The Adjunct Underclass: Dr. Herb Childress on Devaluing Faculty, the Stratified University System, Social Mobility, and the Future of College

Dr. Herb Childress is the author of The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission (U. Chicago Press, 2019), which has been reviewed in The New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and the Chicago Tribune. Dr. Childress holds a bachelor’s degree from Berkeley, a PhD from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, and was a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Duke University.

I spoke with Dr. Childress about adjunct teaching, the changing demographics of college students, the stratified system of American higher education, the effect of college on social mobility, student debt, the future of college and work, and more: 

Ryan Maloney: Maybe I should start by a formal means of congratulations: the book is just so good. And I think something only becomes this good if you write without fear, or if you write in spite of fear. The book isn’t even about adjuncts to me; it’s about the state of higher education as you see it, and this just happens to be the framing. Working in higher education I would not want to publish a book like this for fear of repercussion; it’s a tell-all. More for my own curiosity: was it scary to write this?

Dr. Herb Childress: Your impulse is correct: this is not a book I could have written while I was still employed in higher ed; this is not a book that would have done me well in career terms if I were still in that community. 

I left higher ed in 2013, not because I was sick of it but because I had gotten married. I had married a woman who lived two hundred miles away from my job in Boston; and the next year we bought a house in that community that was two hundred miles away, and I was commuting back and forth every weekend. It was making me crazy, and I finally decided I needed to live my life and not just keep hanging on to this other part. So I left higher ed in 2013 and have done consulting work ever since. 

One of the very first things I did was I wrote a manuscript that became a book called The PhDictionary, and it was basically a guide to the arcane language of higher ed for students like myself who had come from a non-college family background. What do all these terms mean? People talk about “soft money”, and “gray literature”, and “ABD”, and all these things that you need to know or else they’re going to smack you in the face and slow your progress. And so it turns out that I had a bunch of useful and funny stories about all the mistakes I had made going through my graduate education, and that became a really productive book; a lot of people found it a reassuring guide. 

That came out in 2016 from the University of Chicago Press, and about six months after it came out my editor reached out to me and she said, “I’ve had an idea to do a book about adjuncts for a long time but I haven’t known what it was or how to get it done, and I think you have the right body of experience and the right voice to do this.” And she asked me specifically because of my storytelling character. 

And so I sort of chewed on that for a few months and thought to myself– and there are plenty of books out there about the adjunct crisis in various modes; they tend to be very political; they tend to be very angry; I used to call them combat narratives of the evil administrators against the beleaguered faculty and all of that. And I said, “That’s not the right frame. That’s not how I want to do this. If I’m going to do it it’s going to be something different than that. It’s going to be more of an ecological look at what higher ed is, and because of that, what it means for the people who participate in it.” So really that was my goal for writing this, to try to understand the ecosystem, and to understand how that ecosystem has impacted both people who want to be faculty members and people who are students within it. 

So, was it scary to write? Parts of it. The middle part of the book, the vast center of the book, eighty to eighty-five percent, is analytical; it’s really looking at how things have come to be what they are. But the front and the back that frame the book are really about my own story and ways that I have run into unexpected barriers that no one talked about and what that meant for my own mental health, what that meant for my own desire to be a member of this community in ways that I never would have expected. I’m actually working with another writer right now who reached out to me because of this book, and she’s writing about the abusive relationships that she simultaneously endured in her marriage, in her adjuncting career, and in her work in theater, where you’re always promised that the next thing you do will be the one that makes everything okay, and it never is. So she’s writing a book about those parallels, of that kind of emotional abuse that comes with trying to become a member of a community and not being welcomed. 

Maloney: It’s easy to say, “Boy, our school has fifty percent part-time adjuncts. How evil.” But I’m assuming that one thing you learned in writing this book, or I’m assuming you already knew, is that there aren’t evil intentions. But maybe intentions aren’t all that important when it comes to evil. Maybe you could touch on that, how we’ve gotten to this place.

Dr. Childress: Part of what I lay out in the book is that there are a whole bunch of things that have changed about higher ed in the last thirty to forty years that have led us to structure our employment differently. One of the things that has changed is a vast increase in the number of staff at colleges and universities who are co-curricular, who are involved in student health, student affairs, in co-curricular activities like undergraduate research and first year experience and service learning. I was just reading a book by a friend of mine, talking about how at a lot of schools it’s not surprising that thirty or so percent of incoming students have mental health diagnoses, who really need the ongoing support of a student mental health center. We have a greatly increased diversity of students into an educational system that was designed a hundred and fifty years ago for the advancement of well-to-do white boys. The system doesn’t fit the population that’s now coming, so we now have better advising for students of color; we have womens’ centers; we have international student centers. All of those are important; all of those are wonderful and useful for college students; but they’re not teachers. There’s a huge employment pressure that we’re placing on these institutions to support all of these other services, and if our school can do the work of teaching, especially those introductory courses, more cheaply, then that allows us to more fully staff our advising center, or our tutoring services, or TRIO. So that’s part of it. 

Part of it, I think, is that we’ve changed the notion of what college should be. We’re doing a lot of career-chasing majors. Fifty years ago it would have been very difficult to major in criminal justice; now that’s one of the biggest majors out there. So if we’re focused on serving an employment market in our region we have to be fluid; we have to be able to respond to growth areas in employment, to shrinking areas of employment; we shed programs that aren’t in high demand. Those programs work against the idea of a permanent faculty; those programs are inherently looking for people with professional experience who can be brought in or let go as the market demands. 

