The Atlantic

The Death of an Adjunct

Thea Hunter was a promising, brilliant scholar. And then she got trapped in academia’s permanent underclass.
Source: Sanna Stanley / Rykoff Collection / Imran kadir photography / Getty / Frank Fiedler / Shutterstock / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

A bald eagle in flight is elegance to behold. The sudden, violent flaps of its wings are broken by sublime extension as it locks onto a breeze and glides. Occasionally, 10 blocks north of the George Washington Bridge in Manhattan, you can spot a bald eagle overhead in Fort Tryon Park. There, Thea Hunter could often be counted among the bird’s admirers—typically while walking her dog, Cooper, a black Labrador retriever.

Thea loved the park, a bastion of calm amid the city’s constant hum, and she reveled in the chance encounters she had with eagles there. Often, even in the middle of winter, she would wrestle out her phone to call a friend. Some birds flap, flap, dive, she would explain, while others catch a current and soar. It was remarkable, really, that bald eagles were there at all, as they had once been so close to extinction.

When her friends try to find a way to talk about why she’s not here anymore, they pause, and then they pause again. She, perhaps, would have explained it gracefully. We don’t know how to talk about death, she would have said. It’s a fact of life that we’re tense about. It’s a natural part of the cycle, one that can be hastened by circumstance. And those circumstances, her friends seethe, were the hardships Thea faced as an adjunct professor, as a member of academia’s underclass.

To be a perennial adjunct professor is to hear the constant tone of higher education’s death knell. The story is well known—the long hours, the heavy workload, the insufficient pay—as academia relies on adjunct professors, non-tenured faculty members, who are often paid pennies on the dollar to do the same work required of their tenured colleagues.

The position is often inaccurately described as akin to a form of slavery. Thea, a scholar of rights, slavery, and freedom, would have been the first to say that is not the case. It is more like the lowest rung in a caste system, the

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