Everyone knows how hard it is for new Ph.D.s, especially for new Ph.D.s in the humanities, to find tenure-track jobs, and everyone knows about the outrageous working conditions faced by contingent faculty. The problem with these problems, however, is that they are one problem we have come to think of as two. It is a labor problem of epic proportions -- at a time when labor is having its own problems.
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone proclaim that there are “no jobs” in the humanities, I’d be able to buy every graduate student in my department a hot meal. Just this month, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences published the latest addition to the literature on the decline in jobs for faculty in the humanities. Yet the truth is that there are jobs: lots and lots of jobs. The prevalence of MOOCs notwithstanding, classrooms across the nation still need to be staffed by instructors. The problem is that most of these are per-course assignments that pay horribly and offer few benefits, if any. Demand for instructors remains high. It is the egregious working conditions and compensation for those who instruct the majority of our students at the majority of our universities and colleges that are at the heart of the matter.
The consequences of thinking about the plights of graduate students and adjuncts as if they were separate problems are many and insidious. Because there are “no jobs,” many people advise their brightest undergraduates not to enter academe. It is actually considered irresponsible not to try to dissuade the young and talented from following in our footsteps. Some people applaud the shutdown of graduate programs in the humanities at institutions of lesser prestige and the downsizing of elite programs because there are “too many Ph.D.s.”
While I do understand the desire to protect students from the anguish of not finding tenure-track jobs, culling the competition is a mistaken and destructive approach to the problem of perceived scarcity. Instead, we need to turn our attention to the ways our institutions hire, compensate and retain educators. This is a labor problem that can be resolved -- but it will not be resolved by thinning our own ranks.
The consequences of our bifurcated thinking about graduate students and contingent faculty can be subtle, as long as you are not an adjunct instructor, in which case they are toxic. Adjunct faculty members, for example, are generally hired in a completely different manner than the full-time faculty members whom we groom our graduate students to aspire to be. Whereas the hiring process for tenure-stream faculty most commonly calls for the input of several or all members of a department as well as the approval of umpteen levels of an administration, it is customary for department heads alone to hire adjunct instructors, sometimes sight unseen. By conducting our adjunct hiring sub rosa, as it were, we reinforce the split between the “real” jobs we prepare our students to compete for and the invisible (but all-too-real) jobs of people who are often teaching alongside them.
The message these vastly divergent hiring practices send to graduate students and contingent faculty alike is that much of the teaching performed in their midst is somehow something to be ashamed of (and that teaching doesn’t really matter). Everything about the manner in which we select adjunct faculty suggests that they occupy the status of a necessary evil -- the less spoken of, the better.
The Normalization of a Two-Tiered System
This rotten system arose on our watch. How did we let it happen? Speaking for myself, I was so busy trying to find a job after completing my doctorate in 1997 that I didn’t pay much attention to the bigger picture. All I could think about was my own situation. Even though I understood that the odds of getting a tenure-track position were against me, I spent my time trying everything I could think of to improve my chances. Getting a job was up to me, I told myself. Oblivious to the highly individualistic ethos implanted in me in graduate school, I figured that if I was good enough, I would succeed. I did not think of the many other graduates who were also desperate to find tenure-track jobs -- except for when I wanted to make myself feel better about the jobs I didn’t get.
I found a job -- a three-year term position that turned into a six-year term position -- whereupon I devoted myself to becoming even more irresistible as a job candidate the next time I had to go on the market. When I finally got an assistant professorship at the institution that employs me today, my thoughts turned to getting tenure.
It’s embarrassing to admit this, but even though I disapproved of the treatment of contingent faculty, I just wasn’t paying attention to the way the naturalization of their exploitation was taking place concurrently with my own professionalization. I never thought of myself as having any say in the matter: without a stable position from which to voice my opposition, I just looked on as administrations chipped and hacked away at humanities programs across the country, cutting costs by depleting programs of their tenure lines and replacing them with adjunct slots. Like most people I knew in the humanities, I felt helpless to do anything about the seemingly irreversible decline of the profession.