We spend huge amounts of money on technology. When I went to college the first time forty years ago there were no computers on campus; there was a giant mainframe in the electrical engineering building, but the whole notion of having desktop computers everywhere, of having fabrication materials in the architecture program, of having nursing simulation labs– all of those things that we take for granted now– which again, are productive. They are useful; they are good things; but they cost a vast amount of money, and so that puts pressure on other areas of finances of the school. And so it seems that faculty hiring has become the slush area that can expand or contract as the institution spends money on other good things. That’s the deal: we’re spending money on other good things, and that has caused us to spend less money on the good thing that we used to think was at the center of the enterprise. 

Maloney: You say explicitly toward the end of your book that the “faculty”, the idea of a faculty at the center of the university, is just going away. As much as we would like it to return to how it was– and I’m sorry if I’m putting words in your mouth– it’s just not coming back. 

Dr. Childress: I think at most schools, as the permanent faculty retire—and we’re about to go through a big wave of faculty retirement; a lot of people who got their jobs in the seventies and eighties will be reaching the end of their careers soon enough—and I think it’s going to be awfully hard for schools to hold those as dedicated faculty lines. It’ll just be easier and easier to grab people who are qualified to teach their content area, who know their particular course well enough to be a guide to students but who don’t have those enduring relationships with the school or the students who go through it. 

When I was first writing this book I was talking with my editor at Chicago, who went to Yale, and she said she had one really wonderful course—she was an English major—it was on Gertrude Stein, and she thought, “This is really fabulous. I’m really interested in this early-twentieth century modernism.” But it turns out this instructor was an adjunct, had no affiliation with the program; there was nobody else in the program who could do that, so it became this kind of one-off and she couldn’t build that into a larger interest, and certainly couldn’t continue to have a relationship with this person who could become a mentor, a guide, to a body of thinking. 

So I think that the faculty as we think of it now really is going to be on the decline at most schools. I think you’ve got the small liberal arts colleges that will always value that, will always privilege that; but at the state comprehensives and the research universities less and less and less; at community colleges probably almost none. 

Maloney: And since I read this book a year or two ago I’ve had this constant jabbing in the back of my mind, that, “Wouldn’t it be better if we kind of flip the script, so that a faculty member picked up these additional student support roles?” In your book you talk about study abroad, and you quote a faculty member who says, “I have a PhD because I learn things really fast,” referencing that she could learn how to administer a study abroad program quickly. It just seems more efficient to have a faculty member take on these roles than having a specialized person for each thing. And this is the bigger question: the whole thing doesn’t seem tenable in the long run. It’s too expensive. 

Dr. Childress: I’ve had that thought for a long time: that it would be wonderful to have faculty members with a slightly smaller teaching load take on this other co-curricular work of advising, of travel management, of the sort of coaching that we do with students outside the classroom. I think part of what works against that is that it’s easy to understand how to hire someone for a specialized job; it’s easy to name a position for that particular function. But the other thing is that as people go through doctoral programs and move toward faculty life they’re really trained fundamentally to be researchers within their field. They get very little training in how to be effective teachers; very little training in how the larger university works; and so it’s not something that people sign up for when they think they’re going to become a faculty member. They think they’re coming in to be a leading scholar in their field and to deliver that knowledge within the context of classrooms to their students, and the whole rest of the stuff across departments or across the school is invisible; it’s not what drove them into the job. So I think there’s a lot of resistance among faculty to do things that they would consider to be out of scope. And to some extent it comes to their detriment because then other people have to fill in that scope. 

Maloney: I don’t know if I read it in your book or in a different book about higher ed, that this training to be a researcher is a fairly new concept within the last hundred, hundred and fifty years, that it’s a calling to be a researcher; whereas that idea of a calling to be a researcher is kind of made-up, and it might or might not be working depending on the institution. And maybe a better calling would be what you’re talking about: the broader context of the institution. And so I guess my question would be, does something about training faculty, or training student support staff, need to change based on what the university looks like today?

Dr. Childress: The university has gone through a number of different iterations over the centuries, and doctoral education is still sort of focused on the old, Germanic university system of apprenticeship under a master. It wasn’t really a department; it wasn’t really a program; it was this really brilliant philosopher at this one school who I would go work with for a few years, and at the end be able to do something independent on my own. It’s not unlike becoming a master carpenter: you study under this person for a long time and at the end you’re given a task that’s independent, that you have to carry out to a level of sophistication that marks you as being worthy of entering the field; and then you go off on your own and you take on your own apprentices. So that model of doctoral education is still kind of the norm: you go off to Pinceton or to Yale and you study under a particular person; and when you go out on the market you typically are saying, “I have a PhD in this field, from this school, studying under this person.” And so you become marked as a student of Dr. X or Dr. Y. 

So all of our preparation still has that kind of apprenticeship model to it, and it’s much less the case that doctoral education is thought of as training college teachers. That’s not the gig; that’s not what they’re set up for. We see that with the growth of the Doctor of Education programs, but there’s a way in which as schools chase prestige they continue to want to hire from PhD programs at the highest echelons of whatever discipline they’re in. I have a friend who is the provost of a school in the midwest—sort of a mid-level private school; nothing elitist about it—and they were hiring postdocs to run some program, and they had three hundred applicants for these three positions. And in the end he said, “If you were one of these applicants and you just went to a good school, like Michigan, you never had a chance.” So the notion that the University of Michigan PhD program is a second choice—that’s what we’re shooting at. I think I read somewhere that nation-wide for faculty in economics at research universities, almost a quarter of them got their PhDs in economics from MIT or Harvard.

