when we were (never) treated fairly.

“As I got to know my adjunct colleagues better, I began to see these largely invisible, voiceless laborers as a hugely diverse group of amazing teachers.  Some are employed at full-time jobs in education or elsewhere, some are retired or supported by wealthier others, but far too many are just barely surviving.  While instances of dumpster diving are rare, adjunct shopping is typically limited to thrift stores, and decades-old cars sometimes serve as improvised offices when these “roads scholars” are not driving from campus to campus, all in a frantic attempt to cobble together a livable income.  Some adjuncts rely on food stamps or selling blood to supplement their poverty-level wages, which have been declining in real terms for decades.”

Brown, “Confessions of a Tenured Professor”

I’d read “Confessions of a Tenured Professor” in Inside Higher Ed a while back, but it left me too incensed to coherently think—not because of Prof. Brown’s views on the situation (which I think is commendable, as there’s so little published on the subject in widely-viewed forums, let alone in such a nuanced manner)—but because the subject itself is one that fills me with rage and despair. Today my friend C. forwarded me this article in The Atlantic, which compounded my rage by asking the impossible-to-answer question: “Why Does Academia Treat Its Workforce So Badly?” After frothing at the mouth for a moment, I thought that maybe I should attempt to think about the issue beyond just “fuck this.” So here I go, take one, from the top.

Adjuncts today comprise “73% of the nearly 1.6 million-employee instructional workforce in higher education and teach over half of all undergraduate classes at public institutions of higher education. Their number has now swollen to more than a million teachers and growing” (Brown). Where in the general labor market, roughly 5ish workers per job opening, in academia there are hundreds of potential adjuncts competing for a single job opening (McArdle, mphillips57). As I may have mentioned before, adjuncts who speak up about their working conditions, difficulties their students pose, or departmental issues, they quickly find themselves out of a job. Tenured professors are viewed as superior to adjuncts both by faculty members and by students, regardless of the quality of teaching. And yet there is recognition of the fact that adjuncts, out of desperation to retain their jobs, self-assess and reinvent their pedagogical practices more regularly than tenured faculty, who have less incentive to do so.

This certainly isn’t true of all institutions, but it seems to be the rule rather than the exception. At one of my current institutions, I was told after my faculty observation that my self-assessment practices and willingness to rework ineffective class exercises was “impressive” and that this was something that “sadly [she had] found lacking in older tenured faculty.” And yet this doesn’t mean anything, no matter how good you are. Maybe you have a higher chance of being retained for the following year, but the moment budget cuts begin, your number’s up. Which brings us to Possible Reason #1: Money.

As pointed out in many of the comments in McArdle’s article, money, the lack of it, or the lack of desire to redistribute it seems to be a central cause of the current treatment of adjuncts. Tenured and tenure-track faculty don’t want to lose large chunks of their salary, and the administration doesn’t want to reallocate funds to create you-can-live-on-this salaries for adjuncts. I can almost hear them griping, “Where would the money come from?” After all, the reason adjuncts make up such a large part of the workforce is because we’re so damn cheap and yet we remain motivated (read: terrified of being fired) to constantly work at what we do. How many jobs would be eliminated simply because the administration doesn’t want to appropriately fund the current number of positions? How much more competitive, and/or precarious, would employment opportunities become? How much more responsibility would be heaped on us? As Anonymous Adjunct points out in Brown’s article, “We [already] have all of the responsibilities of teaching but few of the privileges. If someone could take even one or two of my (five or six) classes a term and pay me release time, I would strive to do significant reseach [sic] even at the $20,000 I earn in a good year” (Brown).

Which brings me to the meritocracy model of academic hiring practices. Universities want instructors with strong records of research, publication, and demonstration not only of teaching excellence but also of being committed to your field of instruction. In Composition & Rhetoric, this spans creative writing and academic writing–good old “publish or perish.” I’ve waited 5 years for enough time to sit down and research and write a paper on something, anything, just to get it on my resume, but it dawned on me this year that, as an adjunct, I’d never have enough time. Therefore I had to churn out a paper on graphic novels in a week, during which time I neglected almost everything else, then submitted it (and yes, it was accepted, thank God, and somehow I even got caught up on my grading too).

