Though tenure may appear to be the land of milk and honey, the system is far from perfect. It is still a system, after all — one that protects incompetent teachers, reduces opportunities for younger and more diverse academics, and costs a lot. So pricey in fact that, over the past four decades, higher education has moved away from tenured positions toward contingent employment, a shift tied to rising tuition costs and decreased funding for universities. But reducing the number of permanent hires in favor of temporary teachers is far from an improvement. In fact, this reversal has produced a class of faculty who are fundamentally unequal to their tenured colleagues; the average academic department today is a caste society.
Ask any undergraduate, however, about the difference between an adjunct and a professor, and it might seem to him or her like much of a muchness. Adjuncts give lectures and lead seminars, they grade essays, they offer advice. They are also paid less and receive few benefits. Their work is often guaranteed only for the term, so they are likely to depend on outside employment. Precarity is woven into these positions, for which the contracts are frequently determined by the whims of one or two people, and while the same could be said for much of the gig economy, adjuncting is both a job and a mode of being. To adjunct is to be told you are smart enough to teach but not smart enough to be hired or even paid well. It is a psychological sinkhole in which the sense of precariousness results from both the lack of financial stability and a perceived intellectual deficit.
Finally, however, some interesting books about academia’s second-class citizens have been appearing when previously it had seemed there were none. Although set at universities, these are not campus novels, because the campus as such no longer exists, at least not the one imagined by Mary McCarthy. These newer novels grapple with precarity as a condition, particularly one faced by women. Their narrators are hyper-critical and somewhat self-destructive. Money isn’t the only lens through which their decisions and intellect are evaluated, perhaps because the bad pay itself isn’t new. As Larry Morgan, the creative writing adjunct in Wallace Stegner’s 1987 novel Crossing to Safety, lamented, his job only afforded him a home in a cellar and food that was “good for the budget but not especially for the soul.”
In The Life of the Mind, Christine Smallwood’s debut novel, Dorothy is a thirty-something adjunct teaching English courses at a New York university. When the book opens, she is on day six of a medically induced abortion brought about by a miscarriage. She has two therapists and no permanent job prospects. “She vaguely recalled a time when wanting to do the job she had trained for did not feel like too much to want,” Smallwood writes. “Now want itself was a thing of the past. She lived in the epilogue of wants.”
Over the six or so weeks that make up the story, Dorothy teaches, she organizes syllabi and grading rubrics, she texts, and she is gripped by her bodily evacuations. Prompted by routine encounters, her thoughts drift to Thomas Mann or Coleridge or Ayahuasca; much of the novel takes place in a discursive, desperate interior. On a flight to Las Vegas, Dorothy endeavors to reread a well-annotated text. Almost immediately, the book begins to speak, its voice the doomsday tone of a 3:00 a.m. thought:
Your work is superfluous. […] [B]ut far from being superfluous in the lovely, decorative sense of a sweet, impermanent trifle that will bring delight and assuage the sufferings of others, like birdsong, your superfluity is a ghastly excess. […] You […] are a dilettante, a prosaic clog in the pipes of discourse.
There she is, beaten by a book, and a book she loves and wants to read, no less. Smallwood aptly captures Dorothy’s befuddled state: the discouraging, exhausting awareness that this day will be just like the day before, but also that she chose to do this. It is not that Dorothy feels entitled to this life but rather surprised to have found herself outside its walls. Did she turn left instead of right, or was there never a right turn in the first place?
That Dorothy seems to view her life at a remove has much to with her in-between professional status, which has made it impossible for her to think beyond the end of the semester. How can you plan if there’s no stability? It’s the question that underpins Lynn Steger Strong’s novel Want (2020), whose narrator, Elizabeth, is similarly floundering. Elizabeth is 34 and lives in New York City with her husband and their two kids, the first of whom was a grad-school accident. Their apartment is too small, their finances depleted. She, too, is an adjunct, teaching college undergraduates something vaguely English Lit (why is it always English? where are the art historians, the classicists?), while also working at a public high school. There was a time when she thought “giving books to other people […] could be a useful way to spend one’s life.” Now, she is useful, perhaps even more impactful, but in a different way than she had previously imagined.
Like Dorothy, Elizabeth has failed to achieve anything resembling career stability. That she (improbably) has relatively stable adjunct work is thanks to a former supervisor who finds her classes each semester. But Elizabeth is less precisely drawn than Dorothy, and the cords that tether her to the world — to my world — are flimsier. While I believe her as a mother, and even as a high school teacher, Elizabeth as an academic left me wanting. While her students’ boredom reminds me of classes I have taught, Strong’s description of graduate school life isn’t specific enough: it’s an impression of an image and not the thing itself. Elizabeth studied “discarded” British and American female writers. She slept with a Victorianist. She smoked a lot. But gender alone does not a thesis make, nor is every English department riddled with Middlemarch enthusiasts. And in the late nights of her adjunct life, Elizabeth never mourns her stalled research or stalks the anointed ones on Academia.edu. Her stress is maternal, financial, familial, but it is not intellectual. What I mean to say is that Elizabeth does not seem to have been flayed open by people she once thought were gods and, upon learning the truth, nevertheless remained in their thrall.