No one asked me or my fellow graduates how we felt about the adjunctification of the professoriate as we were trying to claw our way into permanent positions. But no one ever does ask you about such things. The normalization of the two-tiered system just manages to steal up on you, and suddenly, you’ve got tenure in an industry dominated by massive exploitation, denial, resurgent elitism and magical thinking. I am pretty sure that most tenured and tenure-track faculty do not approve of the current condition of adjunct workers, but I am absolutely certain that even those who don’t think about adjunctification do feel terrible about the lack of decent employment prospects for their own graduate students. Relinking these problems will allow us to see clearly this dilemma for what it is: a labor problem.
Of late, adjunct faculty members have bravely come together in unions and affinity groups that are creative and ambitious in character. Such organizations as the New Faculty Majority have formed nonprofit and lobbying entities to unite adjuncts and broadcast their plight to the public at large. Graduate students have united to form unions and political action groups of their own. And yet tenure-track, and more significantly, tenured faculty have yet to form a national organization dedicated to resolving this problem. Why is that the case? Why is it that those of us who occupy relatively privileged positions are the readiest to accept that this is just the way things are?
Calling on Tenured Faculty
The American Association of University Professors has focused valiantly on these issues for a long time, but the AAUP cannot do it alone. It’s time for those of us who have relatively secure positions to speak out in our communities and on a national level. Tenured professors have considerably more leverage than graduate students or adjunct instructors in our institutions; it’s up to us to come together to put pressure on our administrations to make the many invisible positions we fill under the table into “real” jobs. We need to do it for all of our students, present and future, undergraduate and graduate, academe bound and otherwise. If many of us are already working under austerity conditions at our institutions and feel our own jobs imperiled, so much the more reason to act now to secure a living wage for all who teach at the university level. It is in the interest of all faculty members to band together to demand a future for higher education.
So how can we begin to change this situation? Unionization is an obvious answer and an important part of the solution, but when the interests of the full-time faculty are pitted against those of the part-time faculty, with each group represented by a different union, it is hard to reach any sort of common ground. When the full-time and adjunct faculty are represented by the same bargaining unit, adjunct faculty do not have an easy time getting support from their tenure-stream colleagues, in large part because of the great difference in the modes of hiring and reviewing that I discussed above. As long as we continue to accept this two-tiered labor model, there is only so much that unions can do. (A rare exception was the strike two years ago at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where full-time faculty walked out in solidarity with their adjunct colleagues.)
The labor movement we will need to assure the future of higher education requires action on the local and national fronts. Tenured faculty must get involved, and vocally involved, at every level of governance at our institutions. We must vigilantly attend and participate in every kind of meeting open to us that bears any relation whatsoever to mission, staffing, funding and budgeting priorities -- and demand representation when such meetings are closed to us. We must insist, loudly and incessantly, on full-time positions in our departments. We might want to experiment with the establishment of a more rigorous screening procedure for hiring contingent faculty so as to draw attention to the need for higher pay to draw and keep the most qualified applicants. We need to write letters, articles, emails, blogs -- anything we can -- about this problem. We need to get creative.
And we need to lobby our elected representatives at the local, state and national levels to address this systemic labor problem. Tuition rates have been skyrocketing across the country at the same time as full-time positions have been slashed; wherever this money is going, it is not being spent on full-time positions. Like increased tuition and student debt, this two-tiered system plays a role in the dynamics of income inequality. Legislators need to reverse the decades-long retreat of state and federal governments from the funding of higher education. Colleges and universities are not going to change their practices unless we put pressure on them from without and from within.
Some people will say it’s too late to do anything about this trend. But do we really believe so little in ourselves and in what we do as educators to give up on the future so easily? As long as we keep thinking about the fate of our graduate students as if it were separate from the condition of adjunct labor, we will continue to be complicit in the dismantling of higher education. And this would be tantamount to collective professional suicide. Have we really given this battle our all?
Carolyn Betensky is an associate professor of English at the University of Rhode Island.
