STUMP » Articles » Lesson: Adjuncts Don't Gotta Adjunct » 26 October 2016, 19:03

Where Stu & MP spout off about everything.

Lesson: Adjuncts Don't Gotta Adjunct  


26 October 2016, 19:03

Before I begin (and I know… you’re thinking… two posts in one day! What evil thing did we do to deserve this?!), I want to indicate that I’m in a bad mood. I had to postpone giving my midterm for my class because there had been a power outage on Monday (blah) and I just realized that I had been doing a whole bunch of things incorrectly in graphing which just pisses me off.

So I’m going to rant about something else. I’ve had this post in draft mode for a month, just for such a pissed-off opportunity.


Academic Penury: Adjunct Faculty as the New Precariat:

Oh, I bet the coiner of the term “Precariat” got a thrill when they thought up something so clever.

As an adjunct, Wangerin is employed on a casual basis and earns somewhere between half and one-third of what a tenure-track professor would make for teaching the same courses. That is significant, because non-tenure track teaching staff – commonly referred to as adjuncts and contingent faculty – now make up approximately 70% of all teaching staff in American higher education. This means that roughly three out of every four courses a student takes are taught by someone without job security who is working on minimal pay.

When Wangerin conducted a survey at the College of Staten Island, a CUNY-affiliated institution, she discovered that one-fifth of adjuncts had no health insurance and that half of all respondents were seeking full-time employment but were unable to attain it.

“The work is there,” Wangerin tells me, “they just don’t want to pay.”

A one-time adjunct and contract lecturer myself, I decide to look into the matter more deeply. Are Wangerin’s contentions particular to her own experience or are they more widely shared across the United States? And if they are, what does this mean for higher education?

It means there’s a lot of willing suckers.

I that half of respondents seeking full-time employment could find it. If they looked for something other than academic employment. And weren’t geographically constrained.

This is also like asking why all these wannabe actors are tending bar. At least the actors know they actually have to get real jobs before they can break into the big time for the career they want.

As I speak to contingent faculty from New York to Texas, Seattle to San Francisco, it becomes increasingly clear that academic penury has become the order of the day. And, concerningly, this is occurring at a time when higher education – and some salaries associated with it – is booming.

Oh, for fuck’s sake.


Why is this not clear? You can’t make a living as an adjunct…. so do something else. There’s a lot of boring jobs out there that require people having certain amount of skills and they pay a hell of a lot more than adjuncting.

You could be a medical claims transcriber!

Yes, yes, I know. It’s not the vaunted academic job you want. But that’s the point. You are sucked into the hellhole of academic jobs because you’re a willing participant.

This wage gap is facilitated by severe limitations on the number of tenure-track positions – i.e. positions that come with more secure, long-term employment – that are offered to teaching staff. Like a bizarre game of musical chairs, universities and colleges always need more teachers than they are prepared to offer long-term employment to. As a result, in an environment that is ostensibly about self-improvement, casual employment without the opportunity to advance has become the only option for many academics, while a small minority, who are able to literally and figuratively procure a chair are rewarded with pay packages that would, in some cases, have been viewed as absurdly generous only a few decades ago.


Seriously, this is embarrassing.

You’re supposedly intelligent. And you believed for how many years that you’d get that tenure spot? WHY?!

I bet you are more clear-eyed when it comes to people in other careers, like writing novels or acting. Or playing professional sports.

Suppose you had a student who came to you explaining how they were going to be a Hollywood superstar and therefore don’t need to actually get good grades in your class. What would you tell that student?

Academics may enjoy more intellectual freedom than many workers, but they also have a duty that does not generally fall on others: to research and to publish the results of that research regardless of how unpopular it may be. That might be the news that the earth goes round the sun, that smoking causes cancer, or that corruption exists in politics. I wonder what influence the lack of both money and job security is having on research today.

Oh spare me. Most adjuncts aren’t doing research.

“The point of tenure was to allow new ideas and new technologies to develop,” Aberle says, “but do that as a contingent staff member and you risk your job. Teaching staff are expected to do nothing but teach, and are expendable if they challenge the prevailing ideology. If a tenured member is let go, that becomes a news item, but if I have one bad semester, I’m done; one controversial thing and I’m done.”

Then work in an industry where new technologies and new ideas actually develop. It’s not academia, obviously. It’s going to be people wanting to make a buck. Hop to it.