Maloney: [laughs] Wow.

Dr. Childress: Right. Five hundred and twenty out of the two thousand.

Maloney: That’s sobering.

Dr. Childress: So when we help students think about going into doctoral programs– we don’t coach them very well about that either. We think of the PhD as a sort of known object, just as we think of a college degree as a known object. But no, it’s a degree in this from here. And those things all contribute to its value on the market.

Maloney: And so I’m always trying to be student-centered; and I’m thinking about what our students are paying for all this and what they’re getting out of it; and the adjunct faculty who probably put a lot of time and money into what they’re doing and what they’re getting out of it. And it seems like there must be a more efficient way to put those two things together: the person who wants to learn and the person who wants to teach, and would be really qualified to teach, maybe better than your Harvard economist. All this to ask: what does the future of higher ed look like in your mind? Where is this all going?

Dr. Childress: It’s a great question; it’s a tough question; and I think it doesn’t have one answer. I identified these four different niches of schools in the book: the community college, first step up for the working class; the regional comprehensive schools, the state schools that offer the middle-class kids the chance to get ahead; what I call the monasteries of the liberal arts, these really small, sequestered experiences where you go in for four years of kind of a hothouse environment; and then the research universities where you go to be with the leaders in your field and watch football. Those are four different products, and you’re buying different things at those four different places. So I think we’re going to see those models of education become even more distinct, and offering different kinds of outcomes. 

The version that you’re thinking of, where we’re really focused on what’s happening in the classroom: I’m paying my money for tuition; I need to amortize that across the five courses I take every semester and have good outcomes. That’s where we’re going to see the increased focus on adjunct faculty as a cost-saving measure; that I, as a scholar in whatever field, am perfectly capable of acting independently to take my twenty-five students through this constrained fifteen-week experience; that doesn’t touch any of the other experiences; it’s my own little unique masterclass. Those are the environments where we’re going to see more pressure to do online, independent, atomized coursework, and it’ll be paid in a sort of atomized, low-wage way. 

When you go to one of the small liberal arts colleges it’s a radically different experience; it really is about building a kind of intellectual community, so what you’re doing in the context of those hours in the classroom is only a small part of what’s being purchased. They’re highly residential environments; they’re full of all kinds of enrichment opportunities during the course of the week; there’s a lot more casual contact with faculty who become friends that you turn to for advice and next steps. You can’t do that à la carte; that’s not an experience that you can offer piece by piece by piece; it really is becoming a member of a family. So those schools, I think, will continue to resist the pressures of adjunctification, and they will continue to become more and more and more insanely expensive. I mean, the average cost of attendance at a school like, say Middlebury, if you include room and board, is about seventy grand per year. As opposed to a school like Fredonia, where you’re at, where the total cost of tuition over the course of four years for an in-state student is probably closer to forty thousand dollars total, plus whatever your living arrangements are. So it’s just a different product.

Maloney: I mean, income inequality, political polarization—maybe they’ve always been hot topics but they feel really hot right now, and what you’re describing seems like it would make it worse. And it’s nobody’s intention to make it worse—everyone’s trying to act in their own best interests– but it seems like that’s just what’s going to happen. 

Dr. Childress: I think you’re right. There’s a fellow at Stanford in the education department named David Labaree who wrote a wonderful book in 2017, called A Perfect Mess, about the development of higher ed over the decades, and about how nobody planned it to be this way, but it has become this enormously stratified environment. We have democratized it in one way—everybody gets to go to college—but we have stratified it in a way that people are shunted into very particular strands of colleges which have different experiences and different reputational benefit as you go forward. And I think we’re seeing a lot of that. 

There was a study that was done by an economist—his name is Raj Chetty—and he published it in the New York Times. It was about schools that provided the greatest opportunity for economic change in circumstances: how many students who started out in the first and second quintile in economic distribution moved upward into the third, fourth, and fifth quintiles. And a lot of schools had really taken that as a mission. So a school like the University of Texas at El Paso had a lot of low-income students who ended up really changing their life circumstances because of the nature of that learning and that degree. That was a school that was a really good economic mobility school. Most schools make you a better member of the strand you’re already in.

Maloney: If I had to pick one thing that stuck with me after reading your book it would be that: that upward economic mobility is fantastic, but that’s not what colleges are doing by and large. I start looking around at middle class universities, and I look at the programs they have, and now it makes perfect sense why they have those programs: because those are the programs that attract the middle class students and put them into middle class jobs, all the while helping the school stay financially viable. But that’s not the best way to do things in your mind.

Dr. Childress: That’s a tough question. You think about the traditional model of economic change: it’s a kind of multi-generational model. So let’s use some stereotypes that were really familiar to me growing up in Michigan. You’ve got the Irish immigrant who comes to the U.S. in the middle of the nineteenth century, poorly educated, and gets a job as a bricklayer—not as a skilled mason but as a mason’s assistant. And that person’s kid has a chance to get a little more education and becomes a contractor; and that person’s kid then has the chance to move into design architecture, or engineering, or a higher level of the same thing. You’ve got the worker whose kid becomes a cop, whose kid becomes a lawyer, whose kid becomes a judge. And this kind of multi-generational growth in opportunity is normal, but today we’ve pinned a lot of our hopes on college to do all that work in a shorter period of time, of taking kids from low-income and working class circumstances and moving them to a higher status through the mechanism of education within the space of their own lifetimes. That’s a tough lift; that’s a hard piece of work for any institution to take on. 

