Or, at least, English adjuncts. I can’t speak for your physics adjunct, your bio adjunct, your philosophy or Spanish adjunct. I scraped together a miraculous B+ in astronomy as an undergrad, and still can’t tell you how I fulfilled my second language requirement with the French I can barely remember beyond Je m’appelle Amy. J’ecris tourjours. Wait, is that right?
I came up in the humanities as a writing major at Ithaca College, and then completed my MFA at The Ohio State University, a fully-funded three-year creative writing graduate program that actually paid me to write and teach a single, solitary course per quarter until I graduated in 2008. At OSU, I met my husband, the majority of the friends who attended our wedding last year, and the professors with whom I’d rather spend time than some family members. I get majorly miffed when I read MFA-bashing articles that call MFA grads elitist, their writing cookie-cutter, and their job prospects abysmal. But I’ve got limited experience. I attended a program that doesn’t tolerate elitism from students, that funds every student equally, that encourages “cross pollination” among genres (to borrow the phrasing of the website), and whose graduates now hold tenure-track positions, edit books at American Girl, work at small presses and literary agencies, pursue PhDs, travel to London, hock thrift store clothing, coach hockey, advise first-year humanities undergrads, write grant proposals, write for newspapers and magazines, push paper at medical offices, push paper at law offices, copywrite for Time and Wired, shelve books, sell books, make books, and write books.
And yes, some of my grad school comrades are teaching freshman composition as adjuncts, from California to Michigan to online classrooms around the world. And, yes, I’m one of them.
During any given week while I’m sipping coffee and curiously surfing, I’ll read twenty or thirty articles on pedagogy, the humanities job market, or literary publishing. Facebook is a godsend that way. I rarely find myself combing anything but my newsfeed to find interesting (depressing, infuriating, occasionally enlightening) shit to read about my (apparently dying) industry. And while about half of the articles I share are about the pros and cons of MFA programs, the other half are about the controversial subject of adjunct labor in higher education. Who’s teaching your students? the articles ask the parents of undergraduates. Who’s responsible for the underemployed humanities PhD? Why is the academic underclass of educators so huge, and how does their inexperience/exploitation/lack of private sector job prospects impact the quality of teaching delivered at schools that cost more than putting a down payment on a house every year for four years?
I’ll admit, I’m a little slow to react when slogging through the despair on the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and The Huffington Post, preferring instead to stew for days or weeks before I burst in on my husband cooking dinner to say, “So, this is bothering the fuck out of me.” Such was the case with “Overeducated, Underemployed: How to Fix Humanities Grad School,” by William Pannapacker, which appeared on July 27 on the formidable opinion outlet Slate. Pannapacker, who has previously written on the misguided pursuit of a humanities graduate degree, offers a six-point plan for “reforming higher education in the humanities that could, someday, make graduate education a responsible, ethical option for the students I advise, and students everywhere.”
Pannapacker criticizes and laments many of the same trends in hiring practices, humanities applicability, and graduate placement numbers games that academics and administrators have been bemoaning for years, ever since the trend toward using (and indeed, relying on) cheap adjunct labor emerged in the 1970s. And many of his criticisms, though unoriginal, ring true for me. I, too, wonder what will happen to a society that devalues its cultural stamp on the world, both from the arts and from those who study the arts. I, too, wish that the skills of lit scholars, philosophers, and historians were more desirable in the private sector. I, too, would like to see more opportunities created for an interdisciplinary graduate experience that would introduce students to work outside the academy, making contacts with professionals beyond their own department. I, too, believe that graduate programs should consider alternative educational options to the classic curriculum of their discipline. I believe undergraduate programs should do the same. Anyone with the patience to listen to me longer than fifteen minutes knows that I’m obsessed with experiential, multidisciplinary, technology-enhanced learning. In the college of my dreams, all undergraduate majors are a form of planned studies.
