The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission

Herb Childress
Published by The University of Chicago Press in 2019

Timothy Hendrickson is Assistant Professor of Literature and Languages and Co-Coordinator of Adjunct Care at Trinity Christian College. Prior to assuming a full-time role in the fall of 2018, Professor Hendrickson served Trinity in an adjunct capacity for seven years.

Despite its modest length (under 170 pages, excluding appendices and index), Herb Childress’s The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission is impressively large-scale. In his quest to help “families of pending undergraduates know what they are getting into,” to explain “why our colleges’ priorities have shifted away from hiring faculty,” and to encourage “graduate students [in understanding] whether their advanced degrees will be key to meaningful careers” (18), Childress calls on a wealth of information with which many college and university employees are already familiar. Indeed, it is unfathomable that any college or university administrator could not know of the economic, intellectual, psychological, and emotional toll the continued move toward contingency brings with it. In response, Childress proposes nothing less than a radical restructuring of not only the college and university system, but of American culture itself.

Childress frames The Adjunct Underclass in such a way as to make his critique as broad as possible. In the opening pages of his preface, for example, we read that the move toward contingency in academia is a symptom of larger cultural issues. To demonstrate this relationship, Childress draws a number of parallels that members of one of his intended audiences—parents/families of prospective college students—might not have drawn on their own. Society has discarded the idea of a stable and full-time college faculty, he writes, the same way it has pushed aside general practitioners in favor of medical specialists, cabbies for contract drivers, magazine and newspaper writers for piecemeal contract providers, and local auto mechanics for hyper-specialized technicians (ix). Additionally, we “discarded bookkeepers … by finally letting women do it after decades of declaring it impossible, and then immediately reducing the status of the work once it became evident that women could, in fact, do it well” (x). 135 pages later, the final section of the last chapter dealing with the problem of contingency is titled “Contingency as the Sum of All Trends” (135). This structure makes Childress’s point clear: while colleges and universities might still appear to be ivory towers, they are not detached from the larger cultural trends of the societies in which they operate. The forces behind adjunctification are the same as those behind rampant consumerism, racism, sexism, automation, and the eradication of the middle class.

Childress’s approach leads to a number of salient and unexpected observations. First and foremost of these, and of great interest to Christian liberal arts colleges and universities, is that as society increasingly comes to view college as merely job training for a “good” career, educational institutions develop more specialized and “faddish” major tracks to fit current student demand. Given a difficult enrollment environment, it makes sense that institutions would follow current trends in an effort to draw the most students; however, as interests change, many new majors will lose popularity and eventually disappear. Faced with the temporary nature of many new majors and departments, Childress argues, colleges are less likely to hire full-time faculty to teach courses in those areas. Additionally, Ph.D. programs are less likely to be immediately graduating enough students to fill those positions that do come open (84). Consequently, both teachers and students suffer. Teachers suffer due to a lack of full-time and tenure-track jobs, while students suffer from a lack of qualified teachers in specialized fields.

Engaging in a larger discussion of how the various types of colleges and universities differ in both intention and outcomes, Childress argues that what he terms working and middle-class schools are more susceptible to economic trends and are therefore more likely to rely on contingent workers (46-49, 74-75). There is certainly nothing particularly new or interesting about pointing out that community colleges employ more adjuncts than, say, Harvard, but the way Childress makes his point is both instructive and predictive. By identifying learning institutions along class lines, Childress locates a relatively obscure educational issue (the rise of contingent workers in American colleges and universities) within a much larger context. Contingency is no longer an administrative problem for individual schools; rather, it is symptomatic of a culture always finding new ways to make the rich richer and leave the poor poorer. In this way—and throughout his book—Childress speaks about the adjunct crisis in terms most familiar to those in the fields of economics, sociology, social work, social justice, and labor relations. We find representative examples of this tendency in chapters 5 and 7.

