The Absent Presence: Today’s Faculty

This year was to be my fourth year attending MLA in a row. I spoke in 2006, interviewed in 2007, spoke and interviewed in 2008, and had hoped to speak and interview this year as well. When the interviews did not materialize, I made the difficult decision to not attend the convention given the financial realities of being an adjunct faculty member. I regretted not having the chance to speak–especially on a panel titled “Today’s Teachers, Today’s Students: Economics”–but the panel chair volunteered to deliver my paper in absentia.

So as my panel is happening in Philadelphia, I decided to simultaneously publish my comments that are being read at this moment.

The Absent Presence: Today’s Faculty

I’m sorry that I can’t be delivering these comments in person, and I thank Prof. Cavanagh for her willingness to read them on my behalf. Hearing talks delivered by the person who did not write them is only slightly better than having to be the person who is reading a talk she didn’t write, so I’ll be brief. At the same time, however, I can think of no more appropriate way for me to give a talk in a panel titled “Today’s Students, Today’s Teachers: Economics” than in this manner.

After all, I’m not a tenure-track faculty member, and the truth of the matter is that I simply cannot afford to come to this year’s MLA. I know that we as a profession are increasingly aware of the less than ideal conditions under which contingent faculty members (and graduate students) labor while providing more than half of the instruction that undergraduates receive across the nation, a fact that The Chronicle of Higher Education (see articles from December 2008 and May 2009, as just two such examples) and other publications have reported on throughout the last twelve months. 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 later on this evening. 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.

Again, I’m not at the MLA this year because it’s not economically feasible. I had hoped to be here for job interviews—as well as to speak as a member of this panel discussion. This was my third year on the job market, and I applied to every job in North America that I was even remotely qualified for: all 41 of them. Unfortunately, I did not receive any interviews, despite having added two articles accepted by peer-reviewed journals, five new classes, and several new awards and honors to my vita. According to my records, applying to those 41 jobs cost me $257.54. I was prepared to pay the additional expenses of attending the MLA ($125 for registration, $279.20 for a plane ticket, approximately $180.00 for lodging with a roommate at a total of $584.20) out of pocket so that I could have a chance of getting one of those 41 jobs. [1] I was even luckier than most faculty (remember, most of today’s faculty are contingent) in that my institution was willing to provide me with $200 support to attend conferences throughout the academic year. But once it became apparent that I wasn’t going to be having any interviews, I could no longer justify the outlay of $400.00 out of a salary that puts me only $1,210 above the 2009 Federal Poverty Guidelines. [2] (And yes, that means I do qualify for food stamps while working a full-time job as a professor!)

I can’t imagine that I’m alone in this dilemma of not attending this year’s convention due to finances and the anemic job market. After all, as The New York Times reported on 17 December, the number of listings in the MLA’s Job Information List was down 37% from 2008’s numbers, the sharpest decline since MLA started tracking job ads in 1974. It’s not like 2008 was a banner year, however. The listings a year ago were down 26% from what they had been in 2007. Landing a job in the professoriate has been difficult for well more than this decade, but the recent economic crisis has necessitated (or allowed, if we’re feeling cynical) administrators trimming budgets so that less and less tenure-track faculty are hired. What this means is that more and more contingent faculty are employed to teach the increasing number of students who are matriculating at the nation’s universities. So…perhaps it’s not that employment is going down for humanists with the PhD. Rather, it is sustainable employment that is evaporating. (I’m looking at you, California.) After all, the demand for contingent faculty labor will probably rise sharply as the number of students enrolling in colleges rises due to the nation’s recent economic crisis. And since we can’t expect other schools to be as generous as mine with travel funds to contingent faculty, there should be less and less faculty members at the MLA in the future because less and less of the nation’s faculty will be able to afford to get here.

“But”—the administrators say—“the MLA is only a conference, one where people read papers at each other. What difference does it make whether you attend or not?” Such questions are of course misleading since it’s not as if my department is willing to give me more money to travel to other conferences instead of the MLA. So the problem of not being able to afford to attend the MLA is really the problem of attending any conference, other than a hyper-local one. And attending conferences is critical for one’s scholarship since it allows one to hear the latest research in one’s field. I especially appreciate how large the MLA is since I can find opportunities to attend panels that represent the full 150 years of American literature that my research covers. Attending this conference (or others) keeps me abreast of the latest scholarship and helps me produce scholarship that pushes the state of my fields forward. As one of today’s teachers, attending conferences helps me be more prepared to teach today’s students these new developments, preparing them to be more effective readers of literature, whether they are English or biostatistics majors. Moreover, it is at conferences that I am most likely to have the opportunity to meet with old and new colleagues whose work intersects most closely with my own. Schools only need so many Shakespeare scholars; not so the MLA! Yet attending conferences isn’t just about seeing old friends; the relationships formed with colleagues at conferences again help us produce scholarship. For just one example, the panel that I spoke on last year has resulted in a book-length collaboration among the four panelists, none of whom had met previously. 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.

