This Is How You Kill a Profession

March 27, 2019

How did we discard the idea of college faculty? That is, how did we decide to systematically eliminate an entire class of professionals whom we once trusted to conduct the final distillation of our children into capable, confident adults? How did we come to decide that college teachers didn’t deserve job security, didn’t deserve health insurance, didn’t deserve to make more than convenience-store clerks?

It wasn’t hard, really.

We discarded college faculty in the same way that we discarded medical general practitioners: through providing insane rewards to specialists and leaving most care in the hands of paraprofessionals.

We discarded college faculty in the same way that we discarded cab drivers: by leveling the profession and allowing anyone to participate, as long as they had a minimum credential and didn’t need much money.

We discarded college faculty in the same way that we discarded magazine and newspaper writers: by relabeling the work “content” and its workers “content providers.”

We discarded college faculty in the same way that we discarded local auto mechanics: by making all of the systems and regulations so sophisticated that they now require an army of technicians and specialized equipment.

We discarded college faculty in the same way that we discarded bookkeepers: by finally letting women do it after decades of declaring that impossible, and then immediately reducing the status of the work once it became evident that women could, in fact, do it well.

Our contemporary religion of innovation has as one of its tenets the following belief: Rather than defeat your competition, make your competitors irrelevant. This is exactly what we see in higher education. College faculty were not defeated after great struggle, after a battle with a winner and a loser. College has simply been redefined, over and over, in ways that make faculty irrelevant. College teaching, as a profession, is being eliminated one small, undetected, definitional drop at a time.

My wife completed her Ph.D. in environmental psychology in 1982, from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, having done her dissertation on the ways in which people constructed for themselves a sense of place, of home, of lineage, in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey.

In the technology of that time, she sent a typewritten copy of her dissertation to University Microfilms International, in Ann Arbor, the nation’s repository of master’s theses and doctoral dissertations. She bought from them a dozen or so copies of the bound dissertation, at $40 or $50 apiece: for herself, for her parents, for close friends, and for the members of her dissertation committee.

Months later, she received a small, handwritten note from one of those committee members. I reproduce it here in full.

Dear Nora, (I hope this reaches you.) Thanks for your note and copy of thesis. I appreciate your kind words. I hope you still believe it was all worthwhile. You worked so hard (sometimes!) and it hasn’t seemed to lead anywhere.


Nora subsequently taught at Rutgers, at Pratt Institute, at the New York School of Interior Design, at the Fashion Institute of Technology, at the Boston Architectural College, at Green Mountain College, and at Castleton State College. She started teaching in 1982, and taught through the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, up until 2014: 30 years of course-by-course contracts, of outstanding course evaluations and devoted students, of collegiality offered to deaf ears and turned shoulders.

I finished my dissertation in late 1996, to high praise and rapid publication. I went on to sell furniture. I went on to measure the illumination of prison perimeter lighting and the duration of stay of juvenile offenders. I went on to a teaching postdoc at age 44, much later than most TT faculty have successfully been safely tenured. I went on to take one administrative position and then another at a professional college that had little room for broader intellectual life. I went on to hold leadership positions as a volunteer in one of the innumerable symbiont organizations of higher education, surrounded by those who had made it, who had somehow passed through the gates that had closed in the face of my pleas. I searched their successes as I considered my failure.

I lost most of my 40s to what I can only refer to as a nervous breakdown. Grief will make you crazy, and I was impossible to live with. I showed up for work, and that’s about the best that can be said for me. Four years of teaching at Duke saved me, at least during the daylight hours, but I did that job with one eye on the calendar, knowing that my time in heaven had an expiration date, after which I’d be cast out once again.

The grief of not finding a home in higher ed — of having done everything as well as I was capable of doing, and having it not pan out; of being told over and over how well I was doing and how much my contributions mattered, even as the prize was withheld — consumed more than a decade. It affected my physical health. It affected my mental health. It ended my first marriage. It reopened all my fears from childhood about abandonment and rejection. It was a chasm into which I fell during my job search of 1996-97, and from which I didn’t really fully emerge until I left higher education altogether, in 2013.

Over the past year I’ve helped two colleges with their accreditation efforts. I’ve put on a few faculty-development events. And now I’m writing about the contingent academic work force. And I realize how much I resent it all.