In chapter 5, a study of where schools get money and where that money goes, a key section is titled “Nomadic Students, Nomadic Faculty.” To make his point that changing attitudes toward college foster changing attitudes towards faculty, Childress relies on “what economists call commodity pricing” (75), drawing a comparison between a hundred gallons of milk and a college credit. The overall argument is compelling. As college becomes more about the credits and what they can be exchanged for after graduation, it becomes less about a unique experience; rather, college transforms into simply a business transaction between a producer and a consumer. In this case, an analogy with a decidedly non-education product helps Childress make his point.

Following the same pattern, the language of economics, production, and consumption is perhaps most pronounced in chapter 7. Here Childress discusses the adjunct turn as part and parcel of a broader trend of employers shedding employees in the name of efficiency and reduced cost. In particular, Childress notes five different methods of historical labor cutting: “Fewer people, longer hours; Workers redefined as independent contractors; De-bundled professional activities and the creation of paraprofessionals; Outsourced non-core functions; and Replacement of humans and space with technology.” In his discussion of each of these trends, Childress only tangentially refers to education and the academy; indeed, we eventually read about Toyota, the “capitalization of unpaid contributions” in the business models of web companies, “hope labor,” the gig economy, and the devaluation of work that women do (119-121). While Childress does eventually tie each of these references back to the question of adjuncts, it is fair to ask at this point in the book whether he is viewing the adjunct crisis through the lens of economics or viewing an economic and cultural crisis though the lens of adjunctification. Regardless of how individual readers might answer the preceding question, Childress’s argument, and in particular the way he crafts it, could be at times both maddening and inspirational to members of Christian learning communities.

Childress’s concluding chapter is a tour de force, one in which he offers solutions to the adjunct problem. In a welcome departure, these suggestions pay attention to both granular and large-scale (cultural) change, though not in equal measure. Childress provides a list of to-dos for prospective undergraduates, prospective graduate students, and college administrations, but he seems a bit out of his element when doing so. Rather, he is at his best when offering his vision for a better future. That future is based on four principles, the first of which is viewing colleges as a web of relationships (as opposed to a group of independently functioning cost centers). “A college based on relationships,” Childress writes, “would not allow for the instrumental treatment of any of its members, would not permit exploitation of teacher, student, groundskeeper, or football player” (148). He continues, “A college based on relationships would know that every member of a community comes with relationships already established, every student and teacher already with spouses and parents and friends. It would be kind to them as well” (149). I suspect it is quite unintentional, but Childress would fit right in at a Christian institution with this thinking. The remaining three principles—“The Faculty is the College,” “Everybody Learning All the Time,” and “Prove It”—present an admittedly utopian vision of a college based on, and in, the community in which it operates. Such a college would be full of administration, faculty, and students who push boundaries without fear of failure, would be quick to recognize and celebrate its uniqueness, and would be committed to governing itself with a goal of fairness (150-54).

The product of Childress’s four guiding principles is a kind of mission statement. It reads: “A worthy college works to foster and to respect its web of relationships. It is a culture shaped and steered by its faculty. It places everyone into a place of communal learning. It asks for regular public demonstration of its learning” (154). Strive to meet the standards of this mission statement, Childress argues, and contingency will cease to be a problem. I pray he is correct.

While rhetorical and stylistic choices always work alongside content to make meaning, the former two are even more important for Christians reading The Adjunct Underclass. While the big-picture approach Childress takes is useful for a number of reasons, there are two particular problems associated with it. The first is that the book advances a number of overly broad claims that in many cases do not apply to the intentionally and publicly Christian institution. Outside of a title that implies that all colleges have the same mission, we see a good example of such a claim on pages 60-61, in which Childress compares becoming a tenure-track employee to becoming an elite athlete.

Childress writes about the hockey player who begins at age four or five, moves up the developmental ladder, eventually attends an elite hockey school, and is probably the biggest and strongest in his/her year. The analog in education is moving from:

[A] home with books and ideas through a strong undergraduate program and into a strong doctoral program, with no significant time for work or musing on one’s life. It means moving swiftly through that doctoral program, preferably working in research assistantships that foster both coauthorship and recognition by major funding agencies, rather than teaching assistantships that mark one as a member of the anonymous servant class. (61)

While this is certainly the case at many institutions, I submit that Christian colleges and universities function in different ways. My home institution, for example, employs tenure-track employees with a far more diverse set of experiences and work-life backgrounds than Childress accounts for.