The other thing is that the biggest bifurcation isn’t between people who go to this kind of school or that kind of school; it’s between people who go to college and those who don’t. The income prospects for students who don’t go on to college are pretty dire. The kind of jobs my dad had—my dad dropped out of school in seventh or eighth grade, and moved from the depression South to California when he was fourteen-years-old with the rest of his family, and got a job in a shipyard, and ended up joining the Navy, and had a forty year career as a factory machinist—those kinds of things are much more rare. Those kinds of jobs that pay really well to people who don’t have a college education are increasingly scarce. And even the ones who could find one: you’re competing with kids who have college degrees. The expectations for those jobs are ratcheted up even though the job itself doesn’t require them because the applicant pool is there; if I can hire a college graduate, all the better. So the thirty percent of students who don’t go on to college are really looking at much more dire economic circumstances for the rest of their lives. Another thirty or forty percent of students who try college and don’t finish are facing some pretty dire economic circumstances. Just the fact of college has become a real economic lever that lets some people in and keeps some people out.

Maloney: And I wonder, just abstractly: is it better if we get more people into college, or less? My sense is that there are people who feel like they need to go to college who might not have any desire to be there, who might not need it for the job they want to do but feel pressure to have that credential. 

Dr. Childress: One of the things we’re seeing now is a push toward credentials that are something other than a four-year degree. There’s a lot of move to certificate programs; a lot of move to smaller credentials; badges; very task-specific things that you’re certified in doing. If you look at LinkedIn you’ll constantly see people crowing about some new certification that they got as part of their career progress. These kinds of certifications do some of the work that college has traditionally done. And I think in terms of workforce development those can be really positive; they can take somebody who wants to have a better shot at some particular way of living and give them the tools they need with something other than four, fully-dedicated years. So I think we’re going to see a push toward an increase in certificate programs to broaden the reach of college without the normal structure of college. 

Maloney: To me that sounds like a really positive thing. 

Dr. Childress: I think it certainly can be. I just think we have to be clear about what it is that we’re putting on the table.

Maloney: I want to come back to when you talked about the university as a real intellectual community, and a family. There are universities everywhere that like to call themselves families and try to create that community, but sometimes it feels like they’re fooling themselves into thinking they are that elite liberal arts college. They’re clearly not, but they strive to be. I’m not sure these schools know which way to go. They don’t have any money, in a literal sense; they have to grow enrollment, which they’re not used to doing; they were set up to be regional, and states aren’t funding their regional schools and we have no reason to think they will anytime soon; and they’re trying to survive; and unions seem to make it difficult to get rid of anything; and so the only solution is to go to California, go to Israel, go everywhere and anywhere to recruit more students. The regional university starts to become something different, and nobody’s quite sure what that something different is yet; it seems to be everything to everyone. And so maybe I could just ask you to respond to that. It’s a big strategic question, and it seems like every president has to make that decision for themselves.

Dr. Childress: I think you’re right. So let’s come back to your original idea of the school as family. Let’s go back to the first, most recognizable version of what college is, which is a bunch of eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds who go off to live in a residential environment with a whole bunch of other eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds for four, continuous years. That’s doing a very particular kind of work; that’s really a kind of apprenticeship into adulthood; that’s your first moment of being independent; that’s sort of a halfway house toward adult life. And so there’s a lot of emotional bonding because all of those students are engaged in much the same work. And the faculty is able to provide them with that kind of familial. . . you know, back in the day we really had this in loco parentis model of college governance, where the university was seen as, at least temporarily, taking on the role of parent as we move kids from adolescence to adulthood. So in as much as a state school like Central Michigan University, or Castleton University here by me, still has that role, there will be some body of its students who we try to have that family experience with. 

But there’s a whole bunch of other people who aren’t there for that; there are a whole bunch of other people who are returning to school in their forties to get a credential; they take part-time school on because they have kids, where they have a job that’s demanding enough they can only spare time for two classes a semester. They will inherently be doing something else; they will not be engaged in that collective move from adolescence to adulthood. And so we see schools developing honors programs, and first-year communities, to be able to offer that family experience to some subset of their students; and other students come for other reasons and get different kinds of experiences. 

So that’s from the student side. From the institutional side I think, as you suggest, there’s been an awful lot of attempting to find the magic potion that will balance the budget. We’ve seen an awful lot of schools add master’s programs in the past ten, fifteen years, probably because the labor market is oversupplied with college graduates, and so having a master’s degree is a way to set yourself apart from that larger community that has a bachelor’s degree; partly because we’ve run out of babies, and so we don’t have a big pool of eighteen-year-olds coming into college anymore, so we have to have a product we can sell more easily to adults. So the master’s degree has been this huge growth area, in the past fifteen years especially. And, sort of a dirty little secret, there are federal limits on how much you can borrow in the student aid programs for an undergraduate education; there are no limits on how much you can borrow for grad school. And so graduate programs tend to become more expensive; students go into fierce amounts of debt to finance master’s degrees. The most recent thing I’ve read is that even though graduate students make up about ten percent of the student body, nationally they account for forty percent of the student debt. 

Maloney: Wow. I didn’t know that.

Dr. Childress: So master’s degrees are one of the easiest things that schools have added onto their repertoire. But then we’ve got various distance programs; we’ve got satellite campuses; we’ve got massive recruitment efforts out-of-state and out-of-country because those students pay fuller tuition rates. It’s a real scramble, and it leads schools to become less coherent because they’re having to offer more things to more people.