Every contact I have with higher education brings me right back into the chasm. Into envious comparisons with others. Into the common-­sense conclusion that of course I wasn’t good enough, of course I did something wrong along the way. Into trying to be rational, analytical, and strategic about something as fundamental as my own identity as a scholar and teacher and colleague.

I went with my wife on a trip recently in support of her current research project. We were in Henniker, N.H., home of New England College. As we drove through the compact campus and its white-clapboard buildings, I was beguiled once again by the life I wanted: to be the kind, wise man who led generations of students into a richer adulthood on protected, monastic grounds. The music of a good college campus always makes me sing, and having that song inside me again, even momentarily, made me realize how much the silence has ached.

The problems with the adjunct structure of higher education are not merely quantitative. It’s not just about how badly adjuncts are paid, not just about the inadequate opportunities for our students to build enduring relationships with the faculty who guide them. It’s also about fear, despair, surrender, shame — the messy, hidden human elements that finance and policy always miss.

The story of the adjunct faculty, of the postdoctoral scholars, of those in “alt-careers” — that story will be incomplete unless we recognize that we are refugees from a nation that would not have us. We have found our way to innumerable continents, but still hold that lost home in our hearts. We still, many of us, in quiet moments, mourn the loss of our community as we make our scattered way across diverse lands.

The decision to join a community is never solely rational. We discover a way of life we find appealing, learn more about it, start to make friends with others who hold similar values. We shift our vocabulary, our terms of engagement, our enthusiasms. Our calendars are marked by different constraints — rather than birthdays and Thanksgiving, we attune ourselves to semesters, grant-proposal deadlines, the week of our discipline’s national conference.

We become new people in order to join this new culture. We know that our proposed membership in that community will be subject to great competition. We offer ourselves as contestants in a pageant for people who can’t even describe their own desires. We imagine that with the right costume or the right theme music, we might be chosen. We sniff the air, hoping for a phrase to borrow, to learn this year’s color, to please the tastemakers as we pass by in the parade of the damned, hoping for the rare and unpredictable nod that will allow us to move from the slush pile to the long list to the short list to the campus visit to — dare we think it? — an offer of membership.

Some few will get in. Some larger number will not. But the peculiar cruelty of higher education is its third option — the vast purgatory of contingent life, in which we are neither welcomed nor rejected, but merely held adjacent to the mansion, to do the work that our betters would prefer not to do.

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.

— Kevin Birmingham

Again, the rationalists might say that we should walk away, that we should refuse to support an industry that behaves as it does. But intellectual work is not solely rational. It is a form of desire. It is our identity. It is a community that we love, that does not love us back. So we build a dysfunctional story in which we have at least some role, in which we can name a way that we belong. And the industry is happy to help us manufacture that story, since it keeps us close and useful for a little while longer.

A life of contingency, like any life with an abusive partner, requires us to manufacture elaborate emotional defenses. We imagine that if only we do something better, love will follow. We fear retribution, and so walk quietly. We are uncertain even of our most basic survival if we were to leave, knowing that a few thousand dollars per course is horrible, but having no other readily visible market for our labor. Participation in contingency may look like weakness, but it’s an attempt to gain control, to claim a tenuous foothold on the raw, crumbling face of the chasm.

Like any addict, I have to be vigilant whenever higher ed calls again. I know what it means to be a member of that cult, to believe in the face of all evidence, to persevere, to serve. I know what it means to take a 50-percent pay cut and move across the country to be allowed back inside the academy as a postdoc after six years in the secular professions. To be grateful to give up a career, to give up economic comfort, in order to once again be a member.

Part of me still wants it. That kind of faith is in my bones, and reason can only bleach it away somewhat. The imprint is still there, faint, hauntingly imprecise, all the more venerable for its openness to dreams. I worked as a college administrator for seven years after that postdoc, because I couldn’t bear to be away from my beloved community even after it had set me aside. Because I couldn’t walk away.

All cults, all abusers, work the same way, taking us away from friends and family, demanding more effort and more sacrifice and more devotion, only to find that we remain the same tantalizing distance from the next promised level. And the sacrifice normalizes itself into more sacrifice, the devotion becomes its own reward, the burn of the hunger as good as the meal.  

Herb Childress is a partner at Teleidoscope Group, LLC, an ethnography-­based consulting firm. This essay is excerpted from his new book, The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission (University of Chicago Press).