From Here to Eternity

by Margaret Gutman Klosko

To himself everyone is immortal; he may know that he is going to die, but he can never know that he is dead.—Samuel Butler

You are unhappy and you are clueless. You are what the press calls “contingent faculty.” You believe that you will survive your own contingency, and come back to the world of your dreams, which you consistently mistake for reality. The writing is on the wall, but you avoid going into the room. Perhaps you are a fatalist and do not think you can control the future. Or perhaps you just do not like bad news. You do not want to know that, like many other contingent faculty, you will never get on the tenure-track.

Because you are well read, you understand that ignoring compelling external phenomena is a psychological instrument for protecting one’s fondest sense of self against threatening reality. Freud—propitiously for all those yentas who just will not mind their own business—called this a “primitive defense mechanism” and named it “denial.”

Surprisingly, you know all about denial. Many times, you have tried to help those dear to you realize that their bad boyfriends, solitary drinking, weekly trips to Atlantic City, etc. are unhealthy habits. You have kindly pointed out that their refusal to see the threat these habits pose to their well being is a manifestation of that primitive defense mechanism, denial. Frustratingly for all your dear ones, you do not attach the phenomenon to your own, not-so-blissful ignorance, beautifully proving Freud’s point, and, for those of you who teach literature, conveniently serving as an apt example of irony.

As Freud, Samuel Butler, and Elizabeth Kubler-Ross have written, most of us deny ugly truths that impinge on cherished delusions: that we will live forever; never be disappointed and never disappoint; apply our education in the way we intended; be well-liked by colleagues and teachers; and never come to resemble our parents.

Your favorite delusion is that, as an adjunct member of a college faculty, you will one day be among the elect, the privileged minority of graduate students to cross the River Jordan into the promised land of permanent employment, six hours of teaching per week, and discounted lunches at the Faculty Club. Even worse, you imagine that, as you take your place on the track, you will hear the lamentations of the less virtuous and gifted adjuncts left behind.

It is true that even those of us who force ourselves to read the writing on the wall cannot be sure of our fates. But messages from reality can point to useful action. The trick is to apply the facts to your own situation. Perhaps reviewing them might help you.

First of all, you know that you are suffering the usual indignities and insults of the adjunct life. Keep that in mind as we review other facts.

You know that there are plenty of jobs for adjunct college teachers. According to the US Department of Labor, in 1983, 65 percent of US faculty were employed full-time in mostly tenure-track positions, while 35 percent were employed part-time in adjunct positions—paid by the course and provided no benefits. In 2003, those numbers had shifted to 54 percent full-time, 46 percent part-time (

You also know that you have never felt particularly valued by any of the departments in which you worked. Even your highly developed power of denial has not allowed you to ignore the cursory ways in which colleges and universities have hired you. You have dismissed the nagging feeling that your employers do not give a damn about you and your future.
The AAUP confirms this. About adjunct teachers, the authors of its November 9, 2003 Policy Statement note, “These appointments require only minimal commitment from the institution, and they result in a predictably high level of faculty turnover. Most non-tenure-track appointments are very brief in duration, lasting only for one or two terms. Only a quarter of all part-time faculty appointments extend beyond two terms” (

The U.S. Department of Labor confirms the AAUP’s dismal assessment of your situation when it describes the kind of contract that you typically sign with colleges in the course of your peripatetic academic career: “Limited-term contracts—typically 2 to 5 years, may be terminated or extended when they expire, but generally do not lead to the granting of tenure.”

The AAUP also notes that “contingent faculty members, both part- and full-time, are constantly confronted with reminders of their lack of status in the academic community.” The authors point out that “the isolation of contingent faculty from opportunities to interact with their tenured or tenure-track colleagues and to participate in faculty governance, professional development, and scholarly pursuits” serves as a drag on the education of students and on the college teaching profession.
The women among you, well aware of gender inequity in the academy, know that, while poorly represented among tenure-track professors, you are well represented among adjuncts. The AAUP reports that “as of 1998, 48 percent of all part-time faculty were female, while only 36 percent of all full-time faculty were female. Women who do hold full-time positions are more strongly represented among lecturer and instructor positions, with little opportunity for tenure.”

So, given all the bleak statistics, what do you do? This is what you typically do: You finish your appointment at your current college. There is a search going in your field, but you have been discouraged from applying for the position, so you will look for another job. You have applied for a number of full-time jobs—two tenure track and six adjunct. One of the tenure-track appointments looks really good for you, so maybe you will see where that leads.

Hellooo? You need to move past Kubler-Ross’s denial stage and get yourself to acceptance—or at least to anger, and then make a break from the chain gang. If not, bless you, and on your way out, please send in the next sad case.
For you who are sick of Existentialist advice to keep pushing the rock up the hill, even as it slides back and crushes you, there is a way out of your predicament. All you need to do is shake off your chains. You can stop the vicious cycle.
The catch is that you need to land a job as a college administrator.

I know you never thought you would sink that low, but you need to know that all administrators are not ex-jocks raising money for football stadiums. The other half consists of former faculty members. Many of them continue to teach one or two classes a year. And although administrators are not their own bosses as tenure-track faculty members are—well, tough. Remember, you have finally admitted to yourself that you will never get a tenure-track job.

When you examine the options, it appears that college administration offers the best and only job advancement for both tenure-track and adjunct faculty members who do not plan on acquiring law or business degrees. The Department of Labor agrees: “For most postsecondary teachers, advancement involves a move into administrative and managerial positions, such as departmental chairperson, dean, and president. At 4-year institutions, such advancement requires a doctoral degree. At 2-year colleges, a doctorate is helpful but not usually required, except for advancement to some top administrative positions.”

Your work in college administration may not make you ecstatically happy, but what job does that? There are ways of thinking about what you do that will make you as happy in a good job as you were unhappy in a bad one. First, realize that, as a college administrator, you are doing honest work that pays a fair wage—more than you can say for your employment as an adjunct. Ideally, you will rise in the hierarchy, get to be a boss, acquire a certain amount of autonomy, and do work that needs to be done for an institution that needs to exist. You ought to recognize, too, that the most difficult obstacle to achieving a decent life is the alluring mistake that you make over and over again. You can take pride finally resisting the allure. You can also be proud that, having refused adjunct work, you are no longer participating in and perpetuating an exploitative employment system. Best of all, you can relax in your easy office chair knowing that, this year, you will not be loading up the rental van and leaving without farewell or friends left behind to be a stranger in a strange place again.

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  • AdjunctNation Editorial Team: @Jeffr thanks for pointing out the distinction.
  • Jeffr: Note that adjunct faculty are considered to be on a “term” basis and receives no protection except...
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