But in two of six sections describing his reform plan, Pannapacker does something that, at first, made me feel unduly guilty, and then extraordinarily angry: he questions the general quality of adjunct teaching and places the “nuclear option” of his plan, the insidious section six, “Just walk away,” squarely on the shoulders of adjuncts. More about the latter to come.
Let’s start with the quality of adjunct teaching. In section two, “Expose who’s really teaching undergraduates,” Pannapacker proposes that all institutions unveil who does most of the teaching at the undergraduate level. Prospective students and their parents should be informed about whether tenured faculty or “an army of transient, ill-paid, hired-at-the-last-minute adjuncts and graduate students without terminal degrees” will be teaching the majority of undergraduate courses.
Pannapacker’s exposé makes a number of assumptions about adjunct professors, lumps their teaching experience with that of graduate students, and represents today’s adjunct in a way that is outdated, overgeneralized, and in many cases, just plain inaccurate.
First, the term “army,” as it’s applied here to a group of academics, sounds demeaning. I understand that Pannapacker is referring to the sheer number of adjuncts employed by most colleges and universities, but the term also implies that specialized interest or experience cannot be found among adjunct professors, that we have been trained to deliver courses in some Tayloristic fashion a la 1984. Perhaps more upsetting about Pannapacker’s metaphor is that real soldiers can earn promotion up the ranks of a meritocracy, whereas the internal promotion of an adjunct is about as rare as a snow leopard.
Second, I don’t know which universities Pannapacker polled, but I wonder if his claim that most adjuncts do not hold terminal degrees requires further evidence. Yes, some adjuncts in my current department hold Master’s degrees (and many offer the department something unique, such as an ESOL specialty). But the vast majority of adjuncts here–11 out of 13 whose faculty pages list their education history, compared to the 7 out of 13 in Pannapacker’s Hope College English department–hold an MFA or PhD, both terminal degrees. And the majority of that group began teaching in graduate school, bringing at least three years of teaching experience to their current positions. Even if an adjunct in my department was “hired-at-the-last-minute,” I bet she would have an arsenal of syllabi, lesson plans, textbooks, technology, and classroom experience to draw from when hired. Throughout my six years of teaching, I have several entire courses–PDFs of materials, websites, lesson plans, and syllabi–I could launch tomorrow.
Pardon the digression, but here’s a short word about graduate student teaching: it’s no joke. Or, at least, it’s not a joke everywhere. I’m sure there are graduate programs that shove their petrified students into overcrowded lecture halls with minimal preparation, professionalization, or mentored support. But many humanities programs hold their graduate student teachers to rigorous pedagogical standards, and I encourage any department chair or search committee to investigate an applicant’s graduate program. At Ohio State, I taught freshman composition under the tutelage of Dr. Wendy Hesford, a powerhouse in the rhetoric and composition world, and the former director of OSU’s First-Year Writing Program. With her staff of experienced graduate teachers, assistant director, and a slew of composition experts invited just for the occasion, Dr. Hesford required all incoming graduate students of the English Department to participate in a two-week pedagogy workshop prior to the start of the fall quarter. Six hours a day, five days a week, plus evening activities at Dr. Hesford’s German Village home. Additionally, each incoming graduate teacher was automatically registered for Dr. Hesford’s 781 course on composition pedagogy, a full quarter of theory and practice with a comprehensive teaching portfolio and philosophy requirement. She also organized mandatory forums and panels on first-year pedagogy, which covered a variety of practical and theoretical topics. Every graduate student teacher was observed by either Dr. Hesford or the assistant director of the FYWP at least twice in their first quarter of teaching, and these observations became written reports in a file kept on every graduate teacher. Student evaluations, comprised of both written and multiple choice responses, were also assessed by Dr. Hesford and the FYWP at the end of each quarter. Commendation or warning letters arrived in the mailboxes of any extremes.
