It is my pleasure to host this interview with Dr. Herb Childress, author of the new book The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission
KK: First, tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to academia.
HC: My mom was a high school grad, and my dad had dropped out of school somewhere around seventh or eighth grade, when his family left Arkansas for California in the 1930s. I did fine in high school, but when it came time for college, no one in my family had any knowledge or experience about what that meant. So I picked one and went. I did what people told me, went where people pointed, got my bland three point something, and dropped out after two years. I did fine, but there was no larger narrative to tie anything to.
I got married, spent five years on the quest to become a professional bowler, and then worked in retail for a few years after it became clear that I was an awfully good bowler but never going to be good enough. By that point, we were living in Oakland, and I was bored, so I went back to Laney College. California community colleges in the 1980s charged about five dollars per credit, so it was a low-risk decision.
And I learned that I was really interested in architecture, Tom Turman of their architecture department was a terrific teacher, and I was able to transfer to Berkeley, where my love of architecture was crushed. But I got something better: architectural history. That really fed my interest in the material culture aspects of design, seeing buildings and cities as records of decisions, of power, of aspirations. All the stuff I’d been drawn to in the first place now had a home. Paul Groth, who taught American vernacular design history, showed me that it was meaningful to ask questions about things as mundane as silos and streetsigns. He showed me a life in which curiosity was valued.So I got my bachelor’s at 31, worked for a couple of years, and then started a PhD at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, where they had an architecture program in what was called environment-behavior studies.
I loved it. I loved every minute of it. I got my PhD in 1996 at age 38; SUNY Press published my dissertation pretty shortly after. But by that point, it was clear that the wheels had already come off the wagon. I was interdisciplinary, I was old, I’d come from a less prestigious university, and I still didn’t understand white-collar culture well enough to know the right moves. I didn’t even know that there were right moves.
KK: What are you doing now, and how do you like it?
HC: I’m a writer. My wife and I do some consulting work, I do professional development work and accreditation work with a few colleges here and there, but fundamentally, I’ve written full time since 2013 when I left higher ed. Fiction, mostly, though it’s the higher-ed nonfiction that’s gotten the traction. But really, the fiction and nonfiction both stem from the same motive: trying to tell stories of people who have to figure out the world when the rules changed beneath them. I can’t imagine better work, though I can imagine lots of ways to make more money.
KK: What made you initially decide to get a PhD and want to become a professor?
HC: Paul Groth, Heather Clendenen, and David Littlejohn at Berkeley. Full stop. They took joy in their teaching, and they were great at it. They took joy in their intellectual lives, and they were great at it. And they believed in me enough to give me opportunities and guidance I’d never had before.
I didn’t know what it meant to be a professor. I didn’t know what it meant to be an academic. I wanted to be a college teacher, and that’s the way I framed it. I wanted to be the kind and generous guide that Paul and Heather and David were, and I wanted to live forever in that place of rigorous curiosity.
KK: What has been your experience of the academic job market?
HC: Complete random confusion. For instance, I didn’t know how insular architecture is as a discipline, so I didn’t know that their academic postings were most often in the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture newsletter; I relied on the Chronicle of Higher Ed as my sole source of job ads, and probably missed some interesting possibilities. And being interdisciplinary,
When I finished my PhD, I needed to work, and I was living in California after doing my dissertation research there. So I was selling furniture, distant from any daily academic conversations, and from my former faculty. But really, I’d never had any meaningful conversations with any of them about the blunt facts of getting work anyway. So I sold furniture, kept publishing journal articles, and went absolutely nowhere.
Gabrielle Foreman of U. Delaware once said that “For first generation students and students of color, asking for help feels like begging. For more privileged students, asking feels like networking.” And as a forty-year-old working-class guy, I didn’t want to beg, didn’t want to admit that I was confused and scared, didn’t even know how confused I was. I wouldn’t have known what to ask. So I did it all on my own, wandering in the wilderness, and remained perpetually lost.
KK: How would you describe the experience of being an adjunct, both professionally and personally?
HC: It was surprisingly similar to the job market, now that I think about it. I had loads of intellectual freedom and no guidance. I wasn’t connected to the larger curricula that I taught within, wasn’t connected to any colleagues. Just as with my failed foray into the faculty job market, I was really isolated from any institutional structures.
