Some time ago, Aaron Barlow wrote a post titled “To My Tenured Colleagues” in which he asked those with tenure to treat the adjunct faculty at their institutions as full and genuine colleagues. It was a great post, one which I fully endorsed. But it occasioned a veritable flood of complaints from adjunct faculty about their mistreatment by tenured faculty who were anything but committed to such collegiality.
I had no issue with the complaints per se, but I had just attended several meetings at which action items on adjunct issues never got addressed because the meetings became forums for such complaints. In a blog post titled “To My Adjunct Colleagues,” I tried to suggest that the tenured faculty meeting with adjunct faculty to address their issues are there precisely because they recognize the issues and want to address those issues, but they often begin to feel, instead, that they are being made to bear some of the burden of blame for what other tenured faculty have done to adjunct faculty. Those meetings, I suggested, should have a more productive tone and should be more focused on solutions than on recriminations precisely since the targets of those recriminations are very likely not actually in the room.
Well, I got massacred for that post, which received a high number of visits largely because another blogger, who accused me of being a do-nothing apologist for the status quo, provided a link to my post. I finally felt compelled to reply to the post on the other blog and to list the ways in which I had attempted very concretely to make things better for adjunct faculty over the previous year. I pointed out that the blogger had just magnified the sort of problem that I had been attempting to highlight in my post. The blogger then asserted that her post had not singled me out individually but had chastised a type of tenured faculty member—a tactic which, frankly, I found cheesy since most readers clearly felt that she had been singling me out or they would not have sent so many extremely uncomplimentary e-mails my way.
In any case, this is a rather long preamble to a discussion of a letter posted on August 25 on the site of the Chronicle of Higher Education that is titled “Is That Whining Adjunct Someone We Want Teaching Our Young?” [http://chronicle.com/blogs/letters/is-that-whining-adjunct-someone-we-want-teaching-our-young/] The best case scenario would be that the letter writer did not write the headline and that the letter does not support the tone of the headline.
But the best-case scenario does not apply here. This letter is so myopic that it boggles belief. I hardly know where to begin, but since four days have already passed since it was published online, I am fairly certain that the author has already been inundated with explanations of the many ways in which her perceptions are myopic. In fact, she just may be considering the sort of alternative career that she so helpfully has suggested that adjunct faculty pursue.
So I will confine myself to just three observations about the letter.
First, it is astonishing that it was written by someone from a community-college. If the author were from an elite institution, the tone of the letter would still be inexcusable but at least explicable. At almost all community colleges, however, 75% to 90% of the faculty are adjuncts. One wonders how those institutions will function if the pool of adjunct faculty should dramatically shrink. So, it would seem that the issues with which adjunct faculty are grappling should be more apparent to those at community colleges than anywhere else, and not the opposite.
Second, as I have already indicated, the letter writer does chastise adjunct faculty for remaining adjuncts when they fail to secure full-time positions—for not simply “moving on” and finding alternative, meaningful employment. Such employment would, of course, be much easier to find for those in some disciplines than in others, and those uneven opportunities go a long way toward explaining why many longtime adjunct faculty are in the humanities and social sciences. But, beyond that reality, most adjuncts do, in fact, do just what the letter writer is suggesting: they teach as adjuncts until they become completely disheartened by their exploitation and until they then can find anything else that is full-time. To suggest that this sort of “moving on” amounts to not just a pragmatically defensible but a morally defensible environment for people who have just invested a decade of their lives in earning advanced degrees requires one to ignore that these Ph.D.’s have very likely accumulated ten of thousands of dollars in additional student debt and that a system that produces such a surplus of people expecting a reasonable chance at fulfilling careers in academia is very obviously skewed in a morally indefensible way. The “whining” adjuncts are clearly not the problem; they are, instead, the canary in the coal mine, and our profession is about to explode like a pocket of compressed methane.
Lastly, I am very happy that the author of the letter wrote this paragraph in particular: “Why should I have to tell you that life is about compromise? As a career- and technical-education professor, I tell my students all the time that they may not land their dream job, but that they still have to work. I also tell them to get as much skill as they can, and acquire different talents, to have a variety of opportunities professionally. So when I read an article left in my box by an adjunct-teachers’ union about a dying, broken-hearted 83-year-old adjunct professor, I thought to myself, ‘Is that the kind of person we want teaching our young?’ Do we want the person who was not able to be self-sufficient, pay their electric bill, or put food on their table? As one of my friends might say, ‘Time to put on your big-girl panties!’”
How nice that Margaret Mary Vojtko didn’t need a living wage or healthcare insurance but simply someone to have admonished her in a timely way to “put on her big-girl panties”! (Please see my post “I Am Not Margaret Mary Vojtko: https://academeblog.org/2014/01/22/i-am-not-margaret-mary-vojtko/)
So why am I happy about such a paragraph that is outrageous on so very many levels? Simply because I didn’t write it. And it offers a very pointed contrast to what I did write in “To My Adjunct Colleagues”: https://academeblog.org/2013/10/14/addendum-to-aaron-barlows-to-my-tenured-colleagues-to-my-adjunct-colleagues/. I ask all of those who sent me hate mail in response to that post, to now re-read it with this post in mind.
You may still think that my tone wasn’t quite right, but I think that you will agree that, in the context of this completely tone-deaf letter, I no longer deserve to be addressed as one person memorably addressed me then: “Hey, asshole, maybe you should pull your head out of your ass and actually listen!” (To which, I wanted to reply, how can I both be an asshole and inside an asshole? But, even then—and especially then–I had enough sense to recognize that such a deeply philosophical response probably would not have helped matters.)