Burn It Down: The Lonely Death of American Higher Education, Part 1

Today I give you Part 1 of a dual guest post. It’s the brainchild of former adjunct-turned-dean and current activist, Robert Craig Baum. He and a friend/former colleague–who wants to be known here as Nikolai Adjunctski–wanted to share some of their stories and experiences. They’ve given us a clever & funny kind of creative interview.


Baum/Adjunctski will give us…strong opinions about the current state of higher education. Happy reading, and stay tuned for Part 2 tomorrow.

Nikolai Adjunctski was an adjunct from 1997-2010 in the Twin Cities; his anonymity needs to be respected as he is involved in a class-action labor suit against one of his institutions. Adjunctski holds a doctorate from both American and European universities and will soon publish the Anonymous and The Coming Insurrection, which inspired “Burn It Down: The Lonely Death of American Higher Education.” Robert Craig Baum, better known as Migrant Intellectual and FancyNewDean has been ordered by the Board of Trustees to shut down Lebanon College in Lebanon, NH, where he served six months as Dean of Academics. He is the author of the legendary Itself as well as the forthcoming Thoughtrave: An Interdimensional Conversation with Lady Gaga and What Remains (On the Life-Giving Dasein of Suicide), all on Atropos Press (Brooklyn and Dresden). Baum holds his PhD in Philosophy and Integrated Liberal Arts from the European Graduate School, MALS in American Studies and Literary Theory from Dartmouth College, and BA in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America.

(Part 1)


RCB: We first met where?

ADJUNCTSKI: You were big-time August Wilson Fellow and I was stupid actor and adjunct.

RCB: Guru Coffee?

ADJUNCTSKI: Yes. Don’t remind me. Nicoltte Avenue. Minneapolis.

RCB: You were Samuel in Samuel’s Major Problems.


RCB: Then you punked out on us: I had to play the role then the play never got produced.
ADJUNCTSKI: I did not punk out on you, my friend. You were just too full of yourself. It was hit you in the face or walk away, and that time I chose to walk away.
RCB: I didn’t realize until looking at your CV that you were also a doctoral student at UMN-Twin Cities in Cultural Studies.
ADJUNCTSKI: You never asked.
RCB: Well, it’s usually something a new colleague or actor volunteers.
ADJUNCTSKI: You never asked.
RCB: What do you remember about that time? 1998-2001?
ADJUNCTSKI: You were so f**king full of yourself.
RCB: Shut up.
ADJUNCTSKI: So (laughing) Seriously, my friend. You were full of yourself but in a good way. You know like when you’re a kid in a candy shop. You had everything. I lived in 24-hour cafes and under the bridge that collapsed in ‘07. I had nothing. Absolutely nothing.
RCB: I was full of myself but . . .
ADJUNCTSKI: . . .not full of, how do you say in polite company?
RCB: Shit?
ADJUNCTSKI: Yes. You were not full of shit. Just full of yourself.

RCB: It was really nice to have funding. And the Fellowship guaranteed I would teach the Senior Seminar. Most of my colleagues on the East and West Bank were teaching intro courses and other wage slave populated courses.


RCB: I’m on my own.


RCB: Since the Fellowship ended in May 2001.

ADJUNCTSKI: So, you adjuncted for more than decade?

RCB: From 2001-2003 I was really on my own; then I reconnected with the Theatre Department. I attempted to get back to the Black theatre research. In September 2004 (almost ten years to the date of this dialog) I was accepted into the European Graduate School. I wanted to pursue both, the UMN-Twin Cities doctorate and then the Philosophy PhD but . . .

ADJUNCTSKI: Well that was stupid.

RCB: You, my old friend, are absolutely right. I should’ve just walked away when I walked away, as the Underworld tune goes.


RCB: How long did you adjunct in the Twin Cities?
ADJUNCTSKI: For about nine years after you left.
RCB: 2001-2010?
ADJUNCTSKI: Yes. And you?
RCB: 2003-2011 in New Hampshire and Vermont mostly. Online 2007-2011 also at the same schools.
ADJUNCTSKI: Working contracts that don’t pay as much as fancy Fellowship must’ve been hard for Mr. August Wilson Fellow?
RCB: It was stressful not getting paid on time; and, in every case, every class, every campus, what was maddening (to the point of needing therapy) was not getting paid for all of my work.

