Going Adjunct, Or: A Picture of Precarity

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Deepa S. Reddy]

This post is part of a series on the relationship between academic precarity and the production of ethnography, introduced here.

It is said that when the Indian cricketer “iron man” Sunil Gavaskar announced his retirement in 1987, he observed that it’s nicer by far to quit when people still ask “why?” instead of “why not?”

I’d like to think that I quit the tenured position that I’d held for a decade at a similar juncture. Not simply because my research and career trajectories were pointing upwards, but because institutionally things were stable—or should I say, stable enough. Anthropology was accepted as a valued service department key to maintaining multiculturalist credentials; our graduate program was growing organically—enough to justify a new faculty line. And yet it was on a crisp sunny fall 2008 day that a container with most of our belongings left our home in Houston for Pondicherry; the implications of the subprime mortgage crisis were just beginning to manifest themselves, though an increasingly anxious buzz was the only sound on the airwaves. Our Dean was soon to retire, and with him was to go the system of benefaction we’d so long worked with just fine. Big changes were ahead, though we could hardly have predicted their impact at the time: close-to-bone cuts in legislative funding, new initiatives to measure faculty productivity both within and without, new drives to measure the value of service programs like Anthropology by majors enrolled rather than by semester credit hours taught, an apparently new proactiveness from State educational policy-makers that determined, more than ever before, the fates of individual programs.

These are not just idiosyncratic details, specific to our school or to Texas, but rough measures of the sort of dubious “stability” that exists within the public university and that creates spaces for scholarship: “secure” only until the next (financial) crisis or push to fiscal efficiency. This is a condition that probably doesn’t need much elaboration for Savage Minds readers, but I want to pin it as a point of contrast to what we see then as life off the precipice, in the abyss of adjunctdom. The fear of falling, as Barbara Ehrenreich might have described the feeling one gets looking down.

It’s an academic commonplace that a life of adjuncting ain’t no fun at all, for anyone with professional career-building aspirations; indeed it can be downright exploitative. We know full well that adjuncts or contingent faculty teach well over half of all college-level courses, that the contributions of adjunct faculty are critical to the functioning of many programs, particularly smaller ones—but for all that adjuncts are poorly compensated, poorly supported, and poorly recognized. For a long time there we dared not call it outright exploitation, for fear of admitting that we, too, could be complicit in upholding structures that we would otherwise subject to brutal critique. But times have changed and the numbers are now such—“Adjunct, contingent faculty members now make up over 1 million of the 1.5 million people teaching in American colleges and universities,” wrote MLA president Michael Berubé just this past January—that the issue is no longer consigned to its former invisibility. Data freshly being gathered about adjunct numbers and pay, as also about University presidents’ salaries is both tool and sign of building awareness. Badly paid, written out of University governance, with practically no access to University travel or research funds, with no healthcare or other benefits, always that much less credible than colleagues on the tenure track, and yet present in such numbers, the centrality of contingent faculty to the normal functioning of the University and therefore the problemof contingency in the academy has never seemed clearer. Or worse.

I cannot generalize beyond a point, and I certainly do not want to rationalize the corporatized, Higher Ed Inc. market-driven academy model that feeds on adjunct work while increasingly driven by for-profit motivations. And yet I want to say that there’s sometimes a trade-off in accepting one’s position on the adjunct margins, at least in the cases I’ve seen and now myself represent: considering one’s prospects over that of the spouse/partner with a job in town, considering life with new babies, considering the need for teaching experience to get out of graduate school with some, considering the prospects of being able to keep one’s ties to the academy and life-as-one-once-knew-it from as far off as India. It’s a terrific price to pay, one that’s sufficient to nurse lifelong bitterness, but there are also at times compelling reasons why we’re willing (or have no choice but) ultimately to pay it.

The question for us, however, is: What happens to research under such conditions? One of the less discussed but very significant shifts that comes from going adjunct (aside from but obviously connected to labor precarity) is that there’s literally no pressure to do research of any sort. No graduate advisor breathing down one’s neck. No Chair or Dean demanding annual reports. No periodic review process; no institutional guidelines for performance and no pressure. No support—and therefore also no pressure. Writing it out this way, it seems this sort of reprieve ought to be liberating (and I’ll get to some free play elements in later posts), except that it’s hard to imagine that anyone seeks such reprieve in adjuncting. Au contraire, if next year will be the year to get back into the market and adjuncting is a stop-gap measure, then the pressure to keep oneself alive scholastically is that much more terrific. In other words: I have no compulsions except those I levy on myself to remain an anthropologist any longer. [Hence perhaps the credibility issues adjuncts face?]

