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The Truth About the Universities:
Herb Childress’ The Adjunct Underclass

1,786 words

Herb Childress
The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019

Beginning with its provocative title, The Adjunct Underclass is quit lit, that newish genre of mostly humanities PhDs rage-quitting their academic job search. The rage comes because with so many more qualified PhDs than professorships, being chosen among many equally qualified applicants is pretty much a function of dumb luck; unless, of course, you happen to be non-white, crippled, or a tranny. Optimistic new PhDs are produced, spend a few years working in academia’s gig economy as precarious “adjuncts,” realize they will never get a professorship, and storm out of the academy to do something else. Quit lit is the sound of the door slamming on the way out. Herb Childress’ book frames the situation in terms of class warfare, with adjuncts as an oppressed new proletariat. The framing is a little precious when you consider that any adjunct can walk away and look for another job. What’s good about the book is Childress’ detailed examination of how universities work today. If you’re curious about what has gone wrong at the university, or if you have friends in graduate school, or if, God help you, you’re contemplating graduate school yourself, this is a book worth reading.

Let’s talk about this new underclass, the adjuncts. “Adjunct” is short for “adjunct professor,” a misleading honorific because adjuncts live in a different world from real professors. Real professors ascend through a hierarchy and are eligible for tenure, which means job security for life. They receive a yearly salary, vacations, benefits, money to go to conferences and buy books, and an office. Adjuncts are hired by the course (about three thousand dollars is the going rate) and receive no benefits. The work is precarious and unpredictable: Job offers come shortly before the semester begins and courses are cancelled at the last minute if enrollment isn’t high enough. Childress does a nice job calculating the hourly adjunct wage after you factor in course prep, grading, office hours, and so on. It works out to about minimum wage. Adjuncts are like academic Uber drivers, and Childress points out that the similarity holds in one very crucial way: No matter how much a driver works, there’s no career progression into the Uber executive ranks. Similarly, faculties do not hire adjuncts. It’s an unwritten rule, and the reasons for it are complex, though Childress does a good job at unpacking them. At any rate, the rule – a rule with just enough exceptions to keep one’s hope alive – is that the longer you spend as an adjunct, the less likely you are to be hired as a professor, especially at the school where you teach. Even in these bad conditions, a lot of adjuncts keep trying: teaching, publishing, and going to conferences on their own dime for years, hoping against the odds to be lucky enough to win a real professorship. In that sense, Childress is right that there is a distinction among the university faculty, a nasty little trade secret. Books like this should be required reading for anyone who dreams of becoming a professor.

I wish I had read such a book. The first piece of quit lit I encountered was Rebecca Schuman’s funny “Thesis Hatement,” which I happened upon mere hours after successfully defending my own dissertation in what would not prove to be a good omen for my academic career. Most of us adjunct for a few years, perhaps longer if we’re doing it part time, and then we figure out that the academy doesn’t want us, and we leave. Childress never gave up. If Schuman is quit lit’s snarky mom, Herb Childress is its wine-soaked, weepy uncle. He’s been trying to lock down that tenure-track position with his PhD in architecture since the 1990s, working as a university administrator to get a foot in the door. It’s sad and clingy, but because he did cling on, Childress has learned more than most about how the academic sausage is made.

The adjunct situation is a tragedy of the commons. The ideal of the university was a place where a community of gentlemen scholars studied obscure things. The scholars taught the children of the rich, whose tuition financed the enterprise and also allowed the admission of some talented poor children. Every generation, the scholars chose a few successors. Scholars were poor but had the prestige of contributing something of worth to society. But that was long ago. Now, faculties exploit idealistic young grad students by preparing them for professorships that don’t exist. The faculty does this because it means cheap assistants, more prestige, more grant money, and it reduces their teaching loads. The newly-minted PhDs become adjuncts and soon realize that teaching has no future. The smart ones exploit the university by teaching at minimum effort, recycling content, and giving everyone good grades; a few bad student evaluations can get an adjunct fired. The university’s product is devalued, but the institution is busy exploiting everyone by marketing the ivy-covered stone buildings and tweed-clad faculty even as they cheerfully replace retiring professors with adjuncts and use the money to buy rock-climbing walls and smoothie bars, and of course more administrators, all of which will help to exploit 17-year-old kids who will overspend on a low-value degree. Every iteration further destroys the social capital of the university, but it’s nobody’s job to care.

