• September 1, 2015

Missing in Action at the MLA: Today's Teachers of Today's Students

About 7,400 scholars of literature and language are attending the Modern Language Association convention here this week. Brian Croxall is not one of them.

Mr. Croxall is a visiting assistant professor in the English department at Clemson University. That makes him part of the uncomfortable majority of faculty members who do not have tenure-track jobs. This would have been his fourth MLA meeting in a row. He was scheduled to appear on a panel here on "Today's Students, Today's Teachers: Economics." He also hoped he would be interviewing for jobs.

As we all know, though, it's another gloomy year in the humanities job market, with the MLA's jobs listings down 37 percent from last year. When none of the 41 positions Mr. Croxall applied for produced an interview, he decided he could not afford to attend the MLA this year. Instead he posted his paper on his Web site as it was being read by proxy here in Philadelphia.

Although he wasn't here to deliver it in person, Mr. Croxall's paper may wind up being the conference's most-talked-about presentation. This MLA has produced a lively Twitter stream (hashtag #mla09), which quickly picked up Mr. Croxall's hardscrabble account of life as a contingent faculty member and began retweeting it. One poster described it as "required reading for higher-ed folks." It is a frank and frankly bleak description of just how close to the edge many faculty members live — and what that means not just for their careers and their scholarship but for their students.

Mr. Croxall calculated that attending the MLA would cost him about $400 out of pocket. (He breaks it down in his post.) He writes: "But once it became apparent that I wasn't going to be having any interviews, I could no longer justify the outlay of $400 out of a salary that puts me only $1,210 above the 2009 Federal Poverty Guidelines. (And yes, that means I do qualify for food stamps while working a full-time job as a professor!)"

As Mr. Croxall points out, attending the MLA (or any conference) is not just about interviewing for jobs or having nightcaps with friends. It's a way to plug into new scholarship in one's field and make connections, professional and intellectual, that propel teachers and scholars forward. A panel Mr. Croxall was on last year produced a book-length collaboration among the panelists, who hadn't met before.

"When the majority of faculty (who are, again, contingent faculty) cannot attend the MLA (or any other conference), it results in a faculty that cannot advance, that does not, in other words, appear to be doing the things that would warrant their conversion to the tenure track. Our placement as contingent faculty quickly becomes a self-fulfilling event," Mr. Croxall writes.

As Mr. Croxall explains in some detail, students ultimately pay a price for that situation, too, because they get professors who are overworked and underpaid and not as current in their fields as they want to be.

If the MLA wants an Everyman, Mr. Croxall qualifies. "If we are talking about 'today's teachers,' then more of them look like me — at least in a professional sense — than look like the people who will be on the dais at the Presidential Address," he writes. "And that means that most of the students in America are also taught by people that are like me. In a very real sense, I — and the people situated in a similar professional and economic quandary — are today's teachers of today's students. And for the most part, we're not at the MLA this year."


1. mlisaacs - December 30, 2009 at 05:19 pm

Mr. Croxall's comments must be given the importance that they deserve. This is higher education's
dirty little secret. Adjunct faculty are indentured servants. They are deeply in debt for their
own educations, owned by the banks and forced to work without contracts and benefits.
This has been coming on for a long time. It did not happen over night.
There is going to be a day of reckoning. The next generation of teacher/scholars will not
be trained and educated. Why assume huge debts for the field of collegiate teaching if you
cannot earn enough to live on?
Ultimately, this will be a national security issue.
Wall street has won again. The corporate university has taken the Wal-mart approach to
education, with the highest salaries going to administrators and athletic coaches. Teachers
are of no importance. Student populations will be limited to those who can afford to pay.
Full time tenured faculty are relegated to managers who manage the adjunct faculty.
Much is being lost. I can only hope that something is done before all is lost.
Retired Professor in VT

2. softshellcrab - December 30, 2009 at 05:24 pm

Even if he qualifies for them, I hope Mr. Croxall does not actually get food stamps. No offense to him, and he sounds like a nice guy and a dedicated teacher, but I don't want to subsidize his choice of work. I do not get to do what I most prefer or want to do. Instead I work my butt off, often working long hours and doing all kinds of work I don't like, to support my family. I'm not complaining, that's my choice. I appreciate what Mr. Croxall does, but I hope he does not look to others to support his doing what he wants to do.