Until recently, I justified adjuncting at a community college because out of the seven institutions where I’ve taught, it was in many ways the least abusive -- partly owing to the established paradigms and controls of the sector in general.
Specifically, this community college:
tolerated my public activism;
provides benefits to a small number of adjuncts and created an associate faculty tier that pays slightly better than the extremely low national average adjunct rate;
invites adjuncts to faculty meetings (despite the absurdity of this show where all faculty cannot vote);
charges tuition that is relatively fair and keeping with community college standards;
rewards innovation and provides training opportunities; and
has unionized full-time and part-time faculty, albeit under one collective bargaining agreement that should be renegotiated with a closer eye on adjunct labor (or adjunct faculty should get informed and organize a distinct agreement).
But in the end, it’s exploitative and I quit. An authentically innovative institution would pay all their workers a professional salary with benefits and prioritize job security. I quit because community colleges help perpetuate the labor crisis in higher education by shortchanging adjunct faculty at a time when community colleges are in the national spotlight and positioned to collect more taxpayer dollars through, for instance, presidential candidates’ proposed free tuition plans. I quit because I lost respect for the administrators for whom I worked and that posed a conflict of interest. I quit because they never respected me. And I quit because my energy and intellect are better spent fixing the crisis instead of contributing to it while they walk all over me.
I briefly questioned whether or not I’d lament the loss of .edu affiliation and quickly realized there’s nothing prestigious about associating with a morally bankrupt system. Indeed, doing so goes against the grain of my personality and professional aims. Another inconvenience of quitting cold turkey is that I’ll have to pay to access research databases as an alumna at another institution. I’m not too worried about losing colleagues, because the majority of mine are fellow activists and students gained through social networks and membership in disciplinary and professional organizations. Ultimately, the personal and professional impact of not quitting, in my particular situation, far outweighs the benefits of staying.
This in no way suggests that adjunct colleagues should follow suit and quit their many gigs; rather, I believe they owe it to themselves, their students and their families to fight for better working and learning conditions. It’s often said that teaching is a calling, and it’s time to question whom we are currently serving. For me, questioning the system opened new pathways to fight for the reform and revaluation of higher education, and I’m well fitted for that. So please, adjuncts: fight for your profession. I’ll be fighting hard, too. Solidarity.
Washington State is leading the charge on part-time to full-time faculty conversions at community and technical colleges, which gives hope for authentic reform. House Bill 2615 is promising, but I’m unwilling to stick it out for another six years to see if the long-term strategic plan is passed and implemented. It’s a necessary step in the right direction, however, and this type of progressive governance signals positive change. This is certain: people power pressures legislators to write effective reform bills, so, readers, please keep up the pressure and cast informed votes.
I thank Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant for giving me the final push of courage to quit. She spoke at the Seattle University Fast for Justice action organized by Washington Faculty Forward on April 14. The rally united faculty members, students and allies who fasted for justice, called out Seattle U for the apparent hypocrisy of their mission versus practice and then joined in a multisector labor march on McDonald’s, Wells Fargo and Starbucks. Sawant is a former “severely underpaid” economics adjunct at Seattle University and Seattle Central Community College, and her words resonate with me: the system is “… fundamentally unjust and unacceptable. … This is a fight against the privatization and commodification of higher education” in a rigged economy.
Here I’ll borrow a quote from my adjunct colleague Alan Trevithick, who teaches at Fordham University and is deeply invested in the movement for adjunct justice and equity: “If the dignity of work is to be protected, then the basic rights of workers must be respected -- the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organization and joining of unions, to private property, and to economic initiative” (“The Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers,” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops). If the supposed best of colleges won’t behave according to doctrine, it should be all too clear that the worst are flat-out robbing students and faculty members.
When I hear people talk about deregulating higher education, I wonder where their motives lie. Students are severely shafted in this century’s subprime higher ed scheme through the rising cost of tuition, textbooks and incidental fees that make it impossible for most students to pay out of pocket. Community colleges used to be affordable, but now, 78 percent of first-time, full-time degree/certificate-seeking undergraduate students receive some form of financial aid. And at two-year private nonprofit institutions, it spikes to 90 percent. This means many students face a lifetime of making impossible payments on high interest loans, and they need relief, now.
