The Death of an Adjunct
April 8, 2019 9:33 AM   Subscribe

 
The namesake Previously.
posted by Dashy at 9:47 AM on April 8, 2019 [2 favorites]


The recent stories about the rich & famous spending half a million to get their kid into some dumb school like USC really brings home the disparities to me. A college degree is worth millions to some people, but we keep hearing that they just can't afford to expand the tenure track offerings, the only cost effective way is to hire adjuncts. And yet the PhD machine keeps turning out professors with no hope of ever seeing the word "Professor" by their names (much less "Assistant Professor"). This is such a sad story and it hits close to home because I could tell more of them, because you don't go to grad school and not hear about similar things happening to some of the brightest of your cohort.
posted by dis_integration at 9:49 AM on April 8, 2019 [51 favorites]


This is a case where the lack of good professional guidance only compounds the problems of being in a marginalized group. I think most people would have advised her not to give up a tenure-track job until she had another one lined up, and also to widen her geographical scope. (She also really needed to get her dissertation at least in publishable shape the year she was doing the 1-1 at Princeton.) I'm saying this not to criticize her--I'm saying it's a structural problem. It's very hard to crack these institutions as an outsider who isn't deemed suitable for special guidance.

(New York has better health insurance available for the poor than most states. I wonder if there was some reason she was unable to take advantage of it.)
posted by praemunire at 9:52 AM on April 8, 2019 [14 favorites]


.

for her, and many, many other things too.
posted by lalochezia at 9:53 AM on April 8, 2019 [3 favorites]


.
posted by ChuraChura at 9:53 AM on April 8, 2019 [2 favorites]


I fucking hate the brutality of literally everything in the country. Thea was a victim of all of it. The racism, the hour long commute, the splintered social support, the lack of health care access, the exploitation by an employer (in the business of trying to do good but crippled by capitalism’s refusal to fund it, because, you know, what’s it gonna do for me?). As a signal for how far off the rails the human race can get, you don’t get much more fucked up than a GoFundMe organized by people who haven’t heard from you in months because you’re working all the time to pay for your funeral because of your premature preventable death. This is the dystopia right here, right now and we’re living in it.

Fuck it all. It’s way past time for a critical mass of us to opt out and choose life.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 10:06 AM on April 8, 2019 [88 favorites]


My only a student and I could still feel this in my bones. May her memory be a blessing.

.
posted by colorblock sock at 10:08 AM on April 8, 2019 [2 favorites]


.
posted by wellred at 10:10 AM on April 8, 2019


This was chilling. This is why I didn't go into academia and why I've told everyone I love who was considering it not to work in academia. Not that the pay in the private sector is much better. The health insurance, though, is the difference between life and death. Scraping together money for a burial. Horrible. This was not death, it was murder. The rich and powerful in this country are all murderers.
posted by coffeeand at 10:14 AM on April 8, 2019 [28 favorites]


There's no way to separate this from the ways academia as a system systematically abuses and mistreats and marginalizes underrepresented minorities. This, and less tragic versions of this, can be the outcome for white male adjuncts, but I promise you this happens more frequently to academics of color, queer academics, white women academics.
posted by ChuraChura at 10:32 AM on April 8, 2019 [45 favorites]


There is so much I could say here, about healthcare, about academia , about the way the US doesn't value teaching and knowledge. But, right now I'm really just focused on what we lose because of this, the human potential wasted, mourned and cut short.

.
posted by AlexiaSky at 10:37 AM on April 8, 2019 [5 favorites]




.
posted by benzenedream at 10:42 AM on April 8, 2019 [1 favorite]


Admin bloats up like a cancerous tumor forever finding more and more need for highly paid directors of "x" but try and find money to create a new tenured line for a program that's overfilled with students and you get to hear how the money isn't there. Sure we can afford to build massive new recreational facilities and pay coaches exorbitant salaries even at tiny regional schools but hiring more of the people who are literally the basis of why students come to college is impossible.