Like all adjuncts, I got hired at the last minute, and I lost courses at the last minute. That happened even after the shoe was on the other foot. My very first semester as an administrator, one of the adjunct faculty I’d hired called me two hours before his second week of class and told me that his immigration lawyer said he couldn’t teach, that teaching was outside his work visa. So I picked up that class myself with 90 minutes notice. That kind of stuff is invisible, and normal, and it’s wrenching to be inside it.
KK: In the book you talk about PhD job seekers being in an unhealthy and manipulative relationship with academia. How?
Erving Goffman wrote a wonderful early essay called “On Cooling the Mark Out,” about how con men ease people through the experience of being swindled so that they don’t go to the cops. He identifies two common ways of cooling the mark. The first is to offer “a status which differs from the one he has lost or failed to gain but which provides at least a something or a somebody for him to become.” The second is to offer “another chance to qualify for the role at which he has failed.” In both cases, the victim is allowed a new way to keep participating in his own demise.
In academia, the first strategy is called adjunct faculty or visiting scholar or professor of the practice, and the second is called postdoctoral fellow. The adjunct instructor is not the status that was hoped for, but at least it provides a role to play in our desired community. The postdoc is also not the status that was hoped for, but the promise is that it represents merely a hold against payment sure to come.
We were all recruited by flattery. We were all separated from the herd, told we were special. We were given Greek terms like summa cum laude, mathematically demonstrated to approach or meet the 4.0 limit. We were welcomed to office hours, given special tasks. We were told by the undergraduate community that we were worthy, and that worth was affirmed as we were recruited by the doctoral community.
In grad school, we got straight A’s in the core, we killed the qualifying exams, we taught the intro courses and got the strong evals, we defended the proposal that allowed us to work independently, and then we defended the work we’d done. All five committee members agreed that we’d crushed it, they took us to dinner, told us we were the best ever. There’s never been another one like you…?
And the phone never rang again. We were ghosted. We freaked out, asked our friends if we had spinach in our teeth or B.O. Or we went silent ourselves, hiding in shame, convinced of our failure. Or we got all needy at conferences, asking about job openings during the Q&A after the keynote, buttonholing a senior scholar over a drink as they desperately scanned the horizon for rescue.
And then we were offered a chance to be cooled: to adjunct, to be a postdoc. Our love for that former life, for that validation and reconnection, makes us all vulnerable to any murmured affection, no matter how impermanent.
KK: What ultimately led you to write this book?
HC: I’d published a previous book with University of Chicago Press, The PhDictionary: A Glossary of Things You Don’t Know (but Should) about Doctoral and Faculty Life. It was an attempt to explain academic culture through its language, for people who didn’t natively speak that language. After that book came out in 2016, my editor, the remarkable and heroic Elizabeth Branch Dyson, said that she wanted a general-readership book about the adjunct phenomenon, and thought that I had the right writing voice for it. I made it clear that I wanted to avoid what I called the “combat narratives” of evil administrators versus beleaguered faculty, or philistine state legislators undermining intellectual life. I wanted to write an ecology, a systemic study of the changes both within and beyond higher ed that have led us to this disaster.
There are plenty of stories about the plight of individual adjuncts, like the horrific and heartwrenching story of Dr. Thea Hunter just published last week in The Atlantic. What I wanted to do was to place those individual tragedies within a larger frame, to help us see the systemic loss of what higher ed could be, and sometimes is.
KK: What do you hope readers get from the book?
HC: There are about twenty million people involved in higher ed at any moment, as students and teachers and staff; ten times as many people as all of the branches of military service, for instance. It just seems like part of our culture that we should all understand better.
So for that general audience, I hope that they understand better what their kids will encounter—or what they’ll encounter themselves, now that college students are increasingly “non-traditional,” a term that I hope will soon be a historical artifact like “co-ed.” I hope they’ll understand, in a way my own family didn’t, that the word “college” is like the word “restaurant,” a category that covers a range of experiences from The French Laundry to Denny’s. I hope it’ll help give some context to the flurry of college closures, and to stories of Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin buying admission for their kids. And I hope it’ll help people see that colleges aren’t some remote culture—they’re expressions of who we are and what we collectively value.
For the internal audience, I want to bring more precision to understanding how and where adjuncts are deployed, and what that implies for the whole enterprise. I also want to bring more precision to the idea of “administrator,” a category that shouldn’t include relatively powerless people working in financial aid or student affairs or IT. But more broadly, I hope that the higher ed community can understand that the adjunct crisis is not upon us because of any single causal variable; it’s an ecological collapse, with faculty as the species die-off that marks even larger turmoil.
KK: Are you surprised by the strong response to the book so far?