Similarly, Childress often makes references to the likelihood, or lack thereof, that talented teachers will be rewarded with tenure-track jobs at the schools at which they teach part-time. For example, Childress writes that “adjunct positions do not morph into tenure-track positions, and adjunct workers are not offered permanence on the basis of their good work” (66). Later on, Childress suggests that people who have attained a tenure-track job are so blinded by their own success that they do not acknowledge the structural privilege that made their success possible (103). Still later, Childress suggests that tenure-track faculty members are largely invisible to each other, and that it is “extraordinarily uncommon to have one faculty member sitting in on another’s classroom” (106). Finally, Childress argues that everyone hates faculty meetings because “scholars have made their entire careers out of finding problems with settled knowledge” (108). While such generalizations may apply to a majority of particular types of schools, I cannot believe that the faculties of Christian institutions are as isolated and self-serving as Childress suggests. Indeed, my own limited experience with shared governance, committee work, and relationships with tenure-track employees is precisely the opposite of what Childress presents as fact. While my experience may not be representative, it is also clear that Childress is not writing about many Christian colleges and universities when he is making such generalizations.

A second, and more important, weakness of The Adjunct Underclass is that it devalues (perhaps unintentionally) the individual in lieu of the institutional. While the book is based, at least in part, on a series of interviews conducted by Childress, I never get the sense that those interviews are meaningful in and of themselves. Perhaps anonymity is necessarily to blame, but it often seems that the personal and individual stories Childress draws upon are window dressing for the larger argument he is trying to make about contingency’s cultural roots and interconnectedness. Because of both the form and function of the book, everything in The Adjunct Underclass is necessarily long-term; there is no question of how to provide justice and redemption now for either the adjunct who is struggling to find a place in her department or the one who cannot afford to pay her bills. And while Christian schools should indeed be thinking globally, they should also be tending to the individuals in their communities. The Academic Underclass provides little to no guidance here. This lack is of particular importance to Christians, for we are commanded not only to tend to the sick and needy in the larger world, but also to those suffering in our own communities.1

While it may have been foolish to have expected it, I found myself wishing for a clearer way forward in terms of enfolding adjuncts into the educational communities in which they live, work, and worship. I would have liked a discussion of initiatives such as Trinity Christian College’s Affiliated Faculty program, a year-old effort aimed at inviting adjuncts into a closer and more rewarding relationship with the College through increased visibility, increased access to official college events, higher per credit wages, and access to faculty development funds. But here I am forgetting one of the foundational lessons that so many writing instructors impress on freshmen: be attentive to rhetorical situation. Audience and purpose, among other things, are paramount. From the moment I read its opening pages, I worried that The Adjunct Underclass was not meant for either me or us. To a certain set of readers, Childress’s work is rewarding. For those seeking an explanation of the cultural trends leading to contingency, The Adjunct Underclass might be groundbreaking. To one whose job is, at least partially, to imagine ways to make the campus lives of adjunct employees more rewarding, the book was a disappointment. For those Christian thinkers and administrators looking for practical guidance on caring pastorally for those on the low end of the employment ladder, there is little of note.

Cite this article
Timothy Hendrickson, “The Adjunct Underclass— An Extended Review”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 49:2 , 183-188

Footnotes

  1. This is not to say that Christian schools are, in fact, adequately tending to the needs of adjunct labor. Indeed, an otherwise excellent article in the Summer 2018 issue of Christian Scholar’s Review by Jack R. Baker and Jeffrey Bilbro detailing how Christian schools might move away from a consumerist approach to education largely ignores the concomitant consumerist approach to hiring and staffing. Additionally, unpublished research I undertook with Dr. Erick Sierra (Trinity Christian College) in the summer of 2016 suggested that a random selection of CCCU schools were hiring adjuncts at levels only slightly below the national average for similar school types.

Timothy Hendrickson

Trinity Christian College
Timothy Hendrickson is Assistant Professor of Literature and Languages and Co-Coordinator of Adjunct Care at Trinity Christian College.