Report from ASLE 2015: Building a Life and Career in the Environmental Humanities

Siperstein headshotBy Stephen Siperstein, University of Oregon

Wisdom is a gift. To receive it, a joy. Sometimes wisdom comes in the form of direct advice. Other times, in the form of stories. Such stories don’t always have clear messages or morals, yet in the simple act of sharing, much is passed on. For young scholars in the environmental humanities, especially those beginning or soon beginning the transition from the apprentice stage of their careers to the warrior stage of their careers (as I am), stories from the citizens and elders of the field can be especially valuable, and especially joyful. In particular, these stories can lead to new ideas or new visions of how to cultivate a convincing career and how to lead a meaningful life.

Academics cling to particular stories. Why is this? Because they are appealing? Because they are comfortable? Because they are what we are told in college or during the beginning years of graduate school? Because they are somewhow true? Here is my own take and simplified version of the story I’ve heard many times over: “Get a PhD, find a tenure track line, publish a book, teach well, pass the third or fourth year review, publish additional articles, receive tenure, publish another book…. walk off into the glowing twilight.” The protagonist as hero. The plot of success. The linear trajectory. Even when young scholars are told that this trajectory will be difficult to achieve—that there are no prospects, not enough jobs (or no jobs where we want them)—the appeal isn’t diminished. The dire warnings make such stories scarier, but still we cling to them. They are the organizing fictions of our schools, our departments, our fields, our careers, and (for some of us) our entire lives. Of course, for many individuals, such paths lead to convincing and meaningful lives. But, I imagine, rarely are the paths that these individuals actually take in practice so simple or so predictable. My point here is not that organizing fictions are bad or that we need to give them up. Rather, my point is that it is hard to construct other narratives, and young professionals might need help in doing so.

This past June, at the 2015 biennial conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environmental (ASLE), I sought out such other narratives. And, as I often find at ASLE events, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by scholars and teachers and writers and editors and poets and environmental advocates and fellow students of life, all of whom were more than willing to offer up their time and their wisdom. This is one of the reasons why ASLE is such a supportive organization: knowledge and encouragement are passed freely between generations, and professionals from every career stage are welcomed and treated with respect. It is also one of the reasons why I love attending ASLE conferences.

I am currently serving a term as the ASLE graduate student liaison, and together with my co-GSL, Clare Echterling—and withEchterling headshot the help of John Tallmadge and Mark Long—we organized a session on career development outside the tenure-track model. The session was geared especially to graduate students and young professionals, though judging from the crowd (at one point I counted over fifty participants), ASLE members from every career stage attended and contributed. Throughout the hour and a half session, six panelists spoke about their own experiences and stories, audience participants brainstormed and wrote about their own values and career goals, and then panelists and participants collaborated in an open-ended discussion.

One motivation for organizing this session (and for organizing it in a way that engaged participants directly in career envisioning) was my own hunger for stories from individuals who have followed “alternative” career paths within the environmental humanities. However, while the session focused explicitly on options beyond the tenure track model, it also set out to think beyond the discourse of “alternatives,” and thus beyond that disempowering question “what else can I do?” Rather, session panelists—who, speaking from a diverse range of experiences and graciously donating their time and wisdom—focused instead on exploring more empowering questions such as, “What do I love to do?” “What do I want to do?” “What do I value?” “How do I live a convincing life and career?”

The organizing fiction of the tenure track trajectory is powerful, and it can be put to good use. But other stories are equally powerful. Thus, career thinking does not need to be about “alternatives” or about “beyond” tenure track. It does not need to be “either/or.” It does not even need to be “both/and” (As if the paths within academia are separate from the paths outside it. As if we had to choose to travel only in one of two different landscapes). Rather, as I listened to the panelists and audience participants offer their many stories, I realized that the environmental humanities (perhaps more than any other locus of fields) can include a myriad of pathways, or a network of desire paths branching through the forest. As Gary Snyder writes, “We need paths and trails and will always be maintaining them,” yet “off the trail” is “where we do our best work.”

So we must hold onto the organizing fictions. They are the trails that have been cut before us and that some of us still maintain. But there are other directions to take “off the trails,” ones that can be equally empowering and satisfying. Below are brief statements (I’d call them gifts) from four of our panelists—Kathryn Miles, Amy McIntyre, Simmons Buntin, and Karl Zuelke. The wisdom, stories, and suggestions that they offer are not exactly what they shared during the session itself, but I hope you find these reflections helpful, empowering, and nourishing. ASLE is an organization of gift giving and path-finding. May your own lives be filled with both.

