"Why Would They Hire YOU?"

When I returned to campus, after two years teaching elsewhere, for the final interview that would bring me back full-time, I stopped into the adjunct room to see if anyone I knew was around. The only person there was one I knew only slightly. She asked what I was doing back. I told her. She exploded:

“Why would they hire YOU?”

Taken aback, I shrugged and left.

Her question, though, is a good one. And I have been thinking about it ever since reading the complaint in The Chronicle about “whining adjuncts” and Marc Bousquet’s response–and Martin Kich’s post on this blog, not to mention the extensive discussion thread in response on the Writing Program Administrators’ listserv.

Actually, I think about it every time I serve on a hiring committee, paging through hundreds of CVs, any number of them from people more qualified than I was when hired and, if truth be told, quite a few more qualified now.

We who are tenured or on the tenure track did not get here because we are wonderful. We got here, in large part, because we are lucky. Everything we do could be done as easily and as well by others, sometimes by hundreds of others. Very few of us are real “stars”–and even that few got there by a combination luck and skill.

Unfortunately, we’ve a myth in America, a myth of our own individual might (an aspect of this myth is the focus of my book The Cult of Individualism; the topic is of importance to me). We “made it” because of our own hard work–no one helped us, so suck it up, the rest of you: Respect your “betters” and try your damnedest to join the club. After all, if you don’t make it, it is on you. Don’t expect any help from us.

When I wrote a post, “To My Tenured Colleagues,” I started off with a rhetorical question:

Why is it that we, the lucky ones, try so hard to divorce ourselves from those who have not had the same breaks?

The answer, self evident, has to do with guilt at being more successful than others just as able, just as qualified, a guilt that we cover over with our “by our own bootstraps” myth. Just as people often shun the people they have hurt, we try to rationalize our success, blaming the “failure” of others on themselves. It’s a cultural thing, a delusion almost all of us buy into, the genesis of it described by Bob Dylan long ago:

Advertising signs they con
You into thinking you’re the one
That can do what’s never been done
That can win what’s never been won
Meantime life outside goes on
All around you.

It is a con, and we are fools if we believe it (and we do), especially those of us on the faculty, for we become weaker because of the divisions it engenders. And that life all around? That’s the people taking advantage of our own self-centered mythologizing… the people who have demolished the power of the faculty by taking advantage of its self-created fractures.

As for me, I’m just glad I’ve never forgotten that comment. After all, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” Without lucky breaks, I would still be an adjunct.

4 thoughts on “"Why Would They Hire YOU?"

  1. Aaron,

    I respect what you do and are doing to bring together this great divide that seems to be getting bigger, instead of lessening.

    You are lucky. But so are many others to actually know you, and to have you bat WITH them. Thank you.

    Besos, not borders,

    Ana M. Fores Tamayo, Adjunct Justice
    Petition: http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/better-pay-for-adjuncts
    Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/AdjunctJustice
    Tumblr: http://adjunctjustice.tumblr.com

  2. I should read the references before responding. The professor doth protest too much. You’ve made unusual choices, have had good breaks and bad, and worked in creative, community oriented ways in all of your endeavors. Luck? Sure. They were lucky to get you. Whatever your irritations were as an adjunct, you were undoubtedly in my mind working first for the specific students, second for the community, third for the intrinsic interest, fourth because you believe in the efficacy of education to be self-improving (self-improvement an enduring American doctrine), and maybe you needed a job.

    I myself don’t put up barriers between me and my colleagues, though some find me irritating, so I don’t inflict myself on those. Many among my colleagues really are glad to keep their hand in teaching, and don’t want the full-time commitment. And the few who asked, why would they hire me, didn’t want to hear the answer, did not want to listen to what efforts put me over the top, did not want my insights into the activities that resonated with the committee, and that I see have since resonated with hiring committees. I agree, there are many, many fine candidates that could and should have the opportunities, but there are also many whose commitments are less about what committees can quantify, and intuitively feel when they are deliberating to understand their responses, i.e., the intuition forces the committee members to explain the sources those feelings. What I see are intelligent, well thought out decisions, given the limitations of budgets, and the number willing, and even eager to teach part time. When I was an adjunct, I was excited by the job, inspired by the student, enjoyed the collegiality, and for much of that period, I couldn’t work full time. Couldn’t. And wouldn’t have been a prospect for full-time. Wouldn’t. As I was more able, I could put more into the bit allowed me.

    Of course worthy people aren’t hired. Of course there are faults with those who are. Of course some places have a toxic culture, and some don’t. These are human institutions. I feel lucky, even blessed in a metaphorical way, to have my job. But not guilty. There are long lists of things I feel guilty for, but not that I got my job. Upset that other excellent people are still looking. Angry with the decline in state support for education. Indignant that the concentration of wealth has been moving in the wrong direction in this country. But not guilty.

  3. I might note that one could make a similar argument for hiring in K-12 schools. I have been both the one selected, usually because someone responsible for hiring already knew me, and the one excluded, often because as good as I look on paper (teaching awards, etc) it is obvious that I am much older (now 68) and of course I will cost more. The breaks I have had since I retired in 2012 (and am now on my 3rd teaching position in 3 years) is that people in the schools where I have worked knew me beyond how I appeared on paper, knew how I connected with the kids, and were willing to bet on me based on the track record they personally knew.

    My current principal allowed his assistant to do the interviewing with him present, and to be convinced of my worth. Then his only question was about my blogging – what I might do if/when say the superintendent said or did something at least worthy of criticism if not downright foolish. I pointed out that I am not inclined to criticize publicly those with whom I working while I work with them, although I do not hesitate to to offer my reactions directly for whatever it is worth.

    I realize my situation is not exactly comparable to what Aaron describes. After all, I am a retired/rehired teacher – I have a pension and social security and a wife who is a highly paid federal civil servant. We could make ends meet without my teaching full time.

    Still, the pattern in k-12 education has a parallel to the increasing reliance upon adjuncts in higher ed. That is what Teach for America provides. Yes, you pay a bit more for a TFA corps members than a freshly certified traditional teacher. But you know it is highly unlikely they will stick around beyond 2-3 years, and thus you incur no pension obligation for them (although if tenure is ever completed wiped out and teaching as a career is destroyed that advantage is lost) and because you know you will be replacing them that slot will continue to remain at the low end of the salary scale (while we still have career ladders with steps based on seniority – that too could disappear).

    In my first posting here, made at Aaron’s request, I warned university professors that the types of “evaluation” being imposed upon K-12 teachers would be making their appearance in higher education. You are seeing similar attacks upon your profession, as the recent incident at Illinois illustrates, as does the buying of research by certain corporate interests, in the deliberate attempt to devalue the liberal arts, in proposals to rank institutions of higher education by how much their graduates make (which of course might mean that all schools of social work, education, and preparation for service in ministry ought to give up right now).

    I suggest it is worth your while to at least keep an eye on what happens to K-12 education, because the forces attacking those of us there are perfectly prepared to turn their guns in your direction. As some of you are already finding out.


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