The only group that doesn’t seem to be suffering is the university administration. To the contrary, with every passing year, administrators proliferate: directors of recruitment, retention, inclusion, diversity, and the troupes of staff that they bring with them. People outside the university often wonder what all these administrators are doing that didn’t need doing in the past, and this is the question that Childress helps to answer. Over the past century, universities threw open the gates, admitting Jews, women, blacks, other races, cripples, and sexual deviants. Since these people do not belong at university, someone needs to cajole and ease them through the process, and plead for lowered standards on their behalf when they prove unequal to the task. This, as Childress points out, is where the administration comes in. Clever Jews do well at university, but Jewish neurosis takes its toll, emotional women require a different kind of support . . . you can finish the list for yourself. To put it differently, as the university grows more diverse, the chaos that always accompanies diversity increases, and the administration is there to smooth it over. If you wonder how the university has protected itself from the toxic Frankfurt School ideas it has been pumping into Western culture for the last eighty years, Childress provides an answer: It takes more and more administrators to contain the diversity, but with enough oversight, diversity can be contained. In the same way that China has learned that you can have an orderly Muslim population so long as you are willing to put a cop on every block, universities have evolved the massive support system that diversity requires, for only a few tens of thousands of dollars per student per year.

Some of Childress’ comments are so pointed that they almost make you wonder if he’s on our side. He goes out of his way to bemoan the fact that as women become professors, the profession becomes devalued. He notes that there’s a general pattern that as women are pushed into jobs previously done by men, the market devalues those same jobs – almost as if the market were correcting for falling standards. But persevere to the end of the book and you will find that Herb Childress is most definitely not on our side. His policy suggestions to improve the university have the depth of AMLO’s “hugs not bullets” plan to stop cartel violence. Childress envisions a university where every professor is attuned to the needs of diversity, presumably via unending compulsory training. And then, in the Epilogue, Herb really empties his purse on the table. Not getting a tenure-track job made him depressed, ruined his marriage, and left him shaking with impotent rage for decades even as he internalized the standards that made him obsolete.

It’s bad for Childress, but not necessarily bad for us. In his earnest way, Childress shows us the gears of the machine spewing diversity into the West. We shouldn’t be idealistic about the contemporary university; we should recognize that it is an engine built to degenerate us, and we should react accordingly. It would be good to choke the machine and break it; better still to remake it to do something that we want. And when we start thinking of the university this way, we can see that others have got there first. Two groups who are redirecting the university’s energy are especially interesting. One is the Muslim Brotherhood, who recruit through campus youth groups. The Brotherhood knows that degeneracy will drive students to them. Then there’s the Confucius Institutes, or, to follow the string to the puppet master, China. Apparently, the Chinese find it worthwhile to strike at and silence those who may grow into their enemies, so to speak, in utero. We need to make the machine work for us.

When I was an adjunct, I encountered more and more institutional resistance to teaching the great books. This, too, gives me hope. The institution dislikes books written by great white men, and that is because these books were also written for white men. The Western tradition is being squeezed out of the university because it is incompatible with diversity. Where will the tradition go? Who will be the heirs of Plato’s school and Epicurus’ garden, of the invisible college and the Republic of Letters? Don’t be distracted by the fact that the Dissident Right doesn’t have the polish of the institutional university. Someone in search of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful would not search in vain in the catalogues of Arktos or Counter-Currents or Castalia House. Someone looking for the rough and tumble of informed argument could do worse than the audio archives of Westward or the Godcast or the Poz Button.

