Adjunct Narratives

This post is cross-posted from Yellow Dog with the permission of its author, Jeff Rice of the University of Kentucky.

First person narratives about the adjunct experience in academia are being published – it seems – daily. Today, I came across a link from a Facebook friend about a Fairbanks, Alaska adjunct on food stamps.  A link to a story about motherhood and adjuncting was also shared with me today. The Chronicle of Higher Education has become the mouthpiece for such narratives, all of which are anti-tenure track faculty and all of which believe in the great injustice that has been done within higher education. I read this narratives almost every day. I’m interested in the rhetoric of narrative, so whatever I feel about the adjunct experience, I am interested in how adjuncts are telling their story.

Why now? Why the sudden proliferation of adjunct narratives, a frenzy of pieces that rival the popularity of online essays regarding MOOCs a year ago. During that period, one couldn’t avoid either a hyperbolic praising of MOOCs or a dismissal of MOOCs in any given business or education online outlet. That frenzy is now a trickle of updates. It has died down.

Why are news outlets giving so much room to the adjunct narrative all of a sudden? The adjunct problem has long been with us. Exploitation of teaching in the university is hardly new. Have publications merely woken up to this sleeping audience of readers, as Slate seems to have done with some hyperbolic and uniformed pieces? And what are these narratives trying to achieve as they tell their stories of failed expectation, financial struggle, food stamp dependence, and feelings of disenfranchisement?

  • Sympathy. A readership, it seems, will sympathize with the adjunct plight once the readership understands or learns about how awful things really are. I’m not really sure, though, that the strategy works. Within academia, adjunct exploitation is not a new problem. Within the general public, the issue doesn’t seem to raise much thought or action. Few people vote for their state representatives (who control university allocations) based on education issues.  Have any pieces swayed a popular uprising against how students are being taught? I’ve always felt, as well, that this strategy can backfire. If the general public sees (as if they don’t know ) that their children are being taught by underpaid instructors with – at times – minimal degree qualifications, will the public demand higher salaries and benefits for those instructors, or will the public demand that their tuition dollars go instead to having their children study with the tenured faculty, who the public, the narrative claims, think their students study with in the first place?
  • Discredit. When a narrative is published that says: I have an MFA in Creative Writing or an MA in Literature or a PhD in Literature and the only job I got was $2,000 a course with no benefits, doesn’t this merely confirm a belief that the graduate degree in question has no value? The more these narratives are promoted, aren’t they discrediting the various departments – often in the humanities – already under fire for a graduate degree often deemed unneeded? Again, it seems the strategy backfires. What this strategy seems to say is: The degree is worthless. If I ran an English department, for instance, I’d be very upset over this part of the narrative.
  • Attack. Administration bloat is often the focus of the attack; a well circulated narrative is something along thelines of “Between 1993 and 2007, the number of full-time administrators per 100 students at America’s leading universities grew by 39 percent, while the number of employees engaged in teaching, research or service only grew by 18 percent.” Or this statistic:“between 1985 and 2005 administrative spending increased by 85%, while administrative support staff increased by a dramatic 240%. Meanwhile spending on faculty increased by only around 50%.” All likely true. But what does all that administration do? Does any of it have value? What if it were all removed? What would be the result? I don’t know. But neither do the critics since they haven’t pushed the attack into a real argument yet by citing specific positions and their value/lack of value to a given university or college. Tenure line faculty are also the other side of the attack. This part of the narrative says that we are all subsidized by adjunct labor or that we purposely keep adjunct labor in its place. I’m not aware of any of this being true, and I doubt any of us object to adjuncts moving out of the exploitive realm. We don’t set salaries or lines, after all.
  • Everyone is equal. The basis of all the narratives seems to ride on this vital point. Person x without a tenure line position is equal to person Y who has one. There is no shortage of qualified people who could, in many universities/colleges, be hired on the tenure line. Why such people are not, though, is based on all kinds of variables, from the well circulated trope of “unfair” to the less understandable reality of “fit.” But the reality to this narrative is that all academics in a given field are not equal. The MFA in Literature or Creative Writing is not necessarily equal to whoever is on faculty in that given department. It’s difficult to know, of course, because that means fleshing out details, fleshing out how such details work in a given local situation, saying things about another’s career that may not be pleasant to say nor hear (i.e., you do indeed have a published book or some publications, but we don’t find that topic of interest to the work we do in this department). Even among tenure line faculty, however, we are not equal.
  • Money. The overall narrative is that there is plenty of money. There is money in many cases. Often, even in a financial crisis, money is found for all kinds of projects. The suggestion, it seems, is that provosts and deans have the money to pay everyone at a certain level, but for greedy reasons don’t. This suggestion confuses me greatly. What is in it for a dean or provost to not pay if he/she can? Where is all this money when every year state allocations are reduced? We just found out about a 2.5% cut to UK’s budget. That doesn’t mean more money. That means less. The issue may not be money as much as priority. As long as we structure General Education in a certain way or “core” courses such as first year writing as massive undertakings that could never be taught by only tenure line faculty, we are looking at a situation where there is not enough money to pay all instructors fairly. But if we cut something, we are destroying higher education. And if we did such cuts, most of the adjunct positions would vanish, and be replaced with nothing.

