Book Review: Herb Childress, “The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges betray their faculty, their students, and their mission”

This one’s hot off the press, and I read it voraciously over two days. Which given how little time I can normally carve out for reading, is itself a testament to the book. It addresses the American situation. Australia is obviously not identical, but a raft of similar issues apply here. Indeed, over half of all undergraduate teaching in Australia is done by casuals.

Childress’s book strikes me as an important contribution to the growing body of literature dealing with the adjunctification or causalisation of academic labour in higher education, a phenomenon of which I am a part (and which I will write more about in a part 2 to this post).

The book offers us eight chapters, the first hits you like a brick in the dark – the rather grim realities of what it is like to work as a non-tenured non-member of academia – low pay, minimal support, incredible overwork, disposability, and no path out of that situation. The stories that pepper this chapter in particular are depressing, and verge on a kind of ‘adjunct depression porn’, but they are also the reality of the majority of college instruction, and need to be squarely faced.

Chapter two does the work of making clear, especially for those who aren’t familiar with them, of the fundamental ‘categories’ of academics – Tenure Track, Non-Tenure Track, and Adjuncts (of various kinds). Childress does an important service in working through some of the numbers in terms of who teaches, and who is taught by whom, and also about how some representations of these numbers obscure the on-the-ground reality: that most undergraduate teaching is done by contingent academic staff, and that the tenured class is disappearing.

Chapter three plays a similar role of educating the reader, this time not about the hierarchy within institutions, but between them, community colleges, middle-class colleges, small liberal arts colleges, and the big R1 research universities. He also speaks to how these correlate, strongly, to the class origins, and outcomes, of their students.

Chapter four speaks to the hiring side of the problem – the oversupply of PhDs, the incredibly difficulty of getting a position, and how the continued creation of PhD graduates with no job prospects is a cruel bait-and-switch that is being blatantly and recklessly ignored by universities.

Chapter five looks at the economics of universities – where do they get their money, and where does it go, and why isn’t it on hiring staff to actually teach students. While some of the material here is familiar, Childress’ analysis of how ‘transferability’ works to commodifiy college credits – a credit hour is a credit hour and they are basically homogenous, interchangeable goods, puts downward pressure on pricing, and contributes to making adjunct staff likewise interchangeable and indistinguishable. This is one reason SLAC resist adjunctification – they (a) have significantly high incomes, (b) they almost do not engage in transfers, and so students come, stay full time, and graduate with a unique experience. Childress also examines the way colleges’ pursuit of shifting economy and job relevance works against stability. The chapter covers other issues too, all relating to costs: diversity, student supports,

Chapter six talks about life on the inside rather than the outside: the position of Tenure Track faculty, and how this works in favour of keeping (and accelerating) the status quo. It’s easy to think of oneself as a winner of a merit-based game, and everyone outside as not as worthy; the place and role of adjuncts in departments is largely invisible to faculty, and many structures of adjunctification make current TT life possible.

Chapter seven goes on to speak about the ‘third parties’ that suffer. What about students, admin staff, support staff and so on? They too are losers due to increased adjunctification. This is also a chapter where Childress provides another important, indeed crucial, angle – what is happening in higher ed is not an isolated phenomenon. Contingency of employment, the ‘gig’ economy, etc., is occurring across sector after sector, and it’s hugely damaging to employees. Witness, for the easiest example, the rise of Uber and other similar services. By re-writing employees as contractors, driving down wages, and outsourcing practically everything, we commodify everything and the only people who win are consumers. But only those with wealth consume.

Childress also speaks to technological issues here, before turning to a second important point – ‘hope labor’. The emergent model of the web heavily relies upon people producing content for free, in the hopes of gaining enough publicity to monetise it. That works for some, but it works well enough for only a very few. And yet, massive success at the attempt to become well known enough to capitalise on it, comes with enough publicity that it creates an information bias – we only see those who are ‘successful’ (and not how much luck played into that), not the huge number of people producing free content in obscurity.

This is equally true in adjunct-land. Adjuncts live with a deluded hope that teaching and service, and going above and beyond, will get them good will, and a foot in the door, and eventually transformed into genuine faculty. This happens almost never. Indeed, it seems crazy to outsiders, but the longer you are an adjunct, the more experience you have teaching, the less likely you are to gain secure employment.

What about those who aren’t scrapping by on multiple adjunct gigs? Isn’t that just a minority? What about all those industry professionals? Childress offers an analysis in four categories of independent workers.

Primary Income Supplemental
Preferred choice Free agents Casual Earners
Out of necessity Reluctants Financially strapped


A recent (atrocious) article in theconversation, just like many in the higher-education community, wanted to point to the ‘casual earners’ and ‘free agents’ – people who enjoy and choose to adjunct because they want to, because they enjoy the ‘flexibility’ of multiple institutions, or are industry professionals who enjoy teaching on the side. These people exist, without doubt. But they are not representative of the bulk – people who are either reluctants or financially strapped (if you’re wondering, I’m in the reluctant category).

This chapter also speaks to issue of gender rebalancing and devaluation, technology, marketing, and generation demographics as factors.

Chapter eight is hopefully and depressing at the same time. I had wondered whether Childress would offer any ‘solutions’. Or just leave us to wallow in despair. Childress does another notably useful service to us here. Firstly, he doesn’t just say, “well, hire more faculty”. He begins with a parable of a complex problem that required a multi-faceted solution, which worked. Higher Ed needs the same. He also goes on to give some advice to people ‘in the mix’ which is depressing as anything, because it’s (a) prospective undergrads, (b) prospective grads, and (c) colleges. No advice for adjuncts because we’re already screwed. But noteworthy here is one of his pieces of advice to undergrads:

Ask each one of your teachers what their status is. Are they part-time, full-time on contract, or tenure-track?

Would that all students did this as a matter of course.

But beyond that, Childress lays out a vision for colleges that would rejuvenate higher ed and move it to a model that actually had ideals and pursued them. I’ll quote his summary:

A worthy college works to foster and to respect its web of relationships. It is a culture shaped and steered by its faculty. It places everyone into a place of continual learning. It asks for regular public demonstration of that learning.[1]

That’s a place I’d want to study at, or work at. Unlike:

A college should privilege content knowledge over the people who carry it. It is a business shaped and steered by its managers. It places people into fixed roles of fixed expertise. It examines and measures the proxies of learning, evaluated only by an internal disciplinary audience.[2]

which is the default reality of many institutions right now.

Childress’s book concludes with an ‘aftermath’, and 2 appendices. The aftermath relates Childress’s own experience of academia, and it’s heartbreaking to read. And it concludes with this:

All cults, all abusers, work the same way, taking us away from friends and family, demanding more effort and more sacrifice and more devotion, only to find that we remain the same tantalizing distance from the next promised level. And the sacrifice normalizes itself into more sacrifice, the devotion becomes its own reward, the burn of the hunger as good as the meal.[3]


[1] Childress, Herb. The Adjunct Underclass (p. 154). University of Chicago Press

[2] Childress, Herb. The Adjunct Underclass (p. 154). University of Chicago Press

[3] Childress, Herb. The Adjunct Underclass (p. 163). University of Chicago Press.


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