Adjuncts and Part-Timers: Role of the Institution

The Chronicle issue on adjuncts and part-timers quotes a number of people who have reconciled themselves to life with a heavy but uncertain teaching load, low pay, no job security, no benefits, and the lowest level of status that you can occupy and still be called a professional.  Some of these folks appear resigned, some seem embittered, some seem content with the tradeoffs, and some even appear to enjoy the life or at least see its advantages.  Those who accept the life seem to choose it for the freedom to come and go, maintain a flexible schedule, and continue to work with students, which they love and which provides meaning and purpose; these benefits, to them, outweigh the inequities and insecurity.  For them, apparently, it all comes down to balance.

I applaud everyone who aspires to a balanced life and chooses accordingly, but at the same time it’s hard to stomach the inequities and injustices perpetrated by the adjunct and part-time system.  And I’m not talking just about faculty, but about students and their parents as well.  Ask me, a  parent of college students, what sort of people I want teaching my daughters, and I will say smart, empathic scholars of good character who embody the virtues of creativity, knowledge, wisdom, and intellect, who teach with love and care about their students.  I want people who will care about my daughters, who will nurture their development as whole persons; I want people my daughters can get to know and who will inspire them to learn.  I want to entrust their education to institutions that devote themselves to promoting and nurturing such values.

What am I to think of a university that staffs two thirds of its undergrad credit hours with adjuncts and part-timers?  No doubt many, perhaps even all, of these people are dedicated and competent teachers, but what is the institution telling me when it pays them so miserably and gives them no stake in the institution?  It tells me just what it thinks their work is worth, which is 75% less than that of the regular faculty.  It tells me, further, that it is perfectly willing to exploit them but does not want to be held accountable for their performance.  If they don’t do a good job, they can simply be fired – for that matter, they can be fired for any reason at all – and that’s the end of it as far as the institution is concerned.  But what about the students who have taken their courses?  You guessed it: they are on their own; we wash our hands of them.

No institution can afford to admit that it exploits its own students or, more accurately, their parents and the state taxpayers, who are the actual customers.  Yet they charge the same tuition regardless of who does the teaching.  How many administrators or trustees would want their own kids to attend a school that takes no ongoing responsibility for its faculty, where teachers come and go, where most feel no sense of belonging or ownership of either the program or the community?  Sadly, these economic and professional realities undercut the institution’s claims to put students  first.  Too often, it seems, the business of the university is not education, but simiply staying in business.

The Adjunct and Part-time Challenge

Back when Jerry Brown was governor of California the first time, the state went into one of its periodic budget crises, and the good governor decided to freeze salaries throughout the state university system.  When the faculty objected, he told them they should be content with the “psychic dollars” they got from teaching.  Very well, they replied, then we’ll just pay our taxes in psychic dollars.  Unfortunately, market forces eventually triumphed over wit.

I thought of this exchange while reading the Chronicle’s big issue on adjunct faculty, which hit the stands two weeks ago.  Everyone knows that the tenured ranks are shrinking as people die or retire, and that their positions are not being replaced, but rather filled with part-timers and adjuncts who are paid starvation wages, receive no benefits, and enjoy few or none of the professional respect, standing, opportunities, or institutional support normally accorded to the so-called “regular” faculty.   In fact, over half of all undergraduate course hours are now taught by adjuncts or part-timers, so it is they who should be considered “regular.”  But they are not treated so by either the profession or the institution.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, everybody wrings their hands about the  adjunct situation, but nobody does anything about it.  At least that’s how it sometimes feels.  But in fact, a considerable movement has begun to unionize part-timers and adjuncts, and to advocate for better employment conditions. The Chronicle has run stories of organizing and successes on various campuses, where tangible gains have been made. And the feature issue just mentioned has shone a bright light, which, if not harsh or glaring enough (for this writer, at least), still has the merit of publicly acknowledging the problem and identifying some of the blind spots that infect both the profession and the institution.  It also raises the question of balance, which makes it especially pertinent to this series.

The Chronicle reporters surveyed hundreds of part-time faculty teaching in the Chicago area; they also looked closely at one school, Oakton Community College, whose president, as it happens, began her career as an adjunct. At Oakton, full-time faculty make around $86,000 a year on average, teaching five course per semester, whereas the most an adjunct can make for the same load is around $21,000.  This shocking disparity prompted diverse reactions.  Some part-timers claimed to be content with the tradeoff: no committees, flexible scheduling,  freedom to moonlight, and, of course, those priceless psychic dollars.  Others felt undervalued and exploited, bitter about receiving unequal pay for equal work, and resentful at being treated as second-class citizens when their credentials and skills were as good or better than those of the regular faculty.

