On Being a Failed Professor: Lessons from the Margins and the Undercommons

Contributed by Ji-Young Um Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Williams College
August 11, 2014
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Part of the Cluster:

Power, Privilege, and Social Identity

Undergraduate students at most institutions have a chosen lexicon for addressing the faculty, inherited by tradition or a through common consensus reached long ago, or a combination of both. When I was a college student, we addressed our professors as Mr. or Ms. It was much later when I finally learned that this form of addressing faculty was peculiar to my college rather than the norm. The address of choice at my current institution is, some might say unimaginatively, “professor.” Let me clarify: not “Professor X” or “Professor Y,” but simply “professor.” Of course, every now and then students do actually attach a name to the title, but calling one’s instructor simply “professor” is by far the most common form of address here: “Hello, professor”; “Professor, I have a question about the assignment”; “Professor, do you have office hours today?” 

I have profoundly mixed feelings about being addressed in this way. On one hand, addressing all faculty as “professor” has the effect of neutralizing differences in status, seniority, and pay scales. I expect many of my colleagues would suggest that this effect is a good thing. On the other hand, The Adjunct Project, a coalition of adjuncts and graduate students teaching in the CUNY (City University of New York) system, offers a different response: “To ensure that we remain conscious of the ‘adjunctification’ of CUNY, I ask that you do not call me professor.”[i] While the statement risks raising the often unspoken stereotypes about adjuncts as “failed” academics, there is nonetheless something powerful in this gesture of refusal.

These days, I also don’t feel much like being called “professor.” I’ve been thinking a lot about what looks and feels like career failure lately. While my sense of failure may have initially emerged from conventional definitions of career success, I understand its implications to be more complex and larger than my possibly misguided life decisions and individual circumstances. My sense of myself as a “failed” professor may largely stem from the precarity and marginality of my position as contingent faculty, but it also stems from the long history of my conflicted relationship to higher education institutions and academic discourse. It was, after all, in the academy that I first came to intellectual and political consciousness. 

In classrooms and beyond, I learned about Third World feminism, post-colonial theory, Asian American history and politics, liberation theology; I learned about writers, scholars, activists, like bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldúa, Yuri Kochiyama, Paulo Freire, Edward Said, and others. Since then, I have found myself in the rather ironic position of teaching students to think critically about structures of power while trapped in these very structures that continue to disempower, subordinate, and exploit my work. That my experience of marginalization and subordination comes from both my position as contingent faculty and as a scholar and teacher of American ethnic studies and literatures is no coincidence. That is to say, the two conditions and positions are linked and mutually inform and justify each other. They explain, for instance, why my department always asks to list my courses as part of their “diversity” course offerings while never once considering a tenure-track line in American ethnic studies/literatures.

Mine is not the only kind of “failure” engendered by shifting academic paradigms. The specter of failure also haunts those who leave academic institutions entirely, as well as those who pursue hybrid and/or alternative academic paths: diversity officers, research center administrators, student support staff, and many others whose academic credentials are similarly rendered suspect by the institution.  Those of us who live in the margins of academia, contingent and adjunct faculty, share something with the “alt-ac” workers: the strategic necessity of occupying a space of belonging and exclusion. Recognizing the ways in which the two positions overlap and implicate each other is necessary in order to get at the conditions that reproduce and reinforce these experiences and positions as “failures.” Otherwise, both groups risk becoming complicit in the reproduction of the hierarchies, inequalities, and privileges that structure institutional life.

Alt-ac has often been invoked and claimed as a viable and desirable, well, alternative to the adjunct life. [ii] In fact, I count myself among those who have done so.  In her recent piece, “Alt-Ac Isn’t Always the Answer,” Jacqui Shine offers some cautionary words against thinking alt-ac and other non-academic paths as solutions for the ongoing academic job market crises.[iii]  There are, Shine and others have pointed out, simply not enough jobs to absorb all unemployed and marginally employed scholars and academics. Perhaps even more importantly, uncritically privileging alt-ac tracks and spaces risks reproducing the ideology of individual meritocracy that shifts the burden of responsibility—for failure or for success—solely onto the individual while leaving intact the structures that foster and engineer these failures and successes as such. To borrow Shine’s metaphor, holding up alt-ac as the solution risks broadcasting an injunction to “haul yourself up by your doctoral hood.”

An analogous bootstrap/doctoral hood ideology of individual meritocracy has long defined the race for the tenure-track faculty positions in the academic job market: that, if you were sufficiently smart, ambitious, and strategic, you would surely and eventually find such a position. I have heard many variations on this theme throughout my academic life. They were almost always meant as words of support and/or encouragement from well-meaning mentors, colleagues and friends and as such, I can’t fault them too much. But these well-meaning reassurances—almost always from those in tenure-track and/or tenured faculty positions—serve to validate and re-secure their own positions as the desirable norm. 

Tenure and tenure-track are hardly the norm, of course. According to the 2012 Annual Report from the American Association of University Professors, contingent faculty now make up 76% of all instructional staffing.[iv] The same report also notes that part-time faculty appointments increased by more than 300 percent between 1975 and 2011, while the number of faculty members in full-time tenured or tenure-track positions grew by only 26 percent in the same period. How smart, ambitious, and strategic does one need to be to work against these kinds of numbers? Are these qualities measured by number of publications, presentations and talks, or the numbers on your student evaluation forms?

