Mark Bauerlein Sucker Punches Adjunctizators

Evidently, while adjuncts are busy being too busy to ever meet with their students after class, too undedicated to students and jobs to care about it, too busy destroying the fiber of undergraduate education, we’re also contributing to the destruction of the humanities, as well. According to Mark Bauerlein, a professor at Emory University, in his “Brainstorm” piece posted on The Chronicle of Higher Education’s web site, the “…best defense against funding cuts, ‘corporatization,’ ‘vocation-ization,’ adjunctization, and other anti-humanities measures is the undergraduate classroom, particularly the general-education classroom.”

In essence, Bauerlein suggests humanities faculty stop gazing at their navels and realize that humanities is about teaching undergraduates to read and write. I have just one question: This is breaking news? Maybe to Bauerlein and his navel-gazing fellow Humanities professor pals. 

Just whom does Bauerlein think has been teaching America’s undergraduates to read critically and write over the last 20 years? Whom does he think has been teaching American undergraduates all over the country? The Adjunctizators of course—we teach the majority of the country’s 18 million undergraduate students, and half of all the courses offered at the 4,000 colleges and universities currently up and running. In case you blinked and missed his book launch party, or passed right by his YouTube interviews, Bauerlein’s the author of  The Dumbest Generation, published in 2008. The Los Angeles Times review describes Bauerlein’s book as offering up an “…ultimate doomsday scenario — of a dull and self-absorbed new generation of citizens falling prey to demagoguery and brazen power grabs.”

Hmm….dull and self-absorbed people falling prey to demagoguery and brazen power grabs? Sounds like a description of certain tenured and tenure-line people we might know and love (to see lose their jobs).

So, this tenured professor writes a book in which he calls an entire generation of the students whom we teach ignorant, dull and self-absorbed, then turns around and suggests that the answer to what ails the Humanities is to put more people like himself in the undergraduate classrooms around town? This is a purely rhetorical question, because I think we both know that Mark Bauerlein isn’t into teaching introductory courses and undergraduates.

If Americans can’t seem to understand what the hell tenured academics in the Humanities actually do, well, let me join them in their puzzlement and point to Bauerlein as a perfect example of the problem. Aside from writing his recent book, Bauerlein’s job, according to his college web page blurb, entails writing for “popular periodicals such as The Wall Street JournalThe Weekly StandardThe Washington PostTLS, and Chronicle of Higher Education.” He teaches, too. His courses are not listed on his college web page blurb. There’s no evidence that navel-gazing….er….publishing in “popular periodicals” is not Mark Bauerlein’s primary job.

So I called his department. This semester, he’s teaching a graduate-level course titled, “The Teaching of Composition.” Last semester he taught a single class, as well: “Honors Seminar in Literary Interpretation.” So, while Bauerlein suggests that more tenured and tenure-line faculty need to get back into the undergraduate classroom and teach writing, evidently, he doesn’t need to do it himself.

Just imagine for a moment the average American who reads that Bauerlein has taught one class each semester this year. That person might not understand how Bauerlein gets a full-time salary. Hells bells! I don’t understand how he earns six figures every year. To our neighbors, we’d have to point out that Bauerlein also writes for “popular periodicals.” That’s something the average American can get behind, right? Letters to the editor! Bauerlein gets paid to sit around and write letters to the editor, maybe some short op-ed pieces, offers up advice to his blog readers on The Chronicle’s web site, and perhaps a book review or two.

I have a radical idea: Let’s have Mark Bauerlein explain to my neighbor who works two jobs to send her kids to college why he teaches 4 hours every week and earns three times the median income for a family of four.  Frankly, I can’t explain that to anyone. Is it because he has a Ph.D.? Is it because he publishes in “popular periodicals?” Is it because he’s a snappy dresser? How can someone who writes a book titled The Dumbest Generation, and teaches a class about teaching composition write that “…humanities professors should abandon the flattering characterization of themselves as cutting-edge thinkers, creators of new knowledge, theorists of the barricade, and the like. Instead, they should assume more modest role of training 19-year-olds to read and write, and acquainting them with literary traditions.” 

