On 27 March 2019, Herb Childress’s “This Is How You Kill a Profession” appeared in the online Chronicle Review. In the article, Childress presents parts of his experience in academe to depict the incremental cruelties of academic contingency. After a series of assertions about how college faculty have been devalued through redefinition, he notes his wife’s career in academe–dissertation in 1982, thirty-year series of adjunct and similar teaching jobs–before working through his own at greater length. Interspersed with it are a number of editorial comments, some of which are startlingly resonant, that bring out the irrationality inherent to community and the peculiarities of the academic community and express some of the more curious aspects of continued alignment with academe by those who have been denied full placement within it.
Given many of the things that I have posted to this webspace (for some examples, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, and this), it should come as no surprise that Childress’s article attracted my attention. As I read it that attention was justified; I read Childress’s account with no small sympathy, though my life in academe has been far briefer and still lingers. And I feel a strange mixture of defeatism and relief; if he, who did as much as he did, could not land a tenure-line position, then I never really had any chance–but I, at least, recognized that and got largely away from it before the efforts could undermine my physical health and my marriage. (My mental health is perhaps a different issue, though the health of any mind that seeks to enter academe is suspect.)
Some specific comments in the article deserve consideration, as well. The assertion that adjunctification is not bad only because of “how badly adjuncts are paid” and “the inadequate opportunities for our students to build enduring relationships,” but “also about fear, despair, surrender, shame,” emotional tolls paid most by those least able to carry such burdens. There is a significant investment in time and resources in becoming an academic, and for those of us who do not have family histories of such things, the failure to achieve the intended goals after so much effort is no small injury. As others have noted, we give up much of the identities and communities in which we are reared to make the attempt, and without admission to the putative community we have striven to enter, we are left uprooted and adrift. Even I, who am back again where I grew up, feel the distance and separation, and I know I can never bridge it.
Childress’s comments likening academic life to addiction are also telling. Even for those who manage to extricate themselves, the temptation to return is always present, and indulging it is always destructive. Again, it is a thing I understand. I see, day to day, people who have tried to beat addictions and failed for the moment, trying program after program after program in the hopes that one will finally let them get clear of their problem and in a place from which they can maintain a watch against it. I see some succeed, to be certain, but I see no few fail in the attempt; I see them relapse and slide back into the grips of indulged addiction, and it seems to be worse for them every time they do. It is a chronic thing even for those who succeed, and there is no program of support for those who fight against academe in such ways. Nor is there likely to be; even more than against drug addicts, there is a prevailing animus against academics, and there is less cohesive a community of those in recovery from academe to offer support in more than sporadic and anecdotal fashion.
Perhaps most resonant for me is Childress’s comment that “we [contingent academics] are refugees from a nation that would not have us. We have found our way to innumerable continents, but still hold that lost home in our hearts. We still, many of us, in quiet moments, mourn the loss of our community as we make our scattered way across diverse lands.” It is perhaps not so quietly that we mourn, as my own posts and the works of others to which my posts respond attest; we may not parade about weeping and gnashing our teeth, tearing our hair and rending our clothes, but we do not close ourselves away, either. But of more moment is that, well, I’ve made the connection before. I’m not accusing Childress of cribbing my work, of course; there’s little reason to expect that he read my writing (I know the limits of my fame), and there’s less reason to think that I am the first person to have had the notion to make the metaphor. But because I did make the connection, seeing it again spoke to me. There is some comfort in knowing that someone else sees something I do, even if we should both emulate Hoccleve in our questioning; having the company helps.