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Imagine, if you will, that one day, every adjunct and contingent faculty member refuses to accept the positions they are offered.

Let us also presume that no one steps up to claim those openings, that they remain truly “open.”

What happens?

If you’re an English department at a large state university, half of your courses may suddenly be unstaffed. These are almost certainly general education courses which are the economic engine of the department, providing surplus tuition dollars that allow the small seminars and graduate courses (that run at deficits) to happen.

There’s also the not inconsequential fact that hundreds or thousands of students are suddenly unable to complete one or more of their “required” courses.

I don’t run in administrative circles, so I don’t know what the institutional response might be, some combination of pressing tenured faculty into service and cancelling sections seems possible (maybe likely).

Can you have a university without a first-year writing course? Such a scenario would be an invitation to try. I wonder what accreditors would say.

Regardless, a scenario where a significant swath of gen ed courses simply get written off the books seems not possible. But currently, the only thing that allows some of these courses to continue is that they are taught by faculty who, in too many cases, are making less than a living wage.

If they were paid by the hour, many would be beneath minimum wage and to ask these people to solve their own exploitation by refusing the work that keeps them even marginally above poverty is a particular kind of cruelty that seems inhuman, essentially telling someone that the only way they're ever going to get enough to eat is to first starve.

And besides, that work needs doing.

For a long time I’ve been a believer that we should be seeking to shrink the number of programs that graduate so many terminal degree holders without the tenure track jobs to absorb them. Cutting off the supply of adjuncts should, in theory help the situation.

But that buys into a distorted view of the labor of education, where status not only trumps work, but makes the academic underclass nearly invisible. This seems counter to the values of the university.

We are never going to see an increase in tenure track positions, but we don’t need them because I now believe we should just embrace a more straightforward solution.

It’s going to sound radical, but bear with me.

Pay people a fair wage for their labor.

Here’s how I come to this conclusion.

1. The contingent faculty are qualified to teach the general education courses.

2. Credit hours in general education courses are worth the same as any other course.

3. It requires at least as much labor to teach a general education course as any other course.


Are the contingent faculty doing the work of the university? Yes.

Do some of the laborers within the university get paid a living wage for this work? Yes.

Is there a good reason, based in the amount and kind of actual labor done that explains why some within the institution are paid a living wage while others are not? Not that I can see.[1]

I know, crazy. I’m ignoring the reality of market supply and demand, and also job creators, blah blah blah, but it really is this straightforward. If an institution has people doing the core work of instruction and they are paying them less than a living wage they are in an unsustainable situation.

Institutions can either pay their faculty better, or they can cut those courses they can’t afford to staff and therefore cease to be universities.

There’s enough blame for the status quo to go around, and I'm tempted to make a stirring defense of the humanities and learning and all that jazz, but it isn't necessary because without these faculty, there are institutions that would not reach the bare minimum threshold to be considered functioning. They are utterly dependent on these workers. There is no scenario under which they do not need people to do these jobs if they wish to remain universities. It should not require a massive, nearly unprecedented collective action of the exploited class to make progress on this front.

Why are we willing to accept a culture where people can work full-time and still not be paid a living wage?[2

If they're doing the work, pay them.

[1] I’m talking about a living wage here, not some people being paid more and some people being paid less. There’s many reasons why people doing similar jobs might make different salaries, but I can’t see a reason why some of those people should make less than a living wage if others are above that threshold.

[2] This obviously extends well beyond academia and is true of all labor. This is a country that hasn’t raised the minimum wage in almost 6 and ½ years.

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