When asked about these reactions, administrators and regular faculty gave familiar responses.  The president of Oakton said she had encouraged departments to include adjuncts in their meetings and mailings, and to involve them in curriculum and planning. The regular faculty claimed to be reaching out.  But neither the institution nor the regular faculty suggested equal rights or equal pay.  Administrators claimed that their adjunct pay scales fell within the norm; regular faculty claimed they had more responsibilities and worked longer hours than adjuncts.

In the one case, it is simply market forces.  As long as there are people willing to teach for $2100 a course, colleges will hire them.  It’s simple, convenient, and expedient  — as long as you operate under a factory model of education.  In the other case, you are merely rationalizing privilege.  No one can tell me that any college or university in this country (apart, perhaps from those where research is the sole mission) pays its regular faculty three times as much for their committee work and scholarship as it does for their teaching.  And it’s absurd to make such an argument for a community college, where teaching is supposedly the main thing.

Because adjuncting and part-time work have become ubiquitous in academe, we need to examine it from the standpoint of navigating and balancing a career. It’s one of the braided streams of academic life.  The “standard model” that we introduced at the beginning of this blog is hardly standard today.  More and more people are finding that after grad school the only doors open to them lead to part-time or adjunct positions. It is hard to awaken from the sleep of reason to discover how powerfully market forces and the profession’s jealousy of its own privileges can blunt, bend, or break an academic career.

In the posts to come, we’ll look at the adjunct and part-time path from the viewpoints of institution, profession, and person.  What are the benefits and costs to each, and how can we find a soul-sustaining balance under such conditions?

Grad School: Tools for Balance

What can we learn from these stories and reflections about finding balance in grad school?  Each group develops its own wisdom, but here are some tools we gleaned from the ASLE workshop last June.

1.  It’s not just about work.  No doubt work – making the grade, learning the ropes, designing and conducting research, writing, seminaring, conferencing – always comes first in people’s mind.  But there is more to life than learning and more to learning than books and talk.  The primary tool, then, is to keep the dream of balance alive, to make it part of your life practice.

2.  Mentor yourself.  Take time to explore options and study alternatives.  Remember that a PhD gives you many transferable skills, and that teaching is not the only path open to you.  Investigate other channels in the braided stream of an academic career: administration, foundation or nonprofit work, government, think tanks, research, industry, writing, journalism, even entrepreneurship.  Listen for what the Quakers call “leadings,” the inner voices, signs, or hints that point toward the path of your own soul’s growth.  Then find activities that shed more light down that path.

3. Learn from the community.   If you observe both your institutional community and the larger society in which it is embedded, you can learn much about the culture, personality types, and social drivers that govern the world you are preparing to enter.  This sort of knowledge can often prove of more than equal value to field expertise as you navigate the choppy waters of a career.  Try looking at your school, your professors, and your colleagues with the eyes of a novelist, and don’t neglect the folks behind the steam tables.

4.  Get involved with undergraduates. And not just as a TA.  These are the people you may soon be helping to educate.  They are the future.  Better yet, most of them will not become academicians; they will go out into the “real world.”  They are still experiencing education for the whole person, so their journey, which is also yours, can become mutually supportive, even inspiring.  Staying in touch with the undergraduates will help you stay in touch with your own growth process and balance the professional training emphasis of grad school.

5.  Network to build relationships. In grad school, everyone is pretty much equal, on the same level, in the same boat.  Soon enough, you will all begin to diverge.  Relationships formed and nurtured early on can pay handsome emotional and professional dividends in years to come.  Don’t just stick to your own department, but venture forth to other fields, student organizations, and colleagues from other institutions that you meet at conferences.

6. Choose work that feeds your spirit. There is no point in doing research that will “get you ahead” if it doesn’t speak to your soul.  Take time to find your own burning questions and build research that will address them.  That is how fields evolve, and how academic work leads to progressive social and intellectual change.

7.  Engage in self-nurturing activities such as hobbies, socializing, recreation, sports, or sharing your home culture with friends and colleagues.  Be sure to take good care of your body as well as your mind; remember the Sufi admonition to “be kind to your ass, for it bears you.”  Eat well, sleep well, work hard, play often.

Got tools? Please share them in a comment.

