At Chronicle Vitae, full-time adjunct professor Lori Harrison-Kahan writes “Blaming the Victim: Ladder Faculty and the Lack of Adjunct Activism”. The piece addresses tenured faculty’s apparent (or at least relative) silence in the ongoing debate over adjunct labor in higher education. Harrison-Kahan rejoins such faculty for failing to extend their ongoing defenses of marginalized communities to their own community:

Why do established scholars, who speak openly about other social and economic injustices, refrain from allying themselves with those of us who are denied academic freedom by virtue of our identities as adjuncts? How are we to explain this silence?

…and she presents tenured faculty’s unconcern as a type of victim-blaming, one that often, in Harrison-Kahan’s account, involves judgements about the quality of precarious faculty’s research and/or teaching:

In order to justify discriminatory attitudes and treatment, too many ladder faculty chose to blame the victim rather than the system, convincing themselves that adjuncts deserve, or have willingly submitted to, their own exploitation.

In a discussion of the article I happened upon on Facebook, two non-contingent, senior faculty (I’m not naming them by name because it wasn’t a public post) reflected on the fact that it’s sometimes hard for tenure-track and tenured faculty to accept that their situations have arisen largely through good fortune rather than purely through hard work and inherent talents.

It’s a great point. Indeed, it’s profoundly inconsistent for someone to hold the standard liberal progressive position that cultural, economic, social, and related factors largely account for fortune and misfortune in the world, but then to take up the party-line conservative position that hard work and ability accounts primarily for success in academia.

I’ve tried and, I think, succeeded in reminding myself almost daily that good fortune is largely responsible for the considerable professional comfort I have managed to eke out of the universe. But that result is also not entirely the result of a “lottery,” either, to invoke a term that came up in the Facebook discussion. Rather, it’s largely being able and willing to find an opening in the fabric of one’s situation (itself determined largely by chance) and then to have fate smile upon the results. There’s much more to say about the complexity of this part of the matter (particularly in the humanities, which are still confused about the balance between total intellectual freedom and the reality of marketability, even for scholarship), but I’ll resist going into greater detail for the time being. I’ll also resist saying much about Harrison-Kahan’s romanticization of liberal scholars’ political aspirations…but the truth is, politics in the academy is mostly a self-reflexive rather than an interventionist practice.

That said, here’s a puzzle for us all: accepting that tenure-track (TT) success is largely related to good fortune requires accepting that non-tenure-track (NTT) misery is also largely related to bad fortune. That is to say, given the abhorrence of NTT working conditions, the same logic that would allow humility vis-à-vis TT good fortune would also allow comfort of accident regarding the bad lot of NTT life. In fact, this is precisely the opposite of the victim-blaming approach that concerns Harrison-Kahan.

However, anytime anyone brings this up (gulp) they are sure to be accused of elitism and gatekeeping and entrenchment. Of concluding, as does Harrison-Kahan, that TT faculty ought to “take action” or else they effectively adopt the default position, namely that adjuncts “deserve, or have willingly submitted to, their own exploitation.” Indeed, the obvious counterpoint to the paragraph above is to argue that I am just a privileged, out-of-touch senior professor looking to find an excuse to wrest myself from the broader academic labor situation. One can also easily imagine a party-line moralist responding to Harrison-Kahan with that particular brand of righteous admonishment so common to academics: “How can you compare professoring to race or gender disparity!?”

But it’s possible to believe that adjuncts do not deserve their situation while also contending that they have in fact willingly submitted to it, at least in part. Without going to extremes, it is very unpopular to hold the position that one option for NTT scholars involves opting out, finding something else to do. After all, there are not many worse paying jobs than cobbled-together adjunct professorships (insofar as there are jobs at all). And indeed, as a labor tactic, opting out might be a more successful approach than attempting labor reform in an era in which labor reform has become almost impossible. Perhaps such a position risks reversing the moralist’s stand into its opposite. The stoic economic rationalist could make appeals to the sunk-cost fallacy as a justification for abandoning an unsuccessful career in academia, ignoring the fact that our profession entails substantial affective attachment.

