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Volunteers of the Ivory Tower

How academia exploits the labor—and love—of aspiring scholars

Christopher Furlong/Getty

On April 23, career consultant and author Karen Kelsky posted to her Facebook account a leaked email from Michael R. Molino, an assistant dean in the College of Liberal Arts at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. Addressed to chairs of their respective departments, it contained an extraordinary request: that the university’s alumni association needed their help in recruiting impressive alumni adjuncts who would, essentially, be willing to work for free. 

These scholars would be enlisted for a “pilot program” as “zero-time adjuncts”—that is, adjuncts who are not guaranteed courses to teach, or any other work, for that matter. They would technically “join” the SIU faculty and would fulfill duties generally reserved for tenure track professors. But those chosen for this role would not be compensated. The email never explicitly states this, but Molina’s rhetoric insinuates, with careful obscurity, that this is indeed the case. As Molina writes (emphasis mine):

While specific duties of alumni adjuncts will likely vary across academic units, examples include service on graduate student thesis committees, teaching specific graduate or undergraduate lectures in one’s area of expertise, service on departmental or university committees, and collaborations on grant proposals and research projects. Moreover, participating alumni can benefit from intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units, as well as through collegial networking opportunities with other alumni adjuncts who will come together regularly (either in-person or on the web) to discuss best practices across campus. The Alumni Association ... asks for your help in nominating some of your finest former students who are passionate about supporting SIU. 

According to Molina, adjuncts should regard their participation as a “service” to the university, undertaken not in the interest of financial gain, but out of “passion.” Molina even implies a certain degree of reciprocity, emphasizing the “benefit” of intellectual collegiality and that old chestnut, “networking opportunities.” For that matter, circumscribing the search to SIU alumni gestures to an imposed logic of debt: You, the former student, owe us this labor in return for the opportunities afforded to you here.

It is the kind of logic that has long prevailed over the American university system, and it has only grown more antiquated as the scholastic job opportunities for doctoral students have dwindled to nearly nothing. Particularly in the humanities, the overwhelming majority of students earning PhDs aspire to a tenure track professorship, and their training prepares them for precisely this. But it’s a near-futile enterprise: the job market is glutted with both newly minted doctors of philosophy and those who doggedly try their luck year after year—and they’re all vying for the same meager offering of positions. This is one of the reasons that graduate student workers at Columbia University were on the picket line this week.

On the day following Kelsky’s post, Meera Kommaraju, SIU’s interim provost and vice chancellor, responded to the blistering protests lobbed at the university for promoting such bald-faced exploitation of academia’s most vulnerable community. But she only made matters worse. “This is a proposed pilot project developed in collaboration with the SIU Alumni Association to connect qualified alumni with our students as mentors to enhance—not replace—the work of our faculty,” she wrote. The program’s goal, she explained, was to recruit “volunteer adjuncts ... who are eager to give back to the university” and, taking the defensive, she asserted that “this approach is in compliance with university policy.”

Volunteer adjuncts—it is a term so absurdly reprehensible it sounds like the stuff of parody. Despite what graduate students may gain over the course of their studies, they owe nothing whatsoever to their university. After all, there’s no reciprocity to be found when health insurance is still, for many in academia, considered a plush amenity. As recently as the winter of 2017, when the literary historian Kevin Birmingham delivered his talk “The Great Shame of Our Profession,” 25 percent of adjunct instructors reported relying on food stamps or Medicaid. Thirty-one percent lived below the poverty line, or dwelled at its threshold. Birmingham even mentions one instructor who sold plasma twice a week in order to afford daycare for her daughter. 

Before proceeding further, I must put my cards on the table. From the fall of 2010 until spring of 2016, I matriculated in academia, working towards a doctorate in Victorian literature. I left the program mid-dissertation, of my own volition after nearly two grueling years wherein I agonized over whether to stay the course or dedicate myself to writing for non-academic audiences, something I had never considered until, in April 2014, I sent a weird personal essay to The Hairpin, and they published it. Once my investment in a writing career deepened—I signed with a literary agency, began composing a book proposal, and freelanced regularly—the demands of two intellectual fields bore down against my back. When I finally settled on the decision to leave the program, the physiological aftermath was appropriately Victorian: a millennial Esther Summerson, I developed Bell’s Palsy and crumpled in mournful exhaustion.     