I honestly think the idea of selling college as "an experience" as opposed to a place to learn has shifted resources heavily away from educators towards making a place that's a 4 year resort that leaves you crippled with debt and professors worked to the bone.
posted by Ferreous at 10:44 AM on April 8, 2019 [32 favorites]


I was an underpaid university administrator in Chicago who got straight As in all my evening classes, and was then asked "Are you eligible?" when I talked about completing the degree (some courses were only during the day) if I made up for the work. I *was* the Director of Admissions and had launched the programme I was considering. I'd been offered the job when I had approached the school as a potential applicant by the dean himself. He conveniently forgot all this when the time came to settle up the pitch of "you can study for free". I left fulltime employment (pension plan and healthcare notwithstanding) thereafter and have supported myself ever since. fwiw I had a green card even before I began that job.

Its been 15 years now, and I've just turned 53. I put in my application for doctoral studies ten days ago, now as a permanent resident of Finland which was finalized a week before the application deadline. My education will be free of cost, as will my basic healthcare. I'm also eligible for a wider range of grants and funds.

As I told the kind ladies in the Admissions department of the School of Engineering, sometimes it takes us a long time before we can think of doing what we dream of doing. But I have no regrets. Entire career paths might now be closed to me due to my age, especially given that by the time I finish I'll be closer to 60 than 50, but the time was right.

At this point in my life looking forward to going back to school feels like a holiday from the work of running my own business and just playing around with data and pondering things.

This story captured my attention for so many reasons that I'd need the whole Treaty of Westphalia to share them with you. So I'll end my comment here.
posted by infini at 10:59 AM on April 8, 2019 [55 favorites]


.
posted by eviemath at 11:41 AM on April 8, 2019


That was a bit too close to home.

And there are so many things that are wrong here, it's unbearable.
posted by mumimor at 11:57 AM on April 8, 2019 [4 favorites]


She would often arrive on campus early, around 7:30, for office hours. She would get settled into her office and sit down. She was a black woman in a largely empty building, and people would come by and inquire about whether she was the janitor. Then she would teach classes. Her students loved her, but their parents would call the school questioning whether she had a doctorate.
FLAMES... FLAMES ON THE SIDE OF MY FACE...
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:57 AM on April 8, 2019 [46 favorites]


.

I think a lot of my friends and I know this fate, and we still work hard and do our best, but we're underneath so much pressure, so, so much. It's a special kind of hell to be able to theorize and articulate oppressive conditions of labor and capitalism, while experiencing a goal-line that keeps moving faster and faster away from us. I don't know how we manage it at all, but we love being of service to our communities and scholarship, so we just keep going and try to find wiggle room, while doing absolutely too much. It's all stacked against us.
posted by yueliang at 1:43 PM on April 8, 2019 [6 favorites]


She sounds like she would have been a really cool person to know. What an unnecessary loss.
posted by biogeo at 1:46 PM on April 8, 2019 [4 favorites]


We’re working hard at my institution to address this systemic problem: a higher ratio of full-time positions, better pathways to hiring as FT for our adjuncts, subsidized health care coverage for part-timers, collective representation and a seat at the table for adjuncts, etc. The racism/sexism issue is handled relatively well here, but the systemic caste system that treats adjuncts so poorly has a long way to go to be fixed.

The problem we face is from the right-wing state legislature that doesn’t want to fund education, the right-wing partisans on the elected Governing Board who want to undermine educators, and the District Administrators that are basically encouraged to be party apparatchiks for the political faction in control.

I was recently approached by a close friend whose son is interested in going into academia as a professor of history. It was an agonizing conversation with the son and his parents, in which I had to encourage him to follow his passion, but also to have a backup plan, given the systemic challenges involved in becoming a tenured university professor.

Because the “adjunct trap” is a pernicious one, and sadly pervasive. And once you’ve sunk 6 years into getting a doctorate, and another five years into teaching as adjunct or untenured prof hoping to land that full-time, tenured position, it’s quite possible to find yourself a decade or more into a career that dangles seductive promises, but basically leads into a dead end.

