Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 7, 2017
Dushko Petrovich, ed. Adjunct Commuter Weekly New York: Dushko Petrovich, 2015. 20 pp. Paper $20.00

Think of a professor and the clichés tumble out: houndstooth blazer, tortoiseshell glasses, air of aloof superiority. The professor, insulated from worldly concerns by tenure, is an icon of the traditional university, a selling point for students willing to take on debt in exchange for wisdom, and a target of right-wing reformers who scorn the leisurely pace of scholarship. While the professor can’t be described as wealthy in this age of hedge funds, she is at least free from anything resembling a money problem. The professor won’t descend, for example, into a crippling days-long panic at the prospect of having to replace rear struts on the Honda she uses to get from Queens to Ithaca twice a week to teach an intro writing course to twenty undergraduates.

The same cannot be said of the adjunct commuter, a key figure in the burgeoning shadow economy of higher education. While the professor remains the ideal, universities increasingly rely on adjuncts for actual classroom instruction. Adjunct Commuter Weekly (ACW), a one-off, twenty-page publication that resembles the kind of cheaply printed, clip-art-bedecked local paper you might find discarded in the waiting room of a Greyhound station, is published by and for these academic day laborers. Scholars and educators with terminal degrees and a fundamental devotion to their callings, adjunct commuters find themselves in a perpetual state of economic uncertainty, literally going to extreme lengths to stay in the academy. As ACW’s motto states, “No Tenure Track, No Walk to Work.”

Listed on the masthead as the “Founder, Publisher and Editor” of ACW, Dushko Petrovich is an experienced adjunct commuter, a writer and painter who travels from his home in Brooklyn to teach at prestigious art schools in New Haven, Providence, and Boston. His editorial, printed on a two-page spread and featuring a selfie that appears to have been taken while driving, is partly a call to arms, with a mention of unionization efforts designed to counter the “horrors of Corporate U.” But Petrovich also characterizes ACW as an organ of hard-won commiseration, “a friend to you on the train or the bus. Someone who understands you. A voice to accompany the pretzels and booze.”

Though ACW is aimed at a niche audience, the niche is rapidly expanding. There are plenty of statistics that document universities’ increasing reliance on adjuncts, who are often paid a few thousand dollars per course. In ACW, data about the precarious economics of adjuncting are front-page news. The above-the-fold headline runs through the numbers about “Professors in Poverty,” supplied by the advocacy group Faculty Forward: “Part-time faculty are more likely to be in poverty than the average Americans, ranging from 9% in Nevada to 43% in Maine. 22% of part-time faculty live below the poverty line, while 14.5% of Americans live in poverty.” Even more striking are the statistics about faculty members who rely on welfare: “1 in 4 families of part-time faculty are enrolled in one or more public assistance programs.” Forget the ivory tower; the business model of higher ed starts to sound more like that of Walmart, where low prices are effectively subsidized by low-wage employees on the dole. The big difference, of course, is that higher ed’s prices are always spiraling upward.

ACW goes beyond the headlines, as they say, to portray a bizarre cultural situation wherein highly educated individuals are employed by elite, well-funded institutions and contribute to the production of expert knowledge, yet they are barely scraping by financially. The newspaper documents the full-blown lifestyle—a subculture, really—that has arisen in response to the pressures of the academic labor market, especially in the humanities. Petrovich describes the publication not just as an outlet for some extraordinarily literate griping but as “a portrait of a generation.”

This portrait, comprising short essays by some dozen contributors, is not very flattering. Harried, unintentionally late for class, poorly fed, and overworked, the adjunct scribbles lectures and grades papers while stuck in I-95 traffic. The adjunct commuter has expertise both in the finer points of Farsi syntax and the patchwork of transit systems that move him from his life in Brooklyn to part-time positions on the Eastern Seaboard and beyond. The adjunct commuter handles office hours by text, maintains personal relationships via Skype, and crushes NPR podcasts in between. Working semester to semester and paycheck to paycheck, the adjunct commuter celebrates the end of a long day by starting her really important work: completing endless applications for tenure-track jobs, post-docs, grants, fellowships, and, eventually, that backup adjunct gig for the spring semester.