Kathryn MilesKathryn Miles, writer-in-residence at Green Mountain College:

In thinking about what makes for a fulfilling career in the environmental humanities, I keep returning to Marge Piercy’s poem, “To Be Of Use.” There, she writes lyrically of her appreciation for honest work: people “who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart / who pull like water buffalo” who “move in a common rhythm,” and who “jump into work head first / without dallying in the shallows.” That’s what I want, too. To be of use. To do good work. Probably, that’s what you want too. How do we get there?

I think the short answer is that we each have to determine how we can best make a contribution not only to the worlds of pedagogy and environmental studies, but also to a planet in crisis. That involves creative thinking, of looking for those unexpected moments of connection. Sometimes, it’s in a classroom. But not always. Some of my most rewarding work has been with care providers in a state veterans hospital or on the trail of a missing hiker. The important thing is that we feel like we’re doing honest work. The exciting thing is that, despite what the news cycle or the Chronicle of Higher Education will tell you, there are ever increasing ways to do just that, from freelance writing to experiential education. Believe it or not, graduate school is preparing you for a lot of these opportunities. And, if you’re really lucky, you might even get your hands dirty along the way.

Amy McIntyre, Managing Director ASLE:Amy Head shot

While I haven’t ever quite envisioned being a college professor, I have always been attracted by education, writing, and art and had the desire to incorporate them in some way into my work and career—and life, apparently, as I married an academic! As an undergraduate, I majored in History and minored in Art, and so, in that linear way of thinking that is typical at age 21, I found myself at Oberlin College in a MA program in Art History, with vague sights set on a museum curatorial career. For many reasons, that trajectory didn’t last, but my interest in education and core belief that the humanities prepared me to do any number of things well did persevere through some uninspiring post-college jobs.

And I DID end up working at a museum for several years—but it was a children’s museum instead of an art museum, and it was working with memberships and budgets instead of artwork! There I began to develop my skills and interest in nonprofit administration, which I continued to do as part of my next job at the Monadnock Institute of Nature, Place and Culture at Franklin Pierce University, funded by an IMLS grant. There I discovered that grant-funded positions, while not permanent, can be a great opportunity to gain knowledge, experience, and connections.

Prior to moving to NH and starting work at the museum, I had begun a MA program in counseling, to help me pursue a career path that did not include more of the aforementioned cruddy jobs. I did finish the degree, and I’m sure I use this training all the time in the broadest sense when parenting, interacting with professional contacts, etc. I never did start a counseling job! ASLE Managing Director was a position created as the organization grew, and it represented an opportunity to collaborate with the leadership to shape the job, because it was brand new and growing and changing in response to new demands and priorities. I would recommend considering a position that seems to provide such opportunities for growth and change, even if the original position is not your dream job. It may morph into that one day!

Simmons Buntin, editor-in-chief at Terrain.org:Simmons Buntin

Sometimes your work gets you into the industry of environmental humanities (whatever that may be) and sometimes the humanities get you into your work. In my case, it wasn’t my degree that landed me a job; it was the degree that spurred an idea that started as a hobby that remains a hobby but that also resulted in the skill set necessary to establish and maintain a career, one that allows me to keep up my hobby that now has grown well beyond just my hobby. Following?

In the mid-1990s I graduated with an urban planning master’s degree. A fellow graduate and I wanted to start a place-based magazine, but had neither the experience nor financial backing to start a print journal. So we started one online: Terrain.org. I learned basic HTML skills and later more web development because of Terrain.org and, coupled with my previous experience as a project manager with the U.S. Department of Energy, turned that into what has become a fast-paced career in web program management. My career in that industry is as old as the journal: 18 years. Not bad in this day and age, either for an online journal or a career.

Happily, Terrain.org and my career in web management have grown together not only in years, but also in technology and lessons learned. They directly benefit each other. Terrain.org couldn’t be the dynamic website it is today without my web development knowledge, and my web management skills wouldn’t be as advanced as they are without the journal. In the last six years, particularly, Terrain.org has expanded to become a broad organization, and though I continue to play a key role (including website management), we have a core of genre editors and an international editorial board, as well as an expanding following. Where will that take my career and the journal next? Into nonprofit management from the looks of it, at least to some degree. Terrain.org doesn’t pay the bills — in fact, I spend well more than my allowance on it, as my wife reminds me — but by having a full-time career in web management, I am able to afford such an important hobby. And as we move into fiscal sponsorship and nonprofit status, well, maybe it will just pay for itself after all. Some day….

