Adjuncts! What Should We Talk About?

Guys! Guys guys guys. Next week I’m doing a live Google chat with Adjunct Action (I think they know I took more than my share of buttons and pins at their St. Louis Symposium and now I owe them–guilty as charged!). I have a lot of things broiling in my brain already, but I want to hear from you. How do adjuncts empower ourselves to take back the career for which we are trained, and which (like all careers) deserves a dignified wage? (How) do we appeal to those on the tenure track? Do we favor a unified approach with the tenured faculty? If so, how do we get them to help us–or even to care about us as scholars and teachers (enough, for example, so that they do not attempt to discount our point of view by sneeringly referring to us as “occasional” college professors, ahem)? OR, do we say fuck it about them lifeboaters, and assume that when their jobs all get swallowed up by Financial Exigency in a few years they’ll join us without us having to kiss their asses? Who is our movement? What is our movement? What can we do to (re)-create the field? Please get talkin’ in the comments and I will address all of your issues during our chat (where I also hope you’ll be!).

22 thoughts on “Adjuncts! What Should We Talk About?

  1. The only way things are going to change is through unified political action. Adjuncts need to form a national, grassroots organization of their own. Barring that, the only way FT teaching jobs will open up is if every adjunct in the country simultaneously quits — just refuse to teach as an adjunct anymore. Start looking now for other employment, and when you get it — quit.

    Keep in mind that since over 70% of college courses are now being taught by adjuncts that tenure professors are increasingly being marginalized in many places and are increasing being made powerless themselves.


  2. As a former full-time prof and later adjunct, I agree with jamesrovira that political organization is the only way to achieve your goals of recognition and change. However, I strongly believe that isolated individual action is absolutely meaningless in terms of the large-scale change that is required. Universities are counting on adjuncts being good little boys and girls and being grateful for the dreck they are handing out and not biting the hand that supposedly feeds them. Well, bite hard you must as a collective to get their attention and to force remedial action. Only pain that cannot be easily remediated will force universities to change.

    The best way to liberation from the existing form of imperialism now in effect is to empower yourselves. Take note of the ideas and actions of Mohandas Gandhi and M.L. King Jr. with respect to the “powerless.” But the most important role models you should pay very close attention to are the on the ground successes generated by Saul Alinsky and Cesar Chavez, who together were the most effective community organizers in American history.

    I can’t tell you how to do what needs to be done because those ideas and roadmaps must flow from the collective oppressed.


  3. So, my adjunct gig just went through a union drive (was canceled right before the vote was to happen), and the contingent faculty talked a LOT about what our issues were and how they should be addressed. It seems that the majority of the TT/T faculty at this school were not even aware that there were issues with contingent compensation, and once they found out, were ready to help us out in whatever way they could. It’s the admin that needs convincing. Also, there were a few admin-apologists among the contingent faculty. They refused to see that failure to pay us our worth was devaluing us as contributors. “No, compensation is not tied to how we are valued–there just isn’t enough money in the budget!” Bullshit. We have an almost 800million dollar endowment. In the corporate world, when they value you and want to keep you, they will find ways to pay you to retain you. Anyway. One of the issues that came up is that there are some contingent faculty who WANT to be PT, so the push to create FT lines would exclude them from continuing in the profession. I feel like there should be a place for PT faculty who WANT to be PT. The pay just needs to be better. Currently, this college lets you apply for “Adjunct Professor” after 6 yrs of continual PT employment. This “promotion” gets you a salary pro-rated on the NTT FT salary (starts at $52K/yr for PhD). The only reason this exists is that they also created the “Senior Lecturer” position for FT faculty who have been continuously FT for 6 yrs. Both are permanent, basically guaranteed classes. I don’t know for how long the contracts are (1 yr? 3? I don’t know). They did this to work around the AAUP’s rule that after 6 yrs you have to grant NTT FT faculty tenure or let them go. (I am paraphrasing) But this was for FT only, the PT thing was.. I don’t know.. a gesture? But it amounts to basically a 6 yr probationary period before you can earn a relatively decent PT salary for the same work you’ve done for the last 6 yrs. I think 6 yrs is a ridiculous probationary period. Anyway, so I guess my point is I don’t know if the TT/T faculty are that important in this fight. Maybe they are more important in some places than others. They are not important at my PhD granting institution, but they are at my SLAC bc faculty governance is much stronger there. The T/TT faculty are the ones who got the Adjunct Professor and Senior Lecturer positions in place so that they didn’t have to let go the colleagues they had grown to like and depend on. However, they are already more socially-aware there than at the University.

