Why adjuncts should quit complaining and just quit (essay)

Recently I stumbled across an article in The New York Times about my favorite topic: online academic rage -- and whether it spikes among those frustrated by the struggle to find a tenure-stream job. “Is there something about adjunct faculty members that makes them prone to outrageous political outbursts?” Colby College sociologist Neil Gross asked.

Citing recent examples in which the most vulnerable among us have been fired for an impolitic tweet or Facebook post, Gross argues that full-time faculty members are not the “tenured radicals” that American conservatives have feared since the 1990s. Instead, he proposes, the vast majority of full-timers are “tamed” by the prospects, or long-term comforts, of tenure. Research accounts, regular raises, the orderliness of being able to plan our lives and the satisfaction of promises kept inevitably sutures most of us to civility in all its forms.

But what incentives do workers who are already vulnerable in so many ways have to be polite? Although many people with humanities Ph.D.s do other jobs, this stubborn belief that they have trained for one thing, and one thing only, keeps many adjuncts on the hamster wheel long past a time when frustration and sorrow have turned to rage. Aside from the stress of trying to piece together a career one course at a time, the adjunct army -- permanently contingent, underemployed, overworked and underpaid faculty members -- has every reason to demand radical change.

But do these conditions produce a truly political radicalism, or are they simply radical utterances that get contingent faculty into trouble and leave a system that relies on a reserve army of labor unchanged? And since people with doctorates aren’t tied to a particular factory or industry, would the radical solution be to stop teaching as a per-course adjunct?

So I posted Gross’s article on my Facebook with this comment:

Why won't anyone say the obvious: no one should work as an adjunct. If people refused this labor and did something else with their Ph.D.s -- which, according to studies done by professional associations is more than viable -- institutions would be forced to adjust their hiring practices.

I waited for the blowback, which was not long in coming. Negative comments were all in the radius of “check your privilege” and reminders that contingent faculty sacrifices supported tenure-stream faculty lifestyles. Positive comments -- many from tenured faculty -- trended toward proposed reforms that have been circulating for some time: constricting the supply of Ph.D.s, dissolving tenure and redistributing privilege, and simply being kinder to contingent faculty when you pass them in the hall. Except for eliminating tenure entirely and making us all into contingent labor, such solutions are reformist, not radical (and, as one tenured colleague pointed out, being polite seems like a low bar for a labor policy).

Then there is unionization. But this too is a reform under most conditions: it’s not that unions can’t be radical -- it’s that they often aren’t. The organizing phase can be quite radicalizing, particularly in its emphasis on consciousness raising. However, part-time faculty unions, even as they make gains for workers, may also promote an unexpected and, for many still in search of full-time work, unwanted outcome: stabilizing the academic class system by making part-time teaching perpetual. When the contract is signed, both the union and the university have effectively agreed that maintaining a significant pool of per-course contingent faculty -- not converting those courses to full-time jobs -- is the objective.

For example, at the New School, our part-time faculty union (a UAW local) does not guarantee a living wage or permanent employment. Union membership is also a privilege, one that is earned over a lengthy period of uninterrupted teaching. Although they are eligible for annual increases and research funds, the salaries of many union members begin at less than $5,000 per course, and most teach between one and three courses a year at the New School, necessitating other jobs at other universities. Union status confers health benefits but only at a minimum course load. And while the university must pay union members the equivalent of their “base” teaching load whether they are assigned courses or not, that base can shrink to nothing if their courses are not needed over a period of semesters -- or do not meet a minimum enrollment and are canceled.

There are, perhaps, better union contracts elsewhere, but my point is that unionization itself does not translate to full-time jobs, only the power to fight more effectively for minimum standards on part-time jobs.

This is not unimportant for those who, for whatever reason, are committed to contingent teaching. When Long Island University locked out its contingent faculty in September 2016, it couldn’t find the new teachers it needed, and many who were offered work refused to scab. In addition, LIU was forced back to the bargaining table because students were not only angry that they had no classes to attend, but also appalled to see their teachers being treated so unfairly. “The LIU administration discovered,” Jessica Rosenberg, president of the faculty union, said to Inside Higher Ed, “that denying students the education they deserve is never a successful strategy.”

LIU was a union success story. But it also underlines the point that part-time faculty unions are not, by their nature, in the business of helping humanities scholars leave per-course contingent employment and make careers as scholars. They are in the business of making that employment as bearable as they can, and that’s an important task.