I’ve got some news for Mark Bauerlein and his ilk: The role of training 19-year-olds to read and write is taken already by 700,000 non-tenured faculty, who are doing splendidly, thanks. There is, however, an opening for someone to explain to the American people what  Humanities professors do for a living. In plain English. Here’s a tip: it’s probably not very bright to begin by calling all of them dumb.

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  1. I have found many adjuncts to be dedicated professors. Adjuncts are rarely given an office so they can meet with students. Students complain and the adjunct is looked at as someone who just comes in lectures and leaves. Many adjuncts give students their personal phone numbers since they do not have a contact number on campus. That takes a lot of guts since student will call at any time of day of night. I give adjuncts credit for continuing to teach at low pay with no benefits.

  2. Jude,

    I’m not sure, however, Bauerlein would agree that he simply won the lottery. If this were the case, he would not have written that the use of adjuncts in the humanities was damaging to the discipline. Winning the lottery implies we all have the same opportunity to hit it big.

    If that were the case, Bauerlein, perhaps, would have phrased his comments differently. As for his “writing” about adjuncts, it is typical and sadly filled with tired ideas. Take this example from December 16, 2008: “Is Tenure Doomed” (

    “Because tenured and tenure-track faculty work largely amidst one another—adjuncts don’t attend department meetings, serve on committees, or otherwise fraternize with professors….”

    Jude, adjuncts (as a rule) are not ALLOWED, invited or encouraged to participate in curricular, collegial, or governance activities. It’s not that all of them simply choose not to so do, as Bauerlein asserts.

    In his writings, Bauerlein pushes a two-tier system that has, up to this point, failed miserably. His reasoning is based on the assumption that we need more full-time faculty in the undergraduate classrooms. This is based on the assumption, then, that a full-time appointment makes one the better choice to teach in the undergraduate classroom.

    Does it? I don’t think so.

  3. Class warfare between adjuncts and tenured faculty is not the answer here, people. I know adjuncts work hard; I taught writing and literature as one for 18 years.

    And no, we’re not “doing splendidly, thank you.” Not because there’s anything wrong with us or our efforts (most of us), but because the conditions of teaching don’t often allow it. Primary and secondary schools are doing a horrible job of preparing students, and one semester, or three, often isn’t enough time to fix the deficiencies. Culture lost the culture wars, remember?

    We adjuncts teach self-entitled, ill-prepared kids who are often quick to complain about grades, who feel they deserve a B just for showing up (see the recent NYT story about that). Of course, there’s still the occasional motivates student who makes it worthwhile.

    Do most of us nevertheless try to maintain standards? Sure. I know I did. But we are in an insecure position; many of us are not backed by the administration in grade disputes. That tends to generate internal pressure not to rock the boat.

    I’ve known many honorable adjuncts. But grade inflation is a fact, especially in the humanities. I also knew many who felt unable to give F’s for any reason. Of course, tenured faculty also contribute to this problem.

    Mark Bauerlein is doing what he can to fight the good fight. Having tenured faculty teach undergraduates would be a good thing. I hope we’re not so committed to the insecure, underpaid adjunct role that we want to see it perpetuated forever, or defend it against what we see as an “attack” from someone who is only trying to reform a system every reasonable observer sees as unsustainable. I hope we realize that adjuncting is NOT the only thing we can do to earn a living, so we don’t need to defend it with the desperation of those who secretly fear they might not have any other options.

    Are hundreds of untenured adjuncts as smart and qualified as Bauerlein, and just as capable of his scholarly and public output–if they had the time and resources? I’m sure he would be the first to admit it.

    But it’s not his fault he won the lottery and we didn’t. Blame the lottery, not the winner.

  4. Before you go off with these kinds of judgments, you need to get your facts straight.

    First, you might check on my other writings about adjuncts.

    Second, you might check on the years I spent outside of academia working on Federal government research.

    Third, you might notice that I started and now run a freshman curriculum program here at Emory focused squarely on teaching. Most of my work goes to staffing and coordinating 100-level classes in several different departments. That’s why I have a smaller English course load.

    The next time you want to write about my commitments, feel free to call me directly.

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