Students: Suckers for Education


Considering the difficulties contingent faculty face, the concern that they show for their students often seems almost pathetically touching. Every person I speak to agrees that low pay and job precarity impact on the level of service they are able to provide for their students; they repeatedly express concern that students are unaware that the education they are “purchasing” may not be the ticket out of poverty that they had hoped for.

Arvis Averette knows more than most on this topic. He graduated high school in 1957 and marched on Washington in 1963 as part of the civil rights movement. Thanks, in part, to a college education, Averette became a successful economist who never depended on his adjunct position for income.

“I lived in a steel town. About 90% of students were white and 10% were black, but 50% of college graduates were black,” he tells me, referring to the traditional method of overachieving one’s way out of adversity. While Averette remains upbeat, he admits that things are different today: “One per cent of the population used to work for General Motors. Now one per cent of the population works for Walmart. I don’t need to say anything more. People who are from minorities or lower socio-economic backgrounds don’t even have a chance.”

Almost every lecturer I interview tells me about students who excelled in their classes and now work as waiters, movers, even strippers.

Let me guess. They’re not physics majors.

Or math.

Or accounting.

And the classes being taught weren’t for any of these topics, either.

Maybe these adjuncts should ask their ex-students if they have any open positions for waiters, movers, or strippers (though I’m gonna guess the adjuncts may be a bit too old for that work, but hey, let me not be age-ist.) They could actually make some money.


But hey, let’s jump back to a piece from the Atlantic from 2015!

There Is No Excuse for How Universities Treat Adjuncts

Oh yes there is. The adjuncts put up with it.

I’m calling the underpaid adjuncts to find some unpleasant activity people pay money for and DO THAT INSTEAD.

They are also joining/forming unions, which I have no particular issue with (other than I wish I could opt out of these unions, because I obviously have no solidarity with these people. The last contract negotiations they had it was over terms that affect me not at all. Woo. Way to waste those fees I’m forced to pay you people to “represent” me.)

To say that these are low-wage jobs is an understatement. Based on data from the American Community Survey, 31 percent of part-time faculty are living near or below the federal poverty line. And, according to the UC Berkeley Labor Center, one in four families of part-time faculty are enrolled in at least one public assistance program like food stamps and Medicaid or qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit. Known as the “Homeless Prof,” Mary-Faith Cerasoli teaches romance languages and prepares her courses in friends’ apartments when she can crash on a couch, or in her car when the friends can’t take her in. When a student asked to meet with her during office hours, she responded, “Sure, it’s the Pontiac Vibe parked on Stewart Avenue.”

So, Walmart wasn’t hiring?

You may have heard Walmart raised wages for some workers recently, and it remains to be seen how many people keep their jobs as Walmart is suffering from lower-than-usual margins. But it seems to me that ex-adjuncts could get more hours of work and make higher incomes by working the registers, stocking shelves, etc. And they probably have the skills to do these things.

But apart from feeling sorry for the underpaid faculty, why should we care that college professors have the same job conditions as day laborers, fast-food workers, cashiers, taxi drivers, or home-care aides? They did, after all, choose to pursue a career in higher ed. Administrators at these institutions of higher learning argue that they need to use adjuncts because it is the only way to keep tuition from rising even faster than it has. And isn’t access to education the higher good?

If the rationale for using low-wage professorial labor is affordable college, however, it hasn’t worked. Tuition increases inspire awe at their size—public universities cost three times what they cost in 1980, private universities twice as much. As universities have added amenities like squash courts and luxury dorms, their spending has increased threefold, but the student-teacher ratio remains the same as it was in the past. If you think these tuition increases resulted from an investment in providing a better education for the students in the classroom, consider the growth in administrative staff and administrative pay.

Even while keeping funding for instruction relatively flat, universities increased the number of administrator positions by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009, 10 times the rate at which they added tenured positions. In the old days, different professors would take their turn as dean for this or that and then happily escape back to scholarship and teaching. Now the administration exists as an end in itself and a career path disconnected from the faculty and pursuit of knowledge. Writing a few years ago for this publication, the Johns Hopkins professor Benjamin Ginsberg described colleges and universities as now being “filled with armies of functionaries—vice presidents, associate vice presidents, assistant vice presidents, provosts, associate provosts, vice provosts, deans, deanlets, and deanlings, all of whom command staffers and assistants—who, more and more, direct the operations of every school.” So while college tuition surged from 2003 to 2013 by 94 percent at public institutions and 74 percent at private, nonprofit schools, and student debt has climbed to over $1.2 trillion, much of that money has been going to ensure higher pay for a burgeoning legion of bureaucrats.