My recollections of graduate school are largely happy ones—thus the protracted, wobbly deliberation over whether leaving was a good idea (for me, it was). The opportunity to exclusively read, think, and write about books provided a cerebral scaffolding that is indispensable to my current work. My advisor, whose work I admired years before studying with him, always treated me with kindness and respect. And my husband’s advisor, for whom I TA-ed twice, has become as dear as family to the both of us. They both reassured me in my choice to pursue a different career—crucially, they emphasized that it was a choice. I was not, as I feared, giving up, or betraying an aversion to rigor.

Had I bowed out from another profession, it’s unlikely that I would have entered into this acute existential crisis, or that my immune system would have taken a cue from Dickens. And outside of the academy, initiatives like the one Molino describes—in which extraordinarily capable scholars work for free—would be regarded, rightfully, as an insult, and perhaps even as a sick joke. But as my academic friends and I have often discussed, graduate school, and more specifically, graduate student labor, isn’t treated like a profession. It’s an apprenticeship at best, albeit one with an ambiguous endpoint, and it’s gussied up with the ceremonial trappings of a vocation or calling. You don’t abandon your calling, nor do you make demands of it: You are, after all, its supplicant, meekly and graciously absorbing its dogma. 

When a graduate student can still depend on a departmental stipend, or institutional fellowship of some sort, the felicities of academia are easier to appreciate in the midst of the adversities. Besides, as I recall at least one professor remarking, doctoral students are supposed to be poor. It seems quaint, at first: the cozy, cluttered basement apartment, packaged ramen and cookies nabbed from a department talk, and long, low-lit nights spent poring over Charlotte Brontë. But in my case, I was playacting at poverty. My parents always offered a safety net if crisis struck, and unlike those whose circumstances have confined them to these conditions, I always assumed that I would one day, after paying my dues, slough off this minimalist living and ascend the tenure track’s grand staircase. Riches might not be in store, but it would be enough—and besides, wasn’t it all worth it?

Yet that “it” becomes ever more dubious as you reckon with academia as it exists right now. In the humanities, the probability of landing a tenure track position is infinitesimal: Some languish on the job market for a decade, shuffling from adjunct gigs to the coveted Visiting Assistant Professor spot hoping that their saint-like patience and stocked curriculum vitae will be rewarded at last. It’s likely that many of SIU’s potential “volunteer adjuncts” are grappling with similar predicaments, not because they haven’t earned their place in academia, but because academia relentlessly exacerbates and reiterates its stiff hierarchy, discontinuing tenure lines and replacing full-time professors with brilliant, but grossly underpaid contingent labor. 

Furthermore, departments continue to accept new PhD cohorts, even as they struggle to place their alumni in suitable positions. At many schools, this practice amounts to replenishing one’s own stable of adjuncts, an unconscionable move. 

I was fortunate. After passing my PhD qualifying exams, my advisor spoke to me frankly about the number of positions available to Victorianists and, while affirming my promise as a scholar, advised me to nurture my skills so that they would be compatible with other careers. But rather than implement meaningful measures within each department to guide doctoral students in the search for non-tenure track careers, schools like SIU proffer money-hoarding schemes as shoddy guises of opportunity.

And the departments themselves, perhaps believing that programs for non-tenure-track work smack of failure, or tarnished prestige, largely leave it to alumni to parse their opportunities if the career they worked for proves elusive—as it so often does. Students are left to shoulder the heartbreak—and it is heartbreak—and though the outcome is perfectly ordinary, many nonetheless feel like shameful remainders in an equation they couldn’t master. This isn’t their failure, but academia is disinclined to take responsibility for its shortcomings. 

Instead it asks us to be grateful for that which we have received—an education, yes, a degree, probably, and very likely debt to boot. But remember that a labor of love cannot be quantified, and that it is an honor to volunteer.