But what if those who feel harmed by contingent teaching just stopped doing it? What if enough people found other work they loved and universities did not have the large pool of overqualified people to draw on, a pool so large that they can get 15 courses for the price that five or six taught by a beginning assistant professor on the tenure track would cost? And what might persuade contingent faculty members that it would be all right to withdraw their labor from a system that isn’t working for them? In other words, how can we talk about the alternatives to contingent employment differently enough that those who do it would be willing to stop?

First, no one -- whether a department chair, a graduate adviser, a graduate student or a contingent faculty member -- should be dismissive about the value, availability and satisfactions of work in nonprofits, industry, government or secondary school teaching and academic administration. Yes, you may need some help from a career counselor to mount a successful search; yes, there may be geographical challenges. But the fact that other people you know have had difficulty pursuing careers that make good use of a humanities Ph.D., or that your own doctoral program discouraged you from even thinking that way, doesn’t mean such work isn’t available or that a doctorate in the humanities is not good preparation for it.

It is. My own professional organization, the American Historical Association, funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, has established a program called Career Diversity for Historians, a robust set of initiatives aimed at expanding job horizons and opportunities. More importantly, despite what your graduate adviser told you, the tracks for such careers have already been laid by prior generations of historians. A 2013 report issued by the AHA followed 2,500 scholars and found slightly more than half in tenure track jobs at four-year colleges and universities; 17.8 percent in part-time, contingent or temporary jobs; and the rest in “a wide range of careers that included government, law firms, libraries and publishing houses.” Only two out of the 2,500 historians were confirmed unemployed, and 70 could not be located. “Even if we assume that all of the 70 Ph.D.s who could not be found are missing because they don’t have jobs, that’s an unemployment rate of about 3 percent,” the report concludes -- lower than the national unemployment rate in 2013 and now.

While many departments don’t track the employment of graduates off the tenure track, many do, and those outcomes are also worth examining. I was surprised and pleased to note that a survey about job outcomes for my own department, which confers a terminal master’s degree and sends some students on to the Ph.D. in other departments at the New School and elsewhere, roughly confirms the AHA’s findings. It showed many of our graduates in tenure-stream jobs, and some working as contingent faculty at two- and four-year colleges and universities.

But many graduates had used their history degrees to access an even wider range of occupations than the 2013 AHA summary report revealed. New School alumni, some with M.A.s and others with Ph.D.s, were working in jobs that included finance, public relations, psychotherapy, high school teaching, local historical societies, textbook publishing, business, information technology, politics, international relations, national security, journalism and poetry. “We’re tremendously proud of how our students have applied their master’s degrees,” department chair Julia Ott explains. “Our interdisciplinary program, geared towards paths individual students choose, facilitates these outcomes by connecting our students to a wide range of history-related opportunities both across the New School and throughout New York City.”

Second, no one should be ashamed of not getting -- or not wanting -- a tenure-stream job. In this vein, I sometimes wonder if the term “alt-ac” really serves us, particularly when academics use it to describe a second-choice job, or one that leaves the skills developed over the course of a doctoral program on the table. Most professional work requires advanced research, teaching and learning skills.

Furthermore, jobs in university administration are not alt-ac -- they are “ac,” and teaching faculty would be wise to stop speaking about administrators as if they were intellectual failures rather than crucial supporters and collaborators in the academic enterprise. I look around my own provost’s office and nearly everyone -- career administrators as well as colleagues who have stepped into the provost job for a fixed term -- has a Ph.D., its equivalent or some graduate education. So do many of my other colleagues in IT, public relations and admissions. “Our career diversity initiative is trying to emphasize that higher ed employment includes administration,” says Jim Grossman, executive director of the AHA. “There are good administrative jobs, ones that provide opportunities to teach. Our Ph.D.s would be highly qualified for these positions, and even more so with some small changes in our graduate programs.”

Perhaps per-course adjuncts are right to be angry at not being offered the full-time jobs that clearly should be available, but it is also possible that many may feel more trapped than actually are. What would it take to return power and agency, and the ability to make decisions over their own lives, to contingent faculty themselves? What would it mean to admit that, while contingent teaching may be satisfying for some, it is -- at its best -- painful and demoralizing for others, and that they need to take their talents elsewhere?

This is something we could really change if we wanted to -- not by some of us checking our privilege, but by all of us agreeing not to insist that the only successful graduate students are those who only commit to one definition of success -- and one location for pursuing their intellectual dreams.

Claire B. Potter is a professor of history at the New School and the executive editor of Public Seminar.

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Nontenured faculty should not be assessed by student evaluations in this politically charged era (essay)

Now that more that 75 percent of the instructors teaching in higher education in the United States do not have tenure, it is important to think about how the current political climate might affect those vulnerable teachers. Although we should pay attention to how all faculty are being threatened, nontenured faculty are in an especially vulnerable position because they often lack any type of academic freedom or shared governance rights. In other words, they are a class without representation, and they usually can be let go at any time for any reason. That type of precarious employment, which is spreading all over the world to all types of occupations, creates a high level of professional insecurity and helps to feed the power of the growing managerial class.

