A happily lapsed academic, I try to avoid any content that might bring back memories. This instinct for self-preservation has generally served me and my inbox well; recently, I finally unsubscribed from a listserv about Slavic grammar that has, over the years, devolved into a cesspool of transphobia and people “just asking questions.”™ However, complete abstinence—which, coincidentally, was the subject of my dissertation—nearly prevented me from reading one of the sharpest pieces of fiction released last year, The Life of the Mind, by Christine Smallwood. The novel, along with Lynn Steger Strong’s piercingly honest Want, has been credited with cementing the literary status of adjunct fiction, a relatively new genre that is billed as a kind of remix of the traditional campus novel, with less ivy and more medical debt. Earlier entries included Rion Amilcar Scott’s experimental novella “Special Topics in Loneliness Studies” (2019), the story of a homeless adjunct who burns his diplomas to stay warm, and the self-published Adjunct (2017), by Geoff Cebula, a murder mystery about a lecturer who wonders just how far another precarious PhD might be willing to go to eliminate the competition.
With The Life of the Mind and Want, adjunct fiction feels like it has finally arrived, even if its subjects have not. Both novels follow female protagonists whose PhDs in literature have failed to translate into secure, tenure-track positions. They are instead relegated to low-pay, benefits-ineligible, short-term contracts that have little to no chance of becoming permanent. In short, they are like the vast majority of people with their level of education who teach at colleges and universities in the United States.
As much as we might be primed to read these books in terms of their depiction of academic contingency, Smallwood’s protagonist, Dorothy, and Strong’s unnamed narrator concern themselves with questions that will feel familiar even to people who have never written a dissertation. Unlike many of the viral personal essays that have been penned by PhDs unable to secure permanent jobs in academia, the novels never present what happens to these women as uniquely tragic, or as some violation of an unwritten rule that this is not supposed to happen to people who read The Arcades Project. The Life of the Mind is as much about climate change as it is about the adjunct crisis; Dorothy is ever conscious that global warming has rendered everyone on earth a member of the precariat. The narrator of Want is saddled with medical debt and is married to a freelance carpenter who is struggling to get back into the kind of stable, salaried work that could help lift his family out of bankruptcy.
In other words, these novels acknowledge the broader forms of contingency that exist beyond the walls of the university, and in doing so open up the question of why these walls—and the various measures that distance academics from other workers—exist in the first place. As Dorothy throws her students’ papers in the trash, has poetry verses blown into her vagina by someone on the tenure track, and finds endless material from her own professional life for the class she’s teaching on “Writing Apocalypse,” we get a sobering picture of what finding refuge in the life of the mind actually means. More importantly, though, we are asked to question—or, to borrow a word from academia, problematize—the very concept of refuge itself. If academia once provided a life raft that could stave off the destructive forces of the material world, precarity now has Smallwood and Strong’s overeducated heroines realizing that to float, in this economy, means to watch others drown.
When we first meet Dorothy, a thirty-something adjunct, she is on her sixth day of bleeding following a miscarriage. Knowing when the bleeding began is not the same as knowing when the pregnancy failed, a fact Dorothy finds both frustrating and predictable. “How typical of her,” Smallwood writes, “not to know something was over when it was over. And how typical that it was proving more difficult to extricate herself from the dead-end pregnancy, the halted progression, than it had been to become pregnant in the first place.” The pregnancy and Dorothy’s career in academia thus become conjoined. Dorothy finds herself at once certain that she cannot escape “adjunct hell” and yet unable to let go of the ambitions that have governed the last decade of her life. Likewise, when she is in her gynecologist’s office, she asks for a “printout” of a picture of her womb—a grainy image of “uterus dust” where there used to be a growing fetus. Dorothy feels her doctor is frustrated by this request, by her refusal to move on, but that could be Dorothy projecting; generally, she dislikes this about herself, her stubborn refusal to mark the end of things. “She couldn’t go on like this,” Dorothy thinks, as she reflects on her job, “but she also couldn’t not go on. She vaguely recalled a time when wanting to do the job she had trained for did not feel like too much to want. Now want itself was a thing of the past. She lived in the epilogue of wants.”
Smallwood never lets Dorothy feel too sorry for herself, which is not to say that the very real harms of adjunct life are dismissed. It is more that Dorothy feels no sorrier for herself than she does for everyone else on the planet (and also for the planet itself). At one point, she imagines children in the future, “floating on rafts roped together with the fall coats everyone had thrown away because there was no more fall.” The children find her problems small, pointing to their rafts and saying, in chorus, “Our exhaustion does not toggle with emergency. We live one hundred percent in an emergent state.” Dorothy pushes back, insisting that her situation is still somehow worse because of a problem of expectations: “I was raised to expect a future. Everyone said that to increase my standard of living, all I had to do was follow my dreams.” To which one of the children, her hair covered in salt from seawater, replies, “No one said that.” Dorothy’s new therapist has started a podcast, and she and Dorothy have agreed that it will not feature their sessions together, but when Dorothy sees an episode titled “Precarity and Preparation,” the reader halfway wonders if she has been tricked. However, it turns out to be an episode devoted to an “obsessive-compulsive barista who had gone into debt outfitting a doomsday cabin.” Dorothy is not alone in believing the future is not bright and holds little in the way of rewards, and she is not convinced that she or this barista are crazy. After all, she wonders, “Who wasn’t preparing for the end of the world?”
The answer to this question, at least in the world of the novel, are the other academics that Dorothy comes into contact with: the ones in secure tenure-track or tenured positions. There is almost an implication that financial security and professional stability render people delusional, cut off from the realities that most people on earth face, whereas precarity has opened up the world for Dorothy, allowing her to see more acutely the connections between various forms of contingency.
