Adjunctivitis — a choice, not a condition

10/02/2014 § 13 Comments

Universities in the United States run on adjunct faculty. Adjuncts are part-time, temporary, untenured faculty paid per course to teach. They have little time for research or administrative duties, and they are finding it hard.

Paid a few thousand dollars per course, they apparently now make up around half of US university faculty. There is concern about what it means for the quality of education and the future of universities. If teaching staff don’t have time to research, how do they stay current? If they can’t contribute to administration, how will all the curriculum and ethics committees get their work done?

The neologism ‘adjunctivitis’ is revealing. The suffix ‘-itis’ suggests a medical condition that has befallen the faculty — think appendicitis, bronchitis, etc. But what we have here is a choice. These faculty haven’t suddenly come down with adjunctivitis. They have been building towards it for years, making a series of choices, continuing on this particular path despite the difficulties.

It is a hard choice, yes, but a choice nonetheless. Maybe they feel driven to teach. Maybe they really like their specific area of research. Maybe they like where they live, or their partners are settled into their own jobs. But let’s not forget that these are people with options. They are clever people with good work ethics who know how to communicate. They are choosing to continue being adjunct faculty because they feel it is better than the alternatives.

Hey, sorry, it’s not my problem if you can’t land your dream job. Wouldn’t it be lovely to be Prof Reg Chronotis — a little office, a little sinecure, no teaching load? But such positions are works of fiction.

What if a bunch of them said no? What if they just decided, y’know what, selling real estate or writing computer code or being in middle management is less stress and more money? I don’t know what would happen, but it would be interesting to find out. A new cohort of adjuncts might appear, ready to do the same work at the same pay. Or, universities might have to do something about pay and conditions.

Universities are under pressure to offer students luxury facilities at reasonable prices (air conditioning?! private bathrooms?! hah!). Universities are also affected by governments cutting spending:

In 1980, states provided 46 percent of the operating support for public colleges and universities, according to the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities. By 2005, average support had fallen to 27 percent.

Something’s got to give. In this case, it’s the cost of producing the lectures and assessments. A big variable cost with them is the teaching staff. If there’s no countervailing pressure from people, oh I don’t know, refusing to work for peanuts, then that’s where the universities will cut the costs.

Finally, there’s a revealed preference here about the attributes in the bundled good ‘university education’. This adjunct trend has been going on for years, and the complaints about impacts on teaching quality are nothing new. And yet, people keep shelling out more money for poorer teaching. Why? It does suggest that going to university is about getting that certification, or building networks, or being socialised, or buying the name brand if you can. People — students, parents, employers — seem less worried about the quality of the education.

Until they do — can I interest you in a little fixer-upper bungalow with nice harbour views?

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§ 13 Responses to Adjunctivitis — a choice, not a condition

  • Eric says:

    from what I’ve seen, there is a real concern with administrative staff bloat as well- vice president of this and assistant dean of that. There is no money to be had for tenure track professorships if it is all going to extra middle middlemanagement & swanky dorms for the students

    • There is concern about the number of managers and administrators — I recall reading that the ratio of non-teaching to teaching staff has increased. But again, the curious thing is that it’s been going on for decades, and people still keep buying what they are selling. I haven’t heard of a university breaking from the pack and selling a differentiated product by focusing on teaching and not the other stuff.

  • Universities in the United States run on adjunct faculty. Adjuncts are part-time, temporary, untenured faculty paid per course to teach. They have little time for research or administrative duties, and they are finding it hard.

    [rcb] This is already a false premise. Adjuncts are not paid for their work hours, the time it takes to prep, teach, and evaluate a course. Matters of student advising or research oftentimes does not even factor into the “finding it hard” strawman.

    Paid a few thousand dollars per course, they apparently now make up around half of US university faculty.

    [rcb] The “tell” here is your use of the word “apparently,” an adverbial admission of feigned ignorance regarding the three plus decade old problem of at will labor on college campuses. That sentence also should read “more than half” given the current statistics.

    There is concern about what it means for the quality of education and the future of universities.