ADJUNCTSKI: By the time of the 2007-2009 crash, I was numb to the whole thing. I taught my students. Did my work. Went home. No curriculum development. No committees. Just teach class, go home. And even then I was still not getting paid for all my work, either, comrade.

RCB: Well, not to burst your bubble, Nikolai, but I was only making $17,500 while also paying for my own health care for me, Shelly, and George (about $300 a month). The next year when we moved back to Vermont, my household income was about $7500 for 2001-2002.
ADJUNCTSKI: I made $27,000 at the restaurants–mostly off the books. Catering too. I think I averaged about $1850/three-credit contract around the Twin Cities.
RCB: So much for fancy fellowship?
ADJUNCTSKI: So much for fancy anything.


ADJUNCTSKI: What is wrong with higher education?

RCB: Too many bureaucrats, not enough teachers. And now, the corporate cohorts from the development wing have moved into the curriculum team sector, the accreditation team sector, and the marketing & recruitment sector when they were always better seen, not heard. I preferred it when they resided miles away–or at least a few buildings away. And they’re now grabby, wanting more and more power now that we’re in the bust economy (still).

ADJUNCTSKI: Like children.

RCB: What do you mean?

ADJUNCTSKI: The bureaucrats, the so-called “badmin”–they’re children, petulant children who need to be punished.

RCB: Exactly.
ADJUNCTSKI: And this description is not at all exaggerated. They behave like children. We’ve talked about this before, yes?
RCB: Yes. Often. (laughing) Welp, there goes my next academic gig?!
ADJUNCTSKI: Who needs it? This way they treat us. Who needs them!
RCB: So, children?
ADJUNCTSKI: Children believe in their version of the world so strongly that only counter myths, other stories, can shift their behavior. They do not yet understand how to incorporate new points of view or–heaven forbid–re-evaluate their own. They must be taught. In feedback loops. Too many administrators believe in their vision of the world with equal strength but do not take to learning better ways to get the job done. They become petulant.

RCB: So, what do you do about that?
ADJUNCTSKI: Discipline them. Timeouts do not work with these people, comrade. You must discipline them.
RCB: How?
ADJUNCTSKI: Refuse to leave their office after they slap you in the face with fewer courses than contracted or promised. Enter their closed door meetings with five, seven, ten adjuncts demanding equal pay for equal work.
RCB: How far would you go?
ADJUNCTSKI: I have already been banned from three campuses, my friend. How far do you think I will go?
RCB: I’m guessing far.

ADJUNCTSKI: I will burn down buildings next time. I will burn tires and disrupt operations and call on cyber friends to shut their entire operation down the next time any administrator steals from me. They steal our labor, our intellectual property, smile at us as they say “it’s just business” and I am starting to wonder, my friend, if we, the teachers, need our Lenin moment.

RCB: Where teachers pick up guns?

ADJUNCTSKI: Oligarchs are oligarchs and they tend to not change until they have gun in face?

RCB: I cannot advocate violence, Nikolai.

ADJUNCTSKI: That’s because you grew up privileged on Long Island and that fact clouds everything you do.

RCB: What’s so different now?

ADJUNCTSKI: We had to give them a chance. Education was changing rapidly again, with the new technology, course modules, new Federal and state money. We needed to hold back. They promised to take care of us. Remember? Remember how many times?

RCB: Endless. And they’re still making the same promises. Hold on, just one more term. It’ll be different next year. And my favorite: hey, if it were up to me, I’d hire you for three times the salary. Well, stupid, it’s very much up to you because you are the f**king Academic Dean who hired me and who authorizes pay increases.

ADJUNCTSKI: Throw the worst administrators to the dogs; those #badmin who have endless job titles and reams of paperwork to support their endless job titles. (You ever notice how these people have the thinnest human resource files? As though they’d actually been collecting an exorbitant paycheck to produce nothing, like some manager in a Kafka story?) Demand the resignation of anyone who denies adjuncts timely and equitable pay. (You ever notice how administrators always have their salaries paid on time yet adjuncts and other at-will workers have to wait six weeks?) Gather together on campuses around the world and tell your stories, tell the moment in your professional life you finally said enough is enough. (You ever notice how the smartest, strongest people who study equity for a living and teach about social movements are the last ones to “get it” when talking revolution?)

