“Careful, He Might Think He Works Here”

 It’s a big day for outrage-links and it’s barely noon: First, we’ve got this gross-ass news out of Pittsburgh: The University of Pittsburg Medical Center has rigged literally every computer in the joint to start up with this grossly misleading anti-union screen.


Really, don’t you think you’re laying it on a little thick, UPMC? If you’re not careful, your employees are going to think you are really, really invested in them not joining a union for some reason.

Then there’s this, albeit from awhile ago—it’s a bit of world-class administrator porn about how adjuncting in the US is [insert a bunch of empty start-up style buzzwords derp blerp blork]. I’m sure ten admins blew their wads after the first paragraph alone.

But the most outrageous things I’ve heard this week actually come from a different sort of “link,” as it were—the few in-person links I have with my fellow members of homo sapiens sapiens. I was talking to a friend the other day who works in a small department at a smallish regional university, and he was telling me about a new adjunct they have who was doing a really good job.

Some members of the department wanted to give him more work. Much of the faculty was on board—but one full-timer raised an immediate objection: “We don’t want him to get the wrong idea about his place here.” By which he meant: We don’t want him to think he actually works here. We don’t want him to feel like he’s one of us, a real faculty.

This is a sentiment that should ring chillingly true for you adjuncts out there, and bring yet another wash of defensiveness-provoking shame from you tenure-trackers. You know that’s how you feel. The adjuncts—they’re different from you. They’re not one of you. They’re fit to teach all those shitty intro classes you can’t bother with, but they’re not real faculty. I mean, come on. If they were good enough to be real faculty, they’d have gotten jobs by now.

Let me offer a minor word of warning:

How you treat adjuncts—that you treat them like they’re different—will come back to haunt and hurt you. And someday, it might hurt you all the way into nonexistence.

The worse you treat adjuncts, the more likely your department is to self-immolate and die—and, unless you make a concerted effort to change your fundamental way of thinking about what a “real” faculty member is, you deserve it.

Here’s what I mean. You know that most students don’t know the difference between faculty, and don’t care. I mean, they should care—for their GPAs alone, as adjuncts are many times more likely to inflate grades (I sure as shit do), so they can get good evaluations and stay hired. But students don’t really know what’s going on.

Mine are always asking me questions about institutional stuff that I don’t know, or if I can write a recommendation, and always assuming that I’ll be in my office on most days like our full-timers are (they do a lot of advising). They have no idea, and it’s not really their job to know.

But here’s the thing. Most courses that students take—out of their major, but even in it—are introductory and lower- and mid-level. Lower and mid-level. That is—the courses that adjuncts and NTT faculty teach.

Most majors require but a handful of upper-level courses; often, by the time a student major gets a face-to-face with a tenured senior faculty it’s her last semester at the university. But let’s return to out-of-major breadth requirements, otherwise known as Adjunct Central. Do you understand how fucking backwards that is? Gen-Ed and breadth classes are your discipline’s only, and I mean only chance, to make a case for itself to the larger university population. The only exposure to your discipline the vast, vast majority of students who study it will ever, ever get is through a few intro classes. Which are taught by guess who?

Contingent faculty.

Your part-time faculty, your non-tenure-track faculty, your disposable faculty, your faculty that shouldn’t get “the wrong idea” about its place in the department? To the vast majority of people who ever come into contact with your department, they are the only representative of your discipline people will ever, ever get. They are the reputation of your department.

And if they’re treated as “less-than”? They’re going to act as less-than. And if they act as less-than? Your students will get a less-than experience, but they’ll get straight As so they won’t care. Meanwhile, your administration will be trolling message boards and listening to word-of-mouth about your department and learn, either, that it’s shitty, or that your adjuncts have decided to pull some heroics and are doing such a great job that there’s no reason to open up any more tenure lines.

Either way, your department will die, and it’s your own fucking fault. When the whole stinking ship goes down, it will be cold comfort, but comfort nonetheless, to watch you drown.

So the next time you go thinking about how you don’t want an adjunct to get the wrong idea, realize that it’s you who has the wrong idea. It’s not too late to start treating your non-tenure-track faculty better.

And if your adjuncts aren’t worthy of this, because they don’t have doctorates or they really, truly are just not as good as you? Think, think really fucking hard, about whether that’s the primary—if not only—face you want to project of your discipline.

31 thoughts on ““Careful, He Might Think He Works Here”

  1. You’d think the bottom-line argument would resonate, but there’s way too much evidence that departments don’t give a shit about undergraduate majors either. Their solution to diminishing enrollment would be to either increase the number of required courses or whine to the administration about how essential their discipline is to the academic enterprise (while cutting TT lines).
    The UPMC thing is appalling. How can they possibly think that won’t backfire?


      • well… private sector unionization is at, what, 6% of the work force, and falling? from something like 35% in the 1950s? so “desperate” isn’t the first word that comes to mind…

        I keep calling for a revolution, but for some reason, nobody is listening.