    So, I guess my point was: there should be a place for PT faculty, we should earn a pro-rated salary based on the FT salary, and I don’t know how much the T/TT faculty even matter in this fight. It might be context-dependent. The common denominator, though, seems to be the admin. They seem to be the ones who need the convincing that we are worth the money (because we are). I may run for a position on the financial planning committee at my SLAC to try to work on effecting change for the PT faculty this coming year. It’ll be interesting to see the dynamic between the faculty (all) and the admin.

    Also, I am not sure how effective it would be to have a nation-wide movement given that so many colleges and universities pay so differently and treat their adjuncts so differently. I know at my SLAC, the concern was a national unionization movement would bring down conditions there to meet conditions that are better for many schools (but not us). Does that make sense? I don’t know how big a concern that actually is, though. I’m really new to all of this.


  4. We should talk about how to make the work of contingent faculty visible to the public outside academia. The myth that bloated professorial salaries drive up tuition continues to thrive. Your “Scarlet A” idea is an excellent one, but it only affects people who are deeply invested enough in a particular institution to be reading the course catalog. We need a “Hall of Shame” or a USA-today type ranking of institutions that shows the proportion of total credit hours taught by T/TT faculty.


  5. I’d like to see professional associations — from AAUP through all the disciplinary associations (ASA, MLA, ADE, etc.) — begin to insist (or strongly recommend over and over and over, if that’s all they really can do) that department chairs hold at least one meeting each year which covers the budget and explicitly details how the departmental labor is covered (how many TT/Full-time NTT, adjuncts, etc.). I’ve found that many TTF — even people who are deeply concerned about the “corporatization of higher ed.” and even write or work on the topic — have no idea how many adjunct instructors their own departments hire each term. Or what they are paid. No idea at all. As professionals who are supposed to be largely self-governing (as individuals *and as a group*), TT faculty should be responsible for knowing these details and should have these details on their conscience. TTF and chairs look at CVs and call people up and write their adjunct contracts not Provosts and these are the people (TTF/Chairs) who have to be held responsible. Only when they are held responsible will they work on making things better.

    The other thing I want to mention, prompted by a comment above, is that I feel strongly that we should make as many full-time jobs as possible — and insist that they be tenure-track, whether the jobs include research or are teaching-intensive. Trying to figure out ways to accommodate all the situations which currently exist — I’m thinking here of people who are part time and want to remain part-time– will impede any movement too greatly and undermine the ability to make coherent arguments about reform.


  6. Okay, just playing devil’s advocate here for a second (because I, like presumably everyone else with a stake in this conversation am also an underemployed academic who really wants full time work in one place), but…we do all understand, don’t we, that a universal shifting of contingent faculty conditions from lots of underemployed academics to a smaller number of fully employed academics would mean that a pretty hefty percentage of the underemployed would be downgraded to UN-employed, right? Is there any way around that? I’m not even talking about benefits and “status,” just basic math.

    I haven’t heard anyone actually say that out loud yet, that’s all.

    (and before anyone goes nuts, I am NOT an apologist for leaving the system alone, nor saying that the above “means” we should keep going as we are, just wanted to put that particular conscious awareness on the table…)


    • Lots of people have said that out loud. It’s a tough dilemma, because these are jobs that shouldn’t have existed in the first place. Now human beings are in them.

      For me it is NOT about getting rid of adjunct jobs altogether and making them all FT. Not at all. It’s about making them pay more. Much more.