Artist Ted Mineo’s “Blur of Chobanis” is a pithy catalogue of personal and professional humiliations experienced on the road. The essay is typical of ACW’s contents—both the writing and photographic spreads of life in transit—in that it captures granular details, the fine textures of the adjunct experience. The dateline is South Station, Boston, and Mineo describes holding a bulky duffel bag, the contents of which include six unrefrigerated yogurt cups. Trying to board a train, he searches for his ticket: “I dig around in my pockets, looking for a certain sheet of paper, the ticket. One pocket holds a tangle of electrical cords, the other is full of bread. Bread and keys. The keys unlock a house that belongs to my ex’s boyfriend. When I am in Boston, I sleep in his basement.” The quality of the writing in ACW belies the newspaper’s faux humble production value, and it serves as a reminder that many of those in the most precarious situations in “Corporate U” are painters, poets, essayists, and philosophers. Though there is an undercurrent of high-minded rumination in ACW that speaks to its connection to these fields, the paper is also about practical coping methods. There are fashion tips for those struggling to look more professional than their students (“Remember: Mom jeans rarely look ironic after 30.”), an advice column, audiobook recommendations, and a “Recipe Corner” featuring the formula for a portable calorie bomb called “The Breakfast, Brunch, Lunch and Dinner”: a thirty-two ounce mason jar stuffed with, among other things, butter, bacon, and flax seeds. There’s even “Adjunct Sudoku,” an unsolvable puzzle “just like regular Sudoku but pointless and unfair.”

If ACW employs the conventions of newspaper publishing in a tongue-in-cheek manner, its newsy feel also seems intended to publicize the struggle it documents. Yet it’s hard to know how non-adjuncts and non-academics might take this report. An interview with the artist Sam Messer, a “Platinum Commuter” who traveled for years between Los Angeles and New Haven for a position at Yale, ends with a word of advice from the seasoned pro: “Get a real job.” This may be a reasonable suggestion. Indeed, moaning about the privileged poverty of someone who has chosen to become a leading expert in Hungarian horror-movie semiotics risks seeming tone deaf. Adjuncts are literate multitaskers, attentive to detail, ambitious, and multilingual. In other words, they have options that don’t involve sacrificing romantic relationships and personal dignity. Like his college friends whose Facebook timelines document rapid progress through life stages, the adjunct commuter pushing forty could be a real estate agent or a lawyer, or a human-resources executive. So why not throw in the towel, settle for a quiet white-picket-fence life in New Jersey and a Sub-Zero fridge stocked with fresh yogurt?

Petrovich’s publication is about consciously rejecting the Sub-Zero lifestyle. Petrovich, who also edits Paper Monument, the visual-art-journal offshoot of Brooklyn’s n+1, is a familiar figure in the New York art world. Many contributors to ACW are artists in a traditional sense: painters, sculptors, poets, and photographers. The “Board of Directors” listed on the masthead includes the artist Martha Rosler, critic Ben Davis, and curator Jamillah James. ACW’s “Secretary” is Magdalena Moskalewicz, the curator of the Polish Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale.

Given these art-world roots, ACW has to be seen within a tradition of artists’ publications, from Aspen to Real Life to File and Art-Rite. More broadly, it can be argued that ACW is primarily about what it means to be a working artist today. Importantly, “artist” in this context can be used in the bureaucratic sense of the word—the way universities often do—to refer to everything encompassed by the pathetic “A” sometimes inserted in the acronym STEAM. Though administrators at so-called entrepreneurial universities tend to lust primarily after that lucrative “T” and “E”, “Art” is sometimes included in their list of priorities, if only begrudgingly, as window dressing. Though now marginal to the university missions to which they were once central, the “A-team” broadens considerably to include painters and sculptors but also philologists and poets, cinema studiers and historians. As the university transforms into an efficient system for producing technologists and managers, the artists—i.e., the adjunct commuters in the humanities—are at the vanguard, manning the barricades—i.e., the Chinatown bus—in wrinkled blazers. If the humanities stand a chance, it’s because these beleaguered souls are holding the line.

William S. Smith
independent scholar