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Notes on “The Bleak Job Landscape of Adjunctopia for Ph.D.s”

See the original NY Times article here.

Assuming one defines “contingent” as “non-tenure-track,” I am a contingent faculty member, though one with far greater job stability than most, particularly those whose “jobs” consist of putting together several part-time appointments at multiple institutions. I have a full-time position, with strong health and retirement benefits (the same, in fact, as every other full-time faculty or staff member on campus). While I, like many people, don’t really think my salary matches my contributions to the university, it is more than livable. So I enter, somewhat gingerly, this conversation from that point of view.

More important, I enter the conversation as someone who is in charge of hiring and supervising a number of contingent faculty, all humanities Ph.D.s. Part of my job (actually, the most important and meaningful part) is to support those faculty in finding their next job. (The positions are postdoctoral fellowships, which include a three-year limit; for those three years, the postdocs work full-time and have the same health and retirement benefits I do. Their salaries are less than they should be paid but are better than many alternative options.) In my position, I’ve worked with over 100 humanities Ph.D.s since 2012.

The following are just my reactions, my initial thoughts vis a vis the Times article.


“Ruthless labor exploitation? Generational betrayal?”

Yes: Higher education exploits a situation (that higher education creates) in which the labor pool of humanities PhDs is much larger than the number of available positions, particularly long-term, full-time positions. If there are 10 or 20 or 100 qualified humanities Ph.D.s waiting in line to work for you, why not hire a few of them in low-paid, part-time positions that lack any benefits? And when they demand a better life, why not just fire them and let the next 10 or 20 or 100 move up in line?

And yes: The same kind of generational betrayal we see with climate change. A betrayal in which the higher educational leaders trade the best interests of students, the best interests of scholarly knowledge and discourse, and their most ethical and compassionate impulses for just-in-time profitability. 


“The humanities labor market is in crisis. Higher education industry trade publications are full of essays by young Ph.D.s who despair of ever finding a steady job.”

“All of this resulted in a severe misalignment of supply and demand. Universities had spent the better part of two decades training more people for jobs that universities simultaneously decided they didn’t need, just as economic, demographic and legal conditions began further depressing the need for professors.”

I am lucky in having my full-time non-tenure-track (NTT) position. I happened to be at the right place at the right time: the person in my position before me decided to leave it just a year in to her term. I was lucky, too, because I had professional experience—several years working as a marketing project manager—that was pertinent to the job. This kind of professional experience is precisely the kind of experience graduate school generally doesn’t prepare you for. Graduate school is designed to create humanities scholars—that is, people who have tenure-track (TT) jobs, exactly the jobs of which there are so few.  Not humanities teachers, not humanities administrators: humanities scholars. That I had some outside experience pertinent to the administrative job I have now—at the right place and right time—was lucky. I’m not sure what I would have done otherwise.

I currently work with nearly 40 contingent humanities faculty. Some of them come from the “top” English programs in the country; most of them (as I did) come from programs outside the top 10. All of them despair of finding a steady job. All of them despair of finding a job that provides health insurance or that pays them well enough to not also have to take on other part-time positions.


“As competition for tenure-track jobs becomes more fierce, only the graduates of top-ranked programs have a realistic chance, and even they increasingly settle for positions at less prestigious institutions that emphasize teaching and service over research.”

Somehow, as someone from a lower-ranked, “less prestigious” Ph.D. program, I ended up at a more-prestigious institution. Remember: it was luck. (Also remember, I’m not a TT faculty member.)

But the assumption that the contingent labor crisis is an issue that means that Michigan or Yale or Berkeley Ph.D.s have to take jobs at campuses apparently beneath them is insulting. 

Let’s remember all the many more Ph.D.s from non-top-tier schools who are trying to find jobs in an industry(?) where the attitude reflected in the quote from the article is often par for the course. Let’s remember the people (top-tier Ph.D.s included, MA’s and MFA’s included) who are doing excellent work educating the students of the “less-prestigious” majority of schools.


