How the Humanities Became Morally Incoherent

Last week here on Longreads, Josh Roiland shared an unflinching account of his struggle with debt and economic precarity as a tenure-track professor. It was a sobering story — especially since the tenure track, for anyone not on it, appears like a lush, care-free, wood-panneled paradise. At The Chronicle of Higher Education, Harvard adjunct Kevin Birmingham takes a step back to examine the systemic injustice at the core of today’s humanities: adjunct labor. He does it with a gutsy, powerful move, delivering his critique of academia as the acceptance speech for a prestigious literary-criticism award.

No one, of course, signed up for this. You wanted to teach Milton and Toni Morrison. You wanted to change the way we understand novels and plays. You agree that the current state of affairs is awful. You have written all about the patriarchy and racism and poverty and the subaltern. You call administrators “neoliberals,” and that feels good. You have little job-market chats with incoming grad students. It makes you sad the way local decisions ripple out across the wide surface of a culture, how literary intentions end up serving unforeseen interests, how people may grow rich or suffer, how what was an expression of freedom now becomes a trap, how what was virtuous now becomes immoral.

I sometimes wonder when the ripples widened out beyond what I had imagined. Recently, I sat next to two professors at the plenary session of a graduate-student conference. The students had been presenting their research all weekend, and now they were listening to us. “What is your advice?” a student asked. “Get your hands dirty,” one of the professors said. “Throw yourself into your work. Don’t be afraid.” He is a good person. He is an important scholar and an inspiring teacher. He immigrated to the United States decades ago and threw himself into his love for literature. He worked his way up, as we say, published several books, received tenure, won fellowships and awards, and now, in 2016, he was offering advice about bravery to graduate students surviving on $10,000 a year. This is the carefully dressed underclass of his department, the people who, when he wasn’t looking — because he didn’t go to yesterday’s luncheon — furtively filled their tote bags with leftover fruit and potato chips.

Read the essay