HC: I am. I’ve gotten used to working in isolation, so being part of a larger conversation has been a real blessing. The folks at Chicago have been marvelous about helping this argument reach a broad community; the fact of a review in the New Yorker is a treat because, you know, it’s the New Yorker, but more importantly, it’s a sign that the book can do the larger work of speaking to a civilian as well as a professional audience.
KK: What do you want to say to Ph.D. job seekers?
HC: First, it’s not an individual sport. Don’t be afraid to ask your committee members for advice and for support, and remember that every conference you go to is part of the recruitment and networking system. When you make friends with faculty members at other schools, ask them what they’re hearing about who might have positions open, and keep in contact with them about what they’re up to as well. This is a networking project, not an isolated test of how good your own work is.
Second, be aware of the numbers. We’re putting 50,000 new PhDs every year into a market that might absorb 10,000. You can do everything right and still not have it pan out. The job market is an impersonal phenomenon, not a reflection on your merit. It’ll feel like you’re failing, but you aren’t, the structure is.
And finally, try to remember exactly why you went into this in the first place. We want a place to exercise our curiosity, we want ways to mentor young people and get them excited about a body of ideas. We want to have our moment to influence some larger body of thought. Academia is one place where we can do that, but perhaps there are others. The work of generosity and mentorship can take many forms.
KK: What do you want to say to tenured professors?
HC: Congratulations. You’ve made it through a narrow passage; good on you. Now that you’re there, do your work to its utmost; don’t be the person that the rest of us look at and say “Really? Him? Her? Really?”
Recognize that your ability to work with upper division students and with grad students is supported by an invisible workforce who take care of the first- and second-year students, the undeclared, the students struggling to find their footing. Let adjuncts and term faculty know their work is valued, that their presence is valued. Ask them for advice about the early stages of the curriculum, which they know far better than you. And find ways to advocate for them, to express their value to the chair and the dean, to bring them into greater security and greater membership.
KK: What do you want to say to administrators?
HC: I know you’re struggling with the same fluidity and uncertainty as everyone else in higher ed. I get that. But you need to be a counterforce to that. People surrender in the face of “market forces,” but if we took the same attitude toward the force of gravity, we’d all be in one-story buildings and never have invented skyscrapers or airplanes or ladders. We are not helpless in the face of market forces; we can invent ways for people to rise up and be secure above the ground.
Invest in your first and second year undergrads. Don’t take 25% first-year attrition as the norm, don’t abandon those incoming students to the least supported faculty. Your early-career undergrads are trying to enter an unfamiliar culture, and you need to provide secure membership to the teachers who will lead them through that wilderness so that they can better mentor those students into membership themselves. What happens inside the classroom is not enough.
KK: What would you say to someone who says they want to get a Ph.D.?
HC: It’s not the same as being a good student, working on your own projects in isolation. It’s not just getting more individual A’s. You’re entering a community that creates rather than absorbs knowledge; the real core of doctoral education comes after you’ve passed your dissertation proposal, when you become a nascent scholar. You need to be evangelical about some way of understanding the world, and commit yourself to never understanding it as well as you want to. You always want to be confused, you always want to be over your head, you always want to figure out the unfamiliar, building temporarily secure platforms from which you can explore even further.
When you’re choosing from among doctoral programs, remember that there are about 4,800 departments in the US that offer the PhD, and that only about a quarter of them will gain you access to the right conversations in the right community. The others might give you a wonderful intellectual experience, but they won’t carry much weight once your CV is being read in a batch of 200. Aim for the uppermost tier of programs, and be prepared to be way over your head for quite a while. The alternative is being the best house in a bad neighborhood, which never sells.
Make friends. Make friends among your cohort, make friends among your faculty, make friends with people in your discipline all over. Be known not merely through your writing, but as a person. (Tough gig for an introvert like me, but I think it’s accurate.)
If you’re married or partnered, remember that your family is more important than anything else. Discuss everything as a team, make your choices together. Your job is only part of your life, and your life is what matters.
KK: Final thoughts.
HC: I’ve been lucky, and privileged. I’ve never had to worry about where food will come from, I’ve always had some other job. I’m older, and white, and cismale, and straight, and childless. I am not the face of the adjunct nation, which is more than half women and increasingly scholars of color and increasingly desperate, supporting not just themselves but their families by piecework. But if I can use my luck and my privilege to draw attention to this wholesale abandonment of two generations of scholars, I hope my contributions will be useful.