Brock Read

Senior Editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education

Here’s the First Mention of an ‘Adjunct Professor’ in The New York Times

Full 07242014 lettersfromva

So yesterday The New York Times unveiled Chronicle, a nifty new tool that lets you track how often the paper has used certain language throughout history. Two-thirds of the media world is already playing with this thing. It’s produced some legitimate journalism and, uh, some of this, too.

Naturally, the first thing we did was stick the phrase “adjunct professor” in there:

This is a nice, if unsurprising, encapsulation of how quickly the academic workforce is changing. From 1900 through 1909, the phrase appeared 58 times in the Old Gray Lady. In the 1950s, you’ll find 118 mentions. But then a steady climb begins; in 1998, there were upwards of 100 instances of the phrase, and the Times has broken the three-digit barrier every year since. Last year’s 190 citations represent a new high-water mark.

(A necessary caveat: the Times tool captures any mention of the phrase in its pages. So these aren’t all articles explicitly or even tangentially about adjuncts; there are a lot of obituaries in the mix, for example.)

So okay, adjunctification is a real thing, what else is new, etc.

But follow the x-axis leftward into the 19th century, and you’ll see a couple of occurrences of “adjunct professor” all the way back in 1855. Historians of academic labor could school me on this, I’m sure, but it caught me off guard. I hadn’t realized the term was in circulation that early.

Yet there it is, in a June 12, 1855, piece tantalizingly headlined “The University of Virginia—Its History, Origin, Course of Study and General Character.” (Apparently the Times has been going hard against the Oxford comma since the early days.) It’s one of a series of “Letters From Virginia”—all credited to an author identified only as “Desultorius”—that the paper ran over the period of a year or so.

Desultorius’s reporting isn’t always riveting: He spends a lot of his time telling us how many students each of UVa’s departments graduated, breaking down which percentage of those students are seniors, and so on.

But he does deliver a nice Ivy-baiting #hottake: “For all we know, we doubt if, as a College, [UVa] is not the superior of Harvard and Yale. It makes a worse show upon paper; it has a shorter list of instructors; it has no such endowments, and fewer volumes in its Library, and is further from Boston; but as to what it actually accomplishes as an educational institution, we doubt if any College in the Union secures from its students an equal amount of studying, or exacts from its graduates such high qualifications.” (Come to think of it, “Desultorius” does sound an awful lot like “Deresiewicz” ...)

Then we get to the the list of university’s professorships—all nine of them:

It’s worth pointing out that, even in 1855, the adjuncts and assistants weren’t part of the official faculty count.

In any case, this makes Professor Holcombe the first adjunct ever officially identified as such in The New York Times. Full name, by the way: James Philemon Holcombe. He taught at UVa for about a decade, earning recognition for his address, “Is Slavery Consistent With Natural Law?” (his answer: yes), and went on to represent Virginia in the First Confederate Congress. So maybe there aren’t a lot of parallels to contemporary contingency to be drawn here.

Looking for an early mention of adjuncting that doesn’t come in the form of a lengthy institutional book report? Try this 1859 piece, “Russia on the Pacific,” which comes out of the gate pretty strong:

Phew, glad we’re not dealing with any Anti-Palmerstons here.

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