    [rcb] True. But here “quality” needs to be broken down into the very bite sized pieces of the curriculum and institutional problem that are compounded when you are barely able to sustain an at-will workforce.

    If teaching staff don’t have time to research, how do they stay current? If they can’t contribute to administration, how will all the curriculum and ethics committees get their work done?

    [rcb] These are indeed real concerns. The one about equal pay for equal work, however, remains the most important problem to solve.

    The neologism ‘adjunctivitis’ is revealing. The suffix ‘-itis’ suggests a medical condition that has befallen the faculty — think appendicitis, bronchitis, etc. But what we have here is a choice. These faculty haven’t suddenly come down with adjunctivitis. They have been building towards it for years, making a series of choices, continuing on this particular path despite the difficulties.

    [rcb] Adminititis is also a choice, to create the working conditions that increase the likely hood of catching the adjunctivitis disease. By the way, it’s a metaphor you dolt. I discussed this at length in Adjunct Junkie:

    http://migrantintellectual.wordpress.com/2013/11/05/adjunkies-unite/

    It is a hard choice, yes, but a choice nonetheless.

    [rcb] So is the choice to not pay adjuncts equal pay for equal work; same for hiring more administrators than teachers; same for using state and federal funds reserved for creating or supporting faculty FT hire or tenure track lines for strengthening administrative power over the very basic needs of students and teachers.

    Maybe they feel driven to teach.

    [rcb] A medical student is driven; same for an engineering masters candidate. Same for my eldest son to write and direct movies.

    Maybe they really like their specific area of research.

    [rcb] I do. I love philosophy, literature, creative writing, sociology, history, and performance/theatre studies. But, again, how does this relate at all to the problem of administrators and higher ups entering into false contracts that create a 1:1 relationship between classroom and outside classroom time? Even if the “you make your own hell” thesis were correct, what does it mean for administrations to willfully perhaps even illegally draw up contracts that represent the legal position of a state or a private institution and legal obligation to meet the conditions of the contracted work?

    Maybe they like where they live, or their partners are settled into their own jobs.

    [rcb] False premises again. Your analysis presumes adjuncts have the resources — income, savings, family, social programs, a generous colleague — to help them move. “Like where they live” — would you ask the same question of a doctor whose hospital has now found loop holes to not pay out contracted fees from state or federal medical programs? No, you wouldn’t.

    let’s not forget that these are people with options.

    [rcb] If you don’t like it leave. How about this instead, my friend: if you don’t like it, change it. The conditions under which adjuncts were are the worst in history. Same for many Assistant Professors and tenure-track faculty. It strikes me as dangerous wish fulfillment of the conservative variety to think that people should just tuck tail and leave their hellacious situations. In the business communities I work in, when there’s a problem, the best managers and workers work together to solve it. They don’t come to the table with a “love it or leave it” attitude. Imagine how information technology, medicine, and banking would’ve fared in the last decade if a purely applied “love it or leave it” attitude was endorced. No, teachers I know, the mentors I have been blessed to call friends and colleagues — they fight. We fight. Why? Because it’s wrong to not pay people for their work and it’s dangerous to pretend that an at-will workforce can meet the finest curriculum and institutional standards that are not only accredited but WANTED by anyone who cares about students. Unlike, say, you.

    Hey, sorry, it’s not my problem if you can’t land your dream job.

    [rcb] But it is your problem when you broadcast a kind of thinking and arguing that lends itself easily to the argument that adjuncts created and maintained this crisis without a single word mentioned or a single choice analyzed by the administrators who decided to follow a corporate model rather than strengthen and grow non-profit wisdom.

    Wouldn’t it be lovely to be Prof Reg Chronotis – a little office, a little sinecure, no teaching load? But such positions are works of fiction.

    [rcb] That’s a good one, Professor L’Douche. Look. Prof Reg Chronotis. Review the literature from the past few years before writing another blog entry. This semi-pro, half-baked, hack wisdom is even more dangerous than the rationalizations offered by bosses up and down the college and university administration blockade. Not a single adjunct in either the revolt or starting to stand up for themselves seeks less work or less responsibilities. All anyone asks is simple: pay us for the work we do; respect the curriculum and institutional integrity we are all fighting to maintain; and stop preceding this problem will go away. At-will barely (if at all) works in the industries that claim to have benefitted in the age of contingency. The hidden costs and the top down pressures of administrative gluttony — the very weight of it all — will crash this system; and the canaries in the coal mine are screaming at you while you, Professor, turn up the volume on the tiniest radio playing “Just for the Adjuncts.”

