applications you're getting (that you cannot POSSIBLY sort through with true integrity), you'd do just as well putting all the names in a hat and picking one -- or, hell, pick three or four to interview.

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"A" is also for acquiescence, anger, answers, and action.


  1. Thank you for posting this about the article in the Chronicle entitled” ‘A’ New Adjunct Movement”

    The following sentence in the article that reads “A red “A” signifies that you are an adjunct, some other contingent faculty member, or that you sympathize with contingent faculty members. The idea is to signify some level of unification and to spread awareness.” made me wince. I mean seriously so those who are adjuncts who have red letter A think that this letter means something to be proud of? Seriously?? I can see that it’s a good idea to indicate to the students who is an adjunct and who isn’t. Sure but unfortunately for the rest of the academic community it’s more like an indication that the person with an “A” that it’s an indicator that you’ve got open sore or a sign that you’ve not been able to tenure job and that you’re probably on the job market again. Who are those that give adjuncts ‘A’ deluding?? Themselves clearly.

    Thank you for your thoughts on tenure etc and adjunct status, the hiring process and the hundreds of people who are applying each and every job. It’s downright depressing and I can’t see how much longer it all can last frankly.

  2. I should clarify. The point of the scarlet letter is not to signify that adjuncts are proud of their status but rather to raise awareness about their numbers and working conditins. It isn't that adjuncts personally have open sores on their careers or capabilities but rather to make the rest of the community regonize that the status of adjuncts, how they are treated, is an open and festering sore on our campuses. It SHOULD make people wince.

  3. Well, it makes me wince since I suspect that the net affect of having identified those who are adjuncts is that they become a separate group which can be clearly identified. I don't think that any good will come of the scarlet letter since the true extent to which a department is staffed by adjuncts will be clear to all.

  4. But that's exactly the point! Adjuncts ARE a separate group -- one that's exploited and underpaid. When they're invisible to tenure-track faculty and students, as they mostly are, it's easier to ignore the problems of exploitation of what has become the new faculty majority.

    Besides, nobody's forcing anybody to wear anything. It's a way of drawing attention to a cause. If someone prefers to remain invisible, they have the right to do so.

  5. @anthea, the extent of adjuncthood is most definitely not clear to everyone. I was in a grad department who didn't use adjuncts - they had grad students to do their low-salary teaching for them. I literally did not realize adjuncthood was anything other than "something professionals in other fields do for fun at night every other semester" until I left academia. And I guarantee that undergraduates (who all referred to me as "professor" even though I explicitly told them I was a grad student) have no idea. And for parents? As long as they see ", Ph.D." after their kids' teachers' names, then they'll assume they're "faculty."

    I don't know where I stand on the whole "A" thing (I worry it would invite criticism or even firings), but I support any attempt to get the word out there to the larger world of *who is actually teaching college classes these days.* Because people really don't know.

  6. I guess I can see how somebody might not want to be further stigmatized. As an adjunct, your status is tenuous anyway, and if you don't have other employment options, getting fired for something like this might be a risk you can't afford. And if you're still holding out hope for a tenure-track position and depend on recommendations from people in the department where you're teaching, I can also see not wanting to upset those people.

    But, on the other hand, should we just add, among all the other outrages adjuncts are dealing with, that they don't have freedom of speech, either? That's what tenure is supposed to protect, but, supposedly, what tenure gets you is ACADEMIC freedom of speech -- i.e. you can't get fired for RESEARCH that upsets people. But in the U.S. at least, we're ALL supposed to have basic freedom of speech as a constitutional right.

    It just goes to show how far-gone things are in academe that some adjuncts may feel, justifiably, too intimidated by their tenure-track colleagues to exercise their basic right to free speech and speak openly about the inequities in their workplace.