Maloney: And maybe I can get you to respond to another big, difficult question: I’m always thinking about the mission of the university, and it’s so hard. It’s probably easier to define at Middlebury, but it’s so hard to define at smaller, regional schools; it’s probably even harder to define at other places. It seems like there’s no such thing—as you say there are four different levels—there’s no such thing as a university anymore. It’s just these different products for different people.

Dr. Childress: It really is. It’s become a real consumer environment in which I, as an individual, am buying something that I believe will be an investment in my economic future. And so I’m defining both my interest and my future as commodities that I’m making this investment in, in trying to reach for. And that leads toward a kind of a Walmart,, get-it-all-under-one-roof, no-matter-what-you-want-to-buy-you-can-buy-it-here kind of an economic model. I think that’s not new, but I think it’s certainly aggravated; it’s certainly more and more and more the case. Back in the 1960s Clark Kerr, who was the Chancellor of the University of California System, in a moment of weakness said that his job as the chancellor of this giant research university system was to provide parking for the faculty, sex for the students, and sports for the alumni. So there’s always been this kind of consumer focus to a lot of schools, but now it’s just become much broader, that you have much more of an array of consumer demands that you have to be able to meet. 

Maloney: Maybe I’m getting a little bit outside your area of expertise, but I think it would be one thing if universities weren’t being funded with debt, so that now there’s all this pressure on the new Biden administration to just cancel it: “It’s fine. We’ll wipe it away.” And so as you were talking about the growth of graduate programs I was thinking: when I came out of college I was interested in going into physical therapy. The growth of physical therapy went from needing only a bachelor’s degree, to needing a master’s degree to do the same job, and now you need a doctorate to do the same job. You need a doctorate! That doctorate can’t be for the student; I would think it’s for the institution to get more money. That’s how it seems to me. And all of this is building and building and building, and the whole country is now in this very tenuous circumstance of having all of this debt. When you start talking about macroeconomics it gets very confusing because there are so many ways to look at it, but it’s just hard for me to see where it all ends.

Dr. Childress: I don’t know where it all ends. Federal economic policy, as you suggest, is outside my body of capability, but I want to go back to my own experience here. I graduated from high school in 1976; and when I went to college I paid in-state tuition; and my tuition at Michigan Technological University, a Research I university, was about fifteen hundred dollars a year. Now in-state it’s closer to sixteen thousand. So, in inflation-adjusted terms it’s increased about threefold, in consistent 2020 dollars. It becomes a much riskier enterprise to take that on. 

So I dropped out of school after two years; I did fine, but I didn’t have any reason to be there; I wasn’t doing anything because I wanted to; I just lost interest in it. So I didn’t go back to school for a number of years. In the mid-1980s I went to our local community college in Oakland, Laney College, to get some prerequisites out of the way before I tried to transfer to Berkeley. You know how much it cost me to go to Laney College in 1986? Five dollars per credit, plus twenty-five bucks per semester as a registration fee. A hundred bucks a semester to go to community college. That’s a low-risk environment. You’re not taking out debt in any meaningful way to accommodate that. You can change your life without burdening your next thirty years with the equivalent of a small mortgage. 

And now you see students leave school with forty, fifty, sixty thousand dollars of debt as undergraduates, with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt for master’s and doctoral programs. And it forestalls their opportunities to have kids; it forestalls their opportunities to change regions and move to a different part of the country; it forestalls their launch into adulthood. There’s a piece this morning in The New York Times about a huge number of people who have gone through med school and actually passed their state licensing exams who are fully qualified physicians– who can’t get jobs, who are sitting with three hundred thousand dollars in med school debt. Three hundred thousand dollars! In most parts of the country that’s a damn nice house. And so here’s this person, forty years old; they’ve gone through their residency; they’re fully trained and fully qualified; and they’re three hundred thousand dollars in the hole. Now what do they do? And so the adjunct underclass is specific to higher ed, but it’s a phenomenon we’re seeing more broadly. It’s a phenomenon where a lot of people have done everything they were told to do, and they have done it well, and have been barred from entry into the next step. 

Maloney: Maybe I can ask, because I know it’s personal to you: what would you say to someone considering going on for a PhD. You go into the topic at length in your book, but maybe you can blurb it here.

Dr. Childress: You just have to know why you’re doing it. If you are just completely compelled by some body of thinking and really want to pursue that. . . I talk about the PhD as training in not knowing things. Your job as an academic is to walk into an environment that nobody understands and to try to figure it out. You are out there on that frontier of what we understand. If that’s an exciting way of life, there are ways to do that through PhD programs at all kinds of schools. And to have faculty that will take you out there and sort of drop you off on the curb of what we know and say, “You figure it out from here,” and give you the tools you need to be able to survive there. As an intellectual exercise there is nothing like it. I would not trade that for anything. If I had the money I would do it again today in a different field, just for fun. There is nothing like it. 

As a strategy for career preparation it’s entirely different: you need to know which schools are going to give you the foot in the door; you need to know which schools have the reputation points that will set you in good stead for faculty hiring committees; you need to understand that your task while you’re there is to learn how to raise money, is to learn how to publish extensively, is to learn how to manage a lab or manage a research center that can then apply for grant funding—because, as you said a few minutes ago, all these colleges are looking for new revenue centers. And so if you get hired you’re getting hired as a potential revenue center: how can you help us with sponsored research? How can you help us start a think tank in your own particular small field, whatever it is? People don’t recognize the fundraising pressures that are placed on new faculty: you’ve got to cover your own expenses pretty quickly in order to be a viable hire, and teaching isn’t going to do it. So if you’re thinking about going into the PhD as a career strategy you have to take a career approach and know which one of those currencies are going to be spendable on the other side. If you go into it as an intellectual exercise there are lots of ways to do it less expensively and just have the time of your life.