Head Shot Karl ZuelkeKarl Zuelke, Director of the Writing Center and the Math & Science Center, Mount St. Joseph University:

My career has unfolded from a number of opportunities that I could never have seen coming, yet it has grown into something extremely rewarding and satisfying. No one will ever duplicate my path exactly, but I think there may be some lessons to impart for the nervous grad student looking to forge a career in a very difficult job market.

My first piece of advice is to be alert for unexpected opportunities. I have an MFA in fiction from Indiana University and a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati. They are both good programs. I expected to enter into the tenure-track path at some point, but things didn’t work out that way. What did happen was that while I was teaching as an adjunct at two different schools, an email announcement was forwarded to me from a friend. A small local Catholic liberal arts college needed a Writing Center director. I had no formal WC training, though I had worked a few hours as a writing tutor. I sent the college my vita anyway and was contacted the next day for an interview. During the interview, there were no questions about writing center theory or praxis at all. The head of the department simply wanted to get to know me, and I’m quite sure she was gauging my interpersonal skills. This was more than looking for a friendly colleague, though. Writing center work is highly dependent on mature, gentle, and empathetic interpersonal skills. Satisfied with that (I think!), she explained that the director position had been changed and would be filled with someone in-house, but they were willing to hire me at $25/hour for 6 hours a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, to tutor in their writing center. It fit in my schedule, and I took it on.

While I was there, I made contacts and got to know people. This is my second piece of advice: Make friends. Be nice, be helpful, be witty when appropriate, go to meetings and speak up, have lunch with faculty and administrators in the dining hall. When the director that year moved on, I was asked to take over. It was offered as an adjunct position at first. I decided not to do it on that basis, and turned the position down after putting it off as long as I could. After I said no, I got a call back 45 minutes later, offering it as a ¾ time position with full benefits. That sounded better, and I accepted. The administrator who offered me the position made what to me was a telling comment: “You’re not afraid to talk and speak your mind, and you eat lunch with us in the dining hall every day. You’re the person we wanted in this position.”

I spent several years learning writing center theory on the fly and adapting it to my new college. It was difficult and all consuming at first. The approach I developed was successful, and I’m now the director of a thriving writing center that has earned the respect of both faculty and administration. It’s not a tenure-track position. It’s not even a faculty position. But the position includes teaching duties, and I love teaching, especially literature and environmental studies, which I feel make a difference in the lives and educations of my students. When the new Senior Core Capstone classes were developed, I was on the faculty learning community that developed them, and I taught the first two sections. Small liberal arts colleges and universities are less rigid in structure than larger institutions, and with the right contacts, all sorts of doors can open.

I feel very much a part of the university now, with my ideas and influence woven deeply through the academic fabric of the institution. I co-taught an environmental science course with a biology professor last year (I have an undergraduate degree in biology). I gave the keynote address at our Celebration of Teaching and Learning, and the topic, “A Sense of Place,” was subsequently included as a unit that all entering freshmen will take in a required core course. I serve on the Environmental Action Committee. When I noted that the university didn’t have a sustainability policy, I was invited to write one. Representing the EAC, I took it to the faculty, staff, and students, who approved it, and it is now undergoing the final approval process with the President’s Cabinet and the Board of Trustees. Next year, pending final approval, I’ll be co-teaching a French literature and history course, which will include a trip to Paris. I’m also planning on a visit to Ghana—to guest lecture at a university there with other members of our faculty.

I mention all this to support a suggestion: small institutions rock! They have their own sets of issues and challenges to be sure, but for someone who is engaged, talented, friendly, and hard working, the opportunities for the blossoming of varied and exciting careers are there once you get your foot in the door. And—there are jobs out there for writing center directors. Be as broad as possible in your academic preparation, be friendly and make contacts and forge alliances, and keep your eyes open for opportunities you might not expect.

Warrior Tales: the Story of Dave

What if you don’t get a job?  We’ve all heard horror stories of people driving cabs, working at Starbuck’s, or hanging around campus doing odd jobs; some medicate with dangerous drugs, or, in the worst cases, attempt suicide.  No one keeps track of these lost souls; the information is all anecdotal.  We all want to live in hope yet can’t shake the creeping fear that failure may be contagious. Fortunately, there are plenty of hopeful stories out there, and we will lift up a few in the next series of posts.