“And the academic labor market crisis is, in many ways, good for the winners. When a flood of Ph.D.s desperate to keep a toehold in academia depresses adjunct wages, that makes it cheaper for universities to hire them to teach classes and free up time for tenured researchers to do what they enjoy: conduct research. The more tenure becomes a rare prize, the more the victors may see themselves as uniquely deserving.”

The assumptions in this paragraph mirror those in the whoa-is-me “top-ranked” paragraph discussed above. Here, the primary assumption is that the only valid position is that of the tenured faculty member at a R1 (heavy research productivity) university. In these positions, faculty are indeed judged by their research productivity—how many articles and books they publish, etc. Teaching, service, and everything else is secondary. But most of the work of higher education occurs elsewhere.

Tenured faculty in the humanities may love to do research. They may also love to teach. They may also love to work with the community. Many—most—tenured faculty, those at community colleges, regional universities, liberal arts colleges—spend more time teaching than researching. While I appreciate the spotlight this article has put on the awfulness of the issue, let’s also consider how it reinforces the class-based system in which the University of Michigan is better than the University of Georgia (is better than the community college down the street); in which research is more important than teaching; in which tenure is the only valid goal.


Notes re: a Poetics of Contingency

“Precarization means more than insecure jobs, more than the lack of security given by waged employment. By way of insecurity and danger it embraces the whole of existence, the body, modes of subjectivation. It is threat and coercion, even while it opens up new possibilities of living and working. Precarization means living with the unforeseeable, with contingency.”

Lorey, Isabell. State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious. Verso, 2015. Ch. 1.


What is a poetics of contingency, a poetics of precarity or insecurity? What does it look like? How does it work?


Sources (from initial search)

  • Butler, Judith. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. Verso, 2004.
  • Frassanato Network, The. “Precarious, Precarisation, Precariat?” Mute (9 Jan. 2006).
  • Jaussen, Paul. “Envoy: Postings on the Digital Life Poem.” Jacket2 (14 Dec. 2011).
  • Lorey, Isabell. State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious. Verso, 2015.
  • Morson, Gary. “Contingency and Poetics.” Philosophy and Literature 22.2 (October 1998): 286-308.
  • White, Gillian. “Poetics of contingency.” Textual Practice, 32:3 (2019): 529-550.


“For many, the anxious worry arising from existential vulnerability is no longer distinguishable from a fear arising from precarization. There is no longer any reliable protection from what is unforeseeable, from what cannot be planned for, from contingency” (Lorey, Ch. 5).


A poetics of contingency takes into account the chance-oriented poetics of Cage and Mac Low—specifically those processes grounded in randomization. The process would need to produce unforeseen results.


A poetics that barely coheres, almost falling apart (or falling apart). The examples I have at hand are musical: the ramshackle nature of The Faces or The Stones of Exile on Main Street; the Joy Division songs that fall apart; Captain Beefheart’s Trout Fish Replica, in which the members of the band (at least apocryphally) weren’t even in the same rooms as they recorded.


A poetics (necessarily, I think) against closure—

Hejinian, Lyn. “The Rejection of Closure.” The Language of Inquiry. University of California Press, 2000.


Thinking about how systems are made explicit in poetry. How they may be spoken to, may be made externally explicit, or may be made explicit, but explicit as something internalized by the speaker or the form of the poem.

I’m thinking of the way Juliana Spahr’s This Connection of Everyone With Lungs inhabits a particularly American national framework (Whitman’s catalogs), naming the systems (military, economic) in which the poems arise and against which they rage, prompting considerations of the poems’ complicity in occupying a space in these systems (a kind of impossibility of not being complicit, an automatic complicity).

What are the systems in which contingency/precarity arises (neoliberal capitalism = survival capitalism)? How to maps those systems, interrogate them in poetry?


How does contingency/precarity relate to anxiety?


