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Teaching and Learning

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.


Using Shared Questions and Expert-like Activities to Promote Student Engagement

As with most things pedagogical, my teaching takes many cues from John Bean’s Engaging Ideas. For me, at the heart of Bean’s book are two foundational concepts:

  1. Students are engaged by ideas—and those ideas are the same questions and concepts that you (the scholar-teacher teaching those students) are engaged by. Following from this insight, coursework is focused on open-ended questions and problems that teacher and student share.
  2. Students are engaged by activity—and those activities are the same cognitive and physical actions that scholar-teachers enact in their own disciplinary work. Following from this insight, coursework involves using disciplinary modes of thinking and making to explore these questions/problems.

Underlying both of these, of course, is the idea that engaged students are students who learn.

Every once in a while, I need to remind myself of these two concepts as I’m planning lessons and assignments. The reminder goes something like this:

  1. For this topic, what are the aspects of the topic I have questions about, that I am confused about, that I don’t know what to do with, or that I am really just enticed by?
  2. Given my PhD training, experience writing papers and articles (not to mention a dissertation), experience conducting research, etc., how would I go about approaching these questions? How do I break down those strategies or processes of thinking, researching, and argumentation into activities that students and I can do together to explore these questions, activities that will also give students opportunities to practice critical thinking, research, and argumentation?

On a practical level, answering the first question often leads me to check the questions I’m asking in class. If I know the answer to the question, I need to reframe the question into something I don’t have an answer for, or I need to develop a different question. This, I think, is a good rule of thumb; students can tell when a teacher has an answer they want the students to get to—and they see right through it.

Answering the second question requires a bit of reflection, since part of the fact of becoming an expert (via graduate school, etc.) is in automating many of the strategies and practices the expert uses in solving problems. Turning those strategies and practices into activities useful for teaching students also involves breaking down steps clearly and, especially, thinking about what you want students to do or make. Here, Bloom’s (revised) taxonomy is a helpful guide: do you want students to analyze, evaluate, create?

To get a brief look at what this looks like in practice, this past week, the students in my upper-level postmodern literature and culture class began reading Samuel Beckett’s novel Molloy, a novel that challenges novelistic conventions at every turn. (As one example, the first half of the book is presented as one long, unbroken paragraph.) For our first class discussing the novel, I wanted to first get ourselves situated with what’s going on with the characters and plot. But, following Bean’s insights, I also wanted to get to activities a bit higher up on Bloom’s taxonomy, activities based in questions or challenges I have with the book.

So I developed a brief activity that asked student groups to collaborate to close-read a knotty passage from the book—a passage that I myself had questions about. The activity was based on a disciplinary process of critical analysis and was open-ended in the sense that I didn’t have a particular answer in mind that students would somehow need to guess. Rather, we’d be working through the activity together, and through our discussion and collaboration we’d be constructing our knowledge about the passage (and about the novel more broadly) together.

Let me tell you, dear reader, once I gave the instructions for the activity and put students in groups, the classroom erupted with conversation and activity. When we came back together, student groups brought forward insights that often astonished me; moreover, the groups would often piggyback off each others’ ideas to push forward what we—as a community of learners, including me—understood about the passage. Engaging ideas, indeed!

(I think that using Bean’s concepts in constructing activities built around shared questions and that ask students to engage in expert-like thinking, researching, and argumentation has another benefit. Introducing these questions and activities at an expert-like level of complexity serves, I think, to short-circuit the ability of some students to use online and other study aids like Sparknotes in place of actually doing the necessary reading. Students doing so might have a sense of the plot and characters of a particular literary text, but would have a much tougher time, for example, making appropriate sense of the close-reading activity described above, or with doing activities that require synthesizing ideas or making complex arguments.)