All things considered, the most reasonable and ethical decision for me is to quit because I have a full-time job that pays the bills and my core beliefs aren’t valued in this academy or any number of others that minimize the labor crisis. And I’m quitting for my colleagues across the nation who aren’t in a position to up and leave for other work that shows them the dignity and respect they’ve earned the hard way: the “right” way, according to the rules of American society. Well, as the American Association of University Professors confirms in “Higher Education at a Crossroads: The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2015-16”:
The majority (70 percent) of academic positions today are not only off the tenure track but also part time, with part-time instructional staff positions making up nearly 41 percent of the academic labor force and graduate teaching assistants making up almost another 13 percent (part-time tenure-track positions make up about 1 percent of the academic labor force).
Undeniably, many faculty members also struggle to keep the heat on and gas in their cars to get between jobs. That is the reality of intentional economic hardship, and once it’s ended and we are able to reflect on it and regulate it, shame on the designers of failure.
Without doubt, the college will manage in my absence and immediately hire another qualified, flexible unit to pick up teaching where I leave off, because I am replaceable in the current system: we all are. I do hope students find this explanation and understand why I chose to quit the system that isn’t working for me or them in order to collaborate more effectively in the solution.
My employment agreement states: “This memo is not a contract for employment and may be rescinded should the class(es) be canceled or for any other reason,” quid pro quo. The total appointment amount for teaching two courses was for $7,086 spread out over 10 weeks. That’s $2,362 per month before taxes, which is approximately $4,000 to $5,000 less than many of my tenured colleagues with comparable Ph.D.s are paid per month. (Rates vary.) Overall, this institution paid me a measly $24,125 per year for nigh a decade of sustained service to the community college, with minor fluctuations. It’s hard to hold my tongue when I consider the cumulative effect of being underpaid.
Of course, I wasn’t expected to serve on committees, advise students, conduct research or publish, as full-time faculty are (all of which I did on my own accord, though, without pay). Honestly, I’m sadly burned out, as are no doubt thousands of part-time instructors nationwide who are extreme adjuncting to make a living in our gig economy. The bottom line is that labor exploitation is degrading and disrespectful. I’m quitting with my dignity, however, which really is all I had left to lose in the moral vacuum of the neoliberal university.
So what now? As Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth argue in The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom, the higher education labor crisis isn’t caused by a glut of Ph.D.s: “To wit, there are many factors affecting the working conditions of adjuncts, but the production of Ph.D.s isn’t one of the major ones.” The authors move on to cite hiring practices as one of the ugly problems, concluding: “… if you don’t believe that a profession should abide by professional hiring practices, you have nothing to complain about when your profession finds itself deprofessionalized.” Indeed, institutions bear a fiduciary duty to act in the best interest of students (stop calling them customers), which means they ought to raise the standards, invest in instruction and put an end to dodgy business practices that cheat students and faculty members. It’s important to stress here that Bérubé and Ruth’s proposed hiring practices include the revaluation of nonterminal degree holders, too. This is not a sweep.
Obviously, any viable proposal to raise the standards and fix the crisis will court trade-offs, and those may include the evaluation of cost drivers (such as nonessential administrative staff that pose a negative net worth to the institution), shrinking the faculty and maximizing labor efficiency, along with other cuts that free up funds that should be spent on quality instruction that leads to student success. What Henry. A Giroux calls the neoliberal war on higher education isn’t sustainable, and it’s time to reclaim it ethically and just as intentionally as the CEOs who crept in and jaded it with oppressive profit-over-mission business deals.
Back to quitting my McJob: it’s unremarkable how easy the physical severance is. That is, after a decade of teaching in this particular institution, I haven’t taken up any office space or accumulated any books or stacks of papers. In fact, the only physical trace of my presence that I’m leaving behind is a Faculty Forward Network “Invest in Instruction” sign that’s pinned to a portable wall in a shared office space. In time, my digital footprint will fade from the course schedule, adjunct faculty Listserv and so on, until it’s a memory of a chapter well spent with amazing students.