The result is something of an existential crisis, at least in my case. So many conversations with family on the value of doing any writing work at all—the present narratives for Savage Minds included—alongside so many other conversations about keeping academically current just-in-case. A stubborn will not to let go of the argument about research value made so routinely to administrators: that good teaching, even at the freshman level, draws much from the currency of research. And yet, the realities of working in isolation, which is in my case compounded greatly by physical distance and mediated only by email and the internet—being cut out of conversations, with only personal money to attend conferences (but again, no clear justification for that sort of expense!), and few possibilities of networking besides, leave alone the task of fingering the pulse of new approaches and new research.

A dear friend remarked, when I told her of our imminent move years ago and expressed concern about what would happen next: not to worry; people will be on you like white on rice; can you imagine having a collaborator in India? Needless to say, the proposals haven’t exactly come pouring in, not the least because that sort of writing-thinking-conceptualizing work takes time and a sort of organizational marshalling that I, for one, struggled to find even with full institutional support and impetus. The thing about being adjunct, too, is that one is rarely ever just adjunct: it’s usually one of several jobs one has going in this just-in-case and because-I-love-it model of existence. I still know colleagues who take summers off in their field-sites, though as I recall that was easier by far if the fieldsite was Mexico then when it was India. As an adjunct now, I’ve also traded away my summers: it’s time faculty cordon off for their research, so the courses available to teach are more. There’s hardly any time for ethnography in the conventional/classical sense.

So, what sort of ethnography is possible? My next posts will take up this question in somewhat more detail, coming at “ethnography” from the realities of what fieldwork becomes, under such conditions of constraint, and the possibilities that writing and analysis open up.

Deepa S. Reddy is Adjunct Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. She blogs on food, culture, and gastronomical life on Pâticheri: Ethno.graphic.Food


Deepa S. Reddy is a cultural anthropologist with the University of Houston-Clear Lake and Human Factors International. She lives and works from Pondicherry & blogs her gardening and food adventures on paticheri.com.

3 thoughts on “Going Adjunct, Or: A Picture of Precarity

  1. I have a feeling you might catch a surprising amount of flack for this post. If you use the numbers you cite you might see why, with about 75% of the professoriate being contingent, you cannot expect that only 25% are carrying all of the publishing weight. Therefore, multitudes of adjuncts before you have figured out this problem, myself among them.

    You might want to check out Adjunct Nation — a magazine with both online and print editions — for in-depth discussions of this issue and many others that you may find are affecting you in new ways. A magazine, btw, that I wrote for while also teaching more than full time AND publishing more than many tenured profs around me.

    Your innocent cri de coeur, while well meaning, merely serves to once again point up the divide of which you speak, much as the cheery “Have a great break!” would signal that the full-timers had no ‘real’ idea who was teaching their classes when they were away.

    Tl;dr – There is a huge literature on this problem.

  2. Anthrodiva, thanks for all the work you’ve done on behalf of adjunct faculty. I agree that the author seems naive to the gritty realities of off-the-tenure-track work, but I think you’re being a little hard on her.

    Is it useful to set up a division between teaching and research faculty and argue about who works harder, which roles are more necessary, which lifestyles are more stressful and so forth? Our working conditions are so uneven (even within the adjunct world) as to make such conversations difficult at best. And they distract us from recognizing that the shifting division of labor in higher education is driven by the goal of reducing costs per credit hour at the expense of *all* faculty.

    I hope it’s okay to post a link to an article I wrote for Anthropology News on the challenges of organizing academic labor. As a union activist, I sincerely believe that what we need is solidarity. Divisiveness just plays into the hands of management.


  3. Anthrodiva, Amy,
    Thanks for the comments. I’m sure I’m naïve about a great many things, but (as Amy says) the experience of being adjunct is so very varied, it’s hard to have a conversation on this topic without drawing flack–apparently even when one is adjunct oneself : ). For what it’s worth, I’ll say that at least some posts in this conversation will be personal and generalizable only to a point — to that extent, I’m speaking for my experience and none other.

    I’d like to clarify, however, that my comment about research productivity was emphatically not suggesting/ concluding anything about how much adjuncts vs. research vs. teaching faculty actually produce or should produce — but a comment on the source of pressure to productivity, which is entirely of a different nature. All the more in my case, at such a physical distance from the academy I once called home that even the possibilities of finding labor solidarities are both not-quite-same and of limited value. Why do we remain productive, given our different sets of contingencies? At the very least, I know it’s not because I have to have something to show for in my next annual review.

    Last and most important, while I appreciate that there’s a literature on this topic, my purpose here is less about characterizing adjunct dilemmas as about asking what these dilemmas do to the work of ethnography itself: the questions we ask, the projects we conceive, the methods we (are forced to) use to excecute these. I’ll have more to say on this in my forthcoming posts—but, in the meantime, if there’s literature that addresses the topic, I’d love if it could be drawn into this conversation.

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