17 May 2006
The Invisible Adjunct: An Appreciation
“I step off the train
I'm walking down your street again
And past your door, but you don't live there anymore
It's years since you've been there
Now you've disappeared somewhere, like outer space
You've found some better place
And I miss you.”
— Everything But The Girl
It has been slightly over two years since the Invisible Adjunct shuttered her remarkably influential website and left the academic blogosphere and the profession for fairer fields. For myself, and no doubt for many other academic bloggers, the Invisible Adjunct website was the first glimpse at what was possible in creating an online community of academics, or as the Invisible Adjunct herself put it, somewhat tongue in cheek, “A Habermasian public sphere (?).” For those unfamiliar, the Invisible Adjunct was a website that lived briefly, brightly, over the span of 2003 and 2004, and was dedicated to a wide variety of issues in academic life. As IA stated in her blog description: “From the margins of academe: Occasional thoughts on higher education, campus politics, the use and abuse of adjunct faculty, the academic ‘job market,’ and various other absurdities. By an invisible adjunct assistant professor of history.”
I discovered the site by chance in the early spring of 2003, and very quickly it became my first stop online. At the time, well into my “3-hour tour” of Sadistic College, I was unhappy and anxious. Finding the Invisible Adjunct and the conversations it nurtured became a lifeline for me as I negotiated the shoals of a miserable academic placement and pondered the questions this placement provoked: What is academic life? What are the possibilities and perils? Am I cut out for this peculiar type of sublimation? Will I live to tell?
What had started, seemingly, as a personal blog very quickly became an online, virtual agora for academicians, students, and fellow travellers. Through her witty, astute, and cogent commentary on everything from academic labour, unionisation, and the exploitation of contract (adjunct) academics, to pedagogy, tenure, and institutional politics, the Invisible Adjunct came to preside over a remarkable moment in time, a meeting of many minds and ideas and arguments that became a veritable town hall meeting, guided by her sensible and sober reflective stance, where discussion raged in the comments and there was always something compelling to read and comment on and think about.
The Invisible Adjunct was the inspiration for my first blog, and she was one of two honourable bloggers who warned me, after a very short time (like, a week), that my anonymity was about to be compromised (which was too bad, for that first blog, a roman à clef based on daily life at Sadistic College, was, to put it mildly, quite interesting). Her principled actions to protect my anonymity (and career, at that moment) struck me as indicative of her ethical and moral worth both as a colleague and a person. Her words and methodology towards blogging and community continue to inspire me and this blog in its current incarnation, which is to say: how do we create community? How do we communicate our issues and contentions to others? How can we use debate, ideas, notions, flights of fancy, to illustrate the conditions of our lives, as academics, as intellectuals, as thinkers in an anti-intellectual society, as workers in an anti-labour society?
In essence, the Invisible Adjunct made visible to me the very possibility of online community, the communitas so many of us find lacking in our actual “Real Time” institutional lives. Her site communicated to us, the avid readers, that in fact we were not alone, that there were other like-minded souls with critical positions and utterances that had no place in the department meeting, the faculty dining room, the professional conferences filled with anxiety and depression. IA was tough, hard as nails, clear-eyed about the risks of the academic life, and woe betide any doe-eyed undergraduate who wandered onto the site by accident, for they would receive a pragmatic assessment of their chances in academe: in short, don’t do it.
While many of us feel ambivalent, at best, about our entry into academia (and this critical aspect of the site garnered, natch, accusations of malcontentment on the part of critics, “the apologists” as IA used to call them), it is hard to quibble with the very fact of the employment crisis in academia. Yes, many of us have attained great heights of intellectual possibility while pursuing our doctorates, but the simple fact of the matter is that the vast majority of North American PhDs will never find traditional tenure-line appointments. The element of chance seems to be the most important factor in landing one of these coveted placements, although we continue to believe, as a profession and a society, in the meritocratic principle that, in this instance, masks an abusive and exploitative labour system. The Invisible Adjunct and her website acolytes sought to rip the wig off this particular myth of academia, not out of bitterness but rather from a standpoint of reality: this is where we are.
In thinking of this post, I did a Google search on IA, and found to my chagrin this piece in the Chron on the end of her website. It’s not that the article itself is bad, for in fact it offers a nice survey of the importance of the website for online academia, as well as reading the phenomenon of IA as indicative of deeply rooted problems in the profession. But because the Invisible Adjunct was a website grounded in the invisibility of the adjunct, and more largely the labour of all academics, the very visible swan song of being in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the traditional journalistic voice of the profession, on the occasion of the website’s demise, was a paradox filled, for me at least, with poignancy and some bitterness. Or, as Planned Obsolescence remarked eloquently at the time:
“There’s of course an irony in the contrasting responses to IA’s departure, which Smallwood [the Chron journalist] rightly points to—that only in her invisibility, or rather in the discursive space she created through her invisibility, will she be missed. But there’s another irony, one that Smallwood must surely have picked up on, but of which the article gives no real hint: that this ceasing-to-exist of an online persona has forced the academy itself to take notice, in the form of an article in its journal of record.
