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.


Anonymous said...

As an every-day reader and a first-time responder, I've gotta say gracias, Oso. Eres lo mejor.

Part-time faculty members (I think "adjunct" is a euphemism)are the undocumented workers of academia, no? Without their full-time, tenure-track green cards, they do the scut work, and do it for peanuts, that benefits all of us.

While we fortunate few certainly didn't create this system of academic peonage, it's just as certain that we profit from it. Imagine what full-time California community college salaries would be like if part-timers didn't teach half of the California community college classes.

Invisible? The lack of response to your latest post says plenty. Or you can go over to Inside Higher Ed to find a similar lack of response to "Conflict of Interest," an article about pissed-off part-timers who are forming a union of their own. By the way, although it was published on May 11, you won't find it when you scroll down to find recent news. You'll have to type something like "part-timers + unions" in the search box, even though articles that are far older are still easily available.

Conspiracy? La lucha continua.


Margaret said...

It's funny, I was just thinking about IA the other day (and like you, I sometimes go to the old site, in the hopes...) I discovered her right before she left the blogosphere, and I was so disappointed I hadn't found her sooner.

I'm continually surprised (and at the same time not at all surprised) that academia is so unwilling to examine *itself* most of the time. It's infuriating.

Anonymous said...

I started reading blogs shortly after IA stopped posting, but the first academic blog I ever read was Culture Cat, and I found IA through her, and read most of the site like a book, in a few sittings. I work with dozens of invisible adjuncts, but there are so few spaces where our paths cross. Unless a department chair or committee makes a big effort, t-t faculty and adjuncts need never meet in person.

Texter said...


GayProf said...

I never knew IA or her blog. It sounds great, though.

Hopefully her silence suggests better things found her.

Anonymous said...

Te escribo desde Caracas. Voy a hacer algo que no he hecho con nadie en Internet: printear tus posts y sentarme a leerlos con calma cuando la casa ya este callada. Tus reflexiones bien valen la pena.

App Crit said...

I'm too new to the academic blogosphere to have enjoyed IA's blog in its floruit, but I did enjoy reading your encomium.

As always, Oso Raro, you've given us all a very good read.


Anonymous said...

IA was one of the first blogs I read, too, and I was a somewhat frequent commentor there under another moniker. Everything you say here is right on, Oso. And beautifully crafted, as always.

Someone said to me today, "Remember, many of the faculty in our union are uncomfortable with the idea that they are workers. They think they are professionals, and that means something different." One of the things I loved about IA's blog was that people were not afraid to speak of and examine the idea that we academics are indeed workers, that there is no shame in the idea of academic *labor.* Indeed, the whole topic seemed to disappear with IA. Maybe this post of yours (and your blog itself) marks a return to an honest discussion of the issue?

Anonymous said...

The thing that disappoints me the most since then is that IA created a space where criticisms of the academy could interweave with appreciation of its possibilities, indeed, with the disppointment some of us feel that the good experiences we had as undergraduates, or the passions we had for knowledge, seem to difficult to carry over into our professional lives.

Since then I feel just terribly depressed watching where the energies of that conversation have dissipated, particularly in some of the conservative tendentiousness or pure snark that now drives a lot of the meta-discussion. At IA, it felt to me like a reformist project was taking shape, and now that's gone.

Tim Burke

robtheisguy said...

IA had a big influence on my thinking. I discovered her right before she signed off and at the time I was going through a Masters program and considering going for PhD. IA verbalized many of the problems that I was starting to feel but hadn't fully understood.

I ran into an incredible amount of unprofessionalism in academia and there are issues that a year out haunt me. I was embarrassed and belittled in an environment that is suppose to carry a certain amount of honor and is SUPPOSE to be occupied by intellectuals.

I have thought about starting my own version of IA. A blog where I can post from the perspective of someone who could and would very much like to be an academic, but someone who refuses to jump through the hoops, to take the pay cut, and to take the abuse to get there.

I am curious if others would be interested in this project. And if so, what others would like to see. I'll admit that I'm not in as dire straits as some as I do have full time employment and am not currently trying to land a tenure track position, but I do have strong feelings about the abuse and treatment of grad students and adjuncts today.

Stephen said...

I always thought it would be good for the IA meme to continue.

Wish you all luck.

Lucien said...

It looks like the blog is gone. I just checked for it and it's gone! This is what sucks about blogs...

Anonymous said...

Worse yet, it appears some damn fool has bought up the site and made it a commercial one.


webmat said...

IA's writings can still be enjoyed on the Internet Archive. Unfortunately, comments appear to be unavailable.

Anonymous said...

Please Spread the Word:

Fight for Livable Working Conditions for Higher Ed Faculty

A. How?

*Walk Out in one year (Tuesday, April 7th, 2015)- All Higher Ed faculty across the USA: adjunct, tenured, etc.

*Educate and include all students about the consequences involved in not standing up for this change in terms of their education and societal change at large. Students walk out and protest at same time.

*Strike and shut down of all universities and community colleges until new conditions are met.

B. New Conditions:

*Within two years the ratio of full-time to adjunct will be 70/30 (70% full-time benefited/ 30% adjunct part-time.) The 30% will still receive health care as a condition of part-time employment and be able to participate in retirement pensions.

-full-time designation does not have to come through teaching; it can come about by combining part-time teaching and part-time admin to create a full-time position.
-fully unionize higher ed.

*An analysis will be done of every department in every institution to assess the need for stabilizing employment amongst higher ed. faculty and this study will be published publicly. (to include living conditions of adjuncts, consequences to students, variance of need in one dept. versus another; i.e. Business Dept. at a community college may, in fact, have a smaller need for full-time positions than the Humanities Dept.)

C. Consequences of not fighting for fair employment conditions:

-poorly educated society
-students are paying outrageous rates of tuition to institutions that are destroying their intellectual capitol.
-if faculty won’t stand up for themselves in labor injustice, then they are teaching students to be complacent in their own lives and careers, and they will remain “99 Percenters” with ever-worsening living conditions.