When I arrived in my first (and only) tenure track job, I probed my colleagues delicately for their tenure history, not to betray too green an interest in my own fate.  Yes, they had used temporary faculty with some regularity, and no, not everyone had gained tenure, unfortunately. They sounded reassuringly apologetic but also a bit vague. There had been unusual circumstances, sometimes of a personal nature, or the fit wasn’t right, or it turned out to be a bad hire, or the person’s career had taken a new direction, that sort of thing.  Mostly, they did not know what had become of their former colleagues, although in one case the person had gone to work for Target and was now making pots of money; he had come down for a visit driving a big fancy car and was apparently putting his intellect and communication skills to good use, with few regrets about escaping from freshman comp and Intro to British lit. This story was conveyed in hushed tones that suggested an odd mix of pity and envy.  It gave me a whiff of hope for other possibilities should things not work out as planned.

Eight years later, amid the unplanned wreckage, I met David Cave.  He had done graduate work at Chicago and Indiana before taking a PhD in religion from a seminary down in Kentucky. Newly-minted and with his dissertation published by Oxford he looked to be in excellent shape for a tenure-track job.  He and his wife, an oncology nurse, had moved to Cincinnati to be near her family; he had obtained a temporary assistant professorship that had recently ended, and he was looking around.  Despite great credentials and active scholarship, he could find nothing in the way of a regular job.  He had spent several years adjuncting, networking with all the local colleges, and even doing regular commentaries for NPR.  He was determined to maintain an intellectual life and keep up his scholarship.

But economics began to catch up with him.  Their son was growing apace and the family needed money.  He finally took a development internship at one of the big hospitals; he learned the ropes and found that he liked the work of building relationships and helping people find meaning and purpose in supporting a charitable mission.  When the internship ended, he became development director for a very small Catholic college, and after five years there he moved over to the University of Cincinnati Foundation, where he worked raising money for the humanities.  And five years after that, he moved to the University of Michigan.

During all this time, Dave continued to read, think, teach, and publish.  He gave talks, wrote radio commentaries, kept a journal of ideas, and stayed in touch with colleagues in his field.  He also organized book groups and found other informal means to pursue the intellectual life.  He liked working with faculty and was received as a colleague because of his scholarship and devotion to teaching and education.  Now, at Michigan, he’s actively involved with the humanities, engaging individual graduates and friends of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts to support the priorities and ventures of departments, programs, and the college as a whole.  He and his wife live in wonderful Ann Arbor, where they host a popular literary salon.  His development work takes him to places like Washington, Atlanta, and Miami where he cultivates visions and ideas with smart, well-placed alumni.  And he continues to read and publish actively in his field.

Dave inspired me with his resourcefulness and devotion to a felt calling.  Initially, he was disappointed not to land a regular teaching job, but he found ways to stay alive intellectually and other venues in which to pursue both teaching and scholarship.  He found another way to make a living that proved surprisingly rewarding, not only for its intrinsic satisfactions and good income, but also for keeping him  connected to the university.  I was reminded how many poets, musicians, and artists have had other day jobs: think of Wallace Stevens or Charles Ives, both of whom sold insurance, James Joyce, who worked in a bank, or William Carlos Williams tending his patients.  The truth is that most of us have more than one passion, and there is always more than one way to use our skills.  A job can’t and shouldn’t provide everything.  Like Thoreau, we’d do better with a broad margin to our life, to keep a light hand on the tiller and take the widest possible view of our horizons.

Adjuncts and Part-Timers: Role of the Person

Those who work as adjuncts or part-timers give varying accounts of their situation.  For some, it works; for others it doesn’t.  But the basic facts remain pretty consistent: low pay, no job security, no benefits, and the lowest status in the profession.  How can you make such conditions work for you?  It depends on who you are and what you want out of life.

Until recently, most adjunct faculty were experts employed elsewhere, who were brought in for special knowledge and skills that the regular faculty lacked.  They were recruited for particular programs on an as-needed basis.  Because they were employed elsewhere, their pay was in the nature of an honorarium, and their work was considered largely pro bono.  People took adjunct gigs out of a sense of social or professional responsibility, for the opportunity to teach and in that way to give back some of what they had gained.  Teaching was a refreshing change from their normal work life.  They did not think of themselves as professional educators.

Part-time faculty also realized some benefits.  Frequently, they were people who had left the work force to raise children or take care of aging parents, or, as faculty spouses, found themselves stuck in place and had to take the best option available for maintaining some sort of professional life.  Some part-timers were eventually able to work their way into full-time positions; others found the freedom and flexibility preferable to the up-or-out demands and legendary stress of the tenure track.

