David Perry

Associate Professor at Dominican University

The Most Interesting Adjunct in the World

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Yesterday the most absurd job ad that I have ever seen went viral.

By now, there’s a good chance that you know which ad I’m talking about. If not: The posting, for an adjunct-lecturer slot at Santa Clara University, required applicants to have published at least 25 books, through top presses, on highly specific but varied topics; worked as a journalist; hosted radio and TV productions; founded startups; cultivated connections at Oxford University and throughout the Bay Area; and, perhaps most importantly, had some experience as a teacher.

The ad reminded me of Hugh Gallagher’s famous satirical college application essay or Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man in the World” commercials. Who has done all these things and now wants to be an adjunct professor?

It turns out that the answer, as covered in Vitae by Sydni Dunn, is Michael S. Malone. Malone is indeed a successful writer and journalist who enjoys teaching a class for the English department at Santa Clara. The university wanted to keep him on, so it posted a job ad tailored to his biography.

Neither Malone nor the university did anything wrong. But there is a moral here—about the absurdities in our adjunct labor market and, more generally, in higher education.

Let’s start with Santa Clara’s explanation: “The goal of this particular ad was to make it as clear as possible to all applicants that the bar for this particular position is very high. We apologize if this attempt at clarity caused anguish for any of our applicants or potential applicants. ”

I take this as truth. The ad for the Most Interesting Adjunct in the World was, in fact, an attempt to provide clarity in a job market that has none—a market in which desperation and exploitation run rampant.

Whenever you see an ad for a faculty position that lists a bizarre set of qualifications, one of two things is likely true. It could mean that the committee is split on who they want to hire. This means it’s going to be hard for anyone to get the job at all; moreover, it’s a huge warning sign if you do happen to get hired. Half the department likely didn’t want you, so they may not want to tenure you. (That doesn’t mean you should turn such a job down. But you should be very aware of departmental factions as you start.)

More commonly, a strange ad like this means that the department already has someone in mind.

Tailoring job listings to internal candidates is a well-known practice, and inside hires are not necessarily a bad thing. I hear people complain that this type of hiring leads to departments settling for known quantities instead of pursuing excellence, but that’s not really my sense of things. The pursuit of prestige-laden superstars marks much of what is wrong at the top echelon of academic hiring, in which a few people get marked as geniuses and soak up enormous resources that might be more equitably distributed among many merely brilliant scholars and teachers. My experience is that the academic world is filled with smart scholars and good teachers, and if you have one who is doing a good job with your students, it’s reasonable to hire her.

That said, there’s a danger in making inside hires standard: That would turn adjuncting into a mandatory apprenticeship for would-be professors, much as the postdoc (which tends to offer better pay and more prestige) functions for many scientists. First, we can only have an apprentice system if there’s a reasonably high likelihood of employment at the end of the apprenticeship. That’s the whole point of the master-apprentice system! Second, we already have something like that. It’s called graduate school.

What’s startling about the Santa Clara case is seeing the fairly normal practice of the inside-hire charade enter the world of adjunct labor. Adjunct hiring was never designed to be so permanent or so weighty that it should require this kind of strained compliance with labor laws.

There should be only two kinds of adjuncts: short-term stopgap hires to handle sudden, unanticipated need and professionals who teach in their capacity as experts in their field. Malone, as a successful writer and journalist, is an ideal example of this second type. He’s an expert, he likes teaching, and Santa Clara students are lucky to have him. We need to have space in our academy—and we do!—to hire experts to teach on an ad hoc basis. In those situations, everybody wins.

Instead, as we all know, adjunct labor now functions as a major, growing component of how we staff every kind of classroom at every kind of university. Treating adjuncts as a major class of academic labor is how we end up with farcical job ads like the one from Santa Clara.

We cannot pretend that adjuncts are, in fact, adjunct to higher education. By and large, they are not just professionals in the community or temporary extras called in. They’re permanent, normal, and central.

Santa Clara is doing us the favor of treating an adjunct hire as a standard labor decision, albeit with a huge wink to the community to make clear that really they just want to reappoint Malone. I, for one, am grateful for this example. If universities treat adjuncts as normal labor, hopefully adjuncts will continue responding by organizing and demanding a living wage.

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