"Within the university system today, adjunct faculty are made invisible"
June 6, 2014 4:08 PM   Subscribe

”Practicing openness and making oneself radically vulnerable is not only scary, it is the opposite of what we are taught to do within the logic of the contemporary university (and society more generally). Our marginalization, meager pay and lack of job security, along with the attacks on professors by students and the administration’s refusal to back up even tenured professors, all contribute to a culture of paranoia and enmity (among administration and faculty, among tenure-track faculty and adjuncts, among professors and students). Even when we manage to maintain our commitment to our students (and we do), the university seeks to capture this affective relationship and use it to further exploit us when we ask for fair wages or better conditions with the reprimand that ‘we are doing this for the students and not the money.’ Just as the practitioners of modernity gutted the erotic and sold us the pornographic, administrators attempt to gut the material and affective conditions of teaching and sell us ‘passion.’” Dr Priya J. Shah: "My Last Day as a Professor."
posted by koeselitz (40 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
I feel for her. I went to graduate school in the humanities, and realized about a year into it that there not only were no livable jobs right then, but that there would never be jobs in the academy in my area ever again. Once the current crop of distinguished professors retires or (more likely) dies in their offices, there will only be adjuncts. At the time I was furious at my advisor for warning me that I would never be able to get a job no matter how hard I worked because no jobs exist, but I realize now that he was doing me a favor.
posted by 1adam12 at 4:26 PM on June 6, 2014 [9 favorites]


I'm always happy for these quit lit writers since their lives are usually about to improve so dramatically.

Just a minor quibble : I doubt that "focus[ing] exclusively on (unpaid) research" is a good "strategy for eventually landing a tenure-track job". There aren't enough professorships even for all the postdocs who get paid for research.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:30 PM on June 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


jeffburdges: “I'm always happy for these quit lit writers since their lives are usually about to improve so dramatically.”

That feels a bit like saying "I'm happy for the only doctor in our smallpox-ridden village, who is retiring and moving to Fiji; he could really use the time off."
posted by koeselitz at 4:37 PM on June 6, 2014 [8 favorites]


In some cases, I might suspect the sour grapes of a poor teacher... but that obviously isn't the case.
posted by markkraft at 4:39 PM on June 6, 2014


My father was a full professor. He was offered a huge (multi-year salary + lifetime full health coverage) package if he would retire early. I asked him why they were doing this, and his answer was "Because even though it costs them a lot, they'll make up for it long term by hiring an adjunct or assistant professor at a really low salary." He took the payoff by the way, bought a house on a lake, and chilled out the rest of his life.

I bailed on grad school when I saw that writing on the wall. Adjuncts were hired on a semester-by-semester basis at various schools, paid little, and had few benefits. Assistant professor jobs were rare and highly competitive. So I bailed (sold out) and got a dotcom job at six figures.

Yeah, teaching jobs are tough....

And btw, most PostDocs I know/knew were doing that for uber low wages because they couldn't even find a teaching job....
posted by CrowGoat at 4:49 PM on June 6, 2014 [3 favorites]


The way she talks about universities devaluing teaching makes a lot of sense. I'm familiar with this issue but I've never seen it phrased that way before. But it's true. Maybe they should just drop the pretense that they give a shit about students and learning and just go into philanthropic architecture full time. Or football.
posted by bleep at 4:57 PM on June 6, 2014 [5 favorites]


CSU to hire 700 Full Time Faculty next year.
posted by notyou at 6:07 PM on June 6, 2014 [6 favorites]


koeselitz: "That feels a bit like saying "I'm happy for the only doctor in our smallpox-ridden village, who is retiring and moving to Fiji; he could really use the time off.""

Part of the problem in trying to become a professor in the humanities is the ample supply of replacements. It should be obvious -- if a faculty of 10 can graduate 10 PhDs a year from a pool of 50 students, and the only job that requests that PhD is a faculty job, you're doubling the labor pool annually. This is crazy, and I find it hard to distinguish from a pyramid scheme.

These are not the last of the Lit students, but a small fraction of the faithful whose identity is wrapped up in the quest for a tenured position.
posted by pwnguin at 6:12 PM on June 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


pwnguin: “Part of the problem in trying to become a professor in the humanities is the ample supply of replacements. It should be obvious -- if a faculty of 10 can graduate 10 PhDs a year from a pool of 50 students, and the only job that requests that PhD is a faculty job, you're doubling the labor pool annually. This is crazy, and I find it hard to distinguish from a pyramid scheme. These are not the last of the Lit students, but a small fraction of the faithful whose identity is wrapped up in the quest for a tenured position.”