So what do these narratives accomplish? These are some tropes I pick out and respond to. I don’t respond because I’m against adjuncts or don’t understand the situation. I very much understand the situation. But that is not my purpose here. My interest is in how the story is framed, and why this way as opposed to some other strategy? Most of the stories, after all, are similar and repetitive. Repetition can be highly effective. Is it in this case? I don’t think so.

3 thoughts on “Adjunct Narratives

  1. This is, of course, a very complex and volatile issue.

    Brace yourself. I think that some adjuncts are going to read your post and exclaim, “First we are being royally screwed over, and then we are being criticized for how we are complaining about being royally screwed over.”

    For adjuncts, as for all exploited workers, it is not a rhetorical issue but an issue of personal survival.

    That said, I think that you are right–that attacks don’t accomplish anything in themselves. They need to be linked to specific, achievable goals. And the more targeted (narrow) both are, the better.

    What seems to be your broader point–that it is easier to get momentary media attention than to effect real change–is all too true. Despite all of the intense media and political attention, consider how little has actually been done about the student-debt “crisis” over this last year. As far as I can tell, Congress has passed only two pieces of legislation that insure that the situation won’t become immediately worse. That’s it.

    I think that the real issue is institutional priorities, and you are absolutely right, the focus needs to be on shifting very specific spending priorities within individual institutions. To do that, faculty need to be organized.

    In some ways, AAUP has been somewhat slow to respond to adjunct issues, but many of us in the current leadership are very committed to helping adjunct faculty to unionize where they can and to bringing them into our existing chapters as associate members where they can’t unionize. Rudy Fichtenbaum and Howard Bunsis have not only made that commitment, but they have been working very hard to meet it and challenging each of us to contribute to the effort.

    In a recent post, Aaron Barlow asserted that it’s not an “adjunct crisis”; it’s “our crisis.” I could not agree more.

    Although I was excoriated for making this point in a previous post, I will make it again because I think that it is a core truth. Although full-time faculty have often ignored the problem or even have had some part in making it worse, we are the most natural allies of adjunct faculty within academia. At some point, we all need to put the recriminations behind us and to start looking forward.

  2. A quick note on the preceding comment before commenting on the post:

    Adjuncts are not generally associate members of AAUP, a category created for administrators and members of the public who support AAUP but are not faculty/professionals in higher education. Thus, the strategy of making adjuncts associate members of an AAUP collective bargaining chapter needs to ensure that the rights and voting status of such adjuncts within AAUP itself are not jeopardized. Adjuncts can be regular part-time members of AAUP with full voting privileges in AAUP; associate members of AAUP have no voting rights in the AAUP Constitution.

    Thus, if there is an AAUP CB chapter at a college or university where adjuncts are not permitted to be members, then at the least a parallel advocacy chapter needs to be established so that all members of AAUP have their full voting and conference rights. In the past, this was a sticking point within SUNY where AAUP only recognized the UUP President’s hand-picked members and the union leadership as members of the chapter, with no effort to protect the rights of UUP AAUP members who were not chapter leaders, let alone those SUNY faculty who were not members of UUP. As “Deep Throat” counseled during Watergate: Follow the money — even in AAUP.