Grad School: the Institution

We’ve seen how grad school serves the student by providing apprentice training and serves the faculty by perpetuating the profession with its values, hierarchies, and myths.  But what about the institution?  Like fish in the sea, both students and faculty live, move, and breathe within the institution that supports and surrounds them, yet remain largely unconscious of how it operates.  It’s an environment that we take for granted.  But the economics and politics that govern the “real world” also govern the institution and through it the real lives of students and faculty alike.

Marc Bousquet, who blogs for the Chronicle on labor issues in academia, argues that one’s most employable years as an academician are the years of grad school, when there are plenty of teaching jobs to go around.  You would think, he says, that getting the degree would make you more employable, but the reverse is true. Once you get the degree, your chances of finding a job drop sharply, and the older you get, the less employable you are.  The reason?  Market forces.

Bousquet maintains that grad students provide cheap labor for the university to staff introductory courses that regular faculty don’t want to teach.  In addition, doctoral programs enhance the institution’s prestige, thus attracting star faculty as well as grant money.  Although the students obviously benefit from this arrangement – they gain knowledge, skills, and entry-level credentials – the profession and the institution benefit more.  The university does not take responsibility for the lack of employment opportunities once they have done their job of training.  Degree in hand, you are out the door and on your own.

When I went through grad school back in the 1970’s we got no training in how to teach and no professional coaching at all.  Happily, much has changed for the better in this regard.   At the University of Nevada-Reno, for example, grad students in the Literature and Environment Program receive many hours of instruction in professional skills such as networking, publication, conferencing, and applying for jobs, as well as in teaching, research, and scholarship; the faculty take an active interest in each student and provide intensive coaching.  As a result, their students fare comparatively well once they leave.  But no amount of such effort can erase the dismal job market figures or alleviate what Bousquet calls the “great depression” from which academia currently suffers, where two thirds of recent PhD’s will fail to secure full-time, tenure track jobs.

Under such conditions, many will settle for part-time or adjunct positions, which do not pay a living wage, others will sidestep into administration, while others may quit the profession entirely and reinvent themselves in some other line of work, anything from law to business to driving a cab.  This may well happen to you.  But for now, while you are in grad school, the question is how to live a balanced life under the exploitive tradeoffs of apprenticeship.  How can you make it work for you?  How can you feed your spirit while feeding the rat?

(For more on the ideas and writings of Marc Bousquet, visit his video blog site.)

Grad School: Training for the Profession

During my first year in graduate school, I was amazed at the low grades I got on papers.  After routinely receiving A’s for original thought and dynamic writing, I was now getting B’s with brief, discouraging comments.  Back in college we had been encouraged to do our own thinking first and look at the criticism only later, if at all.  I had always felt gratified and affirmed when some critic’s interpretation matched my own, and my professors had apparently felt so too.  But all that changed when I got to grad school, and the reasons remained maddeningly obscure. On the surface, everything looked the same, but underneath, something else had to be going on, because it all felt different. I spent most of an increasingly neurotic year before stumbling upon the truth.

That spring, in a seminar on Renaissance literature, I was assigned a paper on John Skelton’s “The Tunning of Elinour Rumminge.”  Skelton was Henry VIII’s court poet and wrote bawdy doggerel that must have pleased his sovereign but sounded, to my twentieth century ear, like something out of Monty Python, minus the wit. “The Tunning of Elinour Rumminge” describes with relish how three hags disgrace themselves after getting drunk in a tavern. I am no prude, but I had to gag it down, and after cudgeling my brain could come up with absolutely nothing worthwhile to say.  That’s when criticism came to the rescue.  In despair, I searched out the three extant articles, summarized their contents, did a simple comparison/contrast, and reported the results.  Imagine my surprise when the paper received an A with the comment, “This is the most mature work of yours that I’ve seen.”

That’s when I realized that grad school and college had very different goals, even though they employed similar means. College aimed to educate and develop the whole person toward a life of responsible citizenship, whereas grad school aimed to train professional scholars.  College served society; grad school served the profession.  That’s why the professors cared more about our mastery of the secondary literature than about our appreciation of the wisdom and beauty of the poetry itself.

Every profession needs rites and symbols of initiation to perpetuate itself. Grad school takes naïve lovers of the arts and sciences and turns them into serious professionals, well-versed in the lore, the lingo, and the rules of their chosen game.  It takes people and makes them into players.  In the process, it provides high-status jobs for the elite and low-status, low-paid labor for the institution.  As for the students, how they play once they graduate, and how they fare in the game, is up to them.

To achieve and sustain balance under such circumstances takes deliberate imagination.  Stay tuned the institutional perspective, followed by more tools and lessons from the ASLE workshop.