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Herb Childress and Christopher Stephens on the Plight of Itinerant Educators

Critic Herb Childress exposes some uncomfortable truths in The Adjunct Underclass that are both painfully difficult for adjunct professors to admit and essential reading for those concerned with the cultural and intellectual future of America.

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

A reviewer’s allegiance to impartiality and objectivity can sometimes be impossible to follow. It’s hard enough to avoid speaking in the first person, making the experience of a text all about us. Add to that the expectation of detachment to fully elevate something that moved us, and the mission of a reviewer can become too cold for comfort. Our job is to summarize, comment, contextualize, and either bring a reader towards something that changed our lives, or warn them away from it.

What happens when a non-fiction text tears a path through the worst kept secrets of your past 25 years; your horrible career choices, the paths available that you chose not to take for the sake of expediency? How does the reader with an intensely personal vested interest in the subject matter close the covers without at least acknowledging how the contained truths hit very close to home?

Herb Childress‘s The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission, is a masterfully compressed call to action for so many of us who have somehow managed to cobble together a subsistence wage as a contingent instructor at the various community colleges, universities, and adult education centers in cities with high concentrations of academic options. Call it “Quit Lit“, a genre of hybrid memoir/confessional/how-to manuals from disgruntled and cynical educators imploring colleagues still on board to abandon the sinking ship. Their initial optimism about changing the world one semester at a time became definitively vanquished by the reality of a marketplace that switched from the idealism of free-form campuses where minds were inspired to change the world to the cold reality: academia incorporated. We entered our lives as college teachers through side doors, stayed wherever we could find a temporary home, and walked away when the administration no longer recognized we had a pulse.

This is all a necessary prelude to disclose that the subject matter and final message Childress offers hits way too close for this reader’s comfort. Life as an adjunct college instructor since 1998 can do that to a person. We are itinerant educators, contingent workers who make ourselves available for a week, a month, a semester, or maybe two. There is no guarantee of anything stable beyond the immediate needs of our temporary employers. An attempt is made at conviviality, or collegiality, but the greatest irony (or poetic justice) is that a college community is the last place any teacher will ever find collegiality.


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Adjuncts are given a pat on the head and a carefully choreographed smile and temporary invitations to their respective Department Academic meetings. Committee chairs pretend they are receptive to ideas, but new perspectives and innovation are impossible in a field that, for at least the past 20 years, has been more about recruiting students and absorbing the surrounding real estate of their host cities than building from fantasy ideals of old Ivory Towers where abstract thinking and free expression are encouraged, and unfettered.

Consider Childress’s Preface, entitled “This is how you kill a profession.” Nothing is left to the imagination, and the results are chilling for those of us painfully aware of what’s happened and those who just don’t want to accept reality:

“How did we discard the idea of college faculty?”

He follows this question by connecting the dots. Medical general practitioners gave way to obscenely rewarded specialists. Cab drivers lost their ground to Uber drivers and the lure of the gig economy. Traditional print and magazine writers dissolved into content providers. Childress concludes in his Preface:

“College has simply become redefined…in ways that make faculty irrelevant. College teaching, as a profession, is being eliminated one small, undetected, definitional drop at a time.”

That is the essence of Childress’s mission statement, and the way he maps out his argument in the next 200 plus pages is chilling. In Chapter 1, “What The Brochures Don’t Tell You”, he brings us back to the ideals from the past; the ivy-covered walls and tweed-jacketed professors. He notes that many college campuses are like historical reenactments of what we want them to be. Peek behind the curtains and you’ll “…find some faculty who don’t teach, and some baseball coaches who do…We find offices that blend functions that used to belong to student services…a bewildering array of quasi-independent research centers…” In other words, any given college campus these days is as much a hybrid day care center/health club mixed with community services and think tank research pods as it is a place where people learn things. Childress explains (through anonymous interviews from long-suffering adjuncts) a scenario all too familiar to this reader, commuting wherever the jobs surface:

“This is what faculty life looks like now. In the car, on the bus, on the train, always wondering whether the next semester will be fertile or dry. Living in hope about the promises that are made to keep everyone quiet.”

Like any service-based business masquerading as a both a bastion for critical thinking and a corporate conglomeration, the primary goal of a faculty found at any college is to bring more money — that is, more students — churning through the revolving doors.

