"In many disciplines, for the majority of graduates, the Ph.D. indicates the logical conclusion of an academic career." Marc Bousquet

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Consensus: "The Outrage of Adjuncts"

Over at Minding the Campus, there's a good piece up entitled "The Outrage of the Adjuncts." The author doesn't say anything astoundingly new. You've heard it all here and at other post-academic blogs before, many times over. Her main points are that 1) "By systematically underpaying and mistreating the non-tenured faculty who bear the burden of basic education, colleges are systematically cheating their own students," and 2) adjuncts, taxpayers (since they fund student loans and public colleges and universities), as well as students and their parents have a right to be outraged.

What's new in this piece is that the author is a conservative, and yet the point-of-view she expresses is that ending the plight of adjuncts and thereby improving the quality of education should be a bipartisan issue. She doesn't get into specific strategies for reform and the divisive and ideological rancor they raise -- e.g. Where would the money for better adjunct salaries come from if not from higher taxes? Or, how do you fix the adjunct problem without destroying the tenure system? (My take on where the tenure system fits in is here.) But she lays a foundation for consensus, and I think that's an important first step.

The author's experience attending the New Faculty Majority "summit" recently also illustrates how rhetoric can inhibit reform. She was initially skeptical and put off by the "Neo-Marxist phrases [that] filled the air: "wage theft," "neoliberal agenda," "corporate America," "under assault from the right," "privatization of the production of knowledge," and "marketization of the university." But "NFM's sole Republican board member, Matthew Williams, was able to advocate for the non-tenured without invoking Karl Marx, the Occupy movement, or anti-globalization guru Naomi Klein."

Let's be clear: I personally don't think NFM is wrong for invoking Karl Marx, the Occupy movement, or Naomi Klein. However, the mainstream audiences who need to understand what's up -- because, fundamentally, it affects them, their kids, their pocketbooks, and the future of education in this country (and, hence, this country's standing in the world) -- are more apt to respond to centrist arguments tying the plight of adjuncts to the quality of education rather than "radical" abstractions or down-and-dirty demonstrations (which, these days, are getting more attention for rodent infestations than clear politics, anyway). Again, not that I think NFM is wrong at all for making these arguments, but the theory you use to analyze something and the rhetoric you use to present it to an "outside" audience need not exactly match.

And the author does a good job of tying the plight of adjuncts to the quality of education without blaming adjuncts for being bad teachers, as often happens. It goes without saying (since you all know it and I've said it many times before and many of the blogs I link to regularly discuss it) that many adjuncts are very talented teachers. If you doubt or have forgotten, just go read what Anastasia currently has up to refresh yourself. Yet, I don't care how talented you are. Living on a salary under $20K, having no job security, no benefits, and no career future after you've spent a decade earning an advanced degree -- not to mention having no decent office space, no resources for research, no departmental support, and having to commute to multiple campuses -- will cause your teaching to suffer, no matter how talented you are. It's only a matter of time. So, it's a fine line to talk about the plight of adjuncts and how this impacts quality of education, but we have to do it. It's the only way we're going to get the attention of people outside acadene.

I tried to leave a comment over there, but I kept getting error messages. Here's what I wanted to say:
Absolutely right on with this: "By systematically underpaying and mistreating the non-tenured faculty who bear the burden of basic education, colleges are systematically cheating their own students."

I walked away a semester after finishing my Ph.D., but academic culture perpetuates the myth that if you hang on for a while and keep trying and keep up with your research and publication while you're adjuncting, you'll eventually get onto the tenure track. This has a powerful resonance for a lot of people, and it's not that easy just to "walk away," as many, including myself, often tell others. But I looked around and saw adjuncts who were great teachers AND had strong publication records, even books, and yet had been trying unsuccessfully year after year -- 6-10 years in a few cases. I didn't want to be them years down the line and so I left, but it wasn't without anger, frustration, and bitterness at giving up doing what I loved, what I was good at, a career I'd spent a decade of my life working towards, and a job that arguably was making a more valuable contribution to society than the general admin work I now do for a nonprofit (by which I simply mean you don’t need an advanced degree to do it well). Shouldn't university faculty, especially those with Ph.D.s, earn at least as much as their department secretaries?*

And I'm so glad you find common ground here between Right and Left. It's something we should all care about and work together to reform.
 *Department secretaries at Grad U earned between $40K and $70K when I was there, depending on how long they'd been there and what their responsibilities were.


