The Continuing “Silent Crisis”

From the Department of Old News:

When I returned to teaching eleven years ago, it was as an adjunct. That was fine with me. In fact, it was exactly what I wanted. My store and cafe had suffered collateral damage from the dot-com bust and I needed to cut expenses. One of those was health insurance. Teaching a course or two could cover that expense.

I worked as an adjunct for three years, at three different colleges and one online, for-profit concern. For me, that worked out perfectly. I was re-introduced to academia, started writing again, and discovered that I loved the teaching. In 2004, I accepted a full-time “visiting” position and began to think about closing Shakespeare’s Sister completely. In 2006, I took a tenure-track position and began to ease away from the store/cafe (which I decided to close for good two years later).

Mine was what the experience of an adjunct should be. A part-time job done for the enjoyment–and a little extra cash. And as a means of trying out a profession one is not quite certain (even after all that graduate training) is quite the right one.

Few of my fellow adjuncts, I soon discovered, were in my position. Most were teaching at two or three different schools, rushing back and forth with teaching loads the equivalent of full-time. It was (and often still is) their only income. I was shocked when I discovered how many of them there were and how high a percentage of lower-level courses they taught–this had not been the case when I left academia in the eighties or even when I had previously taught as an adjunct for a year in the early nineties. Certainly not to the extent I saw a decade ago.

I wasn’t naive; I’d just been out of the business.

For a business it had become… and adjuncts were cheap labor to be utilized as extensively as possible.

In a blog post today, Diane Ravitch calls the adjunct situation a “silent crisis.” She references the AAUP page on contingent faculty:

The AAUP say that the huge increase in contingent faculty did not occur because of budget cuts, but occurred during flush times, when universities decided to spend on facilities and technology instead of instruction and faculty development.

Think of it.[…]

How is this sustainable over time?[…]

And we need fresh thinking about the use and abuse of adjunct faculty. Once upon a time, young men and women planned careers as college professors. That is increasingly rare, and will eventually erode the quality of higher education.

The fact that this is now an old problem makes it no less important. Yes, academia has muddled along with its adjunct and contingent hires without crashing and burning. So far. But that does not mean that it can in the future. As Ravitch suggests, the current situation is not sustainable.

Which is probably the best argument for change. No “business” can continue for long simply by patching holes in its business model.

Ravitch was responding to an article, “The Closing of American Academia” by Sarah Kendzior. Kendzior makes points about adjunct life that ring true to me, including this:

In addition to teaching, academics conduct research and publish, but they are not paid for this work either. Instead, all proceeds go to for-profit academic publishers, who block academic articles from the public through exorbitant download and subscription fees, making millions for themselves in the process. If authors want to make their research public, they have to pay the publisher an average of $3000 per article. Without an institutional affiliation, an academic cannot access scholarly research without paying, even for articles written by the scholar itself.

The Modern Language Association, of course, has started to move away from this but, in many fields, what Kendzior writes remains absolutely true.

We who are lucky enough to have landed tenure-track jobs fold our research (and service) into our jobs. So, the universities we work for are, in effect, subsidizing us and the for-profit publishers. No one, however, subsidizes the adjuncts. Not only do they often teach the equivalent of a full-time load, but they get no institutional support for the research and writing they must do if they are ever to manage to get onto the tenure track.

If the position of the adjunct is untenable–and it is–so is the position of the institutions that rely on them. The contingent hires they have used so that they can build new buildings, expand programs, and explore technology just aren’t going to be there. Kendzior writes:

“Bart, don’t make fun of grad students,” Marge told her son on an oft-quoted episode of The Simpsons. “They just made a terrible life choice.”

Fewer and fewer are going to be willing to make that choice. The pool for contingent hiring is going to get smaller and smaller. As these are people that the universities need, you’d think they would do everything they can to improve their lot–developing pathways to permanent (and full-time) jobs, providing health insurance, paying them adequately, offering support for scholarship, and more–but they don’t. All they do is continue to exploit them as though there is a continual flow they will always be able to dip into as the “older” ones are used up and cast aside.

4 thoughts on “The Continuing “Silent Crisis”

  1. Pingback: Crisis in the Academy | Sarah Kendzior

  2. Pingback: Plight of Adjunct Faculty Link Round-up « The Unemployed Philosopher's Blog

  3. Pingback: I’m the 67% « The Unemployed Philosopher's Blog

  4. Every society has a group of people deemed expendable. And the university acts as a conditionning force, telling those who are deemed as expendable that its good to be put on the sacrifical alter and it is selfish to put one’s material needs first. It is TOTALLY a Hunger Games mentality where for most, it is a kill or be killed mentality so the ones with better jobs just step over the living dead on the way to the top. While you may claim to care for the adjunct, the real question is, when the question of raises come up, do you think of sharing some of that wealth with your slave brothers and sisters, or do you quiety allow the exploitation to take place and say nothing? I suspect there are lots of full-time professors who care in theory, but in practice, their real allegiance to their pocket books. This is why things will never change for the adjuncts. The ones with the good jobs in academia just aren’t willing to give up a good thing. And yes, it is probably a good thing that full-time professors are becoming concerned (I am always surprised when a full-time professor even admits that there may be a problem with this way of running the university since so many are firmly convinced that adjunct deserves to be paid nothing), because when the adjuncts go, it’s the full-timers that will be on the chopping block next. So yes, be very concerned.

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