At my birthday, I set my Reading Project for the year. This year I’m tackling Walter Benjamin.

I’ve read David Shipler’s The Working Poor: Invisible in America. To clarify: I’ve read each chapter, but that’s taken me more than three years, one chapter at a time, with quite long breaks in between. Something similar, a bit less heartbreaking, happens when I try to read Stuart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster. I’m a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God cat. The people with whom I grew up in Carpentersville are mostly still in C’Ville, still scraping paycheck to paycheck. Shipler’s stories, and O’Nan’s, might as well be my alternate biography – and they are the biographies of some of my friends, and their families, back in C’Ville.

Michael Berube speaks to some of that pain and institutional malpractice in his recap of an acronym festival in Washington DC. I’m one of the lucky ones in academia – I have a partner who takes home a damn fine wage and enjoys fairly decent job security. That, in turn, makes me a wedge against the people who don’t enjoy that pleasure. The administration knows that there’s a streak of kindness and generosity in your average adjunct-contract-precario a mile wide and just as deep — and they prey on that. Berube points out that it’s not the overproduction of PhDs that drives this:

according to the 2004 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty, 65.2 percent of non-tenure-track faculty members hold the M.A. as their highest degree — 57.3 percent in four-year institutions, 76.2 percent in two-year institutions. There are many factors affecting the working conditions of adjuncts, but the production of Ph.D.s isn’t one of the major ones.

These numbers have implications that go far beyond the usual debates about the size of doctoral programs, because they illustrate how inadequate it is to say simply that all non-tenure-track faculty lines should be converted to the tenure track. Precisely because adjuncts are so invisible, it is not widely understood that many of them have held their jobs — at one institution or at many, on a year-by-year basis or on multiyear contracts — for 10, 15 or 20 years and more. I keep running into people who speak of adjuncts as bright, energetic 30-year-olds who enliven their departments and disciplines, working in the trenches for a few years before getting their first tenure-track job. There is no shortage of bright and energetic adjuncts, but not all of them are 30 years old; the average age at the NFM summit seemed to be considerably higher

I tell my students, usually in a discussion of Marx, “I would do this job for free. I won’t. But I would.” To me, that sums up the “calling” flavour of professional choice in academia. I’m now well north of 30, and for all the energy I bring to my teaching – I call it the Powell Pedagogy Doctrine – I ain’t getting any younger, and if I were in any way “career-focussed”, I might be getting antsy about my standing. Because I’m not, the University has a love-hate relationship with me. They love me, but only because I’m a reserve labourer. UC’s policy is that the department’s current postgrads get preferential consideration for tutor positions. That’s because as a PhD I am paid 20.9999/hr while, if my memory of the pay sheet serves, MAs are pais 18.9999 and BAs 17.9999. It saves a total of a couple hundred dollars a semester — about as much as the catering at one SMT meeting, I would guess.