You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

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.

Next Story

More from Views