  1. Adjuncting sucks for students!! I was a better than most teacher but my working conditions were so poor that my teaching suffered for it. It's probably a little sad that my own suffering didn't convince me. Once it dawned on me how shitty the situation was for my students, I got serious about getting out.

  2. Yeah, that was a part of it for me, too. At a certain point, I just couldn't face them day after day feeling the way I did about being there. I wanted to do my job well. I knew how to do it well, by the end at least, and I enjoyed teaching, especially when it went well, but ... by the end, too many weeks had gone by when I had less than $50 in my checking account. That -- and the rest of adjunct hell -- was a major distraction. It was disheartening and it felt disingenuous to be standing up there as a representative of "the value of a good education" when I was completely worthless and disposable to Grad U.

    The situation was most definitely shitty for my students ...

  3. I wish I could have shown this post the other day, when a U professor asked me if I had had any academic interviews this season. When I replied no, and that I was planning on looking for nonacademic work come late spring, he gave me a knowing smile and said, "Oh well, you MUST do the market again another year! This time you'll have the PhD in HAND! It'll be a whole new world! You can adjunct in the interim." Argh!!

  4. That "PhD in hand" crap went out with the recession. That's what I was told, too, after my first try on the market ABD. Then I tried two more times "with PhD in hand" and got even more rejection letters indicating even more candidates had applied. When they say, "Oh, you can just adjunct in the interim," don't you just want to ask them if they'd do their job for the salary an adjunct earns? And, if they'd adjunct indefinitely knowing their odds of getting a tt job were, like, 400 to 1? Oh course they wouldn't!

  5. You know if you do not limit your job search to the North America and Europe you can find a good job in academia. There are more history openings than applicants where I work.

  6. Yes, you've said this before. And, as I've said before, it's easy to expand your job search if you are single, childless, able-bodied, and, in some cases, male (sorry, there are some places in the world where women used to living in the U.S. would just not want to go). Currer Bell has a recent post up about why she is less than excited about the "opportunity" offered her to apply for a job at the University of Kuwait -- and why she will not be applying for it.

    It's great that going abroad has worked out for you and, certainly, it is something for some people to consider, but it's not a viable option for a lot of us.

  7. I actually do have children in a country other than the one I work in currently. They are not in the US, however. I hope to bring them and their mother to Africa eventually. My options were to either move to Ghana to work to be able to support my children or let them starve. This has not been an unusual situation for most of the world.

    I read Currer's post and I happen to know a woman who teaches at American University of Kuwait. It is a pretty good gig. Kuwait is not Saudi Arabia.

  8. Again, it's great that it's worked out for you. I don't know whether nonacademic work was ever an option for you, but, personally, I would rather earn my living doing nonacademic work than have to live separated from my partner, family, and friends indefinitely in order to work as an academic. To me, that's an unreasonable sacrifice, given that I have other ways of earning my living here.

    It's nice to be able to have a job that you like, but, speaking personally, there's more to my life than my job. In addition to the issues of distance and culture, my reasons for not considering university jobs abroad are the same as my reasons for not applying to jobs in Bumblefuck USA. If I'm isolated and unhappy because of where I live, my work is going to suffer.

    But, the real clincher for me, as I've pointed out many times on this blog, is that there ARE jobs for academics in highly desirable locations in the US. A lot of them. They just don't pay a living wage. We're supposed to love what we do soooooooo much that we're willing to "sacrifice" in order to work in academe. We're supposed to live on food stamps or off our parents -- or else leave our families and friends behind and move across the ocean.

    That's the reason jobs in Ghana, Kuwait, and Bumblefuck USA look like "opportunities" to a lot of people. For me, these don't seem like opportunities. Yes, they allow you to earn your living as an academic, but they also ask you to sacrifice a lot (maybe more for some people than others) in terms of your life outside the university. I have to factor those sacrifices in when I consider compensation, and, for me, it just doesn't add up.

    1. I'm in a field that doesn't really exist as such outside of the united states, by which I mean for the most part it's only american universities that ave departments for it.