Maloney: That gets to a question I was going to ask: obviously administrators want to think about the university as a business, because they need to, and the faculty would like to think about it as the experience of their lives, which is great too. I read this book a while ago called How Universities Work by the president of the Louisiana State System. He compared the university to—and I’ve always found this useful—he compared the university to Disney World, where we put all these things in one place and it’s a big experience: “Come on over and have this experience.” It’s not like Amazon where you buy this; it’s not like a certification badge; but it’s Disney World. Without this framing I think it’s hard for administrators and faculty to talk to each other. 

Dr. Childress: It is, and I’m thinking about the four years that I spent at Duke as a postdoc. It was a lot of fun teaching first-year students at Duke; they were really well-prepared; they came in and they were on this sort of four-year adventure of co-housed movement toward adulthood. But that’s only part of what Duke University was. Duke University was also a huge medical school, a gigantic hospital; Duke University was also a vast number of scientific laboratories that were selling their services to the pharmaceutical industry and the agricultural industry; it was also a divinity school that was training people for the ministry; it was also four or five different minor league professional sports franchises; it was a series of housing and hotel operations and food service operations; it was summer camps that they put on for kids playing soccer, and cheerleading, and field hockey. This thing that you think of as a university has so many business models that it has to be responsible to. It runs its own police department; it has arrangements with utility companies to have substations on campus that power all of this equipment in a reliable way, so if there’s an ice storm and the rest of the city of Durham goes dark for six days Duke University is still going. So as a college administrator you’re asked to think about things that have nothing to do with academic life, but which hopefully enable academic life. But that boundary is blurry. 

Maloney: And whatever those things are, the cost of them gets pushed onto students and families. Eventually it trickles down to the person paying for it, and it gets very expensive, which comes back to that big unknown of where all the debt is going. 

Dr. Childress: Right. It’s not easy to find information about university finances—schools play that pretty close to the vest—but when you can find it it’s really interesting to look at just the simple balance sheet: where does the money come from, where does the money go, in big, categorical terms? One of the examples I gave in the book was MIT—like Duke, another giant research university. They made about three hundred forty million dollars in tuition in 2017, for undergrad and grad students, which was completely dwarfed by the one point seven billion dollars they raised in research funds. So the tuition—the thing that we think of as the income stream for schools—is only twenty percent of this other research revenue stream which is really the reason MIT exists. So having a look at the revenue streams and the expense streams of any individual school is really revealing about what the mission of that school is. 

Maloney: Put your money where your mouth is, so to speak. 

Dr. Childress: Right.

Maloney: A couple more questions that I wasn’t sure we’d have time for: When you talked about “hope labor”—it was a brief, little part of the book—it struck me right to the core. I was like, “That’s exactly what I’m doing, but is it going anywhere?” Can you speak to that a little bit?

Dr. Childress: That was from a wonderful article I saw in The Chronicle of Higher Ed, where they were talking about adjuncting as a form of hope labor. The original idea comes from all the people who contribute unpaid creative work to the web: all of us who have our blog; all of us who write for free for the Huffington Post; all of us who put up our music videos or our TikToks hoping to be discovered, hoping that we will be the one who’s pulled out of this enormous galaxy of talent and found to be the one who becomes Justin Bieber. Justin Bieber was just some twelve-year-old kid who was singing in YouTube videos, but he was picked out of the crowd and told, “Hey, kid. You’ve got something special. Why don’t you work with me?”, and within five years had a massive, lucrative career. So the rest of us see that: we see the people who worked for the little online magazine and made a hundred dollars per article, and then got noticed and are all of a sudden writing for The New Yorker. It’s rare; it’s almost vanishingly rare, like the person who wins the Powerball; but it’s appealing enough that it keeps us doing it. So this notion that these two communications researchers labeled “hope labor” is this notion of things that we do for no immediate compensation in the hopes that compensation will appear later. We provide our work to some organization because they have a million viewers, and, “Think of the exposure.” As one writer put it, “Artist dies of exposure.” You can’t eat eyeballs, thumbs ups, or likes, but we hope that those likes become converted to currency, somehow. And that’s the nature of hope labor: we’re working for free now in the hope that something larger, something more institutional, something safer, will come from it. 

Maloney: My sense is that in any given field of hope labor there’s one big winner, and then there’s a whole lot of losers. Do you see—and this gets into how you speak of the gig economy—do you see some of these fields becoming more remunerative? More well-paying in the future, as fields seem to keep subdividing? I wonder about what that future of careers looks like, because it doesn’t feel like high-paying jobs are becoming more widely available. 

Dr. Childress: There’s a couple questions there; I’m going to pull those apart. I think we’re going to see more and more and more hope labor because the platforms are more ubiquitous. If you’re going to have any hope of being in the public eye you have to be on Twitter; this year you have to be on TikTok; next year it will be something else. There is the Web 1.0: the first notion of the internet was all these providers putting up static pieces of information; it was an archive by intelligent, well-resourced people putting stuff out into the world. Web 2.0 is that we all get a voice; it’s the Yelp of the internet, where everyone has the chance to speak and not just be spoken to. And so as more and more of us have the chance to speak, and more of these venues are available, it diminishes the amount of time any of us has to be attended to. 