Well, first of all, that's a mistaken idea of how many Ph Ds graduate every year. Every department is not turning out one Ph D for every faculty member every year. In almost all of the Liberal Arts except for math and science, the number of Ph Ds turned out every year has actually been falling since around 2007/2008 – which, of course, is when the economic downturn happened.

In other words: we were sustaining this number of graduates before, relative to the population and size of academia. There is not some massive ballooning number of Ph Ds out there.

That means that, second of all, the issue is with the number of actual teaching jobs in academia, which has been steadily falling. This all while the educational system itself has been getting larger, has mostly recovered from the recession, and has been adding jobs overall. Those jobs have been administrative jobs. Meanwhile, through the use of the cheap labor of adjuncts and the space-saving mechanisms of MOOCs, universities have been making more and more money, and in turn funneling it into more and more administrative staff.

Not every Ph D gets a job. That is how it's always been. But graduating proportionally less non-math/science Liberal Arts degrees, we have still managed to watch the employment rate among graduates fall precipitously – and the employment to be had is terrible.

The problem, in short, is absolutely not starry-eyed "Lit" students.
posted by koeselitz at 6:30 PM on June 6, 2014 [12 favorites]


This practice of hiring extraordinary faculty in nearly every department and of rewarding ordinary faculty with fewer teaching hours was astonishing to me when I first encountered it more than twenty years ago at a private liberal arts university where I took a staff job. As time went by, the practice continued, the tuition increased, high level administrative jobs virtually exploded and the students still quite often were two years at the university before they had a class with a tenured professor. Teaching seemed not only to be devalued but not teaching was rewarded. The highest salaries went to people, both faculty and administrators, who never set foot in a classroom. I was inclined to think the students were being ripped off much of the time and their parents very nearly defrauded because of the disconnect between the school's reputation and the actual experience of the students. This seemed to be the case even though there were also some outstanding teachers who engaged effectively with with students and genuinely loved teaching. I still think it is a crying shame for all the freshman classes to be taught by adjuncts who have to carry a very heavy load indeed to make a living at it.
posted by Anitanola at 6:36 PM on June 6, 2014 [5 favorites]


She has an old blog post about Indian-style Chinese!

Good for her and the academy as well. It is the willingness of PhDs to adjunct that creates the ability of universities to transfer salary dollars from ladder faculty to administrative paper-pusher, and eventually their unwillingness that will restore a better balance there.

The article didn't seem to mention where it is that she is going. Teaching at a private high school? Becoming a stay at home mom supported by her husband? Quitting adjuncts do need to give a sense of what's next to understand the full circle of the decision / sacrifice.
posted by MattD at 6:45 PM on June 6, 2014


the number of Ph Ds turned out every year has actually been falling since around 2007/2008 –

Those numbers stop at 2008. Humanities PhDs have since increased
posted by jpe at 7:00 PM on June 6, 2014


The adjunct faculty at the San Francisco Art Institute just voted 80% yes to unionize. At the commencement ceremony a few days before the vote Rebecca Solnit gave a speech where she praised the adjuncts for trying to unionize. A video of the whole event that was posted on the school's website as a matter of course was removed after the vote. This effort was part of a national effort to bring unions to academia. Whether this will make a difference will have to be seen, but given how admin at various institutions have been carrying out this basic destruction of higher ed in this country it can't hurt.
posted by njohnson23 at 7:06 PM on June 6, 2014 [3 favorites]


notyou, the CSU has impressed me recently with its commitment to recent tenure-track hires. My own campus, ~8500 students, is hiring 35 new TT professors for the fall, a healthy number for our size.

The deleterious effects of hiring so many contingent, mostly part-time teaching faculty are rapidly becoming apparent. My hope is that this trend will be self-correcting because of this.

This effort was part of a national effort to bring unions to academia.

We have a very strong faculty union in California (CFA), and that organization is absolutely critical in fighting important fights where and with whom they need to be fought. My union is the only significant political force pushing back against the state legislature's attempts to gut state support for higher education. Unions matter.
posted by LooseFilter at 7:14 PM on June 6, 2014 [9 favorites]


We're hiring a shitload of administrators at my school right now. Of course it's what gets done immediately when we're no longer hemorrhaging money. I've noticed two things in these rounds of hirings. First, when you have too many people on a campus who don't really care about teaching (I mean, lots of them left it voluntarily), they want to hire more non-teachers to do all the non-teaching things they spend their non-teaching days coming up with. Second, if you question these new hires, you will be all-but-asked, "don't you care about students?" So, me: " I see we're hiring an assistant dean of student joviality and mirth*. And four staff in that new department. Do we really need all these new people?" "Don't you care about student joviality and mirth? I mean, how do students study if they're unhappy?"