Coming tomorrow, Part 2: Burning it down and walking away.
iron man explosion


A Rainy Day Conversation with the New Boss; or, “Relax, God’s in Control”

Another week, another guest post about living the reality of the new college campus—one complete with more and more (and more) highly paid senior administrators who….well, surely some of them must do something.

Ladies and gentlemen, Kareme D’Wheat wants to share her recent conversation with the department chair. Like what you read? Felt it echoed your own experiences? Let us know in the comments.

A Rainy Day Conversation with the New Boss; or, “Relax, God’s in Control”

By Kareme D’Wheat

Warning: This piece contains profanity. [Fan-fucking-tastic. –JF]

An overcast Wednesday afternoon during the first week of classes is as good a day as any for an awkward interaction with those who could ruin your precarious “career” with one flick of a finger.

As an adjunct at a small liberal arts school, I am only slightly more annoying to most tenured faculty than a student. Because talking to me is a waste of time, my interaction with my peers is extremely limited. (Yes, I said “peers.” Those with equivalent qualifications to mine are peers and colleagues, not overlords.) But this semester I have a new opportunity that needs to be managed. And by opportunity, I mean risk. I have a devout new department chair.

Having been newly tenured, this particular member of the establishment stepped into the position of department chair at the same time as our new college president hired new administrative staff, including a shiny new provost. Actually, 3 provosts. (Maybe one of the Associate Deans hired them?)

Because our school needs more administration.

Because our school isn’t thriving somehow, although 95% of students find a “satisfying career position” or go on to grad school upon graduation.

Because our rock wall and spa-like campus don’t provide enough incentives.

Because the children of the well-to-do need more, deserve better.

In tandem with our student population’s privilege and ambition runs a parallel trajectory of privilege and complacency in the college’s tenured faculty. So any actual ambition on the part of a colleague is to be viewed with suspicion, like expired fireworks. It’s even more volatile if that colleague has his or her thumb on scheduling and curriculum.

After a knock on the door and casual pleasantries, the course of conversation is light, but forced. The office is large, and haphazardly furnished with what looks like artsy, uncoordinated office throwaways from the last 30-40 years, which is also the approximate age of the department chair. She is dressed casually, with unkempt hair, looking exhausted and seated behind the desk in half darkness, lit only by a desk lamp.

Conversation superficially turns to other higher-ed institutions—particularly their closings or mergers. The question came, “How could something like that happen?” My answer was simple: overspending. “What constitutes as overspending?” one might ask…

Me: No one needs 3 provosts.

Dept Chair: We have 3 provosts—2 of them assistant provosts.

Me: No one needs 3 provosts.


It’s like that moment when the fake mustache starts to peel off, and suddenly, the antagonist senses there is something wrong.


But it’s too late. And I can’t stop the inertia of our conversation. I am the protagonist blowing my cover.

In an uncoordinated attempt to change the subject, I then offer to teach more classes, ones that need instruction and are vacant. Nope. The new provost has set a decree that adjuncts can only teach a limited number of classes per semester. “What are you gonna do?” shrugs my department chair. This, apparently, is due to the ACA. The school is attempting to avoid any insurance coverage they might be expected to incur by, you know, following the law. And for whatever reason, everyone is perfectly cool with this, and no one sees—or cares about—the inequity. Trickle-down scheduling is in the offing.

It has occurred to me that I need a change of scenery. Keeping my head down has been the best method of not getting canned. I’ve found that desperate, survivalist sweet spot: keeping my profile low. Visible enough to be of use, but not high enough to be a threat. And suddenly, on an overcast Wednesday, I’m fuckin’ whack-a-moling all up and down all over the place.


The department chair, after telling me that there are going to be “big changes” to the curriculum (read: your classes will get fucked, consider yourself warned), tilts her head and rolls her eyes to the side and says, “well… you could come to the department meetings.”

And from my mouth fell these words completely without thought, “I’m not paid to attend meetings. And I won’t pay for child care.” I then, horrifyingly, reminded her of what I make annually, and said, “I don’t have child care. I have me. If you have a meeting when the big kids are in school, and my husband is not working and can watch our baby, then I can attend.”

It is almost as if instead of coffee that morning, I drank truth serum.