If ever I would compare myself to a soldier, it would be when I served under Dr. Hesford. Her impressive scholarship and publication record aside, her ambitious first-year writing curriculum floored me. Unlike my long-ago freshman comp class at Broome Community College, Hesford’s core curriculum challenged me as a grad student. The lessons I created to execute her curricular goals–rhetorical analysis, media literacy, representational trends, the kairos of texts–are still work I’m proud of as an educator. No student in my composition class wrote a profile, or a persuasive argument, or a personal narrative. Instead, they practiced analytical and rhetorical technique, which is to say they learned when a personal narrative would be the most effective strategy based on the subject and audience of a text. As a nonfiction writer who believes there exists, as one of my colleagues put it, “a false dichotomy between creative and critical writing,” I was excited by curriculum bent on producing student work that was at once analytical, cultural, and personal. Hesford’s first-year writing goals excited me so much that I applied for a position in OSU’s FYWP and spent my second year of grad school working as a program administrator.
Department chairs and program directors: no two graduate programs are the same. Check out where your applicants went to school. Investigate the experience they may or may not have gained. Who were their mentors? What kind of classes did they teach? What opportunities did they have to contribute to curriculum development and assessment?
In the same section where he asserts that undergraduates taught by adjuncts are being “shortchanged,” Pannapacker also claims that such adjuncts “are retained primarily on the basis of high evaluation scores from students (traded for high grades and low expectations).” In other words, adjuncts are scared to lose their jobs, and so pander to students for praise by making courses easy. Here, the waters get murky. Admittedly, I’ve heard fellow non-continuing faculty wonder what will happen if their students don’t “like” them, and say so on evaluations. And that fear troubles me as it does Pannapacker, for student evaluations are often fraught with like/dislike language that says little about the course or an instructor’s true expectations and methodologies. However, I suggest an attitude adjustment not only to Pannapacker but to adjuncts concerned that their job security rests solely with student evaluations. Moreover, I suggest that Pannapacker refocus his blame for any grade inflation to those who evaluate the adjuncts.
First, any composition director or department chair should examine student evals with an eye for pattern. Do 19 out of 24 students say the instructor never commented on student work? Do 18 out of 22 complain that assignments weren’t clearly explained? Do 17 out of 20 claim to have visited office hours and found their professor absent? Those are the criticisms departments should investigate. But do 5 out of 22 swear their grades were unfairly low? Do 15 out of 20 say it’s the hardest class they’ve ever taken? Why should those criticisms suggest incompetent teaching? College classes–even 100-level classes, and perhaps especially those, since they introduce students to new concepts and techniques–should be a challenge.
Recently, I read an article that discusses trends in college grading from the 1960s to present day. I can’t locate the file tonight, but I remember that the percentage of As students “earn” has jumped something like 40% since the days when students reported studying nearly 40 hours per week (they now report less than 15). Clearly, standards have been lowered. And I don’t doubt that adjuncts fearing for their paychecks may have contributed to this trend. But perhaps department heads and program directors could better communicate to adjuncts how they will be evaluated, both by students and the administration. Perhaps making more transparent the patterns administrators are looking for in student evals will alleviate some adjunct terror. Perhaps making student evals more comprehensive (i.e. not a bubble sheet) by asking them to write out responses that qualify the scores they assign a professor would illuminate whether a professor is lazy/uncaring/incompetent or simply has high expectations. A few years ago, I noticed that my Rate My Professors comments consistently mentioned that I was an easy grader. I didn’t take that as a compliment. I didn’t breathe a sigh of relief. I took it as a signal that I needed to re-evaluate my grading criteria. It should be just as damaging to a professor’s reputation to be called “easy” as “lazy.” If all students say about my course is “Professor Monticello is awesome!” then I’m doing something wrong.
