The Thing I’ve Never Understood About the Adjunct Crisis

Let me be clear: the absolute shit wages adjunct professors are paid is disgusting. That said, this seems relevant (boldface mine):

The one thing I don’t understand about long-term adjuncts is why people do it. Why let yourself be exploited like this? I do understand reasons for short-term adjuncting–trying to make a go of it in a particular place that you don’t want to leave, graduate students or newly minted PhDs gaining teaching experience, keeping your foot in the door in case something actually develops at one of these schools, etc. All very good reasons. But long-term adjuncts is a harder phenomena for me to understand. It’s not like this is glamorous or particularly rewarding work. Teaching 4 intro level college surveys is no one’s idea of what they want to do with their lives and while you might occasionally get the student where the light bulb comes on when you teach them, that’s a mighty rare moment at that level. And with all the grading and class prep–not to mention traveling around an entire metro area to make this work, there’s no time for any other part of the job. Forget research, forget keeping up with the literature in the field, forget participating in meaningful service or teaching activities in higher education. You are a grunt and you are treated like a grunt and there’s really no hope for the future to not be treated like a grunt.

….But continuing to delay that income earning for years after your degree by holding on by your fingertips to the dream of a tenure-track job is just a bad idea because pretty soon you have a lifetime of doing this and no retirement income.

I’m glad they’re organizing–they should be well compensated for their work–but it seems they might want to consider other options. They are out there and they don’t suck. Also, I’ve learned from my time outside of academia that the best way to negotiate a better deal is a willingness to walk away. If they know you’re willing to stay, they’ve pretty much got you over a barrel.

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9 Responses to The Thing I’ve Never Understood About the Adjunct Crisis

  1. Physicalist says:

    I think one issue is that people who have spent their whole life as students and teachers don’t have much of a vision of what other jobs they could be perusing. (And yes, I am speaking from experience here. Let me know if you hear of a good job for an ex-philosopher.)

  2. pjhalifax says:

    My thoughts exactly. I’m not sure there will be substantive change to the system when there’s a near-endless supply of people willing to accept the current terms.

    I always wonder what would happen if students or parents paying tuition dug into the numbers a bit. What if they didn’t want overworked, underpaid adjuncts with no office space and jobs at 3 other universities teaching so many classes? There could be a “% of classes taught by part-time staff” metric in the rankings. I don’t know if it would matter…the schools might be just as (not) willing to respond to pressure from their customers as they are to the adjunct masses.

    • If the various organizations that produce college rankings, e.g. Consumer Reports, decided to include that as a (negative) metric, I bet there would be a dramatic change.

  3. Min says:

    OK, suppose that you have an advanced degree in music. You’re not good enough to get hired by an orchestra, and the music criticism that you have submitted to local newspapers has gotten no response. You have the choice of selling pianos (if you conceal the fact that you have a degree) or being an adjunct. Or trying to find a job with no connection to music. What do you do?

  4. sedgequeen says:

    I was a part-time, temporary prof (adjunct, though the word wasn’t used) for eight years. I taught the same intro level class often enough to work out the problems and get the pacing of the class right. I got to teach a subject I loved. Students seemed to appreciate the class. I’m really glad I got to do this. Of course, one major reason I could feel this way despite being paid badly was that my husband’s job brought in enough income for us to live on.

  5. sethkahn says:

    As somebody who’s gotten very involved in networks of adjunct activists over the last 4-5 years, I’ve gotten to know many hundreds of the people you’re wondering about here. The short answer to your question of why they don’t consider leaving is, “Huh? Of course they do. Every fucking one of them.”

    The longer answers vary. But in many cases, the problem is being golden-handcuffed to the job. Many full-time adjuncts make just enough money to barely hang on, and as you know perfectly well because I’ve seen you write about it before, it’s expensive to live poor and it’s expensive to job hunt.

    Telling them to “just leave” is tantamount to telling people in impoverished cities to “just move.” It’s not quite as harsh as telling depressed people to “just cheer up.”

    That said, more and more adjuncts are leaving in favor of other kinds of work. I just don’t think it’s reasonable to assert that as the best answer, or to assume that anybody who doesn’t leave is staying because they’re not smart or savvy enough to know better.

  6. David J. Littleboy says:

    “Telling them to “just leave” is tantamount…”

    Sure, but there’s not much else to say: the supply/demand ratio is insane. Most schools crank out as many PhDs in a year as they hire in a decade. In every department. And every single one of those PhDs is an expert at persuading people that they think that anything other than teaching and/or research is vile money-grubbing meaninglessness (since you don’t get a PhD unless you successfully persuade your advisor and thesis committee that you think that). Most to the point that they actually believe that themselves.

    (Personally, I was real lucky: I spent the late 70s recession and early 80s slow recovery in funded graduate student positions (in three fields), and when I realized that I wasn’t good enough at selling people on my religious fervor in my main field (comp. sci.), I got out at the MA/MS level. It was a great period to be a dilettante (I even got tuition plus a small stipend to study Japanese Literature). But I saw very clearly that the number of academic slots was infinitesimal, the pay poor, and the work hard.)

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