Some months ago I wrote a post about a book I had not yet read. In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: The Truth about College, by Professor X both entertains and informs. And depresses. Written by an anonymous adjunct English instructor, the book presents much of adjunct life in gritty realism. No one sane can possibly dispute that there are problems with higher education, however, X’s experience and mine of the same phenomenon, while eerily similar, are strikingly different. X became a Professor because of the need for extra income to help pay a mortgage. Good for him—I am glad for him. Having been an adjunct myself, however, in much more trying circumstances (fear of being turned out of a rented apartment for insolvency) makes me wonder if X delved deeply enough. X was not a Ph.D. turned away from full-time teaching after having proven himself to have “the right stuff” in the collegiate classroom. He could afford, albeit barely, house payments. He had a full-time day job.
It could be the differences in our specializations that paints the contrast so starkly. I studied religion from my undergraduate days and demonstrated competence at each step of the way. Even now colleagues encourage me that a full-time teaching job might come up. Some even lament the loss of my contribution to scholarship (not many, mind you! Far more have forgotten they ever knew me). Unlike Professor X I was fired for religiously motivated reasons. Once thrown off that lifeboat, there’s no getting back on. The religious are persnickety in that way. Being fired from a seminary is a sure sign of faulty merchandise. I spent six years, in some fashion, as an adjunct instructor with the constant specter of very real loss of everything a daily threat. Everything, of course, in my case meant mostly books. That made the threatened loss even worse.
Although my experience differed considerably, Professor X is absolutely right in his portrayal of how tenured, regular faculty often treat adjuncts dismissively. At times with disdain. As if we somehow didn’t graduate from world class universities. As if we didn’t have nearly two decades of stellar teaching evaluations. As if we’d stepped in something on the way to class. If I ran the world (and heave a sigh of relief that I never will) full-time faculty would be required to recite a prayer of thanksgiving every day that they were favored with a genuine taste of the promise that crumbles into sawdust in the mouths of the adjuncts. I was a full-time associate professor with a future. Since then I’ve become, no matter how full-time my workaday job, an adjunct with an uncertain future. And if you are lucky enough to have a full-time professorship, close your eyes, bow your head, and thank whatever it is you believe in. Ivory towers, it seems, come in many colors.