Part of it also is that now that so many of us have had college experiences there’s actually more good writers now than there used to be; there are more good dancers; there are more good musicians; there are more good athletes; there are more good everything than there used to be. And so there are more people with the aspiration to make that into a career, and that leads to more pressure to participate in this hope labor, more pressure to make yourself visible in this vast herd of talented people around you. And of course we publicize the ones who make it. We publicize the stripper who became a pop star because that’s the American dream: with hard work and talent you can go anywhere. And once in a while when it works we put that out on the front page; we make Justin Bieber into a pop hero and say, “You can be the next twelve-year-old hero singing on the steps of the shopping market downtown and get discovered.” 

Now, let’s flip that on its head in terms of careers. A lot of ways of making a living are figuring out ways to become gigs rather than jobs, to hire people for work that happens to be present right now with no commitment for a longer engagement. But even within stable careers one of the worst things that’s happened in labor history, I think, is the development of the salary rather than the hourly wage, because I can stuff anything I want into your job description if you have a salary. The whole notion of the forty-hour workweek seems quaint.

Maloney: It does. Yes. 

Dr. Childress: It seems like something that our grandparents fought for in black-and-white newsreels, but anymore if you have a professional position that’s paid as salary the expectation is that you’re available fifty hours a week plus, and that you’ll answer email all weekend and we’ll not even count it. Our parents didn’t have email—they went home at five o’clock in the evening and they picked up work the next morning at eight o’clock, and they got to have an evening. So even jobs that are secure are becoming overfilled. It’s easy for me to ask you to do ten hours a week more rather than hiring somebody else to pick up some of that additional workload. So we’re in a tough time right now for labor. We’re doing great as consumers, and we suck at protecting producers. 

Maloney: I think about a friend of mine who was fortunate to get into the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, which is a prestigious school, and now he works for HBO. He’s a film editor. The business model isn’t a salary or hourly, but it’s a group of people who come together for a project and then disperse. For ease of explanation he might say he works for HBO, but really it’s a group of people who come together to make a project for HBO. And so when I think about what the future of work looks like I wonder if it’s these groups of people who come together for a particular project, then disperse.

Dr. Childress: I think there are models like that, and I think your example of how to put a team together to make a film is really interesting. You watch the credits at the end of the movie and there’s fifty-six different businesses that have been hired to fulfill some small component of special effects, or craft services, or animal training, or whatever, for this giant thing. And they have no real relationship with one another necessarily after the presentation has been made. It puts enormous pressure on your ability to build a network. If I can call anybody to do film editing, who do I call? I call someone I’ve worked with before, or I call someone whose work I admire who I want to work with next time. And so these kinds of informal communities that come together around projects and then disperse are really network-based. They’re really, “Who do you know? Who would you call if you needed to have this project done for the next three months?” And so it becomes a second part of our careers, to build and to manage and to support that network. If you’re a member of a professional network you can’t just be a taker; you can’t just be someone who says, “What can you get for me?” You have to be able to offer things; you have to be able to say, “I just heard about a job that sounds just like you. Let me introduce you to this person over here.” So the whole task of networking comes on the shoulders of the actual work that we’re employed to do. Just like you’re stuffing fifty or sixty hours inside a salary, networking becomes more work that’s part of the job. 

Maloney: What would a nice future of work look like? If salaries aren’t great; networking isn’t great; gigs aren’t great; is there something that would be great?

Dr. Childress: Again, it’s kind of like college. College means a lot of different things. I use the analogy of a restaurant: “restaurant” means a million different things. So maybe “work” means a million different things, and we can think more carefully about what we aspire to do. For a lot of people work means simply and only economic security; the old joke was, “You’re not supposed to like your job. That’s why they call it work.” It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you make enough money to keep yourself and your family safe. That’s a body of work, and there are a body of employers who will make that possible. And so what are you looking for there? You’re looking for sufficiency and security. But if I want my work to be emotionally fulfilling, if I want my work to be a way to explore some larger ideas, I’m probably going to sacrifice some security for that opportunity, for that chance of intellectual growth. 

So I think we fall too easily into talking about categories that aren’t really categories: college is not a thing; the faculty is not a thing; education is not a thing; I think increasingly work is not a thing; work is a lot of things. Work fulfills a lot of different facets of life for different people. So I don’t know that there is a desirable future of work. I just hope that we can talk about it more carefully so that people can think more carefully about what it is that they really want. 

Maloney: I imagine that for a lot of people, if they could wave a magic wand and create the perfect university it would look just like it looked a hundred years ago. Say you, as the chancellor of the world, get to create the new university model moving forward—and it’s sort of silly that I ask this question after what you just said, because it could be what you just said—what would be the most important elements? What would be the foundation?

Dr. Childress: It’s not an unreasonable question even in light of what I just said, because I would be designing my ideal institution that would provide my ideal vision of what education is. Everybody who writes about this thinks about these questions. My ideal for education is that students would come in not declaring a major, not declaring a career path, but simply come in and be introduced to a wide variety of adult zealots. You come in to be with these people who have these unreasonable passions for whatever field they’re part of. And over the first year or two you start to discover, “Which of those people speak to me? Which of those ideas draw me? Which of those ways of living feels appealing?” And then you sort of move toward the ability to focus your energy on those few things. But you don’t come in with a sense of who you’re going to become; you come into school wondering who you’re going to become, and placing yourself in this environment that offers you this kaleidoscope of opportunities from which you can assemble your own desired adult life. 

