POSTED BY HANK REICHMAN
Kevin Birmingham has a Ph.D. in English from Harvard, where he is presently an instructor in the university’s writing program. His book, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses won both the 2015 PEN New England Award for Nonfiction and the 2015 Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism. Birmingham accepted the latter award at a ceremony in Iowa City on October 19. Here are portions of his splendid acceptance speech, which speaks for itself and needs no further introduction:
I accept the Truman Capote Award in this spirit of justice. I would be remiss, therefore, if I did not address another injustice tarnishing the literary critical profession. I am, so far as I can tell, the first adjunct faculty member to receive this award. To be sure, I have one of the best non-ladder positions available. My paychecks cover my bills. I have health insurance. I can work full time. I know by the end of June if my appointment is renewed for the fall. And yet I am one of over one million non-tenure-track instructors working on a temporary or contingent basis and whose position offers no possibility of tenure. To be contingent means not to know if you’ll be teaching next semester or if your class will be cancelled days before it starts. Most adjuncts receive less than three weeks’ notice of an appointment. They rarely receive benefits and have virtually no say in university governance.
Yet to talk about adjuncts is to talk about the centerpiece of higher education. Tenured faculty represent only 17% of university instructors. Part-time adjuncts are now the majority of the professoriate and its fastest growing segment. From 1975 to 2011, the number of part-time adjuncts quadrupled. And the so-called “part time” designation is misleading because most of them are piecing together teaching jobs at multiple institutions simultaneously. A 2014 Congressional report suggests that 89% of adjuncts work at more than one institution. 13% work at four or more. The need for several appointments becomes obvious when we realize how little any one of them pays. In 2013 the Chronicle of Higher Education began collecting salary and benefits information from adjuncts across the country. An English Department adjunct at UC Berkeley, for example, received $6,500 to teach a full-semester course. To read the employment details from thousands of people teaching courses in language and literature is a demoralizing experience. It’s easy to lose sight of all those people struggling beneath the data points:
The University of Texas at Austin: $8,500 for a full course.
Columbia University: $6,000
The University of Chicago: $5,000
The University of Iowa: $5,950
These are the high numbers. According to the 2014 Congressional report, the median adjunct pay per course is $2,700. An annual report by the American Association of University Professors indicated that last year “the average part-time faculty member earned $16,718” per year. Other studies have similar findings. 31% of part-time faculty live near or below the poverty line. 25% receive public assistance, Medicaid or food stamps. One English Department adjunct who responded to the Congressional survey said that she sold her plasma on Tuesdays and Thursdays to pay for her daughter’s daycare. Another woman stated that she teaches four classes a year for less than $10,000. She writes, “I am currently pregnant with my first child… I will receive NO time off for the birth or recovery. It is necessary [that] I continue until the end of the semester in May in order to get paid, something I drastically need. The only recourse I have is to revert to an online classroom […] and do work while in the hospital.” 61% of adjunct faculty are women.
You have asked me to speak to you today about literary criticism, and so we might note that the conditions ravaging our profession are also ravaging our work. The privilege of tenure used to confer academic freedom through job security. By now, decades of adjunctification have made the professoriate fearful, insular and conformist. According to the AAUP, adjunct faculty are about half as likely to undertake risky research projects, and the timidity moves up the ladder. Junior faculty play it safe—conceptually, politically and formally—because they write for job and tenure committees rather than for readers. Publications serve careers before they serve culture. . . .
We cannot blame this professional anemia on scarce funding. The largest adjunct faculty increases have taken place during periods of economic growth, and high university endowments do not diminish adjunctification. Harvard, for example, has steadily increased its adjunct faculty over the past four decades, and its endowment is $35.7 billion. This is larger than the GDP of the majority of the world’s countries.
The truth is that teaching is a diminishing priority in universities. Years of AAUP reports indicate that budgets for instruction are proportionally shrinking. Universities now devote less than one-third of their expenditures to instruction. Meanwhile, administrative positions have increased at ten times the rate of tenured faculty positions. Sports and amenities are much more fun. . .
Amidst competing budgetary pressures, classroom instruction is the easiest expense to cut, and part-time employees aren’t just cheap. They also provide curricular flexibility. Unpredictable course enrollments encourage administrators to find faculty who can be hired and fired just as unpredictably. Adjuncts help departments offer an ever-changing menu of courses.
But the problem goes deeper than administration as well. It’s systemic. The key feature of adjunctification is a form of labor market polarization. The desirability of elite faculty positions doesn’t just correlate with worsening adjunct conditions, it helps create the worsening conditions. The prospects of intellectual freedom, job security and a life devoted to literature combined with the urge to recoup a doctoral degree’s massive time investment give young scholars a strong incentive to continue pursuing tenure-track jobs while selling their plasma on Tuesdays and Thursdays. . . .
The abysmal conditions of adjuncts are not the inevitable byproducts of an economy with limited space for literature. They are intentional. Universities rely upon a revolving door of new PhDs who work temporarily for unsustainable wages before giving up and being replaced by next year’s surplus doctorates. Adjuncts now do the majority of university teaching and grading at a fraction of the price so that ladder faculty have the time and resources to write. We take the love that young people have for literature and use it to support the research of a tiny elite.
All of this is to say that the profession of literary criticism depends upon exploitation. Even this formulation is too soothingly vague, so let us be more direct: If you are a tenured (or tenure-track) faculty member teaching in a humanities department with PhD candidates, you are both the instrument and the direct beneficiary of exploitation. Your roles as teacher, adviser and committee member generate, cultivate and exploit young people’s devotion to literature. This is the great shame of our profession. We tell our students to study literature because it will make them better human beings, that in our classrooms they will learn empathy and wisdom, thoughtfulness and understanding. And yet the institutions supporting literary criticism are callous and morally incoherent.