The contingent may also be seen as a failure or glitch in an automated/programmed system, a system assumed to be efficient, ongoing, running smoothly. The contingent in this sense acts as the wrench that breaks the machine and the broken tool (re: Heidegger) that alerts us to the fact of being.


What does a contingent poetics look like in practice?

  • Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Drafts
  • Ammons’s A Tape for the Turn of the Year
  • Richard Greenfield’s Tracer
  • Mac Low’s Forties as a contingency of attention
  • ???


Formal contingency may present itself as a kind of in-coherence from one line to the next. An incoherence due to what?… Not just fragmentation or indeterminacy (or is it exactly indeterminacy) or collage. Does it have something to do with intention, control?

Perloff, Marjorie. The Poetics of Indeterminacy. Northwestern University Press, 1999.

How to map and make explicit the effects of systems or outside powers on the form / content / process of the poem itself? How to chart variations in control of the poem?

How is contingency or precarity different from indeterminacy? Is, perhaps, contingency a emotional/physical/existential mode of indeterminancy?


“How can a perspective on social and political conditions be developed that does not reject relationships, connections, and dependencies among individuals, in other words, one that imagines and practices forms of self-reliance that start from connections with others?” (Lorey)


A memory from grad school, a fellow student discussing an experiment of burying drafts of poems then digging them up after a month or more, using the decomposition of the paper as a form of revision.

A poetics of contingency challenges a normative poetics of craftsmanship.

Community and/as Professional Development (+ A New Article Publication)

The recent publication of an article I co-authored, “State of the Field: Teaching with Digital Tools in the Writing and Communication Classroom” marks the end (or at least a possible end) to a long and fruitful project. The project began in postdoctoral seminars in technical communication pedagogy (Fall 2013) and in research methodologies (Spring 2014), then developed into a successful CCCC grant proposal (2015), research project, and, finally, the published article.

My collaborators—Drs. Joy Robinson (University of Alabama-Huntsville), Lisa Dusenberry (Georgia Southern University), Liz Hutter (University of Dayton), Halcyon Lawrence (Towson University), and Rebecca Burnett (Georgia Tech)—and I worked on the article for close to four years, through rejection, a revise-and-resubmit, and a major top-to-bottom revision of the article. We met on Google Docs and Skype, sometimes several times a week, for two or three hours a session. We needed to develop, often on the fly, ways to work together—ways to honor each co-author’s ideas, concerns, and contributions while ensuring that the article was ultimately coherent and persuasive. That we did so, I think, is nothing short of a miracle, and those hours and months and years will remain special to me, even as the whole thing seemed crazy at the time.

The collaboration, ultimately, only developed, only worked, through the development of a friendship of four of us (Joy, Lisa, Liz, and Halcyon), all of whom began as Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellows in the Writing and Communication Program at Georgia Tech (where Rebecca serves as Director and I serve as Associate Director). The cohesion, collegiality, and friendship that began (sans Halcyon, who arrived in the program a year after the other three) in the two seminars and developed over the years, even as each of the four moved on to tenure-track positions at four different universities, is nothing short of astonishing.

While a writing program, postdoctoral program, or other academic program can’t take credit for the development of such a friendship (of course), I do wonder about the role of community as a mode of professional development—here, a community of postdoctoral fellows teaching technical communication, all with their very real concerns about the horrific (and unjust) state of the academic labor market—a community forged through things like the postdoctoral seminars themselves, through a programmatic culture that values collaboration and experimentation, and through administrative support (and, indeed, collegiality).

The friendship of these four colleagues is something special and certainly may have happened even without the specific community-forming strategies—the seminars, the culture of collaboration and experimentation, and the administrative support—that writing program administrators can put in place. But the role of those community-forming strategies as ways of supporting faculty professional development efforts is really something to consider. What are the best ways to develop those strategies? How can writing program and other higher ed administrators support the development of collegial collaborations?