So that’s not college as work training; it wouldn’t fulfill that model; and I’m happy to let somebody else do that model, but that’s not what I would be interested in providing as a fundamental college experience. I would be looking for students who are trying to build some sort of a narrative about what the next ten years of their life might look like, and helping them figure out a way to manufacture that. When I taught at Duke the admissions department would periodically ask us to speak to the parents of incoming students, and I always said that one of the markers for me of a really wonderful college experience is when a student changes majors, because they’ve discovered something better. I had one student at Duke who was a Sudanese refugee who was convinced that because of her life experiences that she wanted to be a physician. She wanted to be a doctor; she wanted to work in low-income communities to provide healthcare. And I left Duke before she graduated, but she kept in contact with me. She had a summer internship at Wake Forest med center, and she wrote to me after that summer and she said, “There’s plenty of healthcare available for low-income people. The problem is that they can’t get access to it. We make it hard for them to get.” And she changed her major to public policy, because she believed that she would have more impact in helping low-income people have access to good healthcare through public policy than she would as an individual working in a hospital. That’s what a good school can do. It can help you identify a whole other path of doing this thing you love and never imagined. 

Maloney: It sounds like Disney World again. You came because it was Disney World, and everybody talks about how great Disney World is, and then you find all of these things that are unique to you, that that was your experience. 

Dr. Childress: Right. If you put a lot of magic on the table people will discover the magic that appeals to them. 

Maloney: That’s a lovely way to put it. I always like to do some research on my guest before we speak, and it seems you’re working on this project Teleidoscope Group. Personally, I don’t feel like a natural storyteller; I don’t read fiction; I’m not even good at telling people about what happened yesterday. And so it’s a little difficult for me to understand, but when you consult with people in higher ed what does that work look like?

Dr. Childress: What I’m doing right now is working with the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA), and the system of accreditation for schools of architecture has just changed—every eight or ten years the standards change a little bit. And the new 2020 standards are much more geared towards assessment; you have to be able to demonstrate your effectiveness in what you’re putting on the table. And because of this, all these ACSA member schools are a little bit daunted by engaging in this process that they haven’t had to do in the past, so ACSA asked me to develop this series of workshops to help member schools to do assessment in a way that isn’t just a burden, that isn’t just an external responsibility, but actually can help them be the kind of school they aspire to be, to help them do what they want to do better. So my job in doing that is to put some factual material on the table and say, “These are the standards; this is program criteria one through eight; this is student criteria one through six; you have to do these things.” But, to make it clear that each individual school can and should do them differently because of their own unique mission, because of their own unique population that they serve. And so a lot of my work is reassurance. It’s like, “Come on.” It’s like luring a cat out from under the porch: “It’s okay. C’mon. You’ll be alright. You can do this.” 

Maloney: Like it’s okay to be different? 

Dr. Childress: Yes. It’s okay to be scared; it’s okay for this to feel like a big deal; it’s okay to not know how to do it yet; we’ll figure it out. One of the things that’s happened because of the book (The Adjunct Underclass) is a fair number of people have reached out to me feeling safe that they can tell their own story, to be able to say, “Yeah, it was like that for me too. And I don’t know what to do next.” And I’ve had a lot of really powerful, difficult phone calls with people who’ve been in this boat and not known how they should move forward. My office in the house is upstairs, and my wife works downstairs, and one day I got off one of these calls and she said, “It sounds like you’re doing academic chaplaincy.” 

Maloney: [laughs] Sure, sure.

Dr. Childress: And I said, “Yeah, kind of.” And so a lot of my consulting work is that too, where it’s like, “It’s okay for you to be confused; it’s okay for you to be scared; we’ll figure out a way to do this; let’s talk it through; let’s figure out a way to get it done.” So that’s really a lot of it, is validating that the work is emotional as well as intellectual, and trying to work people into a way of being comfortable with moving forward, even in the absence of perfect knowledge.

Maloney: I don’t feel like I’m old enough to know this myself, but do you look back over your life and see it coming to this point in any way?

Dr. Childress: You know, it’s funny to think that. Every time we’re faced with some decision about going to this school or that school, about marrying this person or that person, about moving to this part of the country or that part of the country, everything we do opens up some channels and closes off some others. I’m really fascinated by the plight of young people who are elite athletes. If you’re sixteen years old and you’re on track to be the best tennis player in the world, you don’t get to do anything else. You probably don’t get to go to college; you don’t get to hang out with your friends; you don’t get to play another sport because you might get injured; you don’t have enough time to practice a musical instrument; all you can do is this one thing. So all the decisions that we make open up some avenues and forestall some others. 

So here I am: I’m sixty-two-years-old; I’m doing what I do; I like what I do; so yes, I guess that track got me here. It’s not a track that I manufactured; it’s not a track that I planned out with careful forethought. But a lot of your opportunities come from saying yes to what you’re scared of. If somebody says, “Hey, we need some help with this. Could you give us a hand with this?” And inside you’re saying, “I don’t know anything about that; I’ve never done that before; I don’t know how to do that.” But it needs to get done; somebody’s gotta do it; nobody wants to do it; and so you say, “Sure. I’ll try that.” This thing that I’m doing now with the ACSA about assessment is really only available to me because twenty years ago when I was at Duke we had an assessment project that was sort of dumped on us by the university, who said, “You have to justify the million dollars a year we spend on this program.” And so I worked for a year with some other members of the community to do the assessment of the writing program. And that opened this whole other career in academic assessment that I never planned, I never chose, but I’m good at it, it’s fun, and looking back I’ve done it for twenty years. Look at that: I must be an expert. So here I am; I like what I’m doing; it must have been a good path. But I think you only understand that later—I think it was Kierkegaard who said, “Life can only be understood backward, but it has to be lived forward.”