    Now on to a comment on the posting, also inspired by Watergate’s “Deep Throat”:

    Picking up on the role of The Chronicle of Higher Education as a “mouthpiece” and on the points made in the blog: The CHE is driven by 1) advertising — and higher education administrators furnish that advertising, and 2) subscriptions — and the vast majority of subscribers have been administrators. Further, the CHE runs its own little game called the Great Places to Work survey (whose data are all determined by campus administrations who pay to participate and with no checks and balances from CHE or its administrative partner), so let us keep in mind that ultimately the CHE as a specialized publication will likely not bite the hand that feeds it. This trend toward subservience to management goals has become more pronounced in the last decade or two.

    Also, the CHE is a business run and operated by persons and reporters very few of whom are or were actually academicians. In other words, those who report are not usually persons who have come through the academic pipeline other than as students. The CHE therefore has both a journalistic predisposition as well as an economic one which need to be remembered when one is reading the publication. As a concrete example, when the now-“defrocked” president of Penn State, Graham Spanier, had a blog at CHE back in the mid-2000s, the CHE editors regularly deleted posts by those who criticized him and his postings at the blog. Of course, years later, those persons who were “banned” by the CHE had their vindication in the revelations about Spanier during the Sandusky scandal, but the lesson is there about where CHE editorial sympathies generally lie (all puns intended).

    Thus, the point made in the post about the problematic “we are all equal” argument is well-taken in the CHE context both as an anti-tenure and even an anti-faculty form and substance stance by the publication. Unlike the New York Times, for example, the CHE refuses to use the “Dr.” title for holders of the Ph.D., Ed.D., etc., claiming that it is more “equal” to treat all “terminal degrees” the same and deny the title “Doctor” to all but physicians (thus undermining their own argument, of course). Because these CHE journalists seem to consider themselves superior to the faculty about whom they are reporting — and are beholden to the higher education administrations who indirectly fund their salaries — the coverage is indeed often at best subtly problematic and rarely truly bold and daring. How often does administrative bloat appear in articles about adjunct faculty written by CHE staff, for example? Think tanks publicize those statistics and adjuncts quote them, but does CHE-produced coverage of adjunct issues make that connection regularly in the free, accessible articles? Something to watch for.

    In short, the guest blogger is correct to note that how the issues of adjunct inequality are covered is an important question to ask. Extending Marshall McLuhan’s maxim, in a publication like the CHE, the message can also be a status medium for spinning public opinion in the direction of both undermining tenure and governance and toward faculty subjugation to more total and totalitarian administrative control — neither of which conforms to the spirit let alone the letter of the AAUP’s founding principles.

  3. Although Professor Rice and I don’t see adjunct labor issues in exactly (OK, truth be told, even mostly) the same way, I agree with a lot of what’s here. I work hard, every day (not exaggerating) to contest the narrative the tenure-track/tenured faculty are the enemy, and so do plenty of other tenured faculty–except that some of us tenured folks are a big part of the problem. It’s the generalization that’s troubling.

    I work with people who have, in fact, constructed their jobs on the backs of adjunct faculty–who have reassign time from our 4/4 teaching load that they simply couldn’t get if there weren’t people to take on part-time teaching; who are able to opt out of teaching gen-ed writing courses because they can get adjuncts to do it for them; and so on. I teach in a system where graduate students don’t teach, so lower division gen-courses get pawned off on contingent faculty when tenured faculty don’t want them. (I have a serious problem with anybody who won’t teach the gen-ed curriculum, but that’s probably a different argument altogether.) So the overgeneralization that we tenured folks aren’t a problem is just as overgeneralized as the overgeneralization that we’re the mortal enemy. Some of us are directly dependent on contingent faculty for opportunities we wouldn’t have otherwise, and we’d do well think about how we might at least mitigate the effects of the choices to pursue them.

    I would also contest the claim that CHE is a “mouthpiece.” Given the last several years of adjunct organizing, I would describe CHE’s current interest in adjunct labor as a bandwagon effect. If CHE imagines itself spearheading a movement, they’re hallucinating. And precisely for the reasons that Prof Rice articulates–but that’s a problem with CHE.

    Could keep going, but probably shouldn’t.

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