Both Want and The Life of the Mind are examinations of, well, want — be it the bank-account kind or something less definitive. Desire is standard fare for writers, and these are covetous characters, but in a localized, personal sense. Both are searching for handholds by means of which they might hoist themselves up, but they want smaller, shinier things as well, like hardcovers, new outfits, and recognition. Money spills out of Want: who has it and who hunts it. Elizabeth was born into wealth, into a household where her parents would call the upstairs phone line to see if their daughters were home. Sometime in her 20s she stopped accepting her parents’ support, which almost — though not entirely — severs their relationship. “At what point is it time to give up on this whole dream thing?” her mother asks. But to accomplish any sort of intellectual work, or really any work at all, certain material conditions must be met. I found Elizabeth’s academia unconvincing, but perhaps she herself is unconvinced. Perhaps there is no space for her to think her thoughts or study her discarded women or write. Perhaps she buried those desires so deep that they no longer are substantial enough to be sensed.
When I say material conditions, I mean money — money to pay for heating and health insurance and a space to work, but also just money. Money bestows validation, and these people need to be paid for what they do. Often, it doesn’t feel like enough to produce work without being paid. Dorothy, whose material needs are met thanks to her boyfriend’s well-paying job, still can’t submit a book proposal or even finish the writing sample the proposal requires. Where does her worth come from? At a party, she drops Heidegger into a conversation about picture books she is having with Gaby, her best friend. Why, Gaby wonders, should she read to her son about the four seasons when likely he will only ever know two? “I am engaging in the act of deceit,” she moans. “I am preparing him for a world that will never be again.” “Or,” Dorothy says,
“it’s like reading Plato so you can read Heidegger’s critique.” She couldn’t suppress the little smile that crawled across her face whenever she showed what she knew. “He has to know the rules so he can understand what it means to subvert them.”
Of course, Dorothy is pleased, even if the audience is only Gaby and her son Sherman, a squishy blob of a baby: here is a woman who spent years working on a single piece of writing just to prove she was smart enough, but to what end, for whom? And to name Heidegger no less, who has come to stand in for all things scholastic and convoluted. He is the chef’s kiss of name-drops, the exemplar.
For someone pursuing a life of the mind, the body’s physicality serves as a necessary ballast: it counters the intangibility of the Word document, the half-written book. Elizabeth seems perpetually covered in the hot breath of her two young children; she runs until her feet freeze over; she has unsatisfying shower sex with her husband. Likewise, Dorothy’s miscarriage is a clever device, proffering a new realm for her investigatory tendencies to blossom and take hold. During a sonogram, she eyes her on-screen uterus like “an observer of some other reality, looking not into a mirror but through a portal or at the page of an old illustrated book.” As the doctor turns off the screen, Dorothy asks for a printout of the not-quite-empty emptiness whose walls she has just mentally likened to Plato’s cave.
That these novels possess a fleshy, physical charge gives weight to the incorporeality of thought. But if their protagonists seem somewhat disconnected, you should blame the gaze of the adjunct, which can be appraising and unsympathetic. The adjunct gaze burrows into the cracks of an argument, the hesitations of a life. It is sharp because it was trained to be so, but also because it must be. The adjunct has no protector. A friend of mine recently applied for a job for which she would have been given all the responsibilities of a professor but without a permanent contract. What research, the interviewing committee asked, did she hope to accomplish over the next five years? But how could she complete anything if the university was unwilling to pay for those years?
In a recent review-essay covering Strong’s and Smallwood’s novels, entitled “Adjunct Hell,” Maggie Doherty briefly describes her own experience in academia, the “strange awe” of those who feel they are “living through the end of an era — of stable employment, pension funds, affordable education, and any chance of containing a looming ecological disaster — and then past it.” Doherty is older than me, or at least she finished her doctorate before I did. I graduated just two months before the world closed in response to COVID-19. Graduating into a pandemic is probably the worst decision I’ve ever made, perhaps second only to pursuing a PhD in the first place. No one forced me to go to graduate school, of course, but once I was there, little was done to prepare me for the way the academic world really works. Even friends whose CVs list book publications and prestigious grants are having trouble finding adjunct positions, never mind permanent roles or any sense of stability.
The main problem with adjuncting is that adjuncts know they are trapped: the work offers few exits and few gains. If, at the conclusion of many a campus novel, the undergraduate is thrust into the world, no such advancement exists for the adjunct. At the close of Want, Elizabeth signs up to teach more university classes. Dorothy gives her students identical marks at the end of the semester. “She graded them all the same,” writes Smallwood, “all nearly perfect, before dumping each one carefully, respectfully, into the trash.” The adjunct novel offers little transcendence because there is so little to transcend.
Grace Linden is a writer and art historian based in London.