*Only a slight exaggeration.
posted by persona au gratin at 7:16 PM on June 6, 2014 [4 favorites]


Yet there seems to be no level of "adjuncts vs full time faculty" at which either their accreditation or level or enrollments, or donations, is threatened.
posted by tyllwin at 7:21 PM on June 6, 2014


So, me: " I see we're hiring an assistant dean of student joviality and mirth*. And four staff in that new department. Do we really need all these new people?" "Don't you care about student joviality and mirth? I mean, how do students study if they're unhappy?"

I read a blog post recently that made the argument that the proliferation of administrative staff can be explained in part by junior administrative staff being promoted into newly-created senior administrative positions, which then of course have to hire several layers of junior staff to fill up the org chart beneath them to justify the new salary / title.
posted by junco at 7:49 PM on June 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


And this post which reprints from the Chronicle numbers showing the absolute increase in university staff by category from the mid-70s to the recent past. (Spoilers: 23% more tenure-earning faculty, 141% more executives, 259% more non tenure-earning faculty, and 369% more administrative staff).
posted by junco at 7:52 PM on June 6, 2014 [5 favorites]


is this a thing we can intervene in through intervening in the accreditation process — through pushing to establish a ceiling on the percentage of classes that can be taught by adjuncts before schools lose their accreditation? I've always just assumed that accreditation agencies are all born captured by university administration, and as such would never impose a requirement that would make schools significantly more expensive to run. But perhaps I assume that because the inside of my head is so bleakly dark that it's a wonder my brain hasn't been eaten by a grue.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 8:24 PM on June 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


koeselitz: "In almost all of the Liberal Arts except for math and science, the number of Ph Ds turned out every year has actually been falling since around 2007/2008 – which, of course, is when the economic downturn happened."

So if you remove 2007/2008, since there was obviously a major student loan financing crunch on top of heavy state funding cuts, the number has been mostly steady at around 5k new PhD's a year. Was 5k a sustainable rate? We need a lot more data to answer that.

Well, since your diligent reliance on data shows how hard I failed the guess your way to an answer method, I went looking for some data. The American Historical Association estimates that there are about 9,000 full time history faculty in the US in their directory, while they graduate about 1,000 PhDs a year.* Assuming only 60 percent of PhD students make the cut to tenure track, and that there's another 9,000 adjunct that could be converted 2:1 to full time employment for a total of 13,500 faculty, you're looking at about 22 years for current History faculty to train their replacements. Given the NSF's 2003 estimate that PhDs recipients are around age 33, if most professors retired at age 55, I would call this a sustainable steady state.

I'm quite lazy and the NSF site appears prefer R&D expenditure as a metric over number of full time faculty. So if anyone finds data on size of academy by discipline, that would be helpful, just in case History is less sustatinable than the humanities as a whole.

*I apologize, I was way off on my estimates of both faculty:phd ratios and time to PhDs. When paired with the average time to PhD being around 10 years, it would seem that fulltime History faculty advise roughly one PhD each. I really didn't belong in grad school, I guess.
posted by pwnguin at 8:27 PM on June 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


The situation in science is also bad. The over-supply of PhDs compared to a relative scarcity of faculty positions demonstrated in this plot allows for the exploitation of "sessional" instructors.
posted by sloe at 9:10 PM on June 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


We've got a strong union in academia here in Australia, and the Australian situation isn't quite as dire as in the US, but it's definitely heading that way. The union doesn't actually seem to be solving the problem in ways you might expect. Part of the problem is that the same union caters for administrators (including e.g. janitors, groundskeepers, secretaries, etc) as for academic staff. So e.g. recently when we got close to a strike due to disagreements about various matters, the union kept pressing the university for a pay rise, while the academic staff were very vocal about not giving a shit about a pay rise and just wanting more job security. But more than 50% of employees at our university are non-academic (yeah wtf?) and so the majority just wanted increased pay.

Secondly, I think our union's strategies leave a little to be desired.