With the erosion of regular faculty positions and the abundance of available Ph.D.’s, adjunct and part-time work has now become the norm.  We now have thousands of adjuncts and part-timers making a career out of it.  These include many with terminal degrees and extensive publications.  But it is difficult to see how one can live on $21,000 a year, which is the average going rate for teaching ten courses.  And that emolument does not include the “psychic dollars” one gains from a regular position, with its sense of institutional citizenship and all the supports that go with it.

On September 5 of this year, Marc Bousquet posted a blog in the Chronicle’s “Brainstorm” section called “Meet Maria.”  Maria holds a Ph.D. in anthropology and suffers from mental illness.  She held and lost several tenure-track jobs before being reduced to adjuncting, which left her destitute and on the brink of homelessness.  She is now training to be  nursing assistant, which is a dirty and dangerous job that pays around $12 an hour, but at least, she says, you can find a position.

Maria’s testimony is heartbreaking, lucid and full of self-awareness.  She accepts responsibility for her situation, and she’s trying to make lemonade out of lemons by organizing a research project on health care workers.  Her goal, she says, is to keep from becoming homeless, and she has plenty to say about the trials of adjunct life.

As I read this story, it occurred to me that adjuncting and part-timing can feel like a kind of professional homelessness.  You lack a “home institution”, an “institutional home,” a place where you belong.  This is a pregnant metaphor – and we’ll examine more  in the weeks ahead – that tells us about the values and beliefs that underlie behavior.  We all want a home; we all want to feel at home; we all want and need to belong.  But we also judge people by where they belong – by their houses, their neighborhoods, their institutions.  Poverty and homelessness make us uncomfortable – they might be contagious!  In the eyes of regular faculty, adjuncts are tainted by failure, which is assumed to be their own fault.  As Maria observes, “Who wants to spend time with a loser?”

The issue, for those who adjunct or part-time, is how to turn the situation to advantage.  How can you thrive in a state of professional homelessness?  Thoreau, who advocated not owning a farm, liked the freedom to wander throughout the town and enjoy the best part of the landscape, which always yielded an “instant and immeasurable” crop without any labor on his part.  He also conducted an active literary and intellectual life without any connection to a university.  “Let not to get a living be thy trade, but thy sport,” he declared.  Nevertheless, we have to remember that he did frequently avail himself of Mrs. Emerson’s apple pies.

The good people of Concord thought of Thoreau as a loser, but he didn’t think of himself that way.  Nor did Maria.  That is at least half the battle.  If you have no home, you can be at home everywhere.  Perhaps it is time to rethink the uses of failure.

Adjuncts and Part-Timers: Role of the Profession

A recent study reported in the Chronicle demonstrates that tenured and tenure-track faculty do not seem altogether opposed to the increasing reliance on adjuncts and part-timers.  You would think that all professors would care enough about the erosion of their profession to defend its cherished structures and practices, including full-time status and tenure.  But it turns out that, while they are willing to defend for themselves, they are unwilling to do so for others.

Indeed, there seems to be a kind of Faustian pact between the regular faculty and the institution where adjuncts and part-timers are concerned.  The latter teach mainly introductory courses or discussion sections, freeing the former for upper-division and graduate courses.  Institutions have long recognized that faculty are willing to be paid in security and prestige as much as in cash. These, in fact, account for a good portion of the “psychic dollars” made famous by Governor Brown, and, best of all, they don’t show up on the books.  But in order to maintain prestige, you must have a pecking order, and job security across the board creates management headaches.  The solution?  Prestige and job security for the few, the proud, the privileged; hard work with scant reward for the rest.

The regular faculty buy into this arrangement, some cheerfully, some with misgivings, but they all accept it and some even defend it. Thus, they become part of the problem.

I have observed that faculty tend to be politically liberal.  They vote democratic, support environmental reform, advocate equal rights, champion the oppressed, decry financial abuse and corporate greed, all that sort of thing.  Professionally, however, they tend to be ultraconservative.  Just take a mild swipe at tenure, academic freedom, peer review, or the prestige of someone’s institution and watch what happens.  I once asked a senior colleague, who acknowledged the usual catalog of inequities, whether he would be willing to give up tenure if it led to a fairer and more just system.  He blanched. “They pay me with tenure,” he said.

Comments like these remind me of Dr. Paul Farmer’s wistful remark about the rich liberals who extol his medical  projects in Haiti:  “They want to save the world at no cost to themselves.”