In some cases, as in this article, quite literally.
posted by darkstar at 2:08 PM on April 8, 2019 [10 favorites]


“She even went to teach at a private high school.”
The author makes it seem like this was a step down, but perhaps, if brilliant dedicated scholars were interested in teaching in high schools, public and private, adjuncts wouldn’t have to struggle with unprepared undergrads.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:20 PM on April 8, 2019 [12 favorites]


I left a PhD program, adjuncted for a year and then, ironically, stumbled into a university staff job where I handled the hiring and contracts for the many adjuncts in our department. So I feel like I've seen both sides of this pretty up close. I could have so easily kept treading water in academia. It's been 8 years and sometimes I still feel like an intellectual sell-out. Some of the adjuncts in my department condescended to me for being just "the staff." Some of them envied me for at least having a stable job and benefits. But most of them didn't even know that I was once in their shoes, that I could talk about all the Foucault right along with them. It's this shitty choice between a small amount of economic comfort or an educational pedigree. I don't regret the choice I made, overall, but I did spend a lot of time thinking that most of them had more in common with me, the secretary, than the big-deal chairs in our department -- but there are huge vested interests in making that seem like it's not true.
posted by nakedmolerats at 2:23 PM on April 8, 2019 [33 favorites]


.
posted by Barack Spinoza at 2:31 PM on April 8, 2019


if brilliant dedicated scholars were interested in teaching in high schools, public and private, adjuncts wouldn’t have to struggle with unprepared undergrads

1) These may be two different skill sets
2) Educators at all levels are under assault, there are many many people working to make sure all teachers are adjuncts and have no security or benefits. Support your public schools and make sure your school board candidates are not hired plants from the Koch bros.
posted by benzenedream at 2:51 PM on April 8, 2019 [28 favorites]


“She even went to teach at a private high school.”
The author makes it seem like this was a step down, but perhaps, if brilliant dedicated scholars were interested in teaching in high schools, public and private, adjuncts wouldn’t have to struggle with unprepared undergrads.


In case you ever wondered why people go on about the Finnish education system, its because the best and brightest compete to enter teacher training. Kindergarten teachers especially are held at the same respect level as PhD holding tenured professors. In fact, I know a couple where the man is the kindergarten teacher and the woman a tenured professor in business school.

The smartest woman I know is a professional preschool teacher (at home currently, supported by the state and her employer, with her 5th baby who's almost one year old. When baby is 3 she'll go back to her old job). When I visit and watch her manage the kids (age 9 to 1) I can tell she's a professional and loves her job/being a mother, though its exhausting now that she's in her mid forties. A colleague of hers received a medal from the President when she retired for her contribution to preschool working with kids.

There's no difference, and the skill set requirement is actually much easier at the prof level. my partner is a prof
posted by infini at 2:58 PM on April 8, 2019 [16 favorites]


If you do want to get a tenure track job you have to either get insanely lucky or spend years doing visiting professor or sabbatical replacement on 1-2 year contracts. You have to be willing to move anywhere in the country yearly, never putting down roots, never getting too comfortable with friends because you know you'll be somewhere else come fall semester. Always operating on nonstop uncertainty.

Since 2008 my partner and I have moved 9 times following their job. We finally got lucky and found a long term position but we had to put our lives on hold for a decade, most people don't have that "luxury"
posted by Ferreous at 3:10 PM on April 8, 2019 [11 favorites]


(I don't want to be a teacher. I want to be a professor and conduct research and teach classes about my area of expertise. That's no shade at all on teachers - they have an incredibly difficult job and are incredibly intelligent and should be better compensated. But my PhD isn't equivalent to a teaching license/MA in education and teaching K-12 is something my education has not prepared me to do.)
posted by ChuraChura at 5:45 PM on April 8, 2019 [16 favorites]


praemunire, I hear you, but I don't think you are taking seriously enough her need to leave that tenure-track job... and the difficulty of going on the market to find another one to take its place.

The Princeton 1-year should have been perfect, but everybody on Earth has days and months when they are not at their best -- nobody can do brilliant academic work on a schedule when other parts of their life are reminding them how tenuous their position is.

Princeton could more than afford to keep her on. They should have found her a way to go to one of many Humanities Institutes for a year or two. Foner could have found her a cushy berth, and might well have, had she been one of the white men who reminded him so much of him as a young scholar.