In the end, the lesson of Herb Childress’ book is: Don’t be Herb. Don’t be a sucker and go to grad school looking for a job. Just as importantly, don’t make Herb’s mistake of thinking that the only way to participate in the life of the mind is through the institutional university. And never, never let yourself be so beaten down that like Herb that you come to sympathize with the outsiders who have flooded our universities and our countries and are seeking to replace us. The humanities are our birthright. Let’s take them back.

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  1. T. H. Corday
    Posted November 25, 2019 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this review and for your personal insights on it, John. I wanted to ask about your exhortation to not “make Herb’s mistake of thinking that the only way to participate in the life of the mind is through the institutional university.” I finished an MA this Spring, and have been working as an adjunct this Fall. I think you would consider me one of the “smart ones,” because I am certainly giving the bare minimum effort.

    After several unsuccessful months of looking for outside work, I’ve reluctantly turned my attention back towards a PhD. I feel that all of my training and talent is in scholarly work, and have thus tailored my ambition and passion around following that path to its fullest extent. That said, I detested graduate school and most of my colleagues there – you can surely relate as a fellow white man on the Right.

    I hope this isn’t an imposition on you and forgive me if I’m being too familiar, but I wanted to ask your advice (and the advice of any other Counter-Currents contributors who have experience with this). How can I “participate in the life of the mind” outside of the University, while also earning enough to support myself, my fiancée, and the multiple children we eventually plan on having?

    I know that it is possible, and as an ambitions young man, I’m willing to take an uncertain road. I’m experienced with weathering misfortune and material deprivation in pursuit of my goals, and my woman has proven willing to stick with me through that as well. But I cannot, in good conscience, subject my future children to that fate. What do you suggest?

    • Jud Jackson
      Posted November 25, 2019 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

      I started a Ph.D. Program in philosophy in the early 1980s. I quickly sized up the situation, took a terminal MA, and went on to get a BSEE where the job prospects were quite good even for white males. However, my MA allowed me to teach philosophy part-time as an adjunct. I basically taught the same Philosophy 101 course over and over on either week nights or Saturday mornings. I enjoyed this very much and got a nice extra chunk of change. But my engineering degree made it possible to enjoy a middle class life style and I came across some very brilliant people in Engineering. So, I got the best of both worlds.

    • Lifthrasir
      Posted November 26, 2019 at 8:13 am | Permalink

      Perhaps consider an institution outside the bounds of what would be “respectable” to a modern academic, something like University of Dallas (a Catholic school in *Irving, Texas* – said in a coastal elite voice) or possibly one of the larger and more established classical private high schools, where they’re eager for PhDs, have an atmosphere of intellectual freedom (so long as you’re within the larger Christian confession) and are looking for leadership in a young movement. If you look for high schools, look for one with a serious commitment to their faculty that reflects in retirement plans, tuition that grows at 4-6% annually to keep pace, and a growing endowment. More here:

      You’ll never be closer to your PhD than you are now (and, as my PhD holding aunts and uncles were given to reminding me, regardless of what happened, their education could never be taken away from them). Create an alternate path that steers you clear of the adjunct underclass, provides a platform to do the work you are meant for and secures a future for your people.

  2. HamburgerToday
    Posted November 25, 2019 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    Great essay. Good advice.

  3. Chess Player
    Posted November 25, 2019 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    You described exactly my situation perfectly, but I realized this and changed ships early, about a year after having finished courses. I saw that only the one or two rockstar students got actual professorships, and the rest ended up in jobs that they probably could’ve had without a PhD. So I went to professional school instead. In science, they also need warm bodies to do their research.

  4. Lovely Phenotypes
    Posted November 25, 2019 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    Finding CC and various others on the right certainly leaves me with dread after reading how disturbing things are on the other side of the curtain.