    What if a bunch of them said no? What if they just decided, y’know what, selling real estate or writing computer code or being in middle management is less stress and more money? I don’t know what would happen, but it would be interesting to find out. A new cohort of adjuncts might appear, ready to do the same work at the same pay. Or, universities might have to do something about pay and conditions.

    [rcb] Some like myself have done precisely that — left. Others are in the process of leaving. I now am 100% independent and teach in a digital education movement called the Global Center for Advanced Studies as well as serve the students of the European Graduate School as a Faculty Fellow. Positioned on the outside, I can work better with people on the inside, as I’ve done since leaving American higher education in Fall 2011. Yet, there are colleagues across the world who want to stay and fight this corporate take over. To fight the administrations whose contentment and smug attitude, much like your own, adjuncts need allies. So, I have made it my personal mission to be a part of (if not instigate altogether) multiple media swarms as well as engage in direct face to face and asynchronous activism. For example, my petition re: the MLA Executive Salaries or my work with about twenty others to introduce, develop, and execute recent media on Al Jazeera America — The Stream. We’re in this together; we’re making our case more public.

    Universities are under pressure to offer students luxury facilities at reasonable prices (air conditioning?! private bathrooms?! hah!).

    [rcb] Now that parents are starting to understand how universities spend the money they borrow or four jobs they work to cover tuition, there is a shift in the expectation of “luxury facilities,” a myth that was created across the 00s right in time for the infrastructure river raid of college funds to best support the facilities and operations side of the university enterprise.

    Universities are also affected by governments cutting spending:

    //In 1980, states provided 46 percent of the operating support for public colleges and universities, according to the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities. By 2005, average support had fallen to 27 percent.//

    [rcb] Sure. But, investing essentially non-profit portfolios into volatile markets while also supply the systems with bureaucratic over-load = gross mismanagement that only compounds the problem of decreasing funds.

    Something’s got to give.

    [rcb] Agreed. But, Adjuncts have nothing more to give; they’ve donated most of their lives and salaries in-kind to unkind people . . . . . . . . Wait. Is this the part where I’m supposed to thank you for even bothering to address the problem, no matter the intended or unintended consequences of your intervention? Much like the Bosses, you just don’t care how your words may in fact work against the very people you claim to be offering help. Wake up, Adjuncts. You’re doing it to yourselves. Leave. Move. Grow up. Let’s flip this: Wake up, Admins. You’re doing it to yourselves. Leave. Move. Grow up. Surrender to the market forces that are causing you such misery. Don’t look at the market manipulation or how Citizens United has made investing, small and big, venture and not, a living hell.

    In this case, it’s the cost of producing the lectures and assessments.

    [rcb] Not when the courses and curriculum are written and implemented with care only a full time faculty work force can offer or at least a compensated contractual adjunct faculty.

    A big variable cost with them is the teaching staff.

    [rcb] This is such a cop out. Sorry. These are constants in the equation; the variable now is administrative executive salaries that skew the calculus of student-centered learning.

    If there’s no countervailing pressure from people, oh I don’t know, refusing to work for peanuts, then that’s where the universities will cut the costs.

    [rcb] The best pressure is from students and parents supporting their teachers and not the administrative thugs and thieves who dare to call themselves educators when they fail time and again to support students. Unions like SEA/SEIU and others are working overtime to increase the peanut take for adjunct workers. That’s a great start. Also, let’s look at the logic here — force out the abused worker and somehow that will raise awareness of the crisis for the administrations. Amazing. The very people who have been looking to corporate solutions for decades to solve problems great teachers can address in less than half the time or cost are now to be trusted with correcting the very same adjunct crisis they helped to cause.