Academia has bent over backward to keep mediocre white men in good jobs for ever. She deserved better.

.
posted by allthinky at 7:42 PM on April 8, 2019 [8 favorites]


Adam Harris is a good writer.

This story happens all across the US. Ever since academia shifted to a majority of faculty being off the tenure line, as health care became more broken to access, these stories of ruined lives have occurred. It's part of higher education's normal life now.
We know it, too, we in academia.
posted by doctornemo at 7:54 PM on April 8, 2019 [1 favorite]


Is there an online discussion forum for adjuncts?
posted by Baeria at 11:00 PM on April 8, 2019


The problem we face is from the right-wing state legislature that doesn’t want to fund education, the right-wing partisans on the elected Governing Board who want to undermine educators, and the District Administrators that are basically encouraged to be party apparatchiks for the political faction in control.

I was recently approached by a close friend whose son is interested in going into academia as a professor of history. It was an agonizing conversation with the son and his parents, in which I had to encourage him to follow his passion, but also to have a backup plan, given the systemic challenges involved in becoming a tenured university professor.

Because the “adjunct trap” is a pernicious one, and sadly pervasive. And once you’ve sunk 6 years into getting a doctorate, and another five years into teaching as adjunct or untenured prof hoping to land that full-time, tenured position, it’s quite possible to find yourself a decade or more into a career that dangles seductive promises, but basically leads into a dead end.


The academia world is totally alien to me, but from what I glean in the MF threads on the issue, and from this post more concisely, is that this is a supply and demand issue. I get the feeling some of the more regretful wish they'd been turned away from their pursuit earlier... by someone/something. I'm not sure how this would work out. But it sounds like the track is more open than ever before, but the destination hasn't expanded. Does one argue that the higher education track be more highly restricted to weed out all but a few? Does oversupply actually work out to provide the highest quality of candidates for tenure, and associated research? Does the very concept of tenure work against such argument?

Perhaps one argues that the powere that be simply provide more tenured and/or secure positions for such candidates. But doesn't that just intensify the problem by creating an even larger supply larger than the demand. Particularly is the system really is averse to saying no to up and coming students?
posted by 2N2222 at 5:40 AM on April 9, 2019 [1 favorite]


Oversupply is a key factor. Research-I universities have been pumping out more PhDs than t-track positions for a while. Some have called on them to stop it.

There are other factors as well. Many colleges and universities are interested in controlling costs. Personnel is the biggest one, so turning to adjuncts is now an established strategy.
posted by doctornemo at 5:50 AM on April 9, 2019 [3 favorites]


2N2222: The demand for full-time, permanent faculty has declined significantly due to restructuring and "casualization" of the academic labor force (i.e., converting regular faculty jobs to adjunct positions), while supply has remained relatively constant.
posted by eviemath at 6:05 AM on April 9, 2019 [6 favorites]


The author makes it seem like this was a step down, but perhaps, if brilliant dedicated scholars were interested in teaching in high schools, public and private, adjuncts wouldn’t have to struggle with unprepared undergrads.
My wife did this after a postdoc position convinced her that the parts of the job which PIs focus on were her least favorite. It’s worked out well for her – she loves teaching, DC pays teachers well and a subject-matter Ph.D. carries a sizable bonus, not to mention job security, decent benefits, etc. – but the respect gradient is real and widespread. The people who think of it as a step down will often listen to the stats on tenure track positions, a generation of funding cuts, etc. but there’s still a sense of loss because they haven’t caught up to what the modern academic life is like (we’re still 5 years away from where, on average, if she’d found a permanent position she’d have gotten her first big R01 grant, which is generally considered stability in her field). It’s not the 1960s any more but the image is enduring.

To the other part of your comment, better prepared teachers are always welcome but most of the problems are poverty, outside of the teachers’ control. It doesn’t matter how smart and passionate you are if a student doesn’t sleep two nights under the same roof. (This is a solid do both recommendation from me: lab to class programs are a great idea but we need a New Deal-level commitment to dealing with the effects of poverty, too.)
posted by adamsc at 6:06 AM on April 9, 2019 [8 favorites]


.