Higher education desperately needs to be revalued. Everyone with a hand in it needs to stop what they are doing -- which is often just maintaining the status quo -- take inventory of the $1.3 trillion in national federal and private educational debt and do something to change it.
I am not an adjunct anymore. You’ll find me in the streets at labor rallies and marches and @TiffanySKraft, with a laser focus on higher education and the rigged economy.
Tiffany Kraft is a former adjunct and current higher education activist/organizer with Faculty Forward Network. All statements and views in this piece are her own.
Survey of administrators finds more colleges are turning to those off the tenure track to teach courses online, but also a "fundamental divide" among institutions about how to handle those instructors.
Submitted by Anonymous on November 5, 2015 - 3:00am
My first adjunct job interview was at a local technical college. When the dean told me that he and his assistant would evaluate my interview and teaching demo, I found it unusual, since neither had a background that qualified them to assess my ability to teach in my subject area. I was surprised to learn that the dean’s assistant is a current student at the technical college, but a student perspective can be valuable. And although I had chaired and served on hiring committees as a tenured associate professor at my previous university, I hadn’t been on the job market in more than a decade. Maybe this is the way they do things at technical colleges, I thought, and I tentatively set my reservations aside.
I was offered the job shortly after I left campus. I didn’t receive an orientation or a resource packet, and though I’d asked about learning outcomes and whether or not there was a standard syllabus and course text, I was told I could do whatever I wanted. This, too, struck me as irregular, since learning outcomes and outcomes assessment are crucial issues on most college campuses today.
In the week after I was hired, which was the week before classes started, I tried repeatedly to obtain exam copies of the texts I was considering for my course. But the publisher refused to give me access -- perhaps because I’m now an adjunct or perhaps because I have no history with the technical college where I’m teaching.
In either case, my course prep became even more time-consuming. I could read the table of contents of the texts. I could, in some cases, even download a sample chapter. But I couldn’t carefully assess a text’s fitness for the students I’d be teaching. And I knew -- because I had studied the demographic data of the technical college -- that my students needed a very, very good text. I also needed to find one they could reasonably afford.
I emailed the dean and his assistant for help with procuring exam copies, thinking surely they would contact the publisher and assist with access to digital copies of the books. Nothing. I asked the publisher to contact the dean or his assistant directly. Still nothing. I phoned the publisher’s customer service specialist. Nothing. I was running out of time.
Finally, after looking up, one by one, many of the articles listed in the tables of contents of the texts I was considering, and after checking the student costs at sources such as Amazon and eBay, I selected a text. I purchased it myself and had it shipped to my home via express mail.
On the third day of class I received an email from the dean. “Oops” was one of the words in the subject line. That I could not use that text was the gist of the message. Apparently, they didn’t have the text on campus. Apparently, some students were eligible for free access. Apparently, I was the last to be informed. And apparently, I should just use the text they did have on campus.
Maybe some administrators at this institution were overworked and didn’t get the support they need. Maybe some were incompetent. It doesn’t matter. That kind of mistake doesn’t just make teaching more difficult; it compromises students.
I was not a welcome messenger on the third day of class when I told students that if they had already ordered the text listed on my syllabus -- the syllabus we’d discussed in detail the day before -- they’d have to return it. I was so mortified that I offered personally to refund students’ costs if they were unable to return their texts. On my adjunct salary, that would have been a much harder offer to make if my partner didn’t have a job that paid a living wage.
But it wasn’t just that. It was messy and unprofessional. I learned from my students that similar mistakes happen all the time, and I was humbled by how bad they felt for me.
I confess that when I received the email about the book, I momentarily considered quitting. A good administrator would have purchased the books and had them delivered ASAP. A better administrator would never have put a teacher or students in that situation. But I felt a tug of guilt about quitting. For lots of reasons, especially when I thought about the students in my class, it seemed to be the wrong thing to do.
