The Human Cost of Contingency: Review of Herb Childress, The Adjunct Underclass

September 2019

Herb Childress, The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission. University of Chicago Press, 2019, ISBN-13: 978-0-226-49666-5.

Herb Childress’s experiences as both an adjunct and a dean, along with his interviews of many others, provide the backdrop for the claim that universities have betrayed students and faculty. That betrayal is not American alone. Canadian universities are similarly situated with respect to the factors identified: such as administrative appointments dominating hires, weakened faculty powers in governance. His interesting book, written candidly, and for a general readership rather than for an academic one, articulates important insights into how the universities have betrayed faculty and students. His book offers a detailed discussion of how current conditions arose, and in the process uncovers other inequalities which surface during his explanations of how students become PhDs, as well as, for the fortunate few, tenured faculty.

Childress is mindful of the many factors that shape conditions for academic work in the 21st century, the pace of economic change, “dozens of new degree tracks” (84), doctoral overpopulation, and many larger economic forces in the gig economy that undermine the missions of universities – as their administrations “tailor” programs to “meet industry needs” (84). His focus is on decisions made within universities, and in the process of unfolding a detailed set of arguments about how “we” ended up this way, he raises issues infrequently treated, I believe, in books on adjunctification.

(Although Childress claims it’s almost impossible to determine the numbers of tenure-track vs contingent faculty due to the enormous variations in labelling from one place to the next, CAUT and CCPA in Canada have recently accomplished a good deal of this tracking in a Canadian context (“Contract U”, September 2018), not without a great deal of support from some very helpful administrators at some universities, and not without a great deal of frustration at the hands of others. For American contexts, Childress provides various charts and explanations in his text and throughout appendix A and B, at the end of his book, giving comparisons of indicators of cultural change in the US that attempt to explain why there is such a degraded ecosystem in higher education.)

Childress writes in part to express a sensitivity to the “emotional and human elements”, feelings he and other adjuncts experience, such as fear, despair, surrender, mental health troubles, experiences that “finance and policy always miss” (159). The realities of adjunct life – for most – are bleak. Poorly paid contracts, lacking pension plans, medical or dental benefits, cobbling coursework together from one term to the next, he wonders why anyone would try to eke out a living in this way, and he goes to some pains to explain the conditions under which a person might do so. Some of his resentment is clearly articulated, as well, as in fictitious book titling to reveal the truths of higher ed, one titled “Colleges that will ensure that your family’s privilege continues unbroken”, another titled “Colleges of infinite choice wrapped around a hollow core”. Along the way he draws a map of “kinds” of universities, and their various “ecologies”, which differ quite radically with respect to the “problems” of adjunctification.

He maps out four university “ecosystems”: the working class schools (34), the “middle class” colleges (37), affluent professional schools, and the elite top-tier colleges that produce “the masters of the universe” (43). Childress’s work is particularly interesting for this discussion of the significance of class. One central argument running through core chapters is that the adjunct crisis isn’t uniform – more severe adjunctification takes place in working class and middle class schools (where students from the lower classes are meant to “absorb white-collar norms”) than in the affluent professional and executive schools (46-47). And with respect to the graduates of the latter, those children of privilege, he claims, don’t need to worry about their “programs” of study, since they “will do well no matter what” (83).

Contingency is a crisis in the universities in which children of the working and middle class attend college to try to acquire “employment insurance”. While higher education cannot guarantee a job, failing to attend may guarantee poor labour conditions and inadequate work. Working class and middle class colleges scramble annually to try to attract students with new programs, trying to provide “a good fit” for a student, and the market, and to differentiate themselves from each other in whatever ways they can manage so as to increase or just maintain enrolment.

Along with operating universities as businesses, marketing those universities now, he notes, consists in a focus on the “experiences” that a given university will enable for the incoming students. Childress explains this “great misunderstanding of college”, “that it is a sequence of classroom experiences” as it “misses more than it hits, leaving aside the necessarily personal nature of intellectual growth” (116). This emphasis on “experiences” also explains the nomadic practices of most undergraduates, as they move from one university to another, Childress argues, necessitating further contingency in faculty hiring due to enrolment concerns (67). The elite and professional schools are not troubled by this factor.

A curious corollary problem created by university administrators concerns academic integrity. In the current climate, he argues, there is pressure on contract faculty to treat plagiarism more flexibly than the monasteries of higher education have historically treated it, and pressure for such faculty to provide more “intellectual framing” for students rather than demand creativity (117). He may well be right, but this pressure, surely, must also affect tenure-track and tenured faculty, in those institutions where course credits are the commodities sold.

