The best student I’ve ever had will be starting graduate school this fall. He’s been admitted directly into the Ph.D. program at Flagship U in Real City, and he has the talent and work ethic to have a much more impressive career than mine, if that’s what he wants, and more importantly, if someone gives him the chance.
I’m conflicted about it, in some ways. I have no doubt that he belongs in the academy — but I have significant doubt that anyone belongs there, these days. The odds of getting a tenure-track gig in the humanities are as thin as a loan shark’s sympathy, and grow thinner each year. We’ve seen cohort after cohort of bright, talented, passionate people get tossed into a sort of shadow academy, the world of the adjunct. These people (many, again, as bright and talented as I am) exist from term to term, from contract to contract, making a few thousand a course, if that. They’re the migrant workers of academia. The waste of ability is tragic, both for the adjuncts themselves and for their students, who are taught by people spread far too thinly to give them the attention they warrant.
There’s no indication things are likely to get better, but there are some ideas floating around that could help. Erin O’Connor and Maurice Black examine a few of them, and suggest that the road to a humane academic employment structure should (and perhaps must) pass through the boardrooms where the trustees of our colleges and universities conduct their business. I agree, if for no other reason than that trustees can apply pressure to administrators (who profit from cheap, disposable labor) that the tenured faculty (who also benefit from exploited adjunct labor in numerous instances) cannot. What is it the kids say? Oh, yeah — read the whole thing. Maybe one of these days, my star student will thank you for it.