So I began to draw on my experience with copyright and creative commons to assemble course materials that I could provide my students for free. I love doing it. Among the most important decisions an educator can make is choosing materials that meet the needs of his or her students. It’s just really, really time-consuming to start from scratch on the third day of class, not to mention that I’ll never be able to account to the environment for the number of paper copies this requires.
My adjunct contract pays me for the five hours of instructional time that I’m in the classroom each week and for one hour of course prep each week. Before I even walked into the classroom on the third day of class, I’d already dedicated more than 15 hours to course prep. I’m teaching a developmental-level course with 20 students. I knew when I accepted the position that I’d never be paid for all the time the course would require. It embarrasses me to admit that I treated teaching for such low pay as a privilege that, thanks to my partner’s job, I could afford. As long I had the opportunity to teach well, I wasn’t concerned about how much time I’d need to spend. I just hadn’t anticipated how rapidly the hours would accumulate.
A quiet series of thoughts began to grow louder: This is not sustainable. The college is compromising the students it exists to serve.
After my sixth day in the classroom, I was hopeful I’d have access to the college’s online course management system. After inquiring at the dean’s office about the CMS during the week before classes started, and again during the first week of classes, and after repeatedly getting no answer, I contacted the technology office that manages it. When I didn’t get a response via email, I searched the college website for the contact information of anyone who might be able to help. For the past 10 years, I’d relied on a CMS to manage grades and to make links, course resources and other supplementary materials available to students. For me, it was an accessible class list as well as a tool for communicating with students.
I realized how much I had taken that tool for granted when I contemplated how to develop an alternate system for recording grades and for calculating each grade’s weight as it figured into the overall course grade. My course still isn’t on the CMS, and I just gave a quiz. It will take more time, but I will be developing a spreadsheet of grades soon, and I can use my personal web space or a free wiki to publish course materials. But students are paying for the CMS, and I can’t answer why our class does not have access to it.
I’m not required to hold office hours. For anyone who has been in a tenured or tenure-line position, this might even sound great. But I don’t think it occurred to me before what it meant to be entirely inaccessible to students outside of class. I don’t have an office. I don’t have a campus phone number. And I am not paid to meet with students or to support their learning outside of class. What this suggests to me is that the possibility that students may have questions or concerns outside of class isn’t a consideration when hiring adjuncts here.
It’s fortunate that I have my own laptop and my own adapter. Although the room I’m teaching in does not have a computer station, it does have a projector, and sometimes the Wi-Fi even works. I’d love to say that I can teach without technology. That sounds incredibly romantic. I even feel a little wistful for those bygone days that existed long before I entered higher ed. But I’m preparing students to live and work in the 21st century. I can cover a lot without a screen. I could use exclusively print materials. But at what cost to my students’ education? I’m still trying to find someone who will reply to my request to teach my class in a computer lab from time to time. A lot of my students don’t have computers at home.
Yesterday, I printed an article published in Newsweek on Campus in the late 1980s. It was written by a college student attending a prestigious West Coast school. He came from an impoverished background and felt as if he were “Living in Two Worlds.” I included a large copyright notice at the bottom as required for fair use, and my students and I read the article in class together. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen students read with such intensity and deep understanding. They recognized the unemployment, poverty and struggle of the author’s hometown. “Just look out the window,” one student commented. “I saw three homeless people on my way to class today.”
I thought back to a homeless woman I’d met and fed when I visited campus for the first time for my job interview. On the adjunct pay at this institution, there’s a very good chance that instructors can’t afford decent housing. Like many of the students in my class, they may need to share a room and scrimp for grocery money -- as well as book fees -- just to get by.
But the greatest cost, it seems to me, is borne by the students. The veterans in my class who enlisted for the sole purpose of earning money for college through the GI Bill. The high-school student hoping to get a head start. The gutsy ex-con who is starting over. They’re paying to be here. They have very real goals, and they are working very hard. Why, I wonder, isn’t this college giving them what they deserve?