In the case of higher education, we need to recognize that this new faculty majority often relies on getting high student evaluations in order to keep their jobs or earn pay increases. The emphasis on pleasing students not only can result in grade inflation and defensive teaching, but it also places the teacher in an impossible situation when dealing with political issues in a polarized environment. While some students want teachers to talk about political issues, many students will turn against an instructor who does not share their own ideological perspective. Sometimes that type of political disagreement is transformed in student evaluations into vague complaints about the teacher’s attitude or personality.

In this fraught cultural environment, practically everyone feels that they are being censored or silenced or ignored. For example, some of my conservative students have told me that they feel like they are the real minorities on campus, and even though Donald Trump won the U.S. presidency, they still think they cannot express their true opinions. On the other side, some of my self-identified progressive activist students believe that political correctness makes it hard to have an open discussion: from their perspective, since anything can be perceived as a microaggression, people tend to silence themselves. Moreover, the themes of political correctness, safe spaces, trigger warnings and free speech have become contentious issues on both the right and the left.

What I am describing is an educational environment where almost everyone is afraid to speak. The nontenured faculty members are fearful of losing their jobs, the conservative students see themselves as a censored minority and the progressive students are afraid of being called out for their privilege or lack of political correctness. Making matters worse is that students are often socialized by their large lecture classes to simply remain passive and silent.

It appears that we are facing a perfect storm where free speech and real debate are no longer possible. One way of countering this culture is to stop relying on student evaluations to assess nontenured faculty. If we want teachers to promote open dialogue in their classes, they should not have to be afraid that they will lose their jobs for promoting the free exchange of ideas. Therefore, we need to rely more on the peer review of instruction, and we have to stop using the easy way out. In short, we have to change how nontenured faculty members are evaluated.

Non-tenure-track faculty should be empowered to observe and review one another’s courses using established review criteria. It is also helpful to have experienced faculty with expertise in pedagogy involved in the peer-review process of teaching. By examining and discussing effective instructional methods, all faculty members can participate in improving the quality of education.

It is also essential that to protect free speech and open academic dialogue, we should realize that the majority of faculty members no longer have academic freedom or the right to vote in their departments and faculty senates. In order to change this undemocratic situation, tenured professors should understand that it is to their advantage to extend academic freedom and shared governance to all faculty members, regardless of their tenure status. If we do not work together to fight back against the current political climate, we will all suffer together.

Robert Samuels teaches writing at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and is the president of UC-AFT. His forthcoming book is The Politics of Writing Studies.

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Personal liability insurance shifts the burden of risk from the institution to the individual (essay)

This past summer, members of the Organization of American Historians received an email titled “An easy way to protect yourself and your job.” A targeted advertisement, the email offered OAH members the chance to join K-12 teachers and affiliates of other academic associations in applying for professional liability insurance at a discounted rate.

As a news article published by Inside Higher Ed described, this type of solicitation raises a number of important questions. Is such coverage necessary? Are policies like the ones advertised a good investment? Why do organizations like the OAH sponsor these plans?

Those are important questions, but as historians of insurance, risk, labor and capitalism, we believe we must also think critically about the risks that professional liability plans are designed to manage and the political dimensions associated with the sale of such policies. In particular, we have found that private liability coverage shifts the burden of managing risk from the institution to individuals. Moreover, the privatization of on-the-job protections can threaten collective organizing and shared governance in higher education.

The Problem of Precarity

The state of faculty members at colleges and universities is clearly precarious. At best, tenure-track positions offer the possibility of long-term job security, a reasonable teaching load and contracts that guarantee certain rights and benefits. For adjuncts, postdoctoral fellows and visiting professors, however, where the next paycheck will come from is an uncertainty that must be navigated on a term-to-term or year-to-year basis.

As temporary employees, faculty members have good reason to be afraid. Their jobs are insecure, they have access to limited resources and they cannot trust the institutions they work for to protect them. Nor can they trust their own students -- at least according to insurance marketing -- since each one is a potential legal adversary. Regardless of whether or not a hyperlitigious environment prevails in higher education, private insurance sold on an individual basis is a palliative to such concerns.

If faculty members do indeed face systematic liability problems, then these problems deserve a systematic response. Taking out insurance policies as individuals will not eradicate precarity in higher education. In fact, the expansion of privatized security mechanisms might even make such problems worse. Professional liability insurance implicitly asserts that individual instructors should be treated as isolated defendants in workplace matters.