This is the main point, the recurring theme, and those unfamiliar with this job trajectory (not a career but simply a job) might wonder if it’s chosen by us or if we are somehow drained of all self-respect after the first few years wandering around the adjunct circuit. It’s a life with no job security, no real chance at advancement, and nothing but “…the promise that if they do this assignment well, there’ll be a place at the master’s table someday.” The fact that this table is built on a foundation of wobbly bamboo legs sinking in a muddy field out somewhere in an isolated field is bad enough. That higher education continues to draw primarily from this pool of temporary workers who are assumed content to bask in the afterglow of their contingent employers is but one of its unforgivable sins.

Higher education has always been a business, but perhaps never more so than these past 20 years, in which both students and faculty are tracked into expected tiers of service. In Chapter 2, “The Permanent and the Contingent”, Childress breaks down the tricks of the tenure-track (TT) and non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty. The former are considered golden, blessed, and entrusted with the real job of representing the best interests of the university. Like any service-based business masquerading as a both a bastion for critical thinking and a corporate conglomeration, the primary goal of a faculty found at any college is to bring more money — that is, more students — churning through the revolving doors. Consider it the haves and the have nots, the lords of the manor and the serfs who spend their lives toiling the fields with no promise of any rewards. “The NTTs are everywhere,” he writes, “but camouflaged to look exactly like their TT counterparts in daily life.” He notes, later, that the primary thing NTTs can’t provide “…is a voice in shaping the next generation of scholars.”

Simply put, most faculty exist as an “Imbalanced ecosystem”. Childress notes that writing programs are often the worst embodiments of such systems, where, in many instances of first-year college experience, approximately 99.8% of the faculty encountering these young students are simply passing through, never invested in the stability of the program because they will no longer be there after one semester.

In Chapter 3, “Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum”, Childress effectively breaks down the four types of schools most familiar in these days of corporate higher education. What seems new today has always been there is one form or another. Working-class schools (Community Colleges) were based on obedience and procedure. Follow all rules in order and as given. Middle-class schools (technical colleges or agricultural normal schools) focused on learning the right answer and absorbing information to retrieve later. Professional schools (bastions of liberal arts thinking “…where broad-minded families send their bohemian offspring to design their own majors) featured creative expression, and executive schools (Ivy league) looked at strategic analysis to crawl to the top of the corporate ladder. Connect the dots and logic will tell you that contingent faculty are more heavily concentrated in the working-class schools. Childress concludes here:

“The question of contingent faculty, the ‘adjunct crisis,’ cannot be talked about as if it were a uniform phenomenon occurring equally across all the bioregions of higher education.”

In other words, working class teens who barely get out of high school and must take remedial reading and writing classes at community colleges are subject to a gallery of adjunct teachers whose energy is focused on getting work. The only commitment any adjunct teacher can afford to make is to finding work. In Chapter 4, “Building the Contingent Workforce”, Childress notes: “[b]ecoming a TT faculty member now is no different from becoming a professional hockey player.” You are groomed for it at an early age. He cites business writer Harvey Coleman’s recipe for career success, PIE, (performance, image, and exposure) as the path for TT faculty. He notes:

“The work of the doctorate, done well, makes its participants ill shaped for other ways of living. They cling to academic career hopes in the face of evidence…wishful thinking…because it’s the way scholars understand the world…”

Simply put, the process of advertising for positions and recruiting faculty is a perfect embodiment of bait and switch. Positions are rarely as advertised. “Adjunct positions do not morph into tenure-track positions, and adjunct workers are not offered permanence on the basis of their good work…” In a remarkably pointed and apt metaphor that suggests the relationship adjuncts have to their temporary employers is tantamount to sex workers and johns, Childress writes: “Is there any meaningful hope of a faithful, permanent relationship, or should they just be satisfied with the envelope on the nightstand?”

Consider the three major income sources of most colleges: payment for services, contributions from state taxes or religious sponsors, and income from investments and gifts. He notes that MIT’s annual $340 million in tuition revenue came the same year it received a $14.8 billion endowment. That single year endowment could completely service the financial needs of Bunker Hill Community College for the next eight years. Childress writes:

“As the college experience is abandoned in favor of the college credit, it makes perfect sense to move to a Darwinian competition between desperate providers.”