The fates of the contingent are connected to those on the tenure track as well as those in alt-ac roles.  Neoliberalization of the university produces conditions for students, staff, adjuncts, alt-acs and tenured/tenure-track faculty alike.[v] The connections between all these groups are both forged and disavowed by these conditions. The increasing visibility and circulation of narratives about alt-ac track, for example, have helped to re-frame the meaning of and possibilities for academic, cultural, and political works. The increasing number of accounts exposing the often distressing and exploitative conditions that contingent faculty labor under have similarly helped to spur debates and critiques.[vi]  Individual stories, histories, and experiences not only reflect larger narratives and conditions, but also are vital to critical engagement with, and understanding of, these larger contexts.  This is not a new insight, particularly in academic fields like American Ethnic Studies, Women and Gender Studies, and Queer Studies, among others.

The emergence of thesekinds of stories is, I want to be clear, a good thing: but I also want us to be cautious about the consequences and implications of their circulation and visibility. We need to be vigilant about the ways in which these different positions and stories overlap, and the ways in which our conditions impact each other’s. I do not want professional “success” that is complicit in a structure that reproduces and engineers oppression and exploitation. I don’t find it satisfying to learn that I’ve landed an interview or an offer out of 500 applicants. Frankly, it’s depressing. I don’t much like my current options.

In their essay, “The University and the Undercommons,” Stefano Harney and Fred Moten write that: “The only possible relationship to the university today is a criminal one.”[vii] "Undercommons”is their term and as a concept it describes the kind of work, space, and relationship that we might seek to practice in relationship to the institution. It is not sufficient to be a “critical” academic who forecloses other forms of agency and politics that escape institutional logic and recognition. Instead, the undercommons reflects the logic of a fugitive community: fugitives do not seek to return to, nor be recognized by, the place that they have left; they do not wish to be found and they don’t hold themselves accountable to the place that they’ve left.  The undercommons is a place of refusal, rather than a critique—refusal of the terms and conditions that are offered as our only options or choices, or, to quote Harney and Moten again, “not so much the abolition of prisons but the abolition of a society that could have prisons, that could have slavery.”[viii]

Similarly, Jack Halberstam reminds us that “in an economy that engineers success for an elite few at the expense of the failure of the many, failure becomes a location for resisting, blocking, slowing, jamming the economy and the social stability that depends on it.”[ix] These spaces and subjects of “failure,”Chandan Reddy has also argued, operate as “the bordering activities through and against which hegemonic forms assemble their frames or borders.”[x] They make possible and enable, but they also, as Reddy points out, endanger the structures of power.

The presence of so many of us in the margins of academy—the visibility of our bodies, our work, and stories—is unsettling and threatening. Deans and department chairs do not particularly like seeing andtalking to me: I make them uncomfortable. I’m an uncomfortable presence because I’m a “failed” academic and because I expose the fantasy of an egalitarian, meritocratic community of intellectuals as a lie. They would prefer to pretend that we are all happy and equal and I serve as a reminder that we are not. I can only speak from my position and experience, of course, but I want to suggest that the work and presence of alt-ac workers are similarly unsettling and threatening to the status quo. Institutions of higher education have never been a hospitable place for so many of us and remain that way. If we do our work in the institution, we must, as Gloria Hull and Barbara Smith wrote in their manifesto for black women’s studies,“maintain a constantly militant and critical stance toward the place where we must do our work” (xxiv).[xi] I want us to remain unsettling and threatening. And I want to remain vigilant about whose interests my work is serving, whose lives are also tied to and/or impacted by my “failures” and “successes.” 


[i] Colleen Flaherty, “Don’t Call Me That,” Inside Higher Ed, February 6, 2013, http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/02/06/cuny-adjuncts-ask-not-be-called-professors-course-syllabuses-highlight-working

[ii]Elizabeth Segran, “The Dangers of Victimizing PhDs,” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 1, 2014, https://chronicle.com/article/The-Dangers-of-Victimizing/145643/

[iii]Jacqui Shine, “Alt-Ac Isn’t Always the Answer,” Chronicle Vitae, May 22, 2014, https://chroniclevitae.com/news/508-alt-ac-isn-t-always-the-answer

[iv]John W. Curtis and Saranna Thornton, “Here’s the News: The Annual Report on the Status of the Profession, 2012-13,” American Association of University Professors (AAUP), March/April 2013, http://www.aaup.org/report/heres-news-annual-report-economic-status-profession-2012-13

[v]Henry A. Giroux, “Public Intellectuals Against the Neoliberal University,” Truthout, October 29, 2013, http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/19654-public-intellectuals-against-the-neoliberal-university

[vi]Stacey Patton, “The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 6, 2012, http://chronicle.com/article/From-Graduate-School-to/131795/; Corey Kilgannon, “Without Tenure or a Home,” The New York Times, March 27, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/30/nyregion/without-tenure-or-a-home.html?_r=1

[vii]Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Brooklyn, NY: Minor Compositions, 2013),26.

[viii]Ibid., 42.

[ix]Jack Halberstam, “Unlearning,” Profession: The Modern Language Association of America (2012): 12.

[x]Chandan Reddy, Freedom with Violence: Race, Sexuality and the U.S. State(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011): 35-6.

[xi]Gloria Hull and Barbara Smith, “Introduction: The Politics of Black Women’s Studies,” in All of the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies, eds. Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, Barbara Smith (Old Westbury, NY: The Feminist Press, 1982): xxiv.

Image: “LEGO Twitter Fail Whale” by Bjarne Panduro Tveskov