Academic Waste

A plastic cup buried in the sand on a beach

For years, I’ve been writing about how academia works—and particularly about contingent labor, gender, and the adjunctification of the modern university. I’ve advocated for the impermanent members of the faculty because my own work in academia was only ever off the tenure track. 

When I began reading Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works, I was convinced that I knew the map of faculty labor in higher education. I assumed his book would complement and shore up what I knew. I’m already familiar with higher education’s increasing reliance on contingent faculty. I’m aware that the job market in the humanities generally (and in my field of religious studies, in particular) is bad because I stayed on it for five years. Tenured professors retire, and their positions are moved off the tenure track. We continually read dire pronouncements about how graduate school ruins your life, and impassioned calls to reduce graduate admissions. 

Contingent labor is the norm.

Contingent labor is the norm. But for some reason, the conversation about academia has moved on. Now, think pieces proliferate about Quit Lit, academic freedom, and “coddled” students. I’m not sure what this means, but it bothers me.

After I finished the first chapter of How the University Works, originally published in 2008, I realized how wrong and arrogant I was. Much of what I had accepted as fact about how academia functions prove to be merely assumption. Bousquet demonstrates that the faculty job market is not actually a proper market but an illusion of one. Academia projects that illusion while relying upon the casualization of labor to run institutions. Just-in-time labor becomes preferred, and graduate students and contingent workers fill the gaps in teaching demand. 

The common complaint about an oversupply of humanities Ph.D.s relies upon the market analogy and hides the larger truth. Bousquet explains, “We are not ‘overproducing Ph.D.s’; we are underproducing jobs.” 

The academic obsession with meritocracy places blame firmly upon the job seeker for not “earning” a tenure-track job.

“There are no jobs” has become the steady refrain of job seekers in the humanities for more than a decade. I’ve uttered it on more than one occasion myself, usually as an exasperated response to the question, “Why don’t you have a job?” I did have a job as a lecturer. But I learned quickly that that wasn’t a job you sought — just one you somehow ended up in. Contingent jobs appeared as somehow less real than the tenure-track ones. 

The academic obsession with meritocracy places blame firmly upon the job seeker for not “earning” a tenure-track job. “There are no jobs” is a blanket statement that applies to only one form of academic employment—the tenure-track job. That is the elusive golden ticket, or unicorn, that offers stable employment, benefits, institutional support, and academic freedom. And it’s the type of position that academia severely underproduces. 

The jobs that academia overproduces are part-time and full-time contingent gigs—the only kind of academic employment many of us will ever have. 

In the past, I felt that my story was a cautionary tale of personal failure in higher education. But that seems less likely with every passing day. As I’ve written elsewhere, “I used to believe that somehow my story was the exception—that most other religious-studies Ph.D.s moved into tenure-track jobs while I fell off the beaten path. Now I realize that I’m not alone and that the opposite is true: Contingency is now the exploitative norm in higher education rather than the exception.” 

Just look at the numbers. Since 1976, the number of part-time contingent instructors increased 286 percent, the number of non-tenure-track full timers rose by 259 percent, and the number of tenure-track positions by a mere 23 percent. As of 2011, the American Association of University Professors estimates, 70 percent of academic laborers were non-tenure-track faculty. 

Graduate programs admit students to fit the labor demands on their campus.

More distressingly, contingent academic labor also shows the academy’s sexism and racism. Bousquet notes that “the typical faculty member has become a female nontenurable part-timer earning a few thousand dollars a year without health benefits.” Women still make up the majority of contingent faculty. According to Vitae’s (now defunct JobTracker, 61 percent of available tenure-track jobs in 2013-14 went to men. Bousquet points out that non-tenurable faculty and non-teaching staff are more likely to “identify themselves as belonging to an ethnic or racial minority than tenure stream faculty.” 

Like so many others, I’d assumed that our current job system was somehow dysfunctional. Ph.D.s were supposed to end up in tenure-track jobs. I thought increasing reliance on contingent workers was a fluke, a bug in the system, and could be fixed to make things run more smoothly again. Bousquet shows us, instead, that the job system is actually working exactly the way administrators want it to — making “all employees other than themselves ‘permanently temporary.’” 

Graduate programs admit students to fit the labor demands on their campus. My own alma mater, Florida State University, happily claims to be “post-adjunct” while relying on fleets of graduate students to teach introductory courses. I’m not sure when Florida State ever needed adjuncts considering its continued heavy reliance on graduate students to teach undergrads. For Bousquet, new Ph.D. holders are not “products” of our training, but “byproducts” of academia. Graduate students and “non-degreed flex workers” exist mostly to serve the university’s labor demands. They generate cheap labor. Then they get replaced. 

Ph.D.s are academic waste.

The doctorate can become not the beginning of an academic career, but the end of one. Ph.D. holders, Bousquet explains, are “the actual shit of the system — being churned inexorably outside: not merely disposable labor but labor that must be disposed of for the system to work.” 

Let that sink in: Ph.D.s are academic waste. I’m academic waste flushed out of an academic labor system that I was naïve enough to trust. 

The story of my short-lived faculty career matches neatly and painfully with Bousquet’s descriptions of the neoliberal university at work — grad student, adjunct, and lecturer until I opted out. The perks and privileges of tenured professors and administrators rests on the backs of grad students and contingent laborers. We’ve assumed there was a market when there’s only exploitation.

What does that mean for religious studies as a discipline and the humanities as a whole? 

Nothing good. If the majority of scholars lack job security, a living wage, and academic freedom, our discipline doesn’t benefit. More scholars will leave the academy and find other work. Academia will only exist for those who can afford it. What we need is a radical re-envisioning of faculty labor. Every time you assume that contingency is now a fact of life—rather than one of many possibilities—you allow the system to continue. You’re complicit. We all are. 

Fatalism about the way things are shuts down the creation of different academic worlds.

Fatalism about the way things are shuts down the creation of different academic worlds. Bousquet shows us how we naturalize the exploitative working conditions of the many to shore up the protection of a few. But the security and promises of tenure are next on the chopping block. We need to push past fatalism and complacency to find solidarity with all academic workers. We need solidarity now more than ever before. Don’t ask what you’re willing to lose, but what we can all gain.


This essay first appeared in Chronicle Vitae in 2016, a few years into my career as a higher ed journalist and after my stint in the academy as an contingent laborer. I’ve been thinking a lot about this essay in recent days as conversations continue to happen about how tenuous academic labor is and the continual questions about whether we should encourage students to go to grad school. Unfortunately, the essay still feels timely today.

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