    Finally, there’s a revealed preference here about the attributes in the bundled good ‘university education’. This adjunct trend has been going on for years, and the complaints about impacts on teaching quality are nothing new.

    [rcb] Please tell me you don’t teach logic or anything in the critical thinking area. Oh. It’s a “trend” I forgot. That makes it automatic, that brings it back to the precious market. No manipulation or negligence or criminal malfeasance in this scenario you construct. It’s natural. It’s been happening for years. Isn’t this the exact logic used by defenders of Greek systems or classic institutional racism rationalization? How in the world can that way of thinking help adjuncts? Here’s a better idea: fight. End this administrative oligarchy by taking back what’s yours and NOT listen to the middle managers and their cronies who have always historically been the first to sell you out becsaue, well, that’s just the way it is. How many crimes have been committed in the name of “oh well?”

    And yet, people keep shelling out more money for poorer teaching. Why? It does suggest that going to university is about getting that certification, or building networks, or being socialised, or buying the name brand if you can. People — students, parents, employers — seem less worried about the quality of the education.

    [rcb] Maria Maisto said it best: faculty working conditions are student learning conditions. As long as you are willing to partition your thinking about adjunct working conditions you are going to fail to address the central need of students: the best teachers. To be the best teacher, you at least need to be compensated for your work. All of it. Not part of it; no more donations or free lunches. You work 9 hours a week to teach a course, you get paid 9 hours to teach a course. Period. Demand nothing less until more permanent positions can be created from the 70% drop in administrative jobs. Let them apply for welfare, enroll in job relocation programmes, find the best career transition coaches, hunt for the best moving truck deal. Why? Because we don’t need them. Cut their jobs and send them to the corporate universities and institutions of banking, real estate, publishing, and so forth. Run them off campuses; and as they’re fleeing, remind them: it isn’t personal, it’s just business.

    Until they do — can I interest you in a little fixer-upper bungalow with nice harbour views?

    [rcb] No but you can sell off your attitude to the highest bidders. You can find them on any campus. They have Vice President in their obnoxiously long titles. I hear they’re buying up bullshit by the truckloads.

  • Lee Kottner says:

    I was going to add a rebuttal here, but Migrant Intellectual above pretty much covered everything I was going to say. Tl;dr = stop blaming the victims and check your freakin’ privilege.

  • […] Here’s the latest piece of advice about adjuncting […]

  • It would be more of a choice if there were more jobs out there, if it felt decent to quit in the middle of a semester, and if we all knew exactly what we were getting into going in. I’m glad adjuncts are getting their stories out there so more and more recent grads will be presented with an informed choice, which was not the case for many of us who are in it now. Also, if the job market would improve, the choice wouldn’t seem to be between part-time teaching and living under a bridge.

  • Also, I like what Migrant Intellectual said. ” In the business communities I work in, when there’s a problem, the best managers and workers work together to solve it. They don’t come to the table with a “love it or leave it” attitude.”

    Even when I find another option and can make the choice to quit being an adjunct (a sad choice, because I love teaching), I plan to continue to support the adjuncts’ fight. I’d like to see the day when we discover (create) a cure for adjunctivitis. I’d like to see people who wish to educate in Higher Ed being presented with actual choices: to teach part-time or to teach full-time, for example.

  • This is the other reaction, the one I didn’t blog about: existing adjuncts demanding better treatment. They may be able to do exactly as rcb and Dr D suggest — fight the power and bring about change.

    But this also confirms exactly what I’ve said — because students and families accept the situation, it continues. That’s why the adjunct organisers are trying to get their stories out — to make people aware of the conditions and the impacts on teaching. If they can enlist the support of students, then they may be able to pressure the administrators. That’s only true if people care enough about the quality of teaching.

    I don’t accept, not at all, that adjuncts are ‘victims’ or ‘exploited’. Basically, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t argue that adjuncts are amazingly capable thinkers and communicators who are central to students’ experiences, and also argue that they are victims of administrators.

    Maybe, just maybe, those skills aren’t actually valuable to the university.