Colleges depend on the bait and switch of transfer credits. Community colleges have devised agreements about which credits for which courses can be moved from one school to another. As a result, the already poorly compensated adjunct becomes “…the equivalent of commodity farmers, a bushel of winter wheat from Montana being identical to a bushel of wheat from Oklahoma.” Compounded with that is the shift away from historic and fixed disciplines to MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) and the desperate pull to draw in out-of-state and international students to sustain operations. The bottom line is simple. While the college community has changed, the structure has not allowed for the contingent community to meet the needs. With more adjuncts swimming around the pool waiting for a scrap of bread to be dropped down from above, the swelling in those ranks has so crowded the pool that we’re fighting for scraps.

No amount of catered faculty meetings and compensated workshops will make up for lack of respect or anything beyond a minor nod of feigned recognition as full-time faculty pass part-time faculty in the halls. Childress puts it this way in a heading halfway through Chapter 6: “The TT Faculty: I Got Mine, Too Bad About You”. Another heading puts it in an equally effective way: “Ghosts in the Hallways: The Institutional Invisibility of the Contingent”. A teacher who sees no upward mobility in their career path veers into administration, its own discipline with distinct rules and expectations. Childress writes: “Faculty governance takes the very best attributes of scholars and employs them in the very worst ways.” Administrators attend conferences, meetings, convene fact-finding missions to alien territory where their only goal is to lure in more customers for the mothership.

Simply put, it’s essential for the three stable communities of higher education (tenured and non-tenured faculty, administrators and managers, and shadow organizations that latch themselves onto the hull of the institutional ship like so much barnacle) to maintain the status quo. Childress writes:

“The relative invisibility of contingent workers is a tool for [their] emotional comfort…The presumption of others’ unworthiness and the ability to keep them out of sight have always been powerful potions that soothe the consciences of the comfortable.”

It’s hard not to parse through this text and highlight all the clear arguments Childress makes about how academia has morphed solely into an avenue for consumer satisfaction and protection over intellectual nourishment and independent production. There are fewer faculty and longer hours for those with their toe in the door. Part-time is now “Independent contractor”. Childress notes: “Adjunct faculty are the piecework equivalent in the higher education world…” The side hustle is everything for a part-time college teacher, but the focus for administration is elsewhere, to recruiting new students that can be pushed through the machine. Childress writes: “…the idea of ‘the faculty’ is as dead as the idea of coal…”; no matter how destructive the coal, if you will, is to the academic environment, the machine grinds on.

Childress makes this work for many reasons, not the least among them his striking metaphors. Dead fish washing on the shores of a beach in Michigan in 1967 have morphed (half a century later) into “a million or more gasping adjuncts and post-docs washed up on the beaches of academia…” Childress emphasizes relationship facilitation as a core responsibility for full-time faculty. It’s the first of his Four Guiding Principles in the final chapter. The second is that the faculty is the college. Nurture administration from within. Learning needs to always be happening, and “…workers should be promoted on the basis of quality work rather than time employed.” Tenure, like Supreme Court positions, should never be a lifetime guarantee for inadequate and irresponsible teachers who can maintain a minimal degree of teaching and never fear losing their positions.

Childress ends this work with a devastating final chapter that recounts a nearly decade-long (his forties) nervous breakdown after finishing his dissertation. “It affected my physical health. It affected my mental health. It ended my first marriage.” He cuts to the core and notes that the problem isn’t just about poor pay for adjuncts or the lack of relationship-building potential between adjuncts and teachers. “It’s also about fear, despair, surrender, shame…the messy, hidden human elements that finance and policy always miss.” He likens the experience of writing this book to balancing an obligation toward reasonable behavior with persistent, “inexplicable grief”. Again, it all comes down to relationships. What he tried with this book was “…to find a place in my heart and my head for a community that could find no such place for me.”

The Adjunct Underclass is a devastating shot from deep within the woods, an emergency S.O.S. flare to those who can see the forest for the trees. Its thesis is similar to Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, providing a clear picture of how low we’ve fallen and how we may never rise again without some serious reform. As one of the many in this country who really has never left college — years as an undergraduate followed by graduate school and eventually 21-years and counting as an adjunct college English instructor — I have taught at over a dozen institutions. Earnings have been good, bad, and non-existent depending on student enrollment. Sometimes I’ve jumped off this carousel when options disappear, but I always return. Childress has exposed some uncomfortable truths with this book that are both painfully difficult for adjuncts to admit and essential reading for those concerned with the cultural and intellectual future of America.

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See also ‘Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America‘ Is, Sadly, Still Relevant, by Christal Loar, 17 Oct 2011.