As for creative writing, it’s next to impossible to work on your novel when you’ve got 75 papers/week hanging over your head. If I had the privilege of research time, I’d use it, as would thousands of other adjuncts. We’d produce the kind of work and publishing record that universities want. But how can we be expected to do that when teaching a total 4,5, or 6/2 course load? It reminds me of a Columbia professor, not tenured, who chaired a summer program and was one of the warmest, most effective professors I’d ever met and hoped to work with (though it didn’t work out that way). Despite her astounding record of teaching excellence, evidenced in observations and student evaluations from what I hear, she was let go a couple of years ago. The reason? She had only published one book. Her responsibilities during her time at Columbia? Immense.

In a similar vein, the comments in the McArdle article raise the idea of prestige: that is, we want to be academics so badly, just to have that professional prestige on our resumes, that we’re willing to put in the work for abominably low pay. Perhaps this is why we are willing to settle for part-time adjuncting if we can’t find employment as full-timers. With regards to this, I take issue with McArdle’s indifference to the plight of part-timers (though I agree with her position on graduate students). I think something that’s being overlooked here is the fact that, because adjuncts are underpaid and are not always fortunate enough to receive full-time adjunct positions, they are often forced to work part-time at 2 (or more) institutions in order to survive.

Here’s an example. In 2008 I taught a 2/2 course load (35 students/semester) as a part-time adjunct at a fairly prestigious university in NYC for roughly $7K/yr, and a 2/2 load (40 students/semester) in a similar capacity at an out-of-state university for roughly $7K including commuting costs, for a total of approximately $14K for 75 students and thus 75 drafts to read, comment on, and grade per week: meaning that I had to have papers back within two days of receiving them. Because I’m a ridiculously neurotic perfectionist, and still green in terms of my idealism, I did what most of my fellow part-timers did not do: I stopped having a life, slept little, spoke to no one, and did nothing but read drafts and grade. But most people have other commitments that can’t be ignored (domestic partners, children, other jobs, their own artistic work & research, health conditions, etc.) or because they think it isn’t worth it. Money, then, is largely the issue with the quality of adjunct teaching as well; chances are that adjuncts who come from wealthy families and/or some other form of money will teach well, because they have more free time, energy, and mental space to do so, whereas adjuncts who are holding down multiple part-time jobs are often too exhausted to do more than the bare minimum. $14K, especially in New York, might pay your rent (assuming you have a roommate, rent control, or have lucked out in below-$900 rent bills), some groceries, possibly 2-3 loan repayments, maybe insurance. And your bank balance, consequently, stands at $0.

Now that I’ve become halftime faculty, I marvel at the backbreaking work I had to do as an adjunct just to make ends meet. And I’ve accepted that, should budget cuts relieve me of my job, I’ll be forced to do something similar in the academic year of 2010-11. Either that, or starve, since I’m too specialized & overqualified—the winning combo—to be considered employable in any other field. As ghrossman commented, “this [people willing to work for nothing just to be an academic] is especially so in the humanities which faces the double whammy of a romantic ideology and almost no demand outside of academia so you have people who place intense weight in non-pecuniary compensation and have highly specific human capital so they have neither the capacity nor inclination to leave academia” (McArdle, ghrossman).

Essentially, we’re fucked.

Thus, my question is this: How do we get un-fucked? That is, once we’ve figured out why academia kicks its adjuncts to the curb (and not in the good way), what can we do to remedy the problem? Anything? Who do we take this to, and how can we do it in a way that doesn’t get us all fired?

I realize it’s far too early to be asking these questions, and I’m being somewhat cynical in pretending to be practical-minded about it. Really what I mean is that, in the current economy, I’m not sure we can get un-fucked. But it’s a great step forward for these articles have been catching people’s attention and making the issue a more visible one, and both authors, particularly Prof. Brown, are to be applauded for that. (I mean, a tenured professor rallying to our cause; how much more legitimate can it get?)

So I’m going to stop ranting here. Instead, I’ll leave you with this comment, which oddly enough stuck out to me most: “‘Why Does Academia Treat Its Workforce So Badly?’ Because they can, and since they are morally superior to everyone else, it’s OK. The same is true for left-wing nonprofit organizations, which are notorious for treating their employees badly’ (McArdle, reaalistx).

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