Recently I got screwed over in that I was asked by our head of department to teach our large first year course this semester, when I would otherwise have been unemployed. She offered it to me as a percentage of a full-time job, with a fixed term contract start and end date, but NOT as casual (adjunct) hourly labour. I.e. I would have full benefits and all the other advantages of any other academic staff member. I agreed, but when it came to the university preparing my contract, they refused to do it on anything other than a casual hourly basis. I took it to the union, and it turned out that this was THE UNION'S FAULT! They said they had recently got the university to agree to no longer offer fixed term contracts for teaching jobs - only hourly casual positions. I gave them a WTF look and repeated very slowly, "The union has required the university to offer less secure employment to short term lecturers?"
"Yes!" they said, sounding proud of themselves. "That way, no one could possibly argue that this is an acceptable situation! It will soon become clear even to the university executive that these new people need to be on tenure-track positions instead!"
I asked them how that was working out for them. You would probably not be surprised by the answer. They, on the other hand, seemed to be.
posted by lollusc at 9:35 PM on June 6, 2014 [4 favorites]


One problem is that the administration also sees it as a diminution in status if a department tries to axe a PhD program. (Speaking from experience here) That is even though they won't fund the program to the extent it needs to not just turn out good graduates in a timely way, but students who have not accrued debt during their graduate work.) Basically, you're committing suicide as a department if you try and do the responsible thing.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 9:44 PM on June 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


junco: do you know where that post is?
posted by persona au gratin at 11:48 PM on June 6, 2014


I'd agree with your hypothetical doctor taking retirement too, koeselitz. Individuals should work for the betterment of society, but we do not owe society our entire lives, especally when society dicks us around. And here your village a staggeringly wealthy nation whose voters simply chose not to fund education. I've zero sympathy for the village.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:32 AM on June 7, 2014


This ties in with David Graeber on bullshit jobs. There is vital non-academic work to do at any university, and those jobs are not bullshit. But there has been a growth in these jobs beyond essential work, at the expense of the core functions of the institution.

What pressure redirects resources from essential to non-essential functions in so many institutions? I believe it is the pressure of hierarchy. The people doing non-essential jobs are more malleable, they can employ their energy and talent entirely on servicing the needs of the people above them.

People in jobs linked to an identifiable core product are more truculent, and have other priorities than service to the hierarchy. That's not because they are better people or more independent, it's just the logic of their role in the institution.

Not surprisingly, those in the upper hierarchy direct resources at those who most directly support them in their roles. I think this happens in all institutions, including commercial ones.
posted by communicator at 2:50 AM on June 7, 2014 [13 favorites]


And where work is tied to the productive function of an institution, workers do more hours for less pay, are dis-empowered, over-scrutinised, performance-managed, under-resourced etc.

It really came home to me when I moved into more productive and socially useful work after a decade of corporate bullshit work. As you generate greater corporate value, you become more subject to penny-pinching. It seems paradoxical but I think it makes sense in human terms.
posted by communicator at 3:01 AM on June 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


It was black comedy a bit ago at my school when one adjunct hit the 'reply all' to yet another celebratory announcement about how our school was ranked as one of the best to work for in the country.

The 'reply all' email said, "Is there a reason that adjunct faculty are not contacted by these surveys that determine ranking of the best schools to work for?"

The return 'reply all' was a jaw-dropping lie that adjuncts were surveyed; also, from the tone of the email, I'm sure every person who read it was like, "Oh snap, no contract for that instructor next semester"

The thing that moved the dial from black comedy to sadness was the chastened little reply-all from the adjunct, apologizing.

Honestly, not sure how some college admins sleep at night. I mean, I know it's the status quo, but fucking hell, I used to think campuses were hotbeds of idealistic instructors/professors/admins

Ha ha.
posted by angrycat at 4:14 AM on June 7, 2014 [3 favorites]


I can't believe it's been over a decade now since the Invisible Adjunct shut down (even the site is dead now, and you can't read it on Internet Archive, WTF?). I wish I knew what she was up to and how she's doing. I miss her and her amazing crew of commenters. As this comment says,
Since then I feel just terribly depressed watching where the energies of that conversation have dissipated, particularly in some of the conservative tendentiousness or pure snark that now drives a lot of the meta-discussion. At IA, it felt to me like a reformist project was taking shape, and now that's gone.
posted by languagehat at 7:52 AM on June 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


Angrycat -- the same way that urban liberals who claim to love taxes and regulations and public transit happily have allowed UberX and Lyft to thrive: when proclaimed values and self-interest collide, self-interest usually wins.
posted by MattD at 8:47 AM on June 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


I would have no problem with the prevalence of adjuncts if the cost savings were passed on to students. It seems the fundamental problem is the combination of low-paid teachers, and sky-high tuition.
posted by miyabo at 1:55 PM on June 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


Rising tuition is, IMO, a function of dwindling state support. When the state cuts cut in half what used to be 30 percent of your budget, it seems miraculous that tuitions don't double overnight to compensate.
posted by pwnguin at 5:25 PM on June 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


So here's my question: why was there ever a time of tenured professorships? Why didn't colleges replace them all with adjuncts decades ago?
posted by shivohum at 6:21 PM on June 7, 2014


Apparently tenure evolved at the same time as labor unions, shivohum.