Interestingly, precarity has also made her a better interpreter of literature. We learn that Dorothy’s fate may have been in part decided by her adviser’s preference for another student in the program, a woman named Alexandra, who was researching the “the function of doors in the Victorian novel.” Their adviser, Judith, had deemed the project “significant,” and so Dorothy was surprised when she finally heard Alexandra present her work and learned that she had no deep analysis to offer about the social significance of doors, and instead was concerned with, well, doors: “Who made them. Out of what kind of wood. Popular designs; the door vs. the folding screen. And so forth.” For Dorothy, reflecting from her new vantage point as an adjunct, doors are rife with meaning. They hold the “power to include or exclude,” and, she thinks, “Without doors there would be no corner offices.” For Judith and for Alexandra, who will follow in the former’s footsteps, such meanings are lost. “Alexandra had never had a door shut in her face,” Dorothy thinks.
The narrator of Lynn Steger Strong’s Want teaches eleventh-grade English at a charter school for “underserved” students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. “They are still daily—by the shoddy, half-assed education that they’re getting every day at this place, from grown-ups who mostly look like me—being underserved,” the narrator reflects. As she and her husband prepare to file for bankruptcy, she narrates the various calamities (or, as they would be considered in a country with universal healthcare, completely normal human events) that got her there. While in graduate school, she became pregnant, and her student health insurance did not cover her emergency C-section. To stay awake with the baby, she would eat “handfuls of chocolate chips,” and subsequently needed two root canals and a crown. Between the C-section, dental work, and her breast pumps, “My body almost single-handedly bankrupted us,” she explains. Though her husband’s six-figure student-loan debt did not ease matters.
Strong’s narrator does not fix the origin story of her precariousness within the timeline of the academic-job-market cycle, instead pointing to September 11, 2001, and the 2008 financial crisis as the beginnings of the end, or rather the beginnings of a realization that things were never going to start in the first place. “It would be years before we understood the implications of these chasms,” she says of her and her artisan husband; “we weren’t formed enough to see them, were too safe to feel their first round of hits.” In other words, she frames her own circumstances as part of a broader undoing of the social safety net, and perhaps that is why she never seems—despite her education and family background—surprised that she is in this position. There is no trace of the sentiment, which too often undergirds narratives of adjunctification narrated by writers from middle-class families, that some great betrayal has taken place. Yet others do this to her, assuming that hers is a tale of an adjunct unwilling to let go of a fantasy of a life of the mind rather than what it is: the story of someone who would need far more than a tenure-track job to get out of the hole she is in. “At what point is it time to give up on this whole dream thing?” her mother says, when she asks for a loan. The narrator—who is just trying to avoid getting evicted—genuinely has no idea what she is talking about. “What dream?”
One of the subtle critiques levied at Dorothy as a character is that she does not, when faced with the deepening inequities of adjunctification, turn to organizing as a way out, or at least a way forward. In an interview with Smallwood for the Los Angeles Review of Books’ podcast, the host and editor Kate Wolf referred to Dorothy’s refusal to fully acknowledge or address the randomness of the academic job market. “If she could just acknowledge that it was not her fault,” Wolf proposed, “she would become an activist.”
I think it would be implausible, or at least bad writing, if after the pictures these novels have painted of academia—an enabler of sexual harassment in Strong’s Want, a den of self-satisfied mediocrity in The Life of the Mind—their protagonists would suddenly start agitating for more seats at the table. Furthermore, I do think that there is a politics, a refreshing one at that, to Dorothy’s ability, shared by Strong’s narrator, to connect the dots between multiple modes of contingency, to draw a direct line between academic success and the uneven fates that result under capitalism and climate emergency.
In fact, some activists within the academy are beginning to call for a reframing of academic labor organizing in this vein, and many graduate students are now represented by unions like the United Auto Workers. In an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, the writer and historian Greg Afinogenov took a bold stance and argued that calls for increased tenure-track hiring occupy an outsized place in discussions of how to promote academic job security. Afinogenov wrote that tenure, as something that separates workers within academe from those outside of it, perpetuates the notion that professors are a “community in need of special privileges.” Instead, he argued, there needs to be less emphasis on what tenure can do for a select few and more on what strong labor protections can do for the workforce in its entirety: “We should fight,” he wrote, “to ensure that the employment conditions we consider our due—such as just-cause instead of at-will dismissal—become the norm for the economy as a whole.”
This argument feels especially forceful given recent public conversations about the role of tenure in blocking the promotion of women of color in the academy. What’s more, as the writer and scholar Tressie McMillan Cottom explained in an article for Slate, adjunctification has historically functioned to undermine ethnic studies as a discipline and has earlier roots in efforts to set quotas on the number of Black professors: “To be clear, there’s been a labor crisis in higher ed for a long time. It just hasn’t always been a crisis for everyone in higher ed.” This was on display recently at Harvard University, where Lorgia García Peña, a Latinx studies scholar, was denied tenure amid charges that her research constituted activism, not scholarship.
To me, the true subject of Smallwood and Strong’s novels is not academia but the murky ethics of escape. The life of the mind is merely one method of retreat from the realities of the flesh and earthly matters, but there are others (though the belief that one can save oneself from catastrophe by teaching courses on the subject at an Ivy League school is certainly one of the more inventive strategies). Looking for a high-minded exit from the ravages of the market is not only a selfish act but a naive one; austerity will come for you, and it does not need a university ID to enter our centers for humanistic inquiry that are closed to the public. Yet no one can deny the allure of respite. Academia, with its university health centers and the promise of a jobs guarantee, can feel like a way out of capitalism. “Princeton was socialism,” I like to say, about my time in graduate school. I could always find a free sandwich, and I was never asked for a co-pay. I wanted it to last forever, and I still do—I just want it for everyone now.
Jennifer Wilson is a contributing writer at the Nation.