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.


Ørberg’s Lingua Latina: an introduction for the uninitiated

Alright, let’s get to a textbook I really enjoy. Hans Ørberg’s Lingua Latina per se Illustrata: Pars I: Familia Romana

This is, without exaggeration, the best Latin textbook on the market. It’s not perfect, it’s not the be all and end all, but there’s simply nothing better as a book to teach/learn with.

Firstly, how I came across it and used it. It was towards the end of my 4 year sequence of Latin at university, and a sense of growing frustration that modern language students would be reading their languages ‘fluently’ by this stage, but here I was painstakingly analysing/translating my way through Roman literature. What had gone wrong?? Like many products of the philological tradition and Grammar/Translation methodology, I knew a great deal about Latin, but I couldn’t read Latin straight.

At the time I started listening to Latin teacher online a great deal, and that’s how I first got plugged-in to the world of comprehensible input, communicative methods, etc., etc.. And that’s how I heard about LL – a holy grail of textbooks, in that it taught Latin entirely through Latin. I ordered a copy post-haste.

I recall reading the first chapter and being a little in awe both at how much I understood, and how well it is paced. Of all the “readers” that exist for classical languages, LL truly accomplishes its goal of initiating the student into the language without recourse to outside aids or a second language. From page 1 it is possible to go all Latin, all the way.

The text carries the student from the fundamentals of Latin ‘grammar’ through everything they would cover in a standard class, over 34 chapters. Plenty of repetition of vocabulary and structure helps too. “Grammar” is not entirely neglected, as each chapter ends with grammatical notes in Latin. Exercises end each chapter, of three types: fill in the ending, fill in the word, and respond to latine questions, with answers latine.

Some criticisms can be made: it’s still a textbook, and some students will not find the text engaging. It proceeds by a ‘grammar’ sequence, not a natural one. It introduces too much vocab, too quickly, and this is a slight problem. It wasn’t written for active, communicative Latin (Ørberg himself expressed surprise in learning that students were using it for this! He envisaged it as a direct method text for reading).

Nonetheless, it remains unsurpassed. It always tops my recommendations, and I’d teach from it at the drop of a hat. Even advanced students would benefit from ‘going back’ and picking it up to increase their reading fluency.

Today’s review really only treats of volume 1, Familia Romana. I’ll talk a little about the other volumes and resources another time.

Reading S. Elm’s “Sons of Hellenism…” (1)

On the continual raving of my friend Ryan, I picked up Susanna Elm’s book, “Sons of Hellenism, Fathers of the Church: Emperor Julian, Gregory of Nazianzus, and the Vision of Rome”, and I thought I’d offer my thoughts as I read through it.

The introduction opens with this:

This is a book about two powerful, enduring, and competing visions of universalism in the fourth century: Christianity and the Roman Empire. Yet, I will argue that these visions were in fact one, since Christianity was essentially Roman. Christianity’s universalism lasted because it was, from the beginning, deeply enmeshed in the foundational ideologies granting Rome’s supremacy.

This is an intriguing thesis, and one I’m inclined to agree with and interested to see it argued-out in the course of the book. It also contains a fundamental flaw in the way it’s constituted. “Christianity was essentially Roman” is a false statement. While I’m very invested in understanding and articulating the Christianity that was mostly co-terminous with the Roman Empire, I’m very aware and sensitive that this was not all Christianity, and that Christianity spread earlywidely, and successfully beyond the bounds of that empire. Most notably, Christianity made its way, and its home, into the Syriac sphere very early, and thus into the Sasanian Empire, and the Church of the East existed as a successful, autonomous, and missionary enterprise from very early on. The integration of Christianity into Roman identity had, on the whole, a negative effect on Christianity outwith the Empire, because by tying Christian-identity to Roman Imperialism, it became more difficult for Christians outside the Empire to protest their non-allegiance to the ‘Roman’ religio. That is a big caveat that I would stamp on the introductory and dominant thesis of Elm’s work.

Nonetheless, insofar as Roman (in the Imperial, not the Papal sense) Christianity goes, it did indeed come to consitute its self-awareness of universalism in terms of that Imperium, thus giving rise to a very Greco-Roman ideal of Christianitas as Romanitas.

Elm’s method is to bring into conversation the writings of Gregory of Nazianzus and Julian (aka the Apostate). I think this is a novel idea and a good one. Particularly, I appreciate the way Elm rejects the notion that Gregory was a failed ecclesiarch and personally lackluster figure. Such a person does not become bishop of Constantinople, nor the most influential Greek theological writer of his age. By understanding Gregory’s writings as rhetorical perfomance that instantiates prestige, and by aligning the ‘true philosophical life’ as a performance of civic engagement for the social elites, Elm helpfully brings Gregory out from the purely ‘theological’ sphere and places him appropriately in the socio-cultural context of late-antique bishops as 4th century urban elites.

However, I have a second criticism of Elm here, when she writes, “Focusing on what unites rather than divides Julian the emperor and Gregory the Theologian reveals that the boundary between pagan and Christian was so porous that theses terms lose their analytical value.” In my mind this is a tautological statement that is also misleading, because it appears to mean, “Disregarding the distinctions between pagans and Christians and highlighting their similarities reveals that they are actually much more similar than they are different.” This is, ratione ipsa, true: abolishing their distinctions abolishes their distinctness. Does it have an analytic value to flatten some of those differences to highlight for us their similarities? Oh yes, certainly. And that is well-needed in this case, because Gregory and Julian are not figures brought into conversation and their similarities do need to be highlighted. To do so, however, and suggest that their differences are thus almost irrelevant is to do a disservice, I think, to those real differences.