Dear Commons Community,
Kevin Birmingham, an instructor of writing at Harvard upon winning the Truman Capote Award for his book, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, comments on the plight of adjuncts and the glut of PhDs in the humanities. Here is an excerpt from his address courtesy of today’s Chronicle of Higher Education:
“I accept the Truman Capote Award in this spirit of justice. I would be remiss, therefore, if I did not address another injustice tarnishing the literary critical profession. I am, so far as I can tell, the first adjunct faculty member to receive this award. To be sure, I have one of the best non-ladder positions available. My paychecks cover my bills. I have health insurance. I can work full time. I know by the end of June if my appointment is renewed for the fall. And yet I am one of over one million non-tenure-track instructors working on a temporary or contingent basis and whose position offers no possibility of tenure. To be contingent means not to know if you’ll be teaching next semester or if your class will be canceled days before it starts. Most adjuncts receive less than three weeks’ notice of an appointment. They rarely receive benefits and have virtually no say in university governance.
Yet to talk about adjuncts is to talk about the centerpiece of higher education. Tenured faculty represent only 17 percent of college instructors. Part-time adjuncts are now the majority of the professoriate and its fastest-growing segment. From 1975 to 2011, the number of part-time adjuncts quadrupled. And the so-called part-time designation is misleading because most of them are piecing together teaching jobs at multiple institutions simultaneously. A 2014 congressional report suggests that 89 percent of adjuncts work at more than one institution; 13 percent work at four or more. The need for several appointments becomes obvious when we realize how little any one of them pays. In 2013, The Chronicle began collecting data on salary and benefits from adjuncts across the country. An English-department adjunct at Berkeley, for example, received $6,500 to teach a full-semester course. It’s easy to lose sight of all the people struggling beneath the data points. $7,000 at Duke. $6,000 at Columbia. $5,950 at the University of Iowa.
These are the high numbers. According to the 2014 congressional report, adjuncts’ median pay per course is $2,700. An annual report by the American Association of University Professors indicated that last year “the average part-time faculty member earned $16,718” from a single employer. Other studies have similar findings. Thirty-one percent of part-time faculty members live near or below the poverty line. Twenty-five percent receive public assistance, like Medicaid or food stamps. One English-department adjunct who responded to the survey said that she sold her plasma on Tuesdays and Thursdays to pay for her daughter’s day care. Another woman stated that she taught four classes a year for less than $10,000. She wrote, “I am currently pregnant with my first child. … I will receive NO time off for the birth or recovery. It is necessary I continue until the end of the semester in May in order to get paid, something I drastically need. The only recourse I have is to revert to an online classroom […] and do work while in the hospital and upon my return home.” Sixty-one percent of adjunct faculty are women.
You have asked me to speak to you today about literary criticism, and so we might note that the conditions ravaging our profession are also ravaging our work. The privilege of tenure used to confer academic freedom through job security. By now, decades of adjunctification have made the professoriate fearful, insular, and conformist. According to the AAUP, adjunct faculty are about half as likely to undertake risky research projects, and the timidity moves up the ladder. “Professionalization” means retrofitting your research so that it accommodates the critical fads that will make you marginally more employable. It means cutting and adding chapters so that feathers remain unruffled. Junior faculty play it safe — conceptually, politically, and formally — because they write for job and tenure committees rather than for readers. Publications serve careers before they serve culture.
If my book deserves recognition, then we must also recognize that no young scholar with any sense would be foolish enough to write it. Graduate students must tailor their research projects to a fickle job market, and a book like mine simply doesn’t fit. Few academic presses publish narrative literary history, and what’s worse is that my book is a microhistory — it chronicles the publication of just one novel. The job market’s clearest demand is that a candidate must demonstrate breadth in research, especially if he or she works in a traditional field. This year, for example, there are only eight tenure-track jobs seeking a scholar of British modernism. And yet even this tally is too generous, because all eight of those departments are looking for someone whose expertise covers two or more centuries of British literature.
The message is clear: Stick to the old dissertation formula — six chapters about six authors. The most foolish mistake is addressing an audience beyond the academy. Publishing with Penguin or Random House should be a wonderful opportunity for a young scholar. Yet for most hiring committees, a trade book is merely one that did not undergo peer review. It’s extracurricular. My book exists because I was willing to give up a tenure-track job to write it.
We cannot blame this professional anemia on scarce funding. The largest adjunct-faculty increases have taken place during periods of economic growth, and high university endowments do not diminish adjunctification. Harvard has steadily increased its adjunct faculty over the past four decades, and its endowment is $35.7 billion. This is larger than the GDP of a majority of the world’s countries.
The truth is that teaching is a diminishing priority in universities. Years of AAUP reports indicate that budgets for instruction are proportionally shrinking. Universities now devote less than one-third of their expenditures to instruction. Meanwhile, administrative positions have increased at more than 10 times the rate of tenured faculty positions. Sports and amenities are much more fun.
Last year the University of New Hampshire made news when one of its librarians, Robert Morin, who had saved almost 50 years of paychecks, left $4 million to the university upon his death. UNH spent $1 million of the librarian’s gift on a 30-by-50-foot high-definition scoreboard for the new, $25-million football stadium. The university defended its decision by stating that the donation had been used for “our highest priorities and emerging opportunities.” Adjuncts in the English department there reportedly receive $3,000 per class. They already knew they weren’t a high priority.
And why should they be? Amid competing budgetary pressures, classroom instruction is the easiest expense to cut. And part-time employees aren’t just cheap; they also provide curricular flexibility. Unpredictable course enrollments encourage administrators to find faculty who can be hired and fired just as unpredictably. Adjuncts help departments offer an ever-changing menu of courses.
But the problem goes deeper than administration as well. It’s systemic. The key feature of adjunctification is a form of labor-market polarization. The desirability of elite faculty positions doesn’t just correlate with worsening adjunct conditions; it helps create the worsening conditions. The prospect of intellectual freedom, job security, and a life devoted to literature, combined with the urge to recoup a doctoral degree’s investment of time, gives young scholars a strong incentive to continue pursuing tenure-track jobs while selling their plasma on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
This incentive generates a labor surplus that depresses wages. Yet academia is uniquely culpable. Unlike the typical labor surplus created by demographic shifts or technological changes, the humanities almost unilaterally controls its own labor market. New faculty come from a pool of candidates that the academy itself creates, and that pool is overflowing. According to the most recent MLA jobs report, there were only 361 assistant professor tenure-track job openings in all fields of English literature in 2014-15. The number of Ph.D. recipients in English that year was 1,183. Many rejected candidates return to the job market year after year and compound the surplus.
It gets worse. From 2008 to 2014, tenure-track English-department jobs declined 43 percent. This year there are, by my count, only 173 entry-level tenure-track job openings — fewer than half of the opportunities just two years ago. If history is any guide, there will be about nine times as many new Ph.D.s this year as there are jobs. One might think that the years-long plunge in employment would compel doctoral programs to reduce their numbers of candidates, but the opposite is happening. From the Great Recession to 2014, U.S. universities awarded 10 percent more English Ph.D.s. In the humanities as a whole, doctorates are up 12 percent.”
Birmingham makes important observations about the state of higher education.