And yet: one can imagine IA’s very ‘colleagues,’ reading in their offices, shaking their heads and muttering about the terrible loss to the field, never noticing the woman down the hall, packing her few things to leave.
This is the way we like our tragedies: visible enough to be clucked over, invisible enough to avoid any personal implication therein.”
These remarks strike me as spot on in terms of the blissfully unaware character of we workers in the Shop, and the problematic ways in which we “see” or alternatively “don’t see” the material conditions of both our working lives and our lives as intellectuals.
Around the time of the Invisible Adjunct’s departure, CultureCat offered a Bakhtinian reading of the Invisible Adjunct and her website that captures the unique place that the site offered in an academic world so often filled with bloated egos, glossy viewbooks, and hidden ugliness. I would like to quote her post at length because in this passage CultureCat explicates the vital importance of the Invisible Adjunct, in its virtual moment of brilliance:
“Utterances on Invisible Adjunct
• Instead of the success stories or “good enough” stories about adjuncts we see in the Chronicle, the discourse on Invisible Adjunct focuses almost exclusively on adjuncts and postacademics who express their anger at the current state of the institution of higher education.
• Instead of the bootstrap, personal responsibility rhetoric in the Chronicle, criticism is aimed squarely at the institution and, unlike the Chronicle, the genre is less institutionalized; in other words, while the stories in the Chronicle are selected by the editors and more ideological gatekeeping takes place, the utterances on Invisible Adjunct are moderated by Invisible Adjunct only, thus allowing for other arguments to be made and other critiques to be stated.
• In addition, the anonymity enables posters to be more honest than they would be otherwise. Most of the time, people who post comments to Invisible Adjunct use pseudonyms or no name at all, allowing for a forum that, while public and visible, is also underground.
• The discussions on the blog are less like rhetorical genres, in which hierarchy is usually taken into account with each utterance, and more like what Bakhtin calls “familiar and intimate genres,” which “perceive their addressees in exactly the same way: more or less outside the framework of the social hierarchy and social conventions, 'without rank,' as it were. This gives rise to a certain candor of speech (which in familiar styles sometimes approaches cynicism” (Bakhtin, 1986, p. 97).”
This is a really smart reading, and I think demonstrates a critical shift that is crucial for pragmatic and enlightened academics everywhere. Ironically, the very transformation in consciousness attributed by CultureCat to the Invisible Adjunct, the shift from the individual to the institution, from the local to the global, the subjective to the objective, is one that I firmly believe is key to any critical pedagogy. In other words, it is what many of us do, or strive to do, as professors and teachers and instructors for our students. How is it then that so many of us lose the thread when it comes to ourselves, our profession, our practises as they concern our work in the Shop?
This is what the Invisible Adjunct offered us: the Nestea Plunge! Like the Jean Naté splash, she and her site were a tonic for all the crap academics have to put up with, day in and day out: the rictus smiles, the robotic motions, the kissing ass and grinding work and worry and doubt and fever. Talk about clearing the air! One often had the feeling, after reading a particularly compelling entry or thread, of being pragmatically empowered: yes, the pathway was strewn with shit, but weren’t we better for knowing this? As we pranced down the primrose path of the profession, we could attempt to hop, skip, and jump as best as we could, in Cordovans, loafers, high-heeled clogs, Hooker boots, or flip-flops, the shared pitfalls of the experience. These warnings serve community, serve the idea that we need to help each other, reflect an investment in ourselves and each other, both as interlocutors within the profession as well as considering ourselves worthy and deserving of assistance and support.
I still sometimes forlornly return to the site, hoping somehow that IA is back, has said something, has dusted off the old html and is back in business. But in fact the site has been frozen since August 2004. For a brief moment, the Invisible Adjunct was a siren, and although the academic blogosphere has continued developing apace, we have yet to attain another site, another agora, that functions in the same way as this one did. Indeed, the Invisible Adjunct was a labour of love, for ourselves as academics as for our collective as a profession, and represented an incredible amount of quotidian work that perhaps few of us wish to entertain. In any event, the example of the Invisible Adjunct represents still the possibilities that draw many of us to the web, and therefore on some level also reflects the developing and rich heritage of academic blogging as a critical and necessary alternative to "the Official Story," in ways similar to other effects of blogging on public and social discourse (I am thinking here of the profound shifts caused by explicitly political blogging).
Wherever she is, wherever she has gone to, I hope that our beloved Invisible Adjunct has found a better place, and that she realises the incredible influence she had on so many, and also that she is deeply, profoundly remembered, and missed.