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Contingency and the Academic Ecosystem

By Caprice Lawless

The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission by Herb Childress. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019.

Herb Childress describes academia as a formerly vibrant but now ailing ecosystem of nearly five thousand institutions. Broken are the life-sustaining, interconnected roots of relationships between and among students, tuition-paying parents, state legislatures, faculty, staffers, administrators, research-funding corporations, donors, and foundations. The varying nutrient streams that feed public colleges and universities are running dry. These streams must be tended to by administrators, he explains—a task that eclipses their attention to students and faculty—and that is just part of the problem. The traditional focus on relationships has been in rapid decline for decades, especially in colleges and universities serving primarily middle- and working-class students. The higher education landscape has become unsustainable intellectually and economically, yet it is populated by millions who are unaware of the consequences of that unsustainability. The function of his book, Childress says, is to educate students who aspire to become faculty members about their career prospects and to help them understand the odds against them.

Childress compares these eager students to alewives. He recounts how, in 1967, more than twenty billion dead alewives littered forty miles of Chicago’s Lake Michigan shoreline, and how the origin of the catastrophe was 140 years earlier, with the construction of the Erie Canal. That ecological disaster, like the pending academic one, was the result of “millions of decisions, each innocuous on its own, but collectively resulting in an unparalleled instability that no one had ever imagined.” His book is an urgent call for us to imagine ways to critically, collectively, creatively, and purposefully restore relationships and make amends for the betrayal alluded to in his book’s subtitle.

Each chapter of the book presents increasingly detailed images of an ecosystem we are incapable of understanding because each participant in that system is like a tiny dot in the drawing—Childress’s use of statistics and charts underscores how painfully the dots (and we as faculty) do not and cannot connect. The ecosystem’s individual “species” feel the change yet may not be able to articulate what’s missing. The nation’s 800,000 adjuncts teaching for poverty wages feel it. The 55,000 students who completed their PhDs in 2015 to then compete for 20,000 jobs that year feel it. The 20 million students enrolled in America’s colleges and universities (up from 8.6 million enrolled in 1970) experience it. Middle- and working-class students enrolled in college feel the worst of higher education’s disconnectedness, even while paying tuition that has almost quadrupled at some public, four-year institutions since 1976.

Like an M. C. Escher print depicting a single figure who ascends and descends a staircase simultaneously, the book describes how the same universities that lure students to graduate schools to pursue advanced degrees in order to teach simultaneously turn full-time faculty positions into work for graduate students, adjuncts, and variously titled non-tenure-track faculty. Similarly, although research demonstrates that learning is predicated on experiences and relationships, students are increasingly denied meaningful learning experiences and relationships with the adjunct faculty majority who teach the classes they attend. These atomized, overworked, and often despairing “contingent” faculty do not have the time to invest in those relationships or to fashion those rich experiences. Too few of our thousands of colleges and universities offer “powerful opportunities for young people to become great,” he argues. Mentoring relationships endure now only as myth in the institutions serving the majority of middle- and working-class students. Even so, college brochures sell the very dream they are destroying in order to entice students to enroll.

Students who enroll are losing, as they pay—and often borrow—more for less in return. Administrators lose out as well, even while they engage in practices and processes that hasten the collapse of the academic ecosystem. Childress can speak with authority on this subject, as he worked for many years in administration. Administrators “lose the intellectual brakes that harness the engine of consumer thinking, that keep the fantasies of college presidents from becoming new degree programs that burst in the sky like fireworks, only to sparkle into darkness.” Those who remain in the vestiges of the tenure-track professoriate also lose because they are overburdened with service work. Thus, these scholars are denied the unbroken hours they need to think, write, and conduct research and fieldwork. Instead, they spend much of their time in meetings. “Meetings are the work of administrators; meetings prevent the work of faculty,” he writes.

Childress offers several recommendations to reverse the betrayal. He lists questions prospective undergraduate students and their families need to ask, especially to know who their teachers will be and what their professional status is. Prospective graduate students get another list of questions, as well as a fantastic “Academic Career Calibration Protocol” to give starstruck college seniors a reality check. The author asks administrators to think twice about upgrading technology or starting new programs and urges them to consider staffing more research work in professional laboratories rather than relying on disposable graduate students. “If Pfizer and Microsoft can pay their employees, so can you,” he comments. According to Childress, colleges and universities should become places of principled action—where relationships are everything—with more full-time faculty and fewer professional staff members. He wants the faculty to be the college and imagines college campuses as communities where everybody learns all the time. This vision suggests that evidence of good work and a good working environment should replace the current mythologies pervading higher education.

At the end of the book, before dozens of pages of citations and an extensive bibliography, Childress describes his own academic odyssey. “I finished a dissertation in late 1996, to high praise and rapid publication. I went on to sell furniture,” he recalls. What followed were stints in administration, in leadership positions as a volunteer in “one of the innumerable symbiont organizations of higher education,” a brief stint as a teacher at Duke University, and years of working disparate jobs while always yearning to return to the classroom. It cost him his physical health and mental health, and it ended his first marriage. His despair began with his postdissertation job search in 1996 and did not end until 2013, when he left higher education.

With this book, Childress has written a generous note of condolence to the profession that killed his dream of a tenure-track position. It has killed the same dream for a generation of academics who have left the profession or hang on today in what he calls “the vast purgatory of contingent life.” He claims that higher education’s ecosystem is being destroyed by a million bad decisions. While many will disagree with him on the genesis of the disaster, by reading his book we engage in the dot-connecting and relationship-repairing that Childress urges us to do so that we may work to restore higher education’s ecosystem and eliminate the adjunct underclass.

Caprice Lawless is first vice president of the AAUP. She teaches English at Front Range Community College and has been advocating for the adjunct underclass for many years as a member of it. Her email address is [email protected].    


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