I don’t read the comments for a reason

I have not read more than four words of a Slate comment since “Thesis Hatement,” whose comments made me so depressed I cried for weeks (and, to be perfectly honest, I’m still not over it).

My dad just emailed me aghast at the comments on my latest for Slate, in which I wonder why more students and parents don’t care that they’re paying $40K/year to be taught by people with no office space, no resources, and often subhuman status on campus. So I decided to dip in there and see what my dad was talking about. They’re really not that bad, Dad–a lot of people agree. Yes there are a few who are like,”If you’re so bad at your job, quit and find a better one, you suck, whatever,” but those motherfuckers don’t know me. My students know I care. My students also know I do the best with what I have. And everyone now, except Slate commenters, also knows that I am leaving higher education after this semester, and that it would take a straight-up crime for UMSL to fire me mid-semester, and so I can and will be as honest as I want to, thank you very much.

The fact that many adjuncts still manage to be effective in the classroom is heroic, and I of all people understand this. Anyone who thinks the point of this article was that “adjuncts are bad,” when I myself am an adjunct and am not bad, is questionable at reading. The point is that adjuncts, given the parameters of their positions, are not doing right by our students, because we can’t. We care–but caring isn’t enough. When will students and parents begin to demand better?

One thing I wish my  adjunct brothers and sisters would do is stop with the heroics already. Not stop caring, not do a bad job on purpose–just stop with the instinct to defend how great you are doing, because that just gives your administration a pat on the back for paying you exactly what it should, if not a little bit more. Every single time you say you’re doing OK at your job, and that you’re not depriving students of a mentorship relationship they deserve, you reassure an administrator that adjunctification was the right way to go.

I of all people believe that adjuncts are some of the most gifted and dedicated pedagogues in the US. How could we not be? Why would we do this if we were bad at it? If we didn’t like it? Anyone who reads me regularly knows this. But if we are going to get anyone to give a fuck about us, really give a fuck about us, then we need to admit that we do not do our jobs as well as we could, as a result of the very parameters of these jobs.

In the end, it’s just yet another set of ridiculous personal attacks in response to a systemic critique. That is all anyone ever has to offer in critical response to my work, and it’s just farcical at this point. If you can’t make a substantive argument about why it’s a good idea to pay the majority of college professors in this country sub-minimum wage, then shut. the fuck. up already.

11 thoughts on “I don’t read the comments for a reason

  1. The sad lesson that the Internet has taught me: a sizable group of people out there are so unhappy that the need to feel self-righteous and superior – even when it comes to topics they know shit about – trumps everything else, from their critical thinking skills to their basic humanity.


  2. I skimmed the comments on Slate, and many of them seem to have missed the point, which is that *the conditions of adjuncts’ work* is the problem, not the quality of your teaching, since you’re not doing the mentoring, program development, etc. that the TT people are doing, *and that their salaries are paying them to do.* At my university, we aren’t even allowed to expect adjuncts to come to meetings, because their pay is so low proportionately that it only compensates them (barely) for teaching.


  3. I’ve loved your articles on adjuncts! I worked at Cornell for 25 years and saw the academic feudal system from up close; it’s no surprise that this is where it’s gotten to.
    Can you tell us where we CAN look up colleges’ percentage of contingent faculty? I now teach high school, and our kids’ parents would absolutely want to know.


    • They can look up salaries for part-time faculty at http://adjunct.chronicle.com/ , and they can find out the percentage of full-time non-tenure-track faculty at http://chronicle.com/article/faculty-salaries-data-2012/131431#id=144050.

      However, what they’re going to find out, in nearly every case, is that they can’t avoid paying too much for their offspring to be taught, especially in the first and second years, by contingent faculty. The part of the equation over which they have the most control — how much they pay — yields a solution which parents who are avidly researching the best colleges probably aren’t going to like much: go to a community college for the first two years (and be taught mostly by people who are also teaching at several other, more expensive, local institutions). In short, it is, by this point, a systemic problem, and they can’t buy/research their way out of it.

      They can, however, start working on solving it, maybe in time for their grandchildren (and their children as parents of college-age children) to have better options. They can ask pointed questions on campus visits, and even more pointed follow-ups (“so there aren’t many adjunct instructors on campus? Does that mean there are a lot of grad TAs?”*), and demand exact numbers (how, exactly, are certain highly-enrolled 100- and 200-level courses taught?), and strongly discourage their children from pursuing grad degrees with the intention of teaching at the college level. They can write letters to colleges their offspring don’t attend, saying that one reason is unhappiness with the overuse of adjuncts. They can pressure lawmakers to increase the amount of money going to state schools. They can ask similar questions/raise similar issues in response to their own alma maters’ appeals for donations.

      But they can’t exempt their own children from the current system. All they can do is know that any institution that claims it’s somehow an exception is lying (the only question is how).

      *Bonus points if they raise such questions every time the person conducting the session starts talking about expensive non-instructional facilities or activities, such as dining halls, gyms, athletic teams, and the like.


  4. This is an important distinction. I think what a lot of people can’t see from the outside is that people who have tenure and care about teaching are in a position to do things that enrich students’ education that even very talented and enthusiastic adjuncts would find extremely difficult if not impossible. I know people who have, for example, gotten very specialised courses on the books — and eventually, certificates, minors, majors — by doing overload teaching, year after year, and building up a critical mass in that area. Well, you have to have the luxury of a secure position that does not take up every moment to be able to do extra stuff, and even more importantly, you have to have the luxury of being able to plan in 5 and 10-year increments. You need at least a long-term lectureship to be able to take on that kind of work, I think.

    Or, to pick another example, there are moments when a student might need some institutional support. Say, for example, coach wants him to take on an impossible courseload to graduate early, so he can use the scholarship for another player. It’s nice if the faculty member who says this is impossible knows they’re covered.

    The cynical side of me thinks that people outside of education just worry about whether the instructor will know their kid’s name.


  5. “Don’t be a dick.” – I like that.

    “tl;dr” or “too long; didn’t read” – One of the more annoying aspects of internet culture to develop.


  6. Long ago, I discovered that humanities faculty rarely know statistics or much about same. Since I was married to a demographer, I knew that area all the time (lots over our dinner table). As a result, they probably don’t pay any attention to the statistics re. adjuncts and overproduction of Ph.D.’s. Since these matters are just getting attention in the general press–and you are part of that general press now–a lot of those folks are reacting with shock and taking it out on you. More denial, of course. Wait a while and these numbers will become received truth and parents/students will start another wave. Ironically, when I went to Michigan from 1949 to 53, we had only a few T.A.’s and a lot of senior professors–who were wonderful. Strange that we can’t have that again! Fewer managers and luxerious student facilities.

    Joanne Kantrowitz


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