As for prestige, everyone knows that reputation counts for a great deal in academia.  Almost the first thing people want to know is where you teach.  Once they pry it out of you, you can read instant judgment in their faces.  They have pegged, labeled, and filed you, like a card in the hand, or in a catalog.  Forget about your story.  Forget about what they might learn by listening or asking.  It is very hard to escape this sort of thinking, no matter which side you are on.  Internalized shame is as common as outward humiliation in our world.

Indeed, hierarchy and prestige seem to have grown naturally from the rich soil of privilege and comparative judgments, which may begin with the simple and inescapable fact that professors have to grade students almost every day.  We acquire the habit of judgment and discrimination so early that it becomes instinctual, even unconscious.

If I were to give you a random list of institutions, you could easily rank them by reputation and influence.  I would bet that a random sample of your colleagues would rank them pretty much the same way.  At the top would be research institutions with no students at all, such as the Institute for Advanced Study, followed by doctoral universities, and on down through master’s institutions, baccalaureate institutions, and two-year colleges all the way to community colleges and technical schools.  With some exceptions for antiquity and elitism, colleges rank below universities.  It’s clear that our profession considers teaching less prestigious than research, and basic courses less desirable than advanced courses.

All this suggests that the profession itself supports the adjunct and part-time system because it, in turn, upholds the system of hierarchy and prestige.  When strapped for cash, they can still pay you off with privilege.  If it works for you, it works for them.  It just doesn’t work for the people at the bottom.

Adjuncts and Part-Timers: Role of the Institution

The Chronicle issue on adjuncts and part-timers quotes a number of people who have reconciled themselves to life with a heavy but uncertain teaching load, low pay, no job security, no benefits, and the lowest level of status that you can occupy and still be called a professional.  Some of these folks appear resigned, some seem embittered, some seem content with the tradeoffs, and some even appear to enjoy the life or at least see its advantages.  Those who accept the life seem to choose it for the freedom to come and go, maintain a flexible schedule, and continue to work with students, which they love and which provides meaning and purpose; these benefits, to them, outweigh the inequities and insecurity.  For them, apparently, it all comes down to balance.

I applaud everyone who aspires to a balanced life and chooses accordingly, but at the same time it’s hard to stomach the inequities and injustices perpetrated by the adjunct and part-time system.  And I’m not talking just about faculty, but about students and their parents as well.  Ask me, a  parent of college students, what sort of people I want teaching my daughters, and I will say smart, empathic scholars of good character who embody the virtues of creativity, knowledge, wisdom, and intellect, who teach with love and care about their students.  I want people who will care about my daughters, who will nurture their development as whole persons; I want people my daughters can get to know and who will inspire them to learn.  I want to entrust their education to institutions that devote themselves to promoting and nurturing such values.

What am I to think of a university that staffs two thirds of its undergrad credit hours with adjuncts and part-timers?  No doubt many, perhaps even all, of these people are dedicated and competent teachers, but what is the institution telling me when it pays them so miserably and gives them no stake in the institution?  It tells me just what it thinks their work is worth, which is 75% less than that of the regular faculty.  It tells me, further, that it is perfectly willing to exploit them but does not want to be held accountable for their performance.  If they don’t do a good job, they can simply be fired – for that matter, they can be fired for any reason at all – and that’s the end of it as far as the institution is concerned.  But what about the students who have taken their courses?  You guessed it: they are on their own; we wash our hands of them.

No institution can afford to admit that it exploits its own students or, more accurately, their parents and the state taxpayers, who are the actual customers.  Yet they charge the same tuition regardless of who does the teaching.  How many administrators or trustees would want their own kids to attend a school that takes no ongoing responsibility for its faculty, where teachers come and go, where most feel no sense of belonging or ownership of either the program or the community?  Sadly, these economic and professional realities undercut the institution’s claims to put students  first.  Too often, it seems, the business of the university is not education, but simiply staying in business.

The Adjunct and Part-time Challenge

Back when Jerry Brown was governor of California the first time, the state went into one of its periodic budget crises, and the good governor decided to freeze salaries throughout the state university system.  When the faculty objected, he told them they should be content with the “psychic dollars” they got from teaching.  Very well, they replied, then we’ll just pay our taxes in psychic dollars.  Unfortunately, market forces eventually triumphed over wit.