      But I get this a lot, actually–“what about people who LIKE adjuncting?” Great for them. They should still be paid more. “What about people who don’t need the money and do it for fun?” Those people should not be considered even for a fraction of a second, because to prioritize their OK-ness over others’ poverty is cruel.


      • Oh good, I’m glad it’s being talked about–because it has been the elephant in the room of most adjunct conversations I’ve followed.

        And I’m a musician–the only group who may despise the “do it for fun” brigade more than academia, because a lot of folks think that’s what we should ALL be doing, ALL the time–“But don’t you do this because you love it? Then why be so demanding about being paid?” Harumph.

        Anyway, thanks for the conversation.


    • The loss of part-time adjunct positions is definitely part of the picture, but, as you well know, many (probably most) adjuncts work at more than one institution. So the question may be partly who ends up in a full-time teaching-oriented position at the local university, and who ends up in a full-time position at the local community college. If both are well-constructed, decently-paid positions (a big if, I realize), that could work out okay in the long run, though the transition period could, indeed, be painful (and adjuncts without terminal degrees would probably be especially vulnerable to finding themselves without jobs when the music stopped. This isn’t just — there are plenty of M.A.s and A.B.D.s out there who are as good or better teachers than Ph.D.s — but it’s a reality given the valuing of the Ph.D. in accreditation and various ranking systems.

      Also, full-time teaching-oriented positions *should* include some time for service, and for some sort of professional development (either doing a modicum of research or at least keeping up with others’ relevant research), which *should* mean full-timers carry a slightly lower course load than they did as adjuncts.

      Finally, I’d guess that many current adjuncts are teaching more courses, in total, as part-timers than they would if they held a single, decently-paid full-time position.

      So, bottom line: while there would undoubtedly be some difficult transitions at particular institutions (especially those that are geographically isolated) and for particular individuals, I don’t think that a transition to mostly full-time, preferably tenure-track positions, at least for core/intro sections (professionals teaching a single advanced course as an adjunct are another question) would result in a large number of unemployed former adjuncts.


  7. J. Thanks for spelling that out. You’re so right. We can’t be pretend that there wouldn’t be some people whose bad situation evaporates altogether and they might be in that mode of feeling like “be careful what you wish for.” I definitely think that this gives a lot of people pause when they try to mobilize for change. I don’t know how I’d feel if I were adjuncting. I’d probably resent the status quo but fear change (b/c while things might get better as a system, I might be one of improvement’s sacrifices).


  8. One way to seize the attention of tenured faculty is to get them to think about pensions. I’ve had repeated conversations with senior colleagues in which they just don’t seem to get that they are a lollipop balanced on a slender cardboard stick in demographic terms. University pension plans are typically designed under the assumption that once may have held true that as undergraduate enrolments expand (and they have) hiring will expand (and it has — but not the kind of hiring assumed in the pension models) and salaries will grow (and TT salaries have grown; contingent faculty salaries, ehem).

    The first reaction THERE IS A RECENTLY HIRED YOUNG SUPERSTAR IN MY DEPARTMENT PRACTICALLY MAKING MY SALARY S/HE’D BETTER PAY FOR MY PENSION. The second reaction is “grandfather in my deal, screw new hires”.

    But if you patiently, patiently explain that neither of those measures help the overall math *at all*, you can penetrate the fog a bit. That pushing for any — *any* — new hiring to be expensive (i.e., to be decently paid and included in the benefits structure) is actually in the self-interest of silverbacks is something to which some of them actually will listen. Interestingly, once they listen on those merits they actually begin to change their tune about the worthless undeservingness blah blah blah of junior folks who don’t have “real’ jobs. I mean they start to be able to hear everything else.

    Many others keep huffery puffering about (1) and (2) above, but you can’t win ’em all.


  9. To put it another way: you find a way to get tenured faculty to understand that the adjunct faculty problem actually *is* their problem. Because it is.