Some precarious workers will get “real jobs”. Readers will find an illuminating discussion of the myth of meritocracy and how it obscures the reality of the development of career success. For, says Childress, “the real work of making a doctoral student into a viable colleague is done by the faculty, outside of class time” (63). He applies business writer Harvey Coleman’s “recipe” for career success, based on performance, image, and exposure, (62) to the process of becoming a PhD. Exposure, he argues, is the most significant component for success and this component is not within the student’s control, as performance might be. Image is mildly out of the candidates’ control – he points to age, especially when mixed with gender, and also racialization. But it is exposure that is the most significant criterion for career success in the PhD job search. Exposure is not up to the student, it is the “responsibility of the new scholar’s dissertation committee members far more than it is of the doctoral student herself”. In the case of successfully mentored PhDs, these privileges improve their chances to the largest extent possible. This process is mentorship, and yet he characterizes it as a form of gatekeeping, since only some few faculty mentors perform the practices of writing articles with their students while they are in the program, guiding them carefully and building alliances with departments in positions to hire their graduates. The inequalities of such distribution of mentorship trouble him deeply, as they should. The road to success would be somewhat fairer, if mentorship was more evenly distributed to all doctoral students.

Childress peppers his interesting book with unusual and sometimes problematic analogies, only a few of which I have space to mention. But the idea of the tenure-track job as a lottery is completely undermined by his own account of the mentorship factors above (53). One tenured track job for every 11.5 graduates is not exactly a lottery, even if it were the case that hiring was more random that it clearly appears.

In another set of analogies, he suggests adjuncts are in a relationship with “an abusive partner” (their administration?) as a kind of explanation for the character of the lives of adjuncts (162), where some are or perhaps are not “satisfied with the envelope on the nightstand.” His tone and references are at least mildly disturbing and possibly demeaning.

Although he clearly states at one point that there is no golden age of universities, still, the suggestion that the bulk of student services “were once offered by the faculty themselves, and still largely are offered by faculty at the affluent schools” (96) operates as a touchstone for him, it seems to me. Childress says we will not eliminate contingency through unions and collective bargaining, and “we will only eliminate contingency through changing our definitions, values, cultivating respect, rewarding capability and good will”. Class appears as well in this discussion, since he suggests “it’s relatively easy to teach economically comfortable academically prepared students…it’s the working-class, and middle class schools that have had the greatest growth in academic and student services” (95).

Canadian universities are similarly situated with respect to the factors Childress identifies: administrative appointments controlling governance and determining budget expenditures. While Canadian universities may not map out exactly the same kinds of ecosystems, we certainly have public and private universities in Canada, and our schools confront the same concerns Childress raises in his book. Contingent faculty are keenly aware of the way specific universities pride themselves on having fewer adjunct faculty, and consider themselves the elites of Canadian universities. It is painfully clear that nomadic practices affect many universities in Canada as well. The class issues Childress raises do appear, across Canadian universities.

Childress’s suggested solutions are in part to return to an ideal that he mostly disavows. He seems to suggest we need to shape faculty (tenured, presumably) into the kinds of figures that currently operate at the most elite universities; where the faculty do everything (e.g. counsel students, teach classes). Yet he claims “I don’t believe that universities will ultimately need tenured faculty” and “maybe it’s good that the system is coming to a crash” (9). There is some confusion in his work over the mission of the university, that maps directly onto the confusion in the way universities characterize their missions. A fundamental question is whether college is a public good, which Childress treats in an interesting detour but could have given more prominence.

Similar arguments and concerns have been made in Canadian contexts: he states “if we believed that the faculty was the college, we’d also have faculty manage most of its executive functions as well.” Canadians too are eager to have more powerful faculty governance.

Childress also tells the administrations they can afford more faculty, and indeed, they can, as Canadian universities can. And they can afford to pay their faculty more money (146). While funding cuts from government have played a role in the increase in hiring of contingent academic labour, funding cuts alone fail to fully explain the situation. The university administrations in both Canada and the US play a role in determining whether or not the university will rely on contractual labour more or less heavily. Childress is right to raise concerns about the university administration. However, Canadians rightly argue that university administrations and governments need to work together to improve the conditions for academic labour, and need to be jointly responsible to the public that ends up financing them.