'The Great Shame of Our Profession'


Kevin Birmingham, who teaches at Harvard as an adjunct, gave a talk last October on accepting the Truman Capote Award. It is reprinted  in The Chronicle of Higher Education and I’d recommend that each of us who is tenured or on the tenure track read it. Birmingham writes:

I sometimes wonder when the ripples widened out beyond what I had imagined. Recently, I sat next to two professors at the plenary session of a graduate-student conference. The students had been presenting their research all weekend, and now they were listening to us. “What is your advice?” a student asked. “Get your hands dirty,” one of the professors said. “Throw yourself into your work. Don’t be afraid.” He is a good person. He is an important scholar and an inspiring teacher. He immigrated to the United States decades ago and threw himself into his love for literature. He worked his way up, as we say, published several books, received tenure, won fellowships and awards, and now, in 2016, he was offering advice about bravery to graduate students surviving on $10,000 a year. This is the carefully dressed underclass of his department, the people who, when he wasn’t looking — because he didn’t go to yesterday’s luncheon — furtively filled their tote bags with leftover fruit and potato chips.

Read the whole thing.

7 thoughts on “'The Great Shame of Our Profession'

  1. Yes, “Why are professional humanists so indifferent to these people?” The 2nd reading of Kevin Birmingham’s brave piece (I read it when it was first published) is even more poignant than the first. They are indifferent because it is every man/woman for himself, because we live in an aggressively competitive culture, and narcissism is our defining character trait. What an odd brand of humanism! Until academics start caring about each other and their students, and about building a culture where everyone is treated with fairness and respect, our noble profession will continue to self-destruct.

  2. Several specific empirical claims in this article are outright falsehoods:

    1. “Part-time adjuncts are now the majority of the professoriate and its fastest-growing segment.”

    The Digest of Education Statistics Table 315.10 records 791,378 full time faculty and 754,003 part time faculty as of 2013 (the most recent year with data). That is not a majority.

    The same table also shows that adjunct numbers are not the “fastest-growing segment” as they are not growing at all. Adjuncts peaked at 762,355 in 2011, and have been shrinking in number ever since due to the implosion of the for-profit higher ed market.

    2. “And the so-called part-time designation is misleading because most of them are piecing together teaching jobs at multiple institutions simultaneously.”

    The 2012 Coalition on the Academic Workforce survey (Table 17) reports that 77.9% of adjuncts report teaching at only one institution. Earlier surveys have shown the same thing. It cannot therefore be the case that “most of them are piecing together” multiple jobs at different institutions.

    3. “A 2014 congressional report suggests that 89 percent of adjuncts work at more than one institution; 13 percent work at four or more.”

    The “report” he references is actually a non-scientific “e-forum” that was run by the Democratic staff of a House committee in November 2013. It was not a statistical survey, and participation was done by non-random invitation coming from an openly partisan entity. The 89% statistic comes from an unscientific sample of only 217 of these respondents (p. 13 of the Democratic committee report), all of which were again non-random. To present it as a scientific finding is borderline fraud.

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