Ugh, this hits very close to home.
posted by LMGM at 6:28 AM on April 9, 2019 [2 favorites]


I've been thinking about this all night -- the move to private school teaching would not be so much a step down as a step away from the chance to engage in pioneering historical research, especially about Black America, which we need more than ever.

We cannot all follow our passions, but we make more space for some passions than others, and her passions matched nicely with the world's needs, as well as her genius.

We shouldn't be so quick to focus on what she could have done differently, but why she, unlike so many (mediocre) white men, didn't find her place.

Also, as to the supply-demand problem, it's the shrinkage of demand, as eviemath notes. Higher ed running as for-profit businesses means less spending on faculty who turn out brilliant work and engaged students *and* have job security.
posted by allthinky at 6:37 AM on April 9, 2019 [3 favorites]


I would love to have a tenture-track position at an honest-to-goodness university, but my humble community college job is so much better than adjunct hell that I get new waves of gratitude reading this. It’s neither exciting nor prestigious, but it’s low stress and pays the bills.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 7:23 AM on April 9, 2019 [15 favorites]


I did my time in the adjunct trenches and came out of it admiring the hell out of community colleges, Pater Aletheias. CCs do a huge service to society, just immense.
posted by Sublimity at 4:42 AM on April 10, 2019 [2 favorites]


The only reason I am in tech now, despite the fact that I was passionate about scholarship and adored teaching, is because I couldn't afford to live as an adjunct. I was earning less than $20,000 a year teaching 4-5 classes a semester and it was utterly exhausting. When I asked my chair to turn my position into an actual lecturer contract with a humble salary of $40,000 a year (which would allow me to not work 2 other jobs, work on my PhD, publish, and teach more classes) he refused. And yet the department had the money to hire 4-5 other adjuncts to take over my workload once I left for a jobs I hated just to not live in squalor.

(Of course this was the same chair that gave the only assistantship in the department to an out-of-state student who dropped out anyway while I was busting my ass in research with the other professors).

I'm not ashamed to admit I am completely bitter about my experience and this article makes me wonder if I would have ended up the same as Thea had I never "given up".

Also, Sublimity, my inspiration for becoming a professor was an English professor in CC. He ended up killing himself, however, after he was denied tenure after 10 years.
posted by Young Kullervo at 6:21 AM on April 10, 2019 [4 favorites]


Staying abreast of this thread, I thought to go look up one of my B school classmates that i know went on to do his PhD. He's a classic: white male mediocre reasonably good looking and spoilt to entitled poutiness due to elder sisters and mom

of course he's an assistant prof now at BigStateU in information sciences despite me seeing only 6 papers to his name as collated online and that last one with a very trendy design thinking title
posted by infini at 9:51 AM on April 10, 2019 [3 favorites]


Two things--I don't recall having adjuncts when I was in college, is it possible I just didn't know who was one? Or maybe we didn't have many then?

Also, the worst thing to me in this awful story is that she didn't have insurance/access to decent medical care. What a horrible way to die, and such a waste.
posted by n. moon at 10:53 AM on April 10, 2019


Yeah, it depends completely on where and when you went to college. But it's very possible you had adjuncts and just didn't realize.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:53 AM on April 10, 2019


aha, thanks, I found this useful chart (some of these numbers were referenced in the article, I think). It does seem entirely possible that I just didn't know. Are universities up front about this/is this a criterion one could use when picking a school, for example?
posted by n. moon at 11:59 AM on April 10, 2019


Thanks, jj’s.mama—that’s a helpful perspective.
posted by n. moon at 12:42 PM on April 10, 2019


I think you can guess who's an adjunct if they have no office, are perennially hauling a bunch of stuff on a wheelie cart, and aren't likely to be there next semester.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:46 PM on April 10, 2019 [1 favorite]


The universities have no incentive to reduce the amount of PhDs they create, they are part of the system of underpaid labor for intro level undergraduate classes, FYI. This is most definitely a late crisis capitalism labor issue, bent in favor of higher ranked administrators.
posted by yueliang at 3:02 PM on April 11, 2019 [1 favorite]


« Older As American As Apple Pie   |   Why is this haggadah different from all other... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments