The Hierarchy of Humanities Schadenfreude

Scoffing at academic job-market losers comes from some unexpected places.

Franz Kafka: not a job creator.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Thinkstock and via Wikimedia Commons.

Carmen Maria Machado had a writing professor named Harvey Grossinger who changed her life. So profound was his influence that he inspired her to become a writer herself. Her article “O Adjunct! My Adjunct!”, which appeared recently in the New Yorker, is a testament to Grossinger’s legacy—part living elegy, part call to arms for adjunct professors, in whose ranks he labored, poorly paid, and without benefits or job security. “What I wouldn’t figure out for the better part of [a] decade,” Machado writes, “was that Harvey was an adjunct. He didn’t tell us, and I didn’t know to ask.” She’d never even heard the term adjunct before, which is part of the reason she now finds herself in a similar position, for a similar pittance. “The adjuncts who teach well despite the low pay and the lack of professional support may inspire in their students a similar passion—prompting them to be financially taken advantage of in turn,” she writes. “It strikes me as a grim perversion of the power of teaching.”

The New Yorker doesn’t allow Web comments, but if it did, I could recite Machado’s verbatim without seeing them. There’d be similar tales of inspiring professors who basically worked for free. And then, of course, there’d be the criticism, ranging from faux incredulous (Allow me to explain supply and demand to you!), to woefully misinformed (If an adjunct is good enough, she’ll get promoted to full-time professor!), to outright dismissive (Quit your bellyaching!).

I can predict this fairly confidently because although Machado’s take on the subject is new, the scourge of adjunctification is not, nor is the propensity for adjuncts and their allies to speak out. And almost every time a woe-is-adjunct article appears, there’s a cry from the cheap seats: How dare anyone wish to make a career out of something as frivolous as writing, literature, history, philosophy, classics, or the foreign languages? That’s what you get! You knew that adjunct job was part-time, what did you expect? Learn to code! #meritocracy

The “best” example of the genre is probably this letter to the editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education,Is That Whining Adjunct Someone We Want Teaching Our Young?” “I cannot comprehend why any adjunct professor complains with such entitlement about their inability to get a full-time teaching position,” insists Catherine Stuckel, a full-time professor of business technologies at a community college. “But then again,” she writes, “we do live in a new world where every child is special, everyone gets a trophy, and everyone thinks they are privileged.” The letter’s so seething (it contains the phrase “big-girl panties” in reference to Margaret Mary Vojtko, the penniless 83-year-old French professor who collapsed and died outside her house after being fired) that many readers, this one included, suspected it might be fake.

All humanities professors want is to be able to feed and house themselves in exchange for providing a service that is every bit as morally upstanding as, say, an app that allows people to squat in public parking spaces and sell them to the highest bidder. Why pour salt in adjuncts’ erudite wounds when they’re already hurting so much, you anti-intellectuals?

Ah, but in the words of some loser who should have been an Uber exec, there’s the rub. If you look closely at the haterade in which many a woe-is-adjunct missive flails about, you will notice something curious. Sure, plenty of the criticism comes from your garden-variety Joe Corporate. But weirdly enough, a lot of the anti-adjunct rhetoric, especially in our trade publications, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education, actually comes from self-identified academics, often successful ones such as tenured professor Rob Jenkins in the Chronicle, who see fit to take adjuncts to task for their “bitter rhetoric.”

And these same academics are no smug engineers or chemists, blaming fey humanists for their lot—STEM folks have their own problems to worry about, if you can believe that. They’re other humanists, who just happen to have had better luck on the job market, or to have chosen fields whose job markets aren’t as dire as, say, German, the market to which I donated four years of my life before bowing out gracefully two years ago.

There is, if you can believe it, a hierarchy of humanities Schadenfreude. Some (#notall) folks in composition and rhetoric, for example, whose field is allegedly “booming” (compared with what, I don’t know), have made it their gleeful mission to crow about the wisdom of their career choices compared with those of their hoity-toitier but less employed compatriots in lit. Plus, as a lit Ph.D. myself, I’ve heard other lit Ph.D.s scoff among themselves about writing MFAs (such as Carmen Maria Machado and, for what it’s worth, me) who dare call two years of navel-gazing about our own work “graduate school” and did not have to sit a single comprehensive exam (although they’re all probably just envious about the New Yorker).

Meanwhile, you should see the English scholars cliquing it up at the MLA convention, superior to all of us foreign-language plebs—and the stomping-down continues within the foreign languages, wherein some (#notall!!!) folks in the better-enrolled tongues (i.e., Spanish) are not just eager to brag that their discipline still has a few tenure-track jobs left—they’ve got to spend their important scholarly time telling little ol’ me how stupid I was for attending a well-known and highly respected German program to make a career out of Goethe, Rilke, or Kafka. Even we Germanists have folks to grind under our Birkenstocks: the “lesser” Germanic languages (Bork bork bork!), and O woe, those marginalized and misunderstood medievalists. (It’s cool, some of my best friends are medievalists.)

It’s pretty shocking that humanities scholars, alleged proponents of what Germans call the “science of the spirit” (Geisteswissenschaften), believe some facets of the spirit are worthier of science than others—often using, by the way, the same soulless determinants of “market value” that those outside the academy use to deride the entire professoriate altogether.

I don’t expect any actual anti-intellectuals to suddenly recognize the importance of the humanities and the inanity of their own glee at others’ misfortune. (If only some language had a word for that). But it’s the academics whose own fortunes are but temporarily—and only relatively—safe from the cratered market who should know better. They should remember, in the words of a loser who should have invented Airbnb, that how they treat the least of their brothers and sisters is how they treat their entire profession. Sure, their discipline may be the veritable engineering or startup world of the humanities today, but what about in the future?

Once upon a time, it was German and Russian that were considered appropriate and exciting majors. (Maybe, given the current Putin crap-show, Russian will come back into vogue, although at what cost?) But really, who knows what the invisible hand will clamp down on next? You think composition is long for this world when half of humanity communicates primarily in emoji?

Miniature hiring booms aside, the continuing tragedy of adjunctification proves, indisputably, that the science of the spirit—and the entire concept of adequate learning conditions at the American university, where costs continue to soar absurdly as adjuncts assume more and more teaching duties—is under grave threat. Academics in all disciplines would do well to tame their sanctimony about the “lesser” spirit sciences, lest they find themselves on the business end of the next collapse.