But it’s the climatic moment of his reform plan, the “nuclear option,” where Mr. Pannapacker’s grouping of adjuncts becomes extra problematic. Subtitled “Just walk away,” Pannapacker’s final proposal encourages adjuncts to protest the erosion of the humanities in academe by leaving their jobs. “Cut your losses, now,” Pannapacker implores. “Accumulate work experiences and contacts that will enable you to support yourself, have health coverage, and something like a normal life.”
A life without the fear of sudden unemployment? A life where you can plan a vacation months in advance, knowing next year’s work schedule and compensation? A life where buying a home where you currently live makes sense? These would be wonderful things, not only for adjuncts, but all working Americans.
But what if adjuncting is part of a “normal life” already? Because adjuncts are not all recently-minted humanities grads, because many of them are married to people in other professions, have children enrolled in decent schools, and participate in other professional and personal activities related to place, the option of “walking away” may not be possible or desirable. Several adjuncts in my department stick with the job because others depend on them to do so–”others” being not college administrators, but partners and children and community organizations and friends. Their other commitments might make it impossible to make a such political statement. For many adjuncts, walking away would be an act of luxury.
Mr. Pannapacker would likely suggest to these family and place-oriented adjuncts that they at least pursue another line of work, something more stable and profitable. He even lists a few employment options in his article, options he believes graduate programs should consider for training their students to enter non-academic careers, “including partnerships with other institutions, granting agencies, government, and business to cultivate humanists who are prepared for hybrid careers in technology (“the digital humanities”), research, consulting, fundraising, publishing, and ethical leadership.”
I wonder if Mr. Pannapacker has researched the salaries of grant writers, of freelance consultants outside of major cities, of political campaigners and fundraisers, and most laughably, of literary agents and publishers. A colleague in my department, who teaches two writing courses per semester, is currently running for city council, a job that pays a meager $10,000 annually. This colleague grew up in the area, earned his PhD from Cornell, and has worked as a reporter for the local newspaper. He has a personal investment in the city that will make him an outstanding representative for his ward, my ward, and I will be proud to vote for him come November. But I also know that he will continue, as he has done for years, even while holding a full-time job, to teach writing in order to earn the supplemental income required to maintain the most modest standard of living here, in this affluent, eclectic college town. Could he take his PhD and run, find another place in which to adjunct or consider one of Pannapacker’s alternative careers for humanities grads? I have no doubt of it. But our city would be worse off if he did.
Not all adjuncts rely on teaching an overwhelming number of introductory courses for their bread-and-butter. Pannapacker and I agree that too many have to, spreading their exploitation across several colleges and universities at once, commuting so frequently that they’re essentially working an extra unpaid week every month. But instead of adjuncts leaving teaching altogether, it may be possible to branch out within academia. In addition to my courses in the writing department, I also work in academic enrichment services on the same campus, counseling students in learning skills development, time management, test prep, study habits, financial management, and physical and mental health issues, serving primarily the first-year students who also enroll in freshman composition. With colleges and universities struggling to stretch dwindling endowments, I see a number of part-time educators doubling in administration and student affairs. I also see them starting other ventures that capitalize on their strengths and interests–editing student dissertations, writing freelance articles, blogging for Internet companies. It may still be difficult for any one part-time position to lead to health insurance (my husband and I are lucky–the state college he works for provides adjuncts with coverage), but those who cobble together rewarding work may able to earn enough to afford individual coverage. It’s not ideal; of course it’s not. But higher education isn’t the only institution this country needs to reform.
The day jobs that humanities professionals hold do matter to the “life of the mind” we wish to maintain after grad school. Some writers I know feel more prolific when their creative and scholarly work is compartmentalized from what they do for money. They enjoy reserving the kind of mental energy teaching requires strictly for their own work, and are happy to take non-academic or even skilled labor jobs to keep those reserves high. They love their construction jobs and their retail jobs for the very fact that they are jobs, not careers, as these writers blessedly view their own writing. But others of us use our day jobs to enhance and deepen our scholarly and creative work. The only thing I don’t like about teaching are the unstructured summers off, as I write more when I’m also in the classroom. My students’ perspectives and experiences matter to the cultural work of nonfiction writing. My students are, in many ways, my conduit back to the world from which I’m often isolated when I’m typing. If you think a college campus is a bubble, try spending all your time living through a screen.
