Eugene Volokh points to a very good Chronicle article on Invisible Adjunct’s decision to call it a day. The piece does an excellent job in capturing why her site was important. Adjunct faculty often find themselve systematically excluded from the collegial supports that allow tenured and tenure track faculty to chat, compare situations, and figure out common problems. It’s hard to engage in corridor talk when you’re a non-person. Invisible Adjunct’s site created a very real space for conversation.
As it happens, I was talking about Invisible Adjunct with friends this weekend, trying to figure out why so many tenured and tenure-track faculty are dismissive or hostile towards adjunct faculty. Some tenured or tenure track commenters on IA’s site were quite convinced that the distinction between adjuncts and tenure track faculty reflected the judgement of the market on their respective quality as academics. This is Max Weber’s thesis on the origins of capitalism replayed as farce. Weber argued that Calvinist theology provided capitalism’s tutelary spirit. Calvinist beliefs in predestination led believers to distinguish between the elect and the preterite – those who were destined to go to heaven, and those who were destined to go to hell. Because it was impossible to be sure whether they were going to ascend to paradise or to burn, Calvinists sought evidence that they were favoured by God through accumulating goods without consuming them. If you did well in worldly affairs, you could take this as a sign of God’s favour.
This may or may not be a good historical explanation. Still, it captures a set of attitudes expounded by some (although certainly not all) exponents of free markets. In many important respects, markets are political creations – they reflect differences in the bargaining power of different social groups. If you’re a freshly minted humanities Ph.D., even if you’re a wonderful humanities Ph.D., you’re going to have real trouble in finding a tenure track job because there are many, many others just like you. It’s easy for employers to exploit you – and you have relatively little recourse when they do. Some few get good jobs, but they’re lucky as well as talented.  It is almost certain that there are other, equally qualified individuals who don’t get jobs, simply because they didn’t get the lucky break (and lucky breaks are rare when you’re in a group with a systematically weak bargaining position).
The Calvinist illusion is that luck has nothing to do with it – markets reward virtue. Success in selling your wares is the only necessary proof of one’s innate superiority. I imagine that some tenured and tenure track professors are quite convinced that their privileged position is an appropriate reflection their academic virtue. Indeed, to the extent that most successful professors are good at what they do, they’re right – the problem is that there are almost certainly many others out there who are equally talented, but just haven’t gotten the breaks. Calvinist reasoning isn’t unique to academics (take a look at some of the comments in this thread to see it in its raw form). But it makes for lousy reasoning and self-serving arguments that markets produce the best possible outcomes in the best of all possible worlds (which isn’t to say that there aren’t more subtle and thoughtful arguments for free markets out there).
fn1. The centrality of luck to academic success – connecting with the right person at interview, getting friendly reviewers for an article in a good journal at the right stage of your career – is grossly underestimated.