adjuncts · grad school · PhD · politics · slow academy

Adjunctivitis and the PhD

You guys (/girls!), things are bleak. As I tumbled down the rabbit hole of related articles for this post, I found myself variously in need of taking a shower, having a drink, listening to this song on repeat, something. This post was hard to write.

You may know that on January 24, the US House Education and the Workforce Democratic Staff released a report on contingent faculty in higher education in America entitled “The Just-In-Time Professor.” Colleen Flaherty of Inside Higher Ed observes that this report “marks the first time Congress has so formally acknowledged a situation that adjunct activists have long deemed exploitative.” It’s based on an eForum that Democrat Rep. George Miller of California initiated in November 2013, asking adjuncts to respond to an online survey, and 845 adjunct faculty in 41 states (some of whom have been working for over 30 years, and some only a semester) responded. Here’s what the report concludes, worth typing in full:

The eForum responses were consistent with news reports and other research that indicate contingent faculty earn low salaries with few or no benefits, are forced to carry on harried schedules to make ends meet, have no clear path for career growth, and enjoy little to no job security. The contingent faculty trend appears to mirror trends in the general labor market toward a flexible, ‘just-in-time’ workforce, with lower compensation and unpredictable schedules for what were once considered middle-class jobs. The trend should be of concern to policymakers both because of what it means for the living standards and work lives of those individuals we expect to educate the next generation of scientists, entrepreneurs, and other highly skilled workers, and what it may mean for the quality of higher education itself. (2)

Yikes (and AMEN). The numbers are shocking, or at least may be to those outside academia: as Flaherty’s article summarizes, in spite of claims that adjunct profs are better educators than tenured profs, 98 percent of respondents believed they were “missing opportunities to better serve their students because of the demands on their schedule.” Median respondent salary was $22 041, and on average, respondents had been adjuncting for 10 years. Most respondents (89 percent) teach at two or more institutions, and they often rely on family members and government assistance to make ends meet.  Further, 75 percent have no access to health insurance (you may also know that in response to the Affordable Care Act, which requires employers to provide full-time workers access to health insurance, many American institutions have cut maximum course loads for contingent workers). A whopping 49 percent of respondents stated that they teach between 8 and 10 classes a semester, though it’s important to note that this is based on those respondents who provided such information, which is difficult to measure given their constantly fluctuating workloads. Adjuncts often do not have offices or access to secretarial help, and must foot the bill for classroom books and handouts. In many cases they have staggering debt leftover from their own postsecondary education that they cannot afford to pay off.

Adjuncts are, on average, the highest educated and lowest paid group of workers in the country.

Here’s just a tiny sample of their stories:

 During this, we lost our home. We could no longer afford to make the payments on my poverty wages and my domestic partner’s wages from her job. We moved in with a friend and now had to commute an hour each way and a half hour between schools. I was driving three hours a day and teaching five days a week switching colleges during the day. I had no office space, so I often carried all of my work with me. Piles and piles of manilla [sic] folders in the back of my failing car. (8)

During the time I taught at the community college, I earned so little that I sold my plasma on Tuesdays and Thursdays to pay for her daycare costs. Seriously, my plasma paid for her daycare because I taught English as adjunct faculty. (8)

[W]ith two small children, living with food stamps in my mother-in-law’s house, I just can’t continue to subject my family to this. It is beyond embarrassing. (9)

During the Fall of 2013 I taught [a course at my school for three days a week] while working 40 hours night shift at Walmart to make ends meet. My take home remuneration for [the] course was $796 per month for the duration of the semester. I literally was paying the college to teach the course! (15)

I taught four course[s] in the fall, but was not told until the day before spring semester started that I wouldn’t have any classes for the spring. I was unemployed with no notice. (22)

Living with friends/family, selling one’s bodily fluids, subsisting off of food stamps, working at Walmart, dealing with sudden unemployment. This devastating report could signal the beginning of hope for institutional change, maybe, perhaps…or at least the issue is beginning to receive official state recognition. I was happy to see that PBS, who has labelled the issue “adjunctivitis,” is featuring adjunct faculty this week as part of their Making Sense series, and Paul Solman’s 8-minute video report is a succinct summary of the problems facing the contingent labour force today. (n.b. around 3:40, Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education blithely declares that “in some disciplines, particularly occupationally oriented fields, you may be ahead by having an adjunct faculty member who’s got extraordinary levels of real-world experience.” Wait, what? Who? Where?)

Along with the release of the report on Jan. 24, adjunct professor and unionization activist Arik Greenberg presented his story in Washington. After 11 years working as an adjunct, Greenberg is burdened with a tremendous amount of student debt and is in danger of losing his family home. “I’ve followed the rules to realize the American dream,” he says, “but I am now living the American nightmare.”

Given the urgent nature of these issues, I don’t find articles like this one, which was popping up in my social media feed this week, especially helpful. Written by an adjunct faculty member who seems unaware of the eForum report, and featuring an image of a youthful woman gazing hopefully off into the distance, sun shining on her face, this is the story of one adjunct professor who happens to be, like, okay in terms of prepwork, pay, commute, and institutional resources, despite being a precarious worker at two colleges with no guarantee of continued employment (and there is also no mention of how much time or support she has for her own research). The clincher: she has a husband in higher education who “makes a decent salary.” 

What’s the purpose of circulating articles like this? We need to address these problems, not just convince ourselves that we will be fine as long as we find a partner who makes more money than we do. I’m angry and frightened, and stories like Marshall’s only lessen my fears by a modicum, as they are clearly (as the author herself admits) the exception to the rule. My partner and I are both students. We have no job security, our families are not wealthy, we have leftover student loans from undergrad. The reality is that our dissertations may be academically original but professionally irrelevant, and by the time we finish–roughly two years from now–we will have been in graduate school (MA & PhD) for about eight years. What are we supposed to do?

There are no easy answers, of course, but I would love to hear from you. Adjuncts, what are your stories? Are they more like Greenberg’s or Marshall’s? Do you have any advice for us PhDs? Should we all prepare for #alt-ac and #post-ac careers? Is there anything you wish you had done differently? Please, let’s continue to generate a database of stories, outrage, and advice as we address the abysmal state of a profit-mongering institution that relies on contingent workers for, on average, 76 percent of American educational positions.

2 thoughts on “Adjunctivitis and the PhD

  1. It is tough to see the academic profession turned into a labour-commodity workforce. And as noted, the answers are not easy. Change is happening, more change is inevitable, and it will never be the PSE golden age of the last half of the 20th century. Academics are not alone of course — autoworkers, teachers, butchers, white collar workers, railroad employees, etc. have all seen the shape of work change. Instead of buying a red sports car, in my mid-life crisis I returned to school and began a late career as an academic. It is not unreasonable to assume that I will work with adjunctivitis until I retire. But had I stayed in the “real world,” it is even more likely that I would have faced repeated layoffs, down-sizings, redundancies after the age of 50, and lived precariously until retirement (I know this because as a manager I was sometimes responsible for making these decisions about “head count” — and the older, more expensive workers are the first to go). Because that's what happens. There is no certainty in any “career” academic or otherwise in these days of the late bourgeoisie or whatever you want to call it. What is necessary as part of the response to change is to self-organize, to rally the support of those who do have permanent positions, and to lobby institutions and the public so that the conditions of academic contract work can supply at the very least the dignity of a living wage and professional respect. Mark. G


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