  2. Sadly, I heard the same reasoning from a prof who claims she’s dismayed by the adjunctification of higher ed. But her department is one of the good ones. Good, because while they use adjuncts, they limit them to 2 courses per semester “so they don’t get the wrong idea.” It’s “more honest” that way, you know? *so many facepalms*


    • *Facepalm* indeed

      I had this conversation with my mom a few weeks ago; she used to be a department chair at a CC, and in her department at least they used to give “part timers” (they didn’t tend to refer to them as adjuncts, maybe that’s a CC thing) as many courses as they were allowed to and push them up to full time non-tenured whenever they could, and the tenured jobs (few and far between) used to generally go to the lecturers whenever they could swing it. I remember as a kid around that department even “getting” that there was a feeling of “department” among the whole group, and hearing around the dinner table both my parents (my dad was in the same department and was also chair for a while) talking about all their various colleagues, part time or full time, with the same respect and collegiality. For both of them, it was not just about job fairness, it was about the stability of the department–find a good one, you want to KEEP them wanting to work there, so you give them all you can and keep them as happy as possible so they won’t walk away to someplace else. Seems logical, right?

      In effect, she wanted them to get the “right” idea–that they matter to the department, and that within the hiring system in which everyone’s stuck, everyone will do all they can to make them part of things and give them as much work as possible.

      Makes me wonder…have things CHANGED in the decade or so since my parents retired, or were they just Amazingly Enlightened Academics? 🙂


  3. On a visit to Hong Kong I passed a street market. There were chickens in bamboo cages. An old lady chose one and the butcher took it away. The other chickens were unbothered. Oh, but they were only chickens – they didn’t understand. I suppose so.

    What we can all see is that the worse things get for ‘other’ people the more we tend to assume that ‘we’ are safe, we, the elect.


  4. You are spot on. The consequences of the internal class system that has developed within institutions may not be as dramatic as you suggest but you make many accurate points. Students don’t make the same distinctions. There’s so much emphasis on making sure that we (I’m a non-tenure track academic too) don’t get the wrong idea that the administration have the wrong idea about who the institution is.


  5. This x 1000. What the TT faculty almost never really grasp is that I’m not just the guy temporarily teaching classes in the department. I am their future.

    You think the administration cares about the six majors signed up for your 400-level class? The truth is the administration would love to cut the major the first chance it gets and replace all the faculty with adjuncts (or at best VAPs teaching 4-4 on 1-year contracts) and cut everything but the service courses out of the program. The crap working conditions you’re creating for me are going to come back to bite you big time after I’m long gone from the crummy department that you don’t want me to get the wrong ideas about. I’m mobile, I’m moving on whenever my time is up. But you’ve got an upside-down mortgage and a stale CV because you thought you had a job for life. You can’t leave, so have fun living in the hell of your own creation.


  6. Meanwhile, students and parents are paying bazillions to be taught for six out of eight semesters by TA’s and adjuncts. And you know, most TA’s and adjuncts I know are *at least* as good at teaching as their tenured and tenure-track counterparts. It really doesn’t take a PhD to teach even a fourth-year undergraduate course, anyway. I’ve done it, and done it WAY better than senior faculty teaching the same courses.

    But if parents and students knew the reality that they were paying $1,500-2,500 for a course being taught by someone earning $1500-2,500 *in total compensation* to teach it, they might start to wonder when their refund check will be in the mail.

    Let’s say a class has 30 in-state students, paying $1,750 for the 3-hour course. That’s $52,500 in tuition dollars. The instructor, an adjunct, is paid $2,500 to teach it. That means the adjunct is receiving only 4.76% of that $52,500!!!! Okay, yes, some of that money goes into facilities, etc. There’s an overhead to be covered, absolutely. But 4.76%?! That’s WAY less than a fast food worker earns as a proportion of the revenue they generate by assembling combo meals at McDonald’s (I used to be assistant manager; I’ve crunched these numbers before)! That’s how much they value adjuncts.

    If I had an employee who was willing to effectively *volunteer* to teach in order to keep my department afloat, I would do everything in my power to honor them daily for their contributions. I would also make sure they received a fair say in departmental and curricular matters since, you know, those adjuncts are the face of the department and can either attract new majors or repel them, depending on how disgruntled they become due to the way they’re exploited.


  7. Real conversation with English Dept Chair:

    My colleague: Is there any chance that a lecturer could sometimes teach something other than the first-year writing courses?

    DC: No. I know many of you have PhDs and would like to teach in your sub fields, but if we allow that, the college will expect us (TT faculty) to teach those courses for what they pay you.

    My Colleague: oh…


  8. At least when I was adjuncting at the University of Minnesota, another reason why we never got more than 2 courses was that we would have become full time and they might have to offer us health insurance; so none of us ever got more than 2, and once, when one extra Italian language course materialised at the last moment, they gave it to a Master student who could not speak Italian to save her life. How’s that, for enhancing the reputation of the department?


  9. Oh my is this good and oh lord does this hit close to home. A dear friend who was an adjunct and also spouse of a t-t faculty member basically got fired for the crime of “thinking she worked there.” She’s a great teacher, and students would always ask her why she wasn’t teaching any upper-level classes, which meant having to explain the hierarchy to them. My friend also had a book coming out, which combined with her student following made her a target, since her very presence was calling the hierarchy into question. All of this while the department’s enrollment was tanking.


    • You just described me except I work for a nice institution that DOES allow me to think I work there. They just moved me to a new office with a nice new computer in fact! If you gotta adjunct, do it at the UMSL Honors College!


      • My adjunct gig treats me like an equal, too. Well, my department does. The college still only wants to pay me per class, but it’s the highest rate I’ve seen in my area at least. And they include a bunch of bennies like full library access, access to the new rec center free (plus my partner, also free).


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