And to be fair, many do hold the position that shutting off the supply of exploitable scholars is the answer to adjunctification. But the commonest versions of this position are either to discourage the pursuit of graduate education, or to develop so-called “alt-ac” jobs as suitable, sustainable alternatives to adjuncting. Arguably, both of these approaches represent two sides of the same coin: burn it all down on the one hand, and build it back up in the library instead of in the lecture hall on the other.

But among the surely many alternative positions, one might involve all of us admitting that the tenured professorship is a high-risk career pursuit, and that we’d do well to treat it as such. While we often compare professors’ lives to other kinds of white-collar professionals, in truth our profession might be better compared to small business entrepreneurs or pro ballplayers. The possibile rewards are substantial, but they come with an attendant high risk.

It seems to me that we could hold this position while still moving to make corrections to the profoundly unacceptable rise in adjunct labor in higher education today. Put more simply, perhaps one vital, missing ingredient in academic labor reform is a willingness to give up on academia without the self-contradictory scorn of the knee-jerk “just don’t go” position, but with greater possible outcomes than the few exceptions represented by alt-ac optimism.

Near the end of Harrison-Kahan’s piece, she tells the story of attending a roundtable on “Advancing Academic Careers,” in which she and a colleague advance a question about advancement. Given a list of reasonable factors contributing to the lack of mobility among contingent faculty, the pair requests response: “We would like to hear the panelists address these basic inequalities in the academic structure that limit the advancement of contingent faculty.” After a long pause, a senior panelist says “I really don’t have an answer for that.” Harrison-Kahan intends this story to serve as evidence for TT faculty’s complicity in academic labor exploitation through indifference and ignorance.

But I wonder, what answer would have been acceptable to Harrison-Kahan? Probably not “We should stand in solidarity at the university gates!” but likewise, neither would “The structure of your position precludes advancement; perhaps you should reconsider.” I can already hear the torches being lit as I say so, but the latter response seems far more virtuous, more tactical, and more promising than the former.

published July 20, 2014


  1. Roger Whitson

    This is an interesting and thought provoking piece, Ian. I agree with most of what you say here (as far as being able to both hold that training for a professorship is a high-risk venture and try to change inequitable labor conditions for adjuncts). I also feel that there’s an additional element that contributes to the anger felt by adjuncts toward TT faculty: the way NTT faculty are made invisible on University campuses. On the one hand, the issue of having relatively fewer jobs with benefits and a living wage is a long-term economic problem. I feel that many departments are (I hope) trying to address this with more lecturer positions that at least give NTT faculty more stability. But NTT faculty are often treated at University’s as failures. Many don’t have a real voice in their department. They aren’t usually treated as professionals. And they have no real path (at least on their campus) to advance beyond their current position. At this point, without anything tying them to these positions, I would encourage these people (as you say) to leave these positions, but that hardly creates any kind of environment for long-term stability in humanities departments.

  2. Ian Bogost

    Yes, the situation is not good. Often contingent faculty are treated with great scorn, and this doesn’t help anyone. Full-time lecturer positions are substantially better, and they also offer a different approach to an academic career that may suit some people better than research positions do. Of course, there’s still some stigma associated with anything other than the tenure-track… although that stigma seems strongest in the humanities. In the sciences and engineering, lecturers are far more common and their role is more respected, in my experience. Perhaps this is also the case in foreign language departments. Anyway, I hope it’s clear that I’m specifically addressing the truly contingent, course-by-course, year-by-year or term-by-term type of employment as potentially worthy of abandonment.

  3. Gary Stager

    The reason why tenure-track faculty should be concerned with the status of contingent/adjunct faculty is that you’re next to be exploited, have your pay slashed, and the quality of your working conditions eroded. Tenured is not a condition immune to radical cost-cutting or replacement by a MOOC.

    I’ve been on two sides of a three or four-sided fence – adjunct for many years and as a non-tenured-track Visiting Professor for two and I can tell you that I have always been impressed by the quality of adjuncts I’ve worked with – many of whom are experts in their fields of practice. I can’t always say the same of my tenured colleagues.

    • Ian Bogost

      Gary, we absolutely should be concerned. Nothing in the post above opposes concern. Rather, the question is how that concern ought to manifest into action.

  4. Chris

    “While we often compare professors’ lives to other kinds of white-collar professionals, in truth our profession might be better compared to small business entrepreneurs or pro ballplayers. The possible rewards are substantial, but they come with an attendant high risk.”