I thought of this exchange while reading the Chronicle’s big issue on adjunct faculty, which hit the stands two weeks ago.  Everyone knows that the tenured ranks are shrinking as people die or retire, and that their positions are not being replaced, but rather filled with part-timers and adjuncts who are paid starvation wages, receive no benefits, and enjoy few or none of the professional respect, standing, opportunities, or institutional support normally accorded to the so-called “regular” faculty.   In fact, over half of all undergraduate course hours are now taught by adjuncts or part-timers, so it is they who should be considered “regular.”  But they are not treated so by either the profession or the institution.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, everybody wrings their hands about the  adjunct situation, but nobody does anything about it.  At least that’s how it sometimes feels.  But in fact, a considerable movement has begun to unionize part-timers and adjuncts, and to advocate for better employment conditions. The Chronicle has run stories of organizing and successes on various campuses, where tangible gains have been made. And the feature issue just mentioned has shone a bright light, which, if not harsh or glaring enough (for this writer, at least), still has the merit of publicly acknowledging the problem and identifying some of the blind spots that infect both the profession and the institution.  It also raises the question of balance, which makes it especially pertinent to this series.

The Chronicle reporters surveyed hundreds of part-time faculty teaching in the Chicago area; they also looked closely at one school, Oakton Community College, whose president, as it happens, began her career as an adjunct. At Oakton, full-time faculty make around $86,000 a year on average, teaching five course per semester, whereas the most an adjunct can make for the same load is around $21,000.  This shocking disparity prompted diverse reactions.  Some part-timers claimed to be content with the tradeoff: no committees, flexible scheduling,  freedom to moonlight, and, of course, those priceless psychic dollars.  Others felt undervalued and exploited, bitter about receiving unequal pay for equal work, and resentful at being treated as second-class citizens when their credentials and skills were as good or better than those of the regular faculty.

When asked about these reactions, administrators and regular faculty gave familiar responses.  The president of Oakton said she had encouraged departments to include adjuncts in their meetings and mailings, and to involve them in curriculum and planning. The regular faculty claimed to be reaching out.  But neither the institution nor the regular faculty suggested equal rights or equal pay.  Administrators claimed that their adjunct pay scales fell within the norm; regular faculty claimed they had more responsibilities and worked longer hours than adjuncts.

In the one case, it is simply market forces.  As long as there are people willing to teach for $2100 a course, colleges will hire them.  It’s simple, convenient, and expedient  — as long as you operate under a factory model of education.  In the other case, you are merely rationalizing privilege.  No one can tell me that any college or university in this country (apart, perhaps from those where research is the sole mission) pays its regular faculty three times as much for their committee work and scholarship as it does for their teaching.  And it’s absurd to make such an argument for a community college, where teaching is supposedly the main thing.

Because adjuncting and part-time work have become ubiquitous in academe, we need to examine it from the standpoint of navigating and balancing a career. It’s one of the braided streams of academic life.  The “standard model” that we introduced at the beginning of this blog is hardly standard today.  More and more people are finding that after grad school the only doors open to them lead to part-time or adjunct positions. It is hard to awaken from the sleep of reason to discover how powerfully market forces and the profession’s jealousy of its own privileges can blunt, bend, or break an academic career.

In the posts to come, we’ll look at the adjunct and part-time path from the viewpoints of institution, profession, and person.  What are the benefits and costs to each, and how can we find a soul-sustaining balance under such conditions?

Contingency, Collaboration and the Justification of the Humanities

In 2003 the adjunct faculty at Keene State College, where I work, reached a tentative agreement on their first contract that was subsequently approved by the college’s Board of Trustees and ratified by the union membership. The first contract, the result of many years of work, court cases and appeals in front of the labor relations board, offered an 18.8 percent retroactive salary increase. The new contract also established a process for arbitration of contract disputes, just cause for dismissal, appeal rights for non-reappointment or non-renewal of contracts, as well as other benefits and protections. Moreover, the organizing effort had the support of the full-time faculty union at Keene State College.

In my years as chair of one of the largest department at Keene State College I spent a good deal of time fretting over the challenges of working in a system that depends so heavily on contingent labor. Surely many of the privileges I enjoy as a tenured faculty member are entwined with the willingness of the administration to retain adjunct faculty at wages that are far below the minimum recommended salary by professional organizations. And I’ve worked closely to create new opportunities to collaborate with adjunct colleagues while recognizing that collaborations around courses and curriculum too often make available opportunities that only magnify the lack of compensation for such work. Too, a few years ago, I was a member and chair of the Modern Language Associations’ Committee on Academic Freedom and Professional Rights and Responsibilities (CAFPRR) when we began setting recommended minimum salary for adjunct faculty members on an annual basis. More recently I’ve been working with adjunct faculty colleagues in a new first-year writing program and in an American Studies program that draws on the expertise and experience of adjunct faculty.

