Academic Ronin

by Editors



By G. Arnold

There are few careers as unique, or as misunderstood, as that of the professional academic. The path to such a career is long, and in the journey from undergraduate study to advanced graduate training there are many opportunities to go astray. Some people get sidelined early along the way; others make it through years of coursework and preparation, but can never manage to finish their dissertations.

But a substantial number of Ph.D. students successfully run the gauntlet and earn their doctorates. For some of these people, careers in industry or applied professions await. For those seeking the traditional academic career, however, the journey is just starting.

For the many Ph.D. recipients seeking a traditional academic career, the road ahead is uncharted. The search for a full-time appointment, preferably on the tenure track at a prestigious university, is often long and arduous. Frustration, anxiety, and self-doubt lurk not far away for many who are undertaking this voyage.

A few will land a coveted spot on the faculty of a top-notch institution. Many more will eventually settle — though they may not call it this — for a tenure-track position at a so-called second tier college or university, thankful that they will at least get to do what they spent so much time preparing to do. A growing number of others will accept full-time teaching offers that do not include a tenure option. Indeed, tenure has never been a popular idea with the general public, and in the interests of cost-saving more and more universities and colleges are creating positions that don’t have it.

But for others, no offer of a full-time appointment is forthcoming — not this year, not next year, not the year after that. Perhaps it will never come. The disappointment can be hard to take. After all, academics train quite literally for years, learning highly specialized (perhaps even obscure sometimes) pieces of the intellectual landscape. And typically, throughout this training the goal has been one thing and one thing only: Prepare for a scholarly life in the professoriate. When that does not pan out, what then?

People react differently to this situation, of course. Some decide to embark on a different path, perhaps using their skills in a different type of educational setting or perhaps not in an educational setting at all. Academics are creative people, and although the things they learn are highly specialized by nature, academics can often figure out ways to apply the skills and knowledge that they have acquired in very different setting. Some people do this and never look back — or don’t look back very often, anyway.

Yet, many academics who do not land a full-time teaching position still wish to pursue their original idea: They want to teach. If a regular full-time position is out of the question for the immediate future, then there are other options. The most common of these involves adjunct and part-time teaching.

There are many, many people who are pursuing this option. If you’ve attended college within the past few decades, you have very likely had such a person as an instructor for at least one course. The reasons are not hard to fathom. For the past several decades, the United States has been producing many more Ph.D.s than it can fully employ. Therefore, in any given semester there is a huge number of people pursuing –with varying degrees of enthusiasm — part-time faculty work.

From the perspective of institutions, adjunct faculty are an attractive proposition. They are cheaper and their temporary status means that they pose little financial risk. American higher education benefits tremendously from the dedication and perseverance of academics who are willing work part-time. Unfortunately, too many institutions take that dedication for granted.

While working as a part-time adjunct, an academic does get to teach college and university courses and get paid for it, just as they had always hoped. The work can be challenging, rewarding, and intellectually stimulating. But the pay is meager, and the work is unpredictable. As for pay, it is usually a modest fee per course with few, if any, fringe benefits.

It is difficult to survive financially solely by adjunct teaching. To get by, many adjuncts also have other, non-academic jobs. Others, however, do find a way to put together a working life composed only of teaching. This is challenging, and not many do it for an extended period of time. They may work for two or more institutions, teaching perhaps twice as many courses as a professor with a full-time appointment. (There are various explanations for this situation, which space precludes discussing here.) And there are usually no guarantees of employment from one semester to the next, and so it is difficult to plan even a little ahead.

As they are piecing together an adjunct’s hectic academic life, many, perhaps most, are still looking for a full-time position. To have any hope of getting such a position, they must also keep up with their scholarly activities. Yet, it often becomes ever more difficult to get to the research and writing they need, and have been trained, to do. All of this can lead to a life that reminds me somewhat of the ronin of feudal Japan, the so-called masterless samurai. With no master to serve, the ronin lost their social standing and, more importantly, were deprived an understandable context in which they could perform the work for which they were trained.

And the traditional academic career needs the stable context that permanent, full-time attachment to a university or college provides. Yes, it is possible for the occasional person to be a successful scholar without a full-time appointment in an academic community, but that is rare. And so many academics, if they desire to continue the academic life without a permanent appointment, continue to work at their calling as best they can, however they can. And they continue to search for a permanent academic home.

It can be a very long journey, indeed. It is not always successful, but it is very often quite interesting. And happily, sometimes the journey ends with success, even though it may or may not resemble the type of success that was originally envisioned.

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G. Arnold is an editor of Bread and Circus Magazine and author of several books, including The Politics of Faculty Unionization (Bergin & Garvey, 2000).

Image (above): Picture of a ronin. (Source: Public domain image from Wikipedia.)