  10. Sure, there are plenty of “lifeboaters” in University of X, X State University, and Prestigious SLAC. But pretty much anyone outside of the 2/2 Bubble knows how precarious our position is. We’re in states where the legislature’s been cutting funding to its university system even after state tax revenues were back up, in schools where admin can’t find the money to open more lines but can somehow find the money to hire another few administrators, in schools where in many cases TT faculty make less than high school teachers. We’ve had our university system’s chancellor wonder aloud why we have faculty teach survey courses when we could just fire everyone who teaches surveys and replace them with a MOOC.

    Dr. Schuman, we know how bad it is.


    • Assistant Professor, So what are you guys at your U doing about it? Are you using the mechanisms of shared governance– like Senate — to propose motions to reverse the erosion of tenure? Are you using your Undergrad. Committees and Grad. Councils to refuse to approve courses for departments that rely heavily on adjunct positions and have too few full-time positions? There are so many ways TTF can throw a wrench in the works — but it takes time and requires that people get involved in university-wide governance — but I don’t see many people doing it. Sadly, I don’t see much activism among junior faculty. They are understandably pre-occupied with getting tenure, starting families (if they are still young enough), etc. but I wish they at least wanted to know how many adjuncts their own departments hire and wanted to brainstorm strategies for getting more tenure lines. From my vantagepoint, the term ‘life boater’ is pretty apt to describe many TTF.


    • Oh yeah, many many MANY of you do (and have it only marginally less-bad than adjuncts). And those who don’t will know soon. That was one of the things I wanted to bring up.


  11. If there were no contingent faculty positions, that might have meant I would never have had a chance to start my career. That would have made me sad as a new Ph.D.

    But I’d still replace all the adjunct and contingent positions in the country with tenure-track or FT permanent positions, even if I was one of the ones getting tossed or locked out of the profession. Because you know what’s worse than earning a Ph.D. and changing careers because you can’t find a job? Earning a Ph.D. and changing careers after spending a decade in “entry-level” positions because your field has ruthlessly replaced real jobs with “entry-level” positions that have a 1-3 year time limit. Replacing all the adjuncts with TT lines is the more merciful option.


    • I agree, not to mention that we would be restoring academic freedom to the university by doing that. The question is: how to restore TT positions and reverse the trend? With all the caveats about how different places are and how different departments are (and how vulnerable very small ones are), etc., I remain convinced that if TTF and chairs had the political will to refuse to create adjunct positions, the game of chicken with administrators would be won in favor of more TT positions to serve student demand. Now, there might be some administrators who would respond by increasing courseloads and that would be a deal-breaker to some people. Personally, I’d rather have a higher courseload but exist in a department in which people all have eligibility for tenure and in which we’re all equal in the sense made possible by tenure and so service/governance is done among peers. If we lost some “stars” who would rather be somewhere with lower courseloads, that would be a small price to pay. That said, I wouldn’t be in favor of simple conversion but would want (national, regional, or local — depending) searches for the new TT positions and, yes, this would mean that some people would lose out.


  12. Remember: most new(ish) research professors teaching 1/1 loads are also probably 80% soft money: in other words, they’re paid to bring in grants, overhead, and keep a lab humming; teaching and service is just an annoying 20% sideline. Suggesting to them to upgrade to 2/2 or 3/3 loads will make them your enemy, not your ally. Anything that interferes with their grantsmanship (i.e., more survey calsses) will hurt their ability to feed their own kids.

    Nothing against what you’re doing, just remember that any STEM profressor hired in the last decade or so is probably only getting enough hard money (instead of soft) to buy himself a Coke. To make them your ally instead of enemy, keep in mind what they are actually paid to do.


  13. Adjuncts are academics, too. With graduate degrees. And research portfolios. And experience. And knowledge of the field. And good/great pedagogy. We aren’t the piece of sh*t that you find on the bottom of your shoe. We are qualified for more than just picking up the courses no one else wants to teach. We are invested in the institution. We understand “hard” things like “service” and “Research responsibilities” and “supervision” and “budgets” and all the other things people like to tenuresplain to us about. And you are one budget cut away from being “respected person in the field” to being just. like. us.


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