But having a faculty majority comprised of contingent faculty means a lot more than just conferences being less and less attended. In my case, it means that my students cannot easily meet with me for office hours since contingent faculty don’t really have offices. It means that they do not get effective, personal mentoring because I have too many students. It means that I cannot give the small and frequent assignments that I believe teach them more than a “3-paper class” because I do not have time to grade 90 students’ small and frequent assignments. It means that the courses they can take from me will not be updated as frequently as I think is ideal because I will be spending all of my spare time looking for more secure employment—or working a part-time job. In other words, when we short-change (pun-intended) today’s teachers (the majority of us who are, finally and for the last time, contingent and not present at this year’s MLA), we simultaneously short-change today’s students. And those students will be that much less likely to become literature professors in the future. Why should they? It’s not currently a sustainable profession; but even more so, they will have had that many less chances to have those interactions with teachers that leads to today’s students wanting to become tomorrow’s teachers.

[1] The profession as a whole needs to find a better method for interviewing candidates. One that does not burden those who are already at the bottom of the ladder with additional expenses.

[2] Fun facts: In 2007, I applied to XX jobs at a cost of $270.07. In 2008, I applied to XX jobs at a cost of $313.19. Both of these figures do not include the costs of attending MLA. In three years on the job market (2007, 2008, and 2009), I have received 3 MLA interviews and 0 campus interviews.

  1. #1 by Mark on December 28, 2009 - 4:30 pm

    The reasons you lay out for not attending MLA are the ones keeping me away from AHA as a historian. I don’t know how the MLA does it, but the AHA treats all professors with a job the same in terms of fees. That means the adjunct who is barely scraping by pays the same as the tenured professor. I can’t afford that. In other words, to keep teaching, I have to sacrifice my scholarship still more than I already do by taking on too many students year round, summers included.

  2. #2 by Lea on December 28, 2009 - 7:28 pm

    Check use of less — in many cases, fewer
    better choice. That said, you have made very
    important points. I think an excellent audience for
    this type of information might be the parents who pay
    or help fund the living expenses of undergrads, in many
    cases. They might be passionate allies!

  3. #3 by hoppingmadjunct on December 29, 2009 - 7:49 am

    Use “fewer” for what can be counted, “less” for what can be measured, as freshman-composition students in over a dozen American colleges and universities in three states and abroad have been delighted to hear from me since the mid-1980’s, all at adjunct wages amounting now to about $15,000 for six courses/year.

    Otherwise, you’re right on the money.

  4. #4 by Aphthonius on December 29, 2009 - 10:40 am

    Adjunct faculty aren’t the only ones affected by the dismal economics facing education. While institutions are reducing the support that has made attendance at conferences more realizable, they are also looking to delete or attenuate programs, along with *tenured* faculty who teach in them, from the curriculum. Professors of literature and languages, relatively underprivileged members of their institutions to begin with, are threatened with losing their positions owing not only to stringent budgets but also to administrators and trustees who respond to students’ demands for fast-track career preparation. The long-term prospects for a vigorous academy, especially of the liberal arts sort, are not encouraging.

  5. #5 by Todd Finley on December 29, 2009 - 10:56 am

    I like how you bravely lay out the facts.

    Nontenured faculty are an exploited class in colleges and universities and we should know better. I would be willing to earn less (as a tenured faculty member) in order for others to earn more and for our campus lives to be richer for students and teachers.

    I hope that this post is distributed widely and that you receive the position that you so unequivocally deserve.


  6. #6 by Professor Zero on December 29, 2009 - 10:08 pm

    I’m not quite in field but: good vita, interesting work, many people do not look this solid on paper, I think you deserve interviews.

  7. #7 by Brian on December 30, 2009 - 12:05 am

    Professor Zero :

    I’m not quite in field but: good vita, interesting work, many people do not look this solid on paper, I think you deserve interviews.

    This is of course the problem, though. Most of the people applying for jobs will look solid on paper because most people that get a PhD are hard workers and quickly figure out that they are going to need to look stellar to get a job. But that isn’t enough. You just have to get lucky when it’s you vs. 500 other PhDs for each job posting. I don’t think there’s any other way to understand it besides luck. Which isn’t to take away from the work that those who do get job interviews have done; instead, it is to take away from the conception that the academy seems to inculcate in every one that one *deserves* something. Because in this situation, everyone is deserving and only a handful will be picked.