As I sit in my department chair’s office and explain to her that I cannot attend meetings that I am uncompensated for, and that I cannot pay childcare on what I earn to attend these meetings, I can feel her disdain for the conversation. She agrees that she “knows” how expensive childcare is. She has kids, too. She writes out her own childcare check. For every day of her 4-day work week.

But for my family, an adjunct’s family, the cost is not just money. It’s not paying other bills. It’s half of what I spend on weekly groceries for one day of childcare for my children. It’s once again hoping that I can float a check for a utility or fill my tank with gasoline. It’s a sacrifice that is not worth the public appearance. I regularly look for work in my field—work outside academia. Finding a “good job” in the current economic climate has odds that are worse than roulette. I should be earning a comfortable living, given my expertise and work history. Instead, I am sitting in a furnished office that is not mine, justifying why I don’t give out free work, and wishing I had a proper job so that I could give all of this the finger.

Even if I attend a meeting, my input is viewed with vaguely amused curiosity. I’m a rag and bone man sitting at a board meeting. I have no actual say in the governance of anything. If I’m lucky, I’ll get to meet the provost—or one of them, anyway. And I hope, for everyone’s sake, that my mustache stays in place.

Did I mention that my department is currently looking for other adjuncts? Anyone interested? No?

Legion of Doom

Want to know more about the horrible person who wrote this piece, and what her problem is? Read more from Kareme D’Wheat at: http://moderndisappointment.wordpress.com/2014/04/14/the-charlatan-in-the-room-the-secrets-of-your-part-time-professor/.

If you want to join Kareme, Lady Spitfire, Penny Provocateur, and other anonymous guest writers, let me know.

Academic Stereotype Alert: #CreepyFakeGuy


If I fancy myself a Sherlock Holmes-like consulting editor (minus the drug use and high-functioning sociopathology, of course), then I value my Irregulars for their help, insight, and awesomeness. I have a new one now: she calls herself Penny Provocateur.

I’ve seen Penny here and there around social media, and I know she’s the real deal. She’s had some experiences (forgettable ones) with a certain type of academic. She calls him #CreepyFakeGuy, but he could just as easily be That Professor, That Pseudo-Activist, That Professor Trivago Guy, That Kiss-Ass, That Creepy Married Guy (who compliments your new haircut or profile pic a little too eagerly), and so on.

You know the type:

Other Trivago Guy

Like and relate to what Penny has to say? Comment below so she can see it.

Academic Stereotype Alert: #CreepyFakeGuy


Penny Provocateur, Adjunct Agent

If you’ve worked in academia long enough, you know that it attracts certain types. They can be found on nearly every campus. This serves as your new school year’s warning to beware of #CreepyFakeGuy, since he can exist as a grad student or faculty member.

CreepyFakeGuy will be just the right amount of nice and subservient to the faces of all in charge: program directors, chairs, and deans. He seems very compliant and docile. He is beloved by those in charge. He will be given the best assignments and special tasks and/or classes, regardless of whether he is the most qualified or in line for such items.

CreepyFakeGuy gets accepted to many conferences, and when you find yourself at the same one, you must attend his session because you fear he will give a full report on the situation to your chair. He’s second cousin to #FancyNewGuy, yet without the fake charm, accomplishments, and pedigree. You don’t have to worry about him attending your panel: your paper and presentation are far beneath his concern. He’s too busy trying to get a leg up than return the collegiality you’ve shown him.

At this conference you uncover CreepyFakeGuy’s secret; the answer to how he attends so many conferences on his adjunct status: He doesn’t go!

Yes, confirms another attendee, he’s done this many times. Secretly, you would like to share this fact far and wide and see if he leaves all these conference acceptances on his CV…regardless, you know, of whether he actually attends the conference.

CreepyFakeGuy also acts…oddly…around the female-presenting people he encounters. There was that one time he texted you repeatedly. How did he get your number? Off the interdepartmental directory, of course! It was weird. Later, you learn he has done this to other grad students and adjuncts. Always the people the least likely to confront him. Nothing CreepyFakeGuy does is clearly reportable, but you know that feeling in the pit of your stomach that something isn’t quite right? His interactions with the female students cause it. None of this is exactly documentable evidence, thus he goes on winning them into his confidence and raking in the good reviews.


