Thursday, June 15, 2006

Look before you leap:Invisible Adjunct

This post is for my neighbor Lance and my former student Luke and any one else who is brave enough (foolhardy enough?) to be working towards a career in the academy.

I am a proud recipent of a Ph.D. in anthropology. I worked hard for it. I always thought that I approached graduate school and the academic workplace with clear eyes but there were a series of hard realizations along the way. First, it was watching the way that hiring committees work -- the very arbitrary way that hiring decisions happen (mainly in response to departmental politics). Then it was learning that only one-third of those who get tenure-track positions actually get tenure. Then it was watching a professor in our department who was unanimously approved for tenure by the department get axed by the Dean.

I learned an immense amount in graduate school and worked with amazing professors. I was fortuate enough to have an advisor who was a true mentor. I had TAships, a private research assistantship, scholarships, and grants. But grad school took a long time. I watched older friends who had put off children during graduate school and early in their academic career struggle with infertility. Then I had children. Then I started teaching as an adjunct. I enjoyed it and I was good at it (I have teaching awards to prove it). But the pay was very low. I had an opportunity to have a position tailored for me at the small, rural liberal arts college I attend. I declined. I realized that I was now "place-bound" a fancy term for academics who can't or don't want to do a national job search and take a job where ever one appears. But I finished my dissertation and continued to teach as an adjunct, hoping that the low pay and poor treatment might some day be transformed into a real teaching position.

Then I discovered Invisible Adjunct. Its an inactive blog. But over a three week period I read every post and every comment and explored every link. Finally, I realized what a dead-end academia is for so many people (and me as well). Please pay attention to the "Academic Job Market section. Here is a brief selection from the first post in that section:

"Still, I have a mournful affection for students who remain confident of their ability to beat the odds. The young feel invincible and full of potential. And many universities view their naiveté and energy as an exploitable resource. The majority of graduate students exist to provide cheap labor for undesirable undergraduate courses and students for high-prestige graduate programs taught by tenured professors. It seems like the undergraduates are the only ones who don't know this, and they get angry when you tell them.
-- Thomas H. Benton, If You Must Go to Grad School...

In his "So You Want to Go to Grad School?" column (which I [Invisible Adjunct] blogged about here), Thomas H. Benton made a compelling case against graduate school in the humanities. He now offers words of wisdom for those who insist on following this very risky pursuit. It's important to note that Benton is not encouraging and endorsing the graduate school option. "I believe that most would not choose to go," he writes, "if they were properly informed about the risks (the most notable of which is a strong probability of never landing a tenure-track job)."
I agree. Though aspiring graduate students will readily acknowledge that they
realize the job market is "tight," many have no idea of just how grim is the situation in many fields in the humanities.

Yes, its a bit like wanting to go to Hollywood and write screenplays, maybe even more risky and less likely, and certainly less well-paid. My advice? Go to Invisible Adjunct, read the Academic Job Market section, follow the links to every Thomas H. Benton article in the Chronicle of Higher Education and then chart your future.


Heather said...

Raising her hand. My problem is, that I went into a situation like you - halting mid stream to attend to family, and realizing that I am a good teacher. And I love the subject area I teach. And the pay sucks. I wish I could teach part-time permanently. Why is there such resistance to this in the academy? The problem is tenure. This was the biggest mistake IMHO. I perpetuates elitism, and completely subverts any hope to propose any radical sort of pedagogy. I digress.

And, I submitted my application to teach a course with the anthro dept this week. I am on pins and needles...wish me luck!!

Umm 'Skandar said...

Good luck Heather! Hopefully anthro will be more kind than religious studies! The pay issue is directly related to the over-supply of Ph.Ds! There's $ to be made teaching nursing or economics, any place where the instructors have lots of other opportunities for employment. And stopping to have kids really isn't part of the dynamic -- I wish I had made that clearer in the the original post. It works the same way for single men as well because there are too many humanities and social science Ph.Ds for the jobs available!

I've learned that adjunct teaching only works when it is an adjunct to something else, some other career. That's the part that I'm still trying to figure out!