  8. #8 by Professor Zero on December 30, 2009 - 8:37 pm

    Luck is the main factor & I guess it’s also just really hard in English. There are foreign literature departments that get hundreds of applications, but the ones I’ve worked for usually only get a hundred, and they’re comparatively easy to sort because once you do things like eliminate all those ABDs who quite clearly will not finish this year, your pile is much smaller.

    My current department doesn’t usually do the MLA, Gott sei Dank. We’ve taught ourselves to be skilled application sorters and then phone interviewers and reference checkers, and then we invite people straight to campus. It works pretty well.

  9. #9 by Trish Lunt on December 30, 2009 - 8:37 pm

    Brian, thank you for sharing this outside of the MLA. This is an issue that affects many of us across the world. This is a sad but honest appraisal of the university sector, especially in the humanities. Here’s hoping 2010 brings a stupendous job your way.

  10. #10 by George T. Karnezis on January 1, 2010 - 1:03 am

    Fine piece and forever timely. I especially like the introduction of the sustainability theme. It seems to me that what we lose in making positions contingent, is the true value of a stable faculty, one which has come to exist as a community, shared its collective wisdon, especially about what distinguishes their particular location and the character of their students. These are the elements of a teacher’s “experience” that are the result of continuous work in one place, elements which constitute a kind of teaching “fellowship” that “sustains” or encourages a campus community where members are more invested in that community than would be the case if their positions were temporary or inadequately compensated.

  11. #11 by Mary Refling on January 1, 2010 - 9:48 am

    Enjoyed your article; sadly, this has been the state of affairs for the last 30 years in academe. I wrote of my own sufferings about 12 years ago in an article in Workplace: The point of my article was that faculty on the tenure track are suffering as well, and I considered myself lucky–for the moment. The saddest part of this all is that the situation won’t change until we refuse to take these jobs. But that means abandoning our teaching careers.

  12. #12 by Ms. Grammarian on January 5, 2010 - 8:48 am

    Surprising to see a professor of English misuse both “that” for “who” (“taught by people that are like me”) and “less and less” for “fewer and fewer” (“trimming budgets so that less and less tenure-track faculty are hired”).

  13. #13 by George T. Karnezis on January 5, 2010 - 11:44 am

    Yeah, Ms. G, I noticed, too, as I’m sure many others did as well. The Miller beer commercials have had their impact on on the “less” “fewer usage, and grammarchecks are responsible for much of the “that-who” problem.. Still, let’s not let his miscue get in the way of what’s valuable in the message.”

  14. #14 by Claire Warwick on January 6, 2010 - 9:09 am

    This is an interesting and timely intervention. But sadly it is not a surprising one. It sounds as though US academia is going the way that much of academia in the UK has already gone. Here for the last 15-20 years or more there have always been literally hundreds of applicants for every faculty position in the humanities, and many if not most of them are excellent and could do the job well. Getting hired has been a matter of luck in many ways. It’s been easier in the last decade of plenty but now it looks as though things are going back to how they were when I finished my PhD in 1995. This generation will have to face up to what we had to accept then. Just because you are smart, hard working, and really want an academic career it does not mean you’ll get one. And many bright deserving people will have to go off and do something else. I applied for numerous jobs, got interviewed for several and didn’t get them and in the end gave up and went off to work in publishing. In the end that led me to a whole new academic field (Information Studies and Digital Humanities) and a full faculty post (I’m now the equivalent of Associate Professor) But I had given up on the dream of a humanities post, and a lot of other people I know also had to do the same, or put up with years of adjunct hourly paid teaching until the economy looked up. Sad to say, it looks as though it is happening again. Looked at from the other end I have no really helpful advice to people who are in this position, except do what I did. Give up, get out, there is a world outside and you might find you enjoy it. I love my new field and would never go back to my old one, and that’s all because I gave up on my original plans of an academic career. Ironic isn’t it…

  15. #15 by George T. Karnezis on January 6, 2010 - 6:10 pm

    (#23) Thanks, Claire; eloquent, lucid, timely.

  16. #16 by kari kraus on January 6, 2010 - 10:46 pm

    Just had a chance to read this for the first time. Such an honest, frank, and lucid assessment of the situation. It’s devastating to see what is happening to our profession.

  17. #17 by Richard Schur on January 14, 2010 - 12:57 am

    I responded to this at my blog at I focus on the link between the humanities job market and failings of accreditation in higher education.

    Rich Schur

  18. #18 by punk-rock ABD on January 22, 2010 - 12:00 am

    Yep – including the cost of printing applications, purchasing “appropriate interview clothes”, and travel to the conference where interviewing takes place, I spent over a month’s salary to try and get a job in philosophy this year. Campus interviews? 0.

  19. #19 by Mark on January 24, 2010 - 11:58 am

    So…I guess I’ll go to law school.

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