For him, the directory isn’t just a directory: it’s also his potential dating pool.

CreepyFakeGuy seems to have another problem talking with his female students. Now, you thought it was just your dislike of CreepyFakeGuy coloring your perception of this, but then your guy friend brought it up without prompting. CreepyFakeGuy definitely talks too much about their personal lives with the women: his and theirs. Ew.

Your guy friend didn’t confront him either.

CreepyFakeGuy is a departmental favorite. It would look like hating Mister Rogers. No one would believe it anyway. CreepyFakeGuy reminds you of a Golden Retriever that isn’t very bright: he constantly does things that are wrong but then looks so charmingly that everyone just pats him on the head instead of whacking him with the newspaper, thus he never gets any better.

Bad Dog

Just to be a bit more galling, CreepyFakeGuy has a reputation as an activist, though he has only really been seen acting. As if he goes to multitudes of conferences. As if he is a specialist in his field. As if he’s a feminist scholar. As if he’s far superior to the rest of us. In fact, the actual activists find his efforts lacking. Some of them think he might just be the administration’s mole. No one will say it because no one would believe it.

If you find yourself in the company of CreepyFakeGuy, I suggest you develop a persona and only ever feed him false information regarding your research and activism. If you are the kind of person CreepyFakeGuy is attracted to, quickly start a rumor that the phone number given out on the directory is wrong.

Good luck! And consider washing your hands after you see him next time. Don’t want to catch the creepy from him.

Kiss Ass Somecard

Let Them Eat Cake…But Not OUR Cake

How can you not read something by someone calling herself “Lady Spitfire”?

The first guest post I hosted went very well, and I’m hoping this one does just as well. This piece struck a chord with me, and it’ll do the same with many other current and former adjuncts who are…

*equally valued in the department…except when it comes to #fancy parties with the dean, high-profile job candidates, donors, or boards of trustees;

*expected to maintain an active research agenda…but are deemed ineligible for funding workshops hosted by the department or school;

*encouraged to travel to conferences and boost their professional profiles…while given practically no funding or logistical support to do so.

Because I’m nothing if not a gentleman, I’ll let the lady take it from here. Lady Spitfire’s party has started. (Seriously, how can you not love her name?)


Let Them Eat Cake…But Not OUR Cake 

Lady Spitfire

I was recently invited to our annual meet and greet/welcome back party at school. It was swimming with administrative sharks suits. You probably know the drill: chubby white men laughing at their own jokes, Stepford-like wives desperately trying to mask their contempt while fiddling with their pearls, and (every vegetarian’s wet dream) a smoked pig carcass, complete with a shiny apple in its mouth. I had to wear a polyester dress, which crushed me on every level imaginable, but I was told it was a necessary evil for the greater good of camaraderie.


Gosford Park fancy

The day before in our departmental meeting, we were causally told, “Oh, you can bring your significant other, but adjuncts are not invited, only full-time faculty.” Sitting between two part-timers, I could hear grumbling, something muffled between “fuckers” and “figures.” I left the meeting thinking I should have said something, but I did not. Later, however, that nonchalant comment really began to piss me off. So, I did what any red-blooded woman would do: I let it fester and build to the point of unbridled rage.

When I arrived at the business causal soiree, I staked out my territory strategically: cocktails, cool people to talk to, unpronounceable strawberry desserts…and the dean. She is a nice enough woman. I have no qualms about her. However, and perhaps this is unfair as an educator, there always seems to be an “us” vs. “them” line in the sand in academia. With us—being the lowly workers in the field—really knowing what it is like to toil on the front lines, and them—stiffs in their fancy offices—making lofty judgments about pedagogies and “flipped classrooms,” even though they haven’t stepped foot in one in the last 25 years.

So, like a tiger stalking its prey, I waited for an in. I didn’t know how, or if, she would react, but I wanted to ask her one question. When the crowds parted, I stated my name and shook her hand. We made small talk about the weather and traffic, and then I asked her, “Why aren’t adjuncts invited to this dinner?”

She took a sip of wine and said, “Well, it’s for full-time faculty only.” I said, “I see. Did you know that we have 30 full-timers in our department and 37 adjuncts? I guess that makes them the true faculty majority then, huh?”