The Politics of Private Insurance

We must assert a basic premise: all insurance is political. Insurance redistributes resources, dictates responsibility and creates and determines the collective bodies through which risk is managed. Americans have become accustomed to thinking about Social Security, Medicare and the Affordable Care Act as programs that have social impacts and are thus worthy of public discussion and debate. Private insurance should demand similar political attention.

Private insurance in the United States has always coexisted with other sources of security. These have included extended kinship networks, mutual aid organizations, fraternal societies, unions and, more recently, federal and state governments. While private insurance can work in partnership with those institutions, insurance companies’ pursuit of profit means that the issuers of private policies have different motives than those of more representative, noncommercial security providers.

Many Americans imagine insurance as a highly technical industry that deals rationally with objective facts and statistical data. When it comes to marketing, however, insurers regularly appeal to our subjective selves. They invoke fear and depict the world as uncertain and unsafe. For the past half century, insurance companies in America have sold their product as a means to self-sufficiency and independence, and an option that responsible individuals choose in order to demonstrate foresight.

In that context, it should come as no surprise that the uninsured and those covered by public security programs are depicted as dependent and irresponsible. Those who are capable of purchasing private insurance are seen as deserving of security, while those who cannot afford such luxuries (those most in need of security) are not.

Advertisements like the one in question sell an easy route to “peace of mind.” But they also sell a vision of a prudent self who takes control of an uncertain environment by capably managing her own risks. The individualization of risk -- the notion that we are each responsible for ourselves and not to each other -- is a central tenet of neoliberal cost-cutting. In respect to preserving academic freedom, shared governance and the right to collective organization, academics have understandably resisted policies that would isolate them as employees. Private liability insurance that encourages educators to go it alone should be viewed with like-minded suspicion.

Marketing Matters

Our point here is not to accuse the OAH and other professional academic associations that offer members similar plans of perpetrating a scam. But questions of intention and transparency should accompany any solicitation that bears what appears to be the tacit endorsement of a private, commercial product.

The OAH, in numerous other forums, has rightfully endeavored to facilitate discussions among faculty members, graduate students and adjuncts concerning what can be done to better the situation of historians who are the most vulnerable workers. Participants in those conversations have emphasized the role that self-governance can play, whether through unions or other means, in allowing faculty members to determine what protections and rights they need and deserve.

Whether or not the OAH is heartened by the recent National Labor Relations Board ruling that graduate students are indeed workers, and therefore allowed to organize and engage in collective bargaining, is unclear. No email was sent to members articulating this one way or the other. That is in line with the OAH’s general stance that it is an association dedicated to professionalization, access to resources and advocacy for history as a discipline and field of inquiry. If OAH members want to take this stance they can vote to do so as a body, or issue such a statement on the level of committee.

But that is the very point about which we hope to raise critical awareness. Personal liability insurance is political, even if it comes in a commercial guise. It conditions educators to identify risk as something that needs to be managed individually. It encourages employees, consonant with other trends, to accept that “employment at will” means they cannot rely on colleges and universities to stand by them in circumstances where they are held liable for performing their jobs.

Finally, there is something ironic about an association like the OAH sponsoring insurance for supplemental purchase, as a service to be potentially rendered, in order to contend with problems that stem from the increased tendency of students to view their education as coming with consumer rights. One of the instances that Forrest T. Jones and Company, the policy provider, cites as an example of a paid-out claim involves a civil suit that a student brought against a professor after being placed on academic probation, resulting in the student’s dismissal. All parties involved might have been better served by an arrangement where such disputes are governed first and foremost by review boards comprised of students, faculty members, administrators and other stakeholders. If contractualism must prevail, let it be on the level of arbitration clauses that operate as preconditions of enrollment and employment. Let both plaintiffs and defendants be responsible to their peers.

Better Paths to Security

All instructors should feel entitled to seek out protections from the institutions that employ them, and, in the language of the advertisement in question, aim to obtain a “relaxed” state of mind. But we would certainly advocate for a path to security that travels through collective measures like unions and other efforts to achieve shared governance. Even in the absence of union representation, employers should take the lead in managing liability, if for no other reason than to ensure that their instructors do not sacrifice critical teaching practices out of fear of being sued. Asking individual faculty members to go it alone, and to assess their own professional liability on a case-by-case basis, is at best a Band-Aid to the current state of precarity. No educator should have to purchase from a private company protections that they should be guaranteed through employment.

Caley Horan is an assistant professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Andy Urban is an assistant professor of American studies and history at Rutgers University New Brunswick.

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