  5. Arthur Konrad
    Posted November 25, 2019 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Well, consider the fact that Europe has always been more inert when it comes to matters of science, market thinking and utility, that European Union is itself a giant bureaucratic machinery staffed with ambitious people with no scruples, principles or morality, but whose readiness to gamble with other’s people’s fortunes in order to promote their careers in unparalleled, that education here has always been socialized, that pretty much everybody is studying on a scholarship, and that non-Europeans study as long as necessary to extend their stay, that people are in general, greater conformists and are prepared to work more time for less, that they are much more vain when it comes to such things as titles and perceived status, and you will get a picture of how bad things are here in the same branch. What offsets the problem at least partially is the piggy bank called the EU which bankrolls so much of that paper shuffling.

  6. John Wright
    Posted November 26, 2019 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Happy to add my thoughts to the excellent stuff that’s already been said.

    One question you might ask yourself if whether you like teaching. If you do like teaching, then yeah, high school could be an idea. As for smaller universities, I’ve looked into some pretty awful universities and community colleges, and even they were full up with adjuncts. If teaching is something you take or leave, as it is for me, you might narrow your focus to the parts of the university that you do care about. For me that’s conferences and reading groups. A lot of areas have mailing lists or calendars so that you can identify the few presentations that aren’t just Leftism warmed over. That’s a way to keep up with the institutional university.

    Beyond that, we tend to forget that for most of the 18th century, intellectual life took place in clubs, semi-private speakers series, and through networks of correspondence: the so-called Republic of Letters. If we think of websites like CC as a modern Republic of Letters, or perhaps as one district within it, then all we’d have to do to get to the level of intellectual life enjoyed by David Hume and Samuel Johnson is to organize IRL clubs for reading and discussion. That strikes me as pretty attainable, and there’s been a lot of good writing recently in our thing on how to meet like-minded people and form real groups. In any club you form you’ll probably be the expert in your area, so you won’t get the narrow focus that you have in the contemporary university. I missed that for about a year, and then I felt liberated at being able to read and think and talk about whatever I wanted to research – an advantage, as it seems to me now, of the 18th century model.

  7. LS
    Posted November 27, 2019 at 1:32 am | Permalink

    Nice review. The book sounds like a useful eye-opener for certain people.

    Let me say that I would not expect to get very far in this world with a name like “Herb Childress”. It is kind of funny that the name indeed goes with a deluded adjunct aspiring to tenure-track.

    Anyway, I would just like to point out that in the sciences and engineering nearly everyone not qualified for a tenure-track position knows it before they finish graduate school, the rest know it before they finish their first post-doc (People seeking tenure track positions will do a ‘post-doc’ or two following graduate school. Look it up if you don’t know what it is.). They don’t then take adjunct positions with an eye toward a tenure-track appointment. It does not work that way and everyone knows it. To do so would signal the need for psychiatric care.

    And boo-hoo for Childress not getting to spend his life sitting on his ass at a university collecting a nice salary+benefits. I am crying my eyes out just thinking about it.

  8. Svea Svensson
    Posted November 27, 2019 at 1:43 am | Permalink

    this is the question that Childress helps to answer. Over the past century, universities threw open the gates, admitting Jews, women, blacks, other races, cripples, and sexual deviants. Since these people do not belong at university, someone needs to cajole and ease them through the process, and plead for lowered standards on their behalf when they prove unequal to the task.

    So Childress says that Jews, women, blacks, other races, cripples, and sexual deviants (who together make up the majority of today’s students) don’t belong at university?!? This seems strange, especially since he also “envisions a university where every professor is attuned to the needs of diversity.”

    I don’t know much about the situation in America, but in my European country the problem is not that the universities admit people of different races, sexes, sexual orientations, and physical disabilities. The problem is rather that our politicians have forced many of them to lower their standards in order to admit more students. But this also includes many white normosexual men who are not suited for the education.

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