And so I took special notice of a letter to the editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education by Philip E. Lewis, Vice President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Lewis’ missive, “Curing What Ails Liberal Education,” is a rejoinder to Andrew Delbanco’s response to the so-called crisis in the humanities, “A New Day for Intellectuals” (The Chronicle Review 13 February). In addition to calling into question Delbanco’s characterization of scholarship in the humanities-the “theory-driven decline thesis”-Lewis points to the value of seeking collaboration with colleagues across schools and divisions rather than merely making the standard humanistic argument that students need more humanities.

But his target is really the organized contradictions of the academic workplace. Earning the public trust-in other words, arguing persuasively for the necessity of humanistic reflection and inquiry-requires nothing less, argues Lewis, than generating “a principled understanding of the appointment of responsibilities among tenure-track faculty members and their less-privileged part-time or adjunct colleagues, coupled with a sharply upgraded status for that army of nontenure-track teachers” (B18). Lewis concludes that the current “relegation of adjuncts to second-class academic citizenship is a toxic structure far more disabling for the enterprise of the humanities than concessions to theory have ever been for humanistic scholarship.”

It would be helpful to think through more carefully how members of a profession like ours justify our work, especially today, when many of the high-minded defenses of the humanities no longer ring true in an academic system that is increasingly dependent upon radical inequities. How do intellectuals working in the humanities justify to the public-and to those people who represent the public, like boards of trustees or senior academic administrators-why we deserve the rights of control over our intellectual work different from the control that society and employers exercise over other occupations?

Watersheds and Forks in the Road

A few years ago, when John and I began our conversations, we found in one another the words for a common vision: a life practice for academic people guided by the virtues of centeredness, wholeness, compassion, forgiveness, generosity, imagination and collaboration.

Our thinking led immediately to the organizing fiction of academia-the career path that holds out the promise of a fulfilling life. This fiction begins with graduate school and proceeds through temporary and tenure-track jobs to the watershed of the tenure review, tenure, promotion, and retirement with honors. Careers do indeed unfold along this path. (My dossier for promotion to full professor is currently under review.) Others do not. (You can read John’s narrative of facing a fork in his own road in his essay “Meeting the Tree of Life.”) We have both been in and out of the academic world long enough to recognize the problems with this organizing fiction. Some of our colleagues and close friends have worked toward satisfying lives in academia; other colleagues and friends have struggled to stay alive in the academy–whether in the security of a tenured tenure-stream position or in the sometimes tenuous position of the adjunct. And for decades we have worked with lecturers, instructors, adjuncts, part-timers, and contingent faculty in our roles as faculty mentors and friends. If anything, we have learned that there are many pathways, watersheds, and destinations in this profession.

One of the primary motivations in our conversations has been to better understand the organizing fiction of academic life. We see the fiction of graduate school leading to a tenure-track position as potentially destructive precisely because it naturalizes professional success by aligning with the phases of a life path. However our experiences have led us to see our profession as more like a braided stream: people move back & forth between institutions, whether teaching full-or part-time; take up administrative positions or jobs outside of academics in business, journalism, writing, or publishing; government or non-profit work in museums or foundations, or go in to Independent work such as consulting.

The organizing fiction of an academic career also obscures the real situation. According to the 2006 AAUP Contingent Faculty Index, non-tenure-track positions now make up sixty-eight percent of all faculty at degree-granting institutions in the United States. Too many talented people with PhDs find themselves on the job market year after year; others take positions at institutions simply because they need a job; others sign on as contingent faculty and hold out the hope that their ship will come in; still others resign themselves to doing work they love in situations they loathe.

I am grateful to Dave W. for responding to our outline of phases in an academic career. (His comment appears on the “Prospectus” page.) For his words offers me an occasion to elaborate a bit more about where John and I are starting from. (Something I’ve been wanting to do but have been too busy teaching.) Dave’s framing our point of view may also be useful as we launch this conversation. He says that assuming “a traditional path from grad student to tenured bliss reveals a lack of appreciation of the reality on the ground.” Indeed. But we are, in fact, deeply interested in that ground-the reality from which we are always starting from. We are interested in mapping the reality of academic lives in more subtle and meaningful ways. We are interested in the systemic contradictions in the expression of the privileged professor who says, “But we are scholars, not teachers.” We are interested in why (and how) humane people continue to labor in less than humane situations. And yes, we are interested in the ongoing and difficult work of constructing not comfortable but rather more virtuous and satisfying lives.