She then gave me one of those smiles. To the outside world, it could be interpreted as “Well, it was nice talking to you.” Knowing I hit a nerve, I interpreted it as “Bitch, not now. Not here. Who do you think you are?” The small talk soon dissolved, and she quickly disappeared into another crowd of fatties laughing at their own jokes, complete with crab dip this time.

Gosford Park Maggie

In looking to the moral for this story, I haven’t one. I just know adjuncts (having been one myself for a number of years) are marginalized. To put it mildly.

Whether it be an ever-popular misplaced invite, or not even being listed on the faculty webpage, it’s that underlining feeling: the haves and have nots. You are part of the department, more than half, but you don’t have a name. You are what’s-her-face down the hall. You are the person they call in a crisis, just days before a semester begins, but they cannot spare an office space for you. Sorry about that. We do, after all, really need that broom closet for those crappy old printers.

I left the party not feeling happy or sad, just numb. It would go on for hours. Many suits would get shitfaced drunk and hit on GAs. They would throw out overpriced food that could feed a family of four for weeks. Walking out of the double doors, I passed a few co-workers—adjuncts—going to their night classes. They were smiling genuine smiles, actually happy to get to class. As I fumbled in my purse to find my keys, I burped up that decadent strawberry dessert. It tasted like pig.

Gosford Park meh

My Long Academic Goodbye

This is the first of what I hope are several guest posts. Kathryn M. Peterson contacted me after one of my (ahem, many) tweets about the petition I cowrote and offered to write something about the adjunct situation. I happily accepted, because I knew she’d do something good and because I want The Consulting Editor to do different kinds of things.

Kathryn’s fine piece is also listed on Chronicle Vitae’s #QuitLit spreadsheet. When you’re done reading this, visit the #QuitLit list for more voices and stories of other long (or short) academic goodbyes. There are almost 80 stories so far, hopefully with more to come.

I’m always happy to let people do guest posts about anything related to academia, adjuncting, or activism. You can be you. You can be anonymous. You can be pseudonymous. (Interested? Comment below or email me.) Regardless, the most important thing is that you get your story out there. The more that adjuncts and others on academia’s Island of Misfit Toys take control of the narrative of contingency, the more success we’ll ultimately have, and the more we can #FixHigherEd.



My Academic Long Goodbye

Kathryn M. Peterson

I remember the day I decided not to seek a tenure-track job.

I was standing in my backyard after Hurricane Ike, looking over the fence at my neighbor’s flattened house, and talking to a friend about the academic job market. It was a weird thing to talk about right then—I guess I was trying to see where all the pieces of my life fit back together. I was in the middle of writing my dissertation for my Ph.D. in Creative Writing. I was also worried that my novel was becoming something other than what my program valued—more commercial and less literary.

“What will the academy think?” I asked her. “Will this be the kind of novel I can justify for tenure?”

“Honestly, Kathryn, you sound really hot for the book. Why not just go for it and forget what the academy thinks?”

Forget what the academy thinks. Not so easy, since the job I’d trained for for over a decade was what I’d always hoped would support my art. Not so easy, since by that time I’d spent the past decade or more trying to squeeze myself into an artistic and intellectual box.

I stood there, looking at the large pecan tree that had smashed our fence and was still suspended precariously against another. I considered that we had recently purchased our house—a house, that, had it been a mere ten yards away, would have no longer existed. I also considered that we were building a life together that was geographically tied to Houston, since Mark works primarily for NASA.

I ran down the options:

  1. Find a place with both aerospace work and a vibrant college community where we could both get jobs. (Possible, but not likely.)
  2. Go on the job market widely and just see what I could find, and then see if he’d be willing to have a long-distance marriage. (Yeah, that wasn’t going to happen.)
  3. Or, and this seemed the most logical, I could stay where I was, finish the Ph.D., and then look for work outside the academy.

I already had been doing freelance writing and editing for most of the time I was a graduate student. Before Mark and I were married, I often worked three or four part-time jobs to support myself through my M.A. and later my M.F.A., since the T.A. stipend I received was barely enough to cover rent, and did not always come with a tuition waiver. The holes in my academic CV were obvious: the lack of publications and a mere handful of conference presentations. My non-academic resume, on the other hand, had potential.

In the end, the decision was pretty much a no-brainer. Mark and I would have a better life if I did not seek a tenure-track job, period.