By the way, the government is way, way too fast and loose in handing out food stamps and free school lunches. It is all terribly abused as they try to turn us all into dependents of the government.

3. observer001 - December 30, 2009 at 05:27 pm

The percentage of tenure-track faculty is one of the truest measures of assessing the quality of an institution, though, absurdly, that fact is not visible in any of the rankings. Since many lesser universities continue to churn out PhDs simply because they need graduate students to staff their labs and classes, they are doubly guilty of perpetuating this exploitative system. Unfortunately, as state legislatures continue to balance their budgets at the expense of higher education, failing universities balance their budgets at the expense of the quality of their faculty, and recent PhDs are deluded or desperate enough to keep taking these jobs, an increasing majority of American students will be receive inferior educations from an exploited slave class- especially those from the working and lower-middle classes for whom public education is the only option.

4. arnoldas - December 30, 2009 at 06:12 pm

mlisaacs is surely right in claiming tht the 'adjunct problem' has been coming on for a long time. I remember during a union meeting in the '80's, I argued against our union of full timers attempting to represent our part-timers. I argued that such representation would create conflicts of interest since adjuncts were hired by full-time faculty (departmental chairs) as cheap and convenient labor--warm bodies to ease staffing and scheduling problems. The temptation to exploit such a body would be only too tempting, particularly with administration support and approval. I argued instead that the union must oppose the devevloping reliance on adjuncts and that chairs ought to be in forefront of faculty opposition to such hiring. I lost that vote.

It is foolish to look to the universities and colleges to solve this problem. One might just as well try to enlist the foxes to guard the chickens. Some good will come from adjuncts organizing themselves into unions, but this will still create a two-tiered system in which teachers performing the same tasks will be paid unequally, share unequal medical and retirement benefits and, most important, have unequal opportunities for scholarship, tenure, and those 'by-products' of tenure, academic freedom and a share of college governance.

Administrators have been quick to see that hiring large numbers of adjuncts provides much more than an economic windfall. Such administrators are now in the process of dismantling a system in which faculty protected by academic freedom and tenure can still be induced to oppose policies predicated on nothing but the bottom line. Such faculty will become extinct through attrition. Institutions freed from their 'obstructionist' influence will come to more and more resemble the 19th century factory system that were transformed only by bloody labor warfare. Can we expect such opposition from the infant adjunct unions? Only time will tell, but meanwhile, I predict, we shall see the disappearance of tenure, academic freedom and shared governance. Can anyone suppose that academic life and scholarship will not suffer during this long, dark night of the academy?

5. tanyaphd - December 30, 2009 at 06:16 pm

Looks like we have reached a tipping point, finally. It wasn't too long ago that Mr. Croxall's paper would have been considered career suicide. Admin would have viewed him as a petulant whiner. "Take it or leave it" would be the official response. He would have been ignored or shunned by his peers (other contingent faculty), who had hope still that things would get better, at least for them.

The appalling statistics can no longer be ignored. Folks have been silent too long--universities can no longer claim to be forwarding social justice when contributing to increased social injustice for the majority of its faculty. It would be interesting to find out how much blogging and Twittering from contingent faculty is really helping to change things. By the looks of it they are increasing awareness exponentially. Problem is, with the economy the way it is, not sure how much can be done (and yes, especially in California).

6. sethsmom - December 30, 2009 at 06:21 pm

The use of adjuncts or non-tenure status professors is also the law schools' dirty secret. I taught communication and legal reasoning in two law schools: the second one was one of the top in the country. After teaching for approximately 11 years, winning teaching awards and publishing, I was offered the giant salary of fifty thousand dollars my final year. I refused my one year contract and walked away with no regret. Talk about a slave class. Teaching legal communication and analysis (which means teaching writing) is the law schools' equivalent to teaching composition in the world of English departments. It's a pink ghetto and is labor intensive, with low pay and low status.

7. compdoc - December 30, 2009 at 07:52 pm

Hey, I was there! I'm also an adjunct. And I forked out considerably more than $400, with my flight I booked in June and my hotel fees. I appreciate the tiered coast for the MLA convention, as on my own I could not have afforded the full-timer's fee.

The use of adjuncts has been around a long time, though I think we have reached a point where people are finally realizing that there are more adjunct than there are full-timers.