    I’m not thrilled about it, either. But if you want to bring about change, you must first understand the problem. And, put simply, the problem is too much supply and not enough demand for your services. You can shift the supply curve or change its shape, which means reducing the number of adjuncts or restricting new graduates or organising adjuncts or something similar. Or, you can shift the demand curve, which means getting students and parents to care, or getting administrators or the people who control the budgets to pay more.

    And finally, I don’t hold out high hopes for the organising, and that’s based on personal experience. When I was a member of the Association of University Staff, I noticed two things. First, there is a tension between the established faculty and junior ones, and established faculty have the power. Secondly, when we demanded a Multi-Employer Collective Agreement (MECA), all the union staff from around the country said they would stand strong together. But once the individual universities started offering deals, each of the campuses folded. Solidarity Forever? Hardly.

    Or, as Jay Gould supposedly said, “I can hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half.”

    • The Homeless Adjunct and Migrant Intellectual have responded as well as I may have done. I’d like to add that we are not victims if we are standing up for our rights and working to create change. We are not accepting that adjuncting is a choice because it’s not an acceptable choice.

  • I won’t bother to respond point by point, because I think the Migrant Intellectual did just fine with his effort. But I can’t help but respond to Bill Kaye-Blake’s followup response: ” You can’t argue that adjuncts are amazingly capable thinkers and communicators who are central to students’ experiences, and also argue that they are victims of administrators.

    Maybe, just maybe, those skills aren’t actually valuable to the university.”

    Excuse me? Are you saying that it is impossible to be both a wonderful educator, providing great support for students, and yet be facing the national situation of faculty labor abuse? How is it NOT possible for both to be simultaneously true? Are you trying to suggest that IF we were as capable and intelligent as we think we are, it would be impossible to fall victim to the neo-liberal ruination of our profession? I suppose, then, that doctors in America must not be very smart, either, since they, over this same 40 year period have fallen victim to the corporate takeover of their profession, and are told by bean-counting insurance workers what medical procedures they are or are not going to be paid to perform.

    The skills of a scholar and educator aren’t actually valuable to the university…….let’s think about that one, too. Just what IS a university, if those skills are no longer valuable? If what you are saying is that the role of the scholar, the contributions of the intellectual class, the work of a dedicated educator, are no longer central to the mission of the corporatized university — well, of course you are right. But, then, aren’t you making our argument for us? Because the corporatized university — or as I like to call it, the Edu-Factory, is more interested in enrolling our students than in educating them. The corporatized university has McDonaldized education. If we are no longer “valuable” it is because the Edu-Factory is no longer a university — it is, rather, a notional institution, giving lip service through its PR and marketing departments to the value of education. The role of the scholar/educator will always be central to a real university experience. So, the message that parents and prospective college students need to hear loud and clear is that far too many of those institutions claiming to provide higher education are no longer actual universities. They keep up the pretenses the same way Agri-business likes to maintain the “farm fresh” illusion of their factory food.

    Those of us who have devoted decades of our life to our own scholarly training, and to our work as educators and scholars can choose to go — and many of us have little choice but to leave in order to survive financially. Or we can choose, at great sacrifice and suffering, to stay and fight the corporate colonization of our academic culture. We can try to rescue what we can from the grip of corporatism, for the sake of those students, and for the sake of our society. The smug pronouncements of this blog aside, I think that is a noble effort.

  • //You can’t argue that adjuncts are amazingly capable thinkers and communicators who are central to students’ experiences, and also argue that they are victims of administrators.//

    But, that’s not what I argued. I’m asking you and others to evolve your thinking outside of either/or analysis or pithy observational morality tales of poor adjuncts and disinterested markets.

    You are imposing a victimology; I’m basing my comments on facts — experience, research, and activism.

    How about you?

  • // And, put simply, the problem is too much supply and not enough demand for your services. You can shift the supply curve or change its shape, which means reducing the number of adjuncts or restricting new graduates or organising adjuncts or something similar. Or, you can shift the demand curve, which means getting students and parents to care, or getting administrators or the people who control the budgets to pay more.//

    Students need teachers, not administrators. Apply your market analysis to the admins so we can at least have common ground on which to stand. This is your area of expertise. I would love to learn more.

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