I would also be less bound to convention and be able to write what and how I chose. So that day, standing there looking at the dirt dangling from tree roots and piles of gray branches lining the streets, I made the choice. I would finish the Ph.D., but I would not seek a tenure-track job.

I felt at peace for the first time in a long time.

But then there was the teaching. I had been, since 2002, teaching college classes at a medium-security Texas state prison, as an adjunct. For each of those classes, I receive(d) the nearly average $2500/semester that many adjuncts get. I worked my butt off for that job—often spending 12-15 hours a week just on one class. The prison students were so eager to learn, and it was very clear that I was changing lives.

But I was making no more than $13,000–$20,000 a year. Even after I defended my dissertation, there was no increase in my salary, and no acknowledgement from the administration beyond some vague promises that the creative writer at the campus “might retire, someday.” I stupidly held onto that, thinking that maybe I might actually get hired and that everything would just fall into place.

It didn’t. The more the University became corporatized, and the more state budgets slashed the prison program, the more precarious my situation became.

The final watershed moment came when, in 2011, my car broke down in the middle of a four-lane highway, and I just barely managed to get over to the side of the road before it stopped completely. Sitting there, in the parking lot in front of one of Texas’s ubiquitous strip malls, I realized I could not do it anymore. Had I been on my own and not married, I would have no health insurance, no way of paying most of my necessary bills, and certainly no money to pay to fix the car. I could not keep living like this.

It was that night, after we sold my totaled car for scrap, that I made the decision to look for other work. By some combination of chance and divine design, I found it—immediately. The work pays well and is rewarding, in different ways from the academy, but still rewarding.

I’ve continued to teach occasionally at the prison, usually just one class. But even that has worn thin. Now that I have my art and work that is finally paying me a respectable salary, I need to let go.

But God, it hurts.

When an inmate says to me “I did a second degree here because I really want to take your playwriting class,” it hurts. When an inmate walks back towards his cell after class and says “Now I go back to not being human,” it hurts. But most of all, it hurts because I know that as busy as I have become, I just haven’t been able to do the kind of job I want to do.

So I turned in my grades this morning and cried. I still don’t know if it’s the end, but I can no longer in good conscience continue feeding this system. I can no longer be part of the all-too-great supply of highly qualified individuals who work for what in many cases effectively becomes minimum wage. I have a friend who works full time at one college and still does not make enough to support her family, so has to adjunct 4, sometimes 5 more classes on top of it. Another friend teaches four classes at the same campus each semester and yet somehow, the university claims she is not full time.

How is this legal?

There are so many problems with the university system that it is hard to know where to begin a reform. But if those of us who have support by other means (spouses, other jobs) would leave, that might be one important step in the right direction. I also wonder what the impact would be if for at least one week, ALL adjunct professors and ALL adjunct allies did not teach. I know this is radical. But if all of us got together, around the country—hell, around the world—and decided this, what would happen? Would they be able to fire ALL of us?

We need to take desperate action if we want to begin to make changes. I realize that, now that I am pretty much out of the academy, I have nothing to lose, while most of my adjunct colleagues still do. But if we continue this tacit acceptance of what is essentially an abusive situation, nothing will change.

We need to begin now to take practical steps, like fighting for a government investigation into university practices. But just as importantly, we need to reconsider how we think of ourselves and our own self-worth. This situation simply cannot continue. This is not fair to any of us, and we need to stop taking it. Our students are worth more than this. So are we.

Quiet Plebs, a Provost Is Talking

Why read the work of a real provost when you can read the work of a “provost” who’ll make you laugh?


Inside Higher Ed has a recurring column called Provost Prose. Today’s is about a tropical cruise a provost took his daughter on for her sixteenth birthday (obviously), and the many important direct parallels between that cruise and the modern university customer experience.

Some of my friends did not like this post, and made this known to me. As a result, I put out a call through my high-class back channels until I located a provost of my own, who was also highly offended by this column. He found it “tonedeaf,” he says, to the “real issues provosts face–which, as we know, is the number-one issue of higher education today.” So I asked him if he’d mind writing a short guest post for me–unpaid, of course, because the prestige of appearing on this august blog should be enough. He readily agreed. So here, without further ado, is:


by T…

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