According to Heather Ostman's paper, I don't have her citations, in 1953 52% of faculty were full-time and by 2003 that percentage had fallen to 37%.

8. tom_washingtondc - December 30, 2009 at 11:35 pm

There are adjuncts who have their adjunct pay supplemented with unemployment benefits. The difference between full unemployment benefits (not working at all) and working as an adjunct (teaching 3 classes per quarter term) is less than $200. THis is to demonstrate the low pay--$200 more than what full unemployment would pay. Why bother to work? Better to take full unemployment. Let the taxpayers supplement adjunct subsistence living if they can't get a decent job. Taxpayers probably paid for some of their graduate education and training too. It's a welfare system that leaves them in the low-income poverty trap.

9. madamesmartypants - December 31, 2009 at 02:04 am

What Dr. Croxall's letter also points out is the importance of valuing teaching. Higher ed has two tracks: teaching and research. For a long time now, only research counted. I think that's changed a bit, that teaching has become more important. But perhaps it's only changed superficially. The best (i.e., well-paid and stable) jobs are for researchers while professors who only teach, e.g. adjuncts, are still poorly remunerated.

10. an11ne1 - December 31, 2009 at 03:02 am

Brian Croxall's paper is indeed depressing - especially for those of us who cherish the role and responsibilities of educators. I am one of the part-time instructors mentioned in his paper and I am torn by the thought that my employment is undermining the system (in a very small 'part-time' way). And while I am thrilled to have the job after many years of working toward it, the reality is that I could not afford to work at the university if I didn't have another full time job with full salary and benefits.

I'm sure that many of those who subsist on minimal educator salaries are excellent instructors who enjoy their work. But one must earn enough to meet the grocery bills and pay the rent. I hate to think that university students may run into their professors working on the side as greeters at Walmart or security guards at the mall.

I'm bummed for those who are just starting out. And sadly, this phenomena is happening in many professions and workplaces. Employee rights are one of the biggest losses resulting from corporate greed and the economic downturn. Those who have the power and the money are in a superior position to take from those who don't.

11. ivygradstudent - December 31, 2009 at 10:40 am

This is indeed depressing. Why not consider teaching for a wealthy private high school or boarding school? If you chose the right one, your students would be wonderful and smart, the salary would be higher, and job security would be better. Look at www.nais.org (National Association of Independent Schools) or post a resume on http://www.csa-teach.com. I left ivy-league adjunct teaching to teach in a great private school and know whereof I speak. I am now chair of my department and my colleagues are former adjuncts. We love teaching and feel that we make a difference in our students' lives every day. Leave your peripatetic life and find a real community in the new decade!

12. kjhinco - January 01, 2010 at 10:08 am

Consider teaching for a wealthy private high school or boarding school? Students would be wonderful and smart?

Why not consider teaching in the inner city where kids are wonderful and smart but don't have the benefits of those students whose parents are wealthy and who can send them to an elitist school? Teachers in such schools also love teaching and know they make a difference in their students' lives every day.

13. ivygradstudent - January 01, 2010 at 11:14 am

I spent one year teaching in a parochial school that served poor immigrants. Teaching in an inner city school is a wonderful goal if that is the kind of teaching you seek.

Bear in mind that a PhD in English may not qualify you to teach in many of the nation's public school systems. Depending on the state, an aspiring public school teacher may need to spend more money to get additional training to meet certification requirements. Someone with a PhD in English and teaching experience may teach in a private day or boarding school with no additional expense. Public school certification rules differ state by state. Some states have alternative certification tracks (but those are for math and science teachers in my experience).

Another paradox is that, like many colleges, some of the wealthiest private high schools offer the most money for financial aid and as a result have more economically diverse students.

14. 11194062 - January 01, 2010 at 01:56 pm

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15. stretch - January 02, 2010 at 02:26 pm

As I sat grading papers in the faculty workroom at the end of the fall semester, a senior tenured faculty member entered to check his mailbox. He noted what I was doing and casually stated that he was having a difficult time deciding whether or not to fail one of his students. "He rarely attended class, and did very little of the assigned work." My response: "Why is it difficult to fail a student who didn't meet the bare minimum requirements of your syllabus?" His answer: "I've never failed a student."

I think I've finally figured out how to score a tenure-track position . . .

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