But what about teaching without the likelihood of advancement? Mr. Pannapacker warns, “Do not remain a captive to dubious promises about future rewards,” which I interpret as the promise of promotion to a permanent, tenure-eligible line. Here, too, adjuncts have choices. Many universities are opening continuing non-tenure positions for talented faculty that may not desire the stress-ridden process of obtaining tenure (another institution that may warrant some re-thinking for its current context). Though my contract does not require it, and I am not compensated for it, I serve on department committees, attend faculty meetings, and help fill the room at readings and other events on campus. Why do I do this? Because the rewards of department participation are directly applied to my teaching, updating my best practices and standards of professionalism so that my methodologies remain current and exciting, not stagnant. And if I am to pursue a continuing line either on or off the tenure track, then I want to perform now in order to prepare, at least until I’m as dedicated to something other than teaching. Remember that whole dressing for the job you want thing? I refuse to de-value my efforts towards professionalization simply because some believe they may not matter in the long run. They matter now. They matter to my students. They matter to me.
Mr. Pannapacker, your call for adjuncts to strike against the exploitative system of higher education would punish the wrong people. It would punish those of us who would have to live on a fraction of the unemployment you would receive while we looked for other viable work that would satisfy and add to our scholarship. It would punish the department chairs and program directors and human resource specialists who are working with the tightest budgets in their histories, dreaming of more permanent, benefits-eligible faculty lines. And it would punish the students who could learn from the energy, enthusiasm, and expertise of adjuncts who also dream for better, for happiness, for what you call a “normal life” enough to infuse their classes with hope, even in the face of certain injustices. Maybe my aging-hippie mother didn’t teach me proper anti-establishment thinking, since I still believe change can occur from within as well as without.
I notice that you implicate yourself and others who occupy the higher ranks of the academy in your revolutionary call:
“In order to reform higher education, many of us will have to leave it, perhaps temporarily, but with the conviction that the fields of human activity and values we care about—history, literature, philosophy, languages, religion, and the arts—will be more likely to flourish outside of academe than in it.”
I would applaud your “us” nobility, Mr. Pannapacker, except that you are still employed by Hope College, serving as an Associate Professor of English and as Founding Director of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Scholars Program in the Arts and Humanities. These prestigious titles suggest that you still believe in the value of your discipline, and the value of the humanities as integral to anyone’s higher education. You still believe in higher education. You still, if tacitly, support your department, and your department’s practice of hiring adjunct professors. You work alongside thirteen of them in your department’s thirty-two person faculty.
In training to become an advocate for the LBGTQ community at my first post-MFA position, I heard something I’d like to pass along to you. One of the students, who spoke tearfully to the trainees of faculty and staff, thanked us for attending the session. “The gay community can do nothing without straight support,” she said. “We need straight people to be involved and visible.” Just as the Civil Rights movement needed progressive and compassionate and justice-driven whites. Just as the laborers of the early twentieth century needed visionary business managers and owners. The oppressed party will always need advocates within the majority and the privileged. Anarchist moves like the one you suggest rarely bring about lasting change. It takes collaboration.
If you believe that the humanities–that those who create the texts that reflect and comment upon our culture, and those who study such texts–are essential for the progress of our civilization and our freedom, if you believe that the death of the humanities could be the birth of a new dark age in America, then I suggest you leave your job, Mr. Pannapacker.
Go write copy for Time or National Geographic. Better yet, go edit math textbooks or software manuals. See how you feel at the end of the day. See if you feel like writing. That is, if Time or McGraw-Hill don’t already have a bunker full of copywriting soldiers. If they even have a job for you.