    I love this comparison, and it’s helped me understand (and explain to others) some of the realities of pursuing / living an academic career (i.e., pitching investors may be degrading and hard, but is pitching granting organizations meaningfully different viz. ‘intellectual freedom’?) However, I’m wondering if there isn’t a slight but important distinction between the two examples of other high-risk professions.

    In pro sports, as I see it, you make it (for various gradations of ‘made it’), or you don’t, and not making it often (though not always) is understood as a kind of catastrophic failure (both because of affective loss and because you may not have built any other skills in the pursuit of sports).

    In entrepreneurship, though – at least among those entrepreneurs I know and have worked with, admittedly a small subset – it seems like the expectation is that failure is normal/accepted/necessary. Because everyone expects to fail at any given attempt to start a business, everyone celebrates failure (to an extent), and, critically, understands that the failure of a given attempt or idea does not indicate the inherent inadequacy of the person who failed (at least, not to the extent that not getting tenure would). And, if you decide that you do want to minimize your risk variance, there seem to be a sufficient number of large companies which value entrepreneurial experience that you can probably get a good job (even if one which does not reward your love of ‘being your own boss’ or w/e), which seems less ‘alt-ent’ than ‘post-ent’ but in a much, much more positive way.

    So my question is: which of the two examples you mention is academia *more* like? It seems to me ballplayers, but maybe it could/should be like entrepreneurs? Why does failure of big attempts seem so scary/stigmatized in academia in a way it doesn’t in entrepreneurship?

    (I am also open to the possibility I’ve got a misleading, idealized understanding of the culture of entrepreneurship w/r/t failure acceptance, and have failed myself in that respect!)

    • Ian Bogost

      Maybe even more than a slight difference! But yes, I agree that it’s more like pro ballplayers. You’ve hit on problem with the entrepreneurship metaphor, too… despite my skepticism about today’s culture of entrepreneurs-uber-alles, the entrepreneur is lithe and makes shifts and changes to his or her course.

      • Chris

        Right, exactly. I wish there were some way to make ‘academia’ (whatever that means) more forgiving of that kind of approach and attitude (idealization notwithstanding).

  5. Sharon O'Dair

    I used the metaphor of professional athletics in my essay “Stars, Tenure, and the Death of Ambition” Michigan Quarterly Review, 1997. Unlike you, Professor Bogost, I do not think that metaphor is a happy one for our profession. In my view, our problems result from decisions made long ago by society and the profession. Data suggest that “in 1945 there were enough slots in postsecondary education for only one of five Americans aged eighteen to twenty-two. By 1992 the number had grown to about four for every five.” Such enormous structural change was bound to affect the ways institutions attract and reward their employees; most immediately, in English, thousands and thousands of composition courses needed to be staffed. That universities and departments of English chose to staff these courses with graduate students, however, was not inevitable. As sociologist Randall Collins wrote in 2000, we had a choice in the 1960s and 1970s either to “pay the price by sharing the burden” or to allow “a lower class of instructors” to shoulder it for us. “Structurally,” Collins argues, “either way will work; but the decision has consequences for the ethos of a discipline, especially in an era when the ideals of [many] disciplines are democratic.” We know which way we chose, even though our ethos is democratic.
    That said, I think all of us—part-time, full-time, tenured–need to acknowledge that professional inequality, a classed system of employment, is the price we are paying and have paid for allowing the academy and society to pursue two expensive dreams, as I call them, or two imperatives, as the MLA calls them: on the one hand, a prestige-based research culture and on the other hand, universal access to the academy. Both developed in the postwar period; both have had deleterious effects on the professoriate and on PhD students, because both—democratized access to the dissemination of knowledge and the prestige-driven approach to research or the production of knowledge—require cheap labor. Cheap labor, provided in the 1970s and 1980s by graduate students. Now, increasingly, provided by contingent faculty as well as graduate students. What was once arguably ethical, since graduate students could assume a reasonable shot at escaping the poorly remunerated labor that allowed the “intellectual knowledge workers” to do their handsomely remunerated work, is now patently unethical, since graduate students cannot so assume, and the research professoriate can find itself being subsidized by their former graduate students, now full or part-time instructors.

    • Ian Bogost

      I never said it was a happy metaphor…