It's absolutely the bullshit jobs phenomenon discussed by David Graeber, which occurs whenever institutions grow too comfortable. In this case, the students replace the declining state funding with debt bubble financing, which effectively removed the institutions budget restrictions and opened the door to greater waste.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:07 PM on June 7, 2014 [1 favorite]


So if you remove 2007/2008, since there was obviously a major student loan financing crunch on top of heavy state funding cuts, the number has been mostly steady at around 5k new PhD's a year. Was 5k a sustainable rate? We need a lot more data to answer that.

You have to look 5+ years down the line, when people finish, though. If my program is at all representative, the dip was in the people who entered Fall 2009, who will, by and large, just be starting to finish now. The people who started Fall 2008 (e.g. me) were admitted before the economy tanked.
posted by hoyland at 4:15 AM on June 8, 2014


hoyland: "You have to look 5+ years down the line, when people finish, though. If my program is at all representative, the dip was in the people who entered Fall 2009, who will, by and large, just be starting to finish now. The people who started Fall 2008 (e.g. me) were admitted before the economy tanked."

That's an good point, the NSF data is covering degrees granted not enrollment. The data shows a 10 percent decline in 2008, so here's an alternative interpretation: faced with a severe recession and widespread hiring freezes across the US, PhD students were in no hurry to graduate. There may also be an enrollment dip, I don't have numbers handy. So this explanation also suggests the dip was temporary, rather than a new trend.

It's not clear to me that this changes the balance enough. If we assume a 10 percent drop in the long term average for degrees granted in History, you net an extra 2.5 years. Professors retiring at age 57, still not old enough for take distributions from your IRA, or qualify for social security or Medicaid.

I'm not sure why you all are adamant it the problem is The Administration's Policies (or why the administration's policies don't include keeping the number of PhDs granted high). Adjuncts generally teach fewer classes a semester than full time professors, so you need a lot more to cover the same number of classes. If PhDs granted are not flooding the market, I have no idea how schools manage to build mass adjunct armies.
posted by pwnguin at 6:54 PM on June 8, 2014


I know someone who adjunct teaches a class at my alma mater, a small private liberal arts school. They pay $2,500 per class per semester. Each class has roughly 15 students (it's a small school, and these are specialized classes). Tuition for the school is $47,000, which is really $25,000 after financial aid, and a typical student takes 8 classes a year. So the tuition from a single student for one class more than covers the entire labor cost of teaching the class. The school keeps 94% of the tuition for itself.

The students really want to learn (it's a competitive school and the students are highly motivated). The teachers really want to teach, and clearly are willing to teach almost for free. The school is just acting as a broker which hooks up students who want to learn with adjuncts who want to teach, while maintaining a pretty campus and accreditation and a nice health club. A really, really expensive broker.
posted by miyabo at 8:17 PM on June 8, 2014 [4 favorites]


miyabo: "The school is just acting as a broker which hooks up students who want to learn with adjuncts who want to teach, while maintaining a pretty campus and accreditation and a nice health club. A really, really expensive broker."

I used to work at a large community college in the Kansas City metro area. According to the trustees minutes, they pay adjuncts between 800-1,000 per credit hour. So around 2400-3000 a class. Since tuition is so much lower, it was much, much closer to break even. That doesn't really make the adjuncts feel any better about earning nearly minimum wage, mind you.

So given that they get paid pretty much the same regardless of the price of tuition, your remark is spot on. For your alma mater, but probably not colleges as a whole.
posted by pwnguin at 8:40 PM on June 8, 2014


Yeah, they can actually "pay" professors a bit in reputation -- it looks better on your CV to have been an adjunct at a selective college than a liberal arts college, so they can actually pay even lower wages. And then they turn around and sell the same reputation to their students -- sure you could get a degree for $10,000 from the state school, but our $100,000 degree will look better on your resume! It's very, very ingenious marketing.
posted by miyabo at 9:08 PM on June 8, 2014


Guernica: The Teaching Class
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:12 AM on June 18, 2014 [2 favorites]


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