I am not really in disagreement, but the way you fix this is to choke off the supply. Stop giving them cheap labor. Find someone who will pay you more.

Whining at them is unlikely to get additional disbursement of funds.

Some adjuncts are refusing to accept the status quo. Across the country, many of them have turned to the Service Employees International Union, the United Autoworkers, the American Federation of Teachers, and other unions to improve their lot. Mary-Faith Cerasoli attends rallies in her “Homeless Prof” vest. In D.C., the SEIU, led by adjuncts including Mitch Tropin, has successfully pushed for contracts at American University, Howard, Georgetown, George Washington, Montgomery College, and, just recently, at Trinity, meaning that the majority of adjuncts in the D.C. area are now represented by the union. Fighting under the banner of the “Fight for $15,” like fast-food workers, they argue that they should be paid $15,000 per course—which would equal $90,000 annually for a professor with three courses per semester.

I am not paid $15,000 per course per semester at UConn. I get more than half of that (gross)… I think. This is just a hobby job, so I don’t pay close attention to the details.

“What do we have to lose? We’ve been scared into complicity for so long, but I didn’t go through fourteen years of higher education to be treated like shit.”

That is correct. So go work somewhere where they don’t treat you like shit. As in, maybe be a clerk. Work a government job. Sure, it doesn’t require your hoity-toity degree, but tough noogies. Starve the beast.

With courses that need to be taught every semester led by an interchangeable set of adjuncts, the schools seem to be doing just what trucking companies, housecleaning services, and now app-driven businesses such as Uber and Lyft have been accused of doing: misclassifying workers as contractors. Especially when a teacher is asked to carry out similar responsibilities as full-time permanent staff but for less than half the salary, there may be grounds to believe that universities and colleges are evading their legal obligations as employers.

Ha. I do not advise students (awesome), and I tell students I can’t sponsor them for all sorts of crap. While I don’t mind writing recommendation letters, I tell students that they’d be better off if they could get a tenured prof. My word doesn’t have a hell of a lot of heft.

I don’t have to go to departmental meetings, I have no extra responsibilities outside of class. I foist all admin stuff on the departmental staff. Not my job. Now that they changed the math building to somewhere else that’s out of my path from the parking lot (I think. I forget where it is. I’ve not turned in my old building keys, and shhhh don’t tell them, because I don’t feel like having to take time off from my real work to find where the new building is….. )

I want to make clear: I agree with many of these authors that universities had best watch out with their use of low-paid adjuncts, but it’s mainly because they are eating their seed corn. I assume they want to have some permanent faculty, because nothing but part-timers (none of whom actually bring in grant money or provide academic prestige) is going to erode institutional quality.

But it’s not really up to the adjuncts to stick around and put up with this shit. Just don’t. You guys really have skills and have lots of choices.


Of course, one could be a Harvard cafeteria worker, right?

Cambridge, Mass. — I’ve been at Harvard University for 17 years, but I’ve never been in a classroom here. I’m a cook in the dining halls. I work in the cafeteria at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health, where every day I serve amazing students studying medicine, nutrition and child welfare, as well as the doctors and researchers who train them.

Harvard is the richest university in the nation, with a $35 billion endowment. But I can’t live on what Harvard pays me. I take home between $430 and $480 a week, and this August, I fell behind on my $1,150 rent and lost my apartment. Now my two kids and I are staying with my mother in public housing, with all four of us sharing a single bedroom. I grew up in the projects and on welfare. I want my 8-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son to climb out of the cycle of poverty. But for most of my time at Harvard it’s been hard.

The average dining hall worker makes $31,193 a year, higher than other cafeterias in the area, but it still doesn’t go far around Boston. That’s why we’re asking for an annual salary of $35,000 for some financial stability, particularly since most dining halls are open only during the school year. Right now I’m lucky to work in one of the few cafeterias that’s open all year.

The linked piece is actually about the negative effect Obamacare is having on people like the cafeteria workers (and adjuncts are getting hit in a different way… their hours are being kept down so the universities don’t have to provide healthcare coverage.)

But let’s go back to my thesis: people who are adjuncts have skills and choices. Cafeteria workers tend to have fewer options than people with college and graduate degrees.

Don’t use the excuse that your major isn’t useful to business — Hunting for Soft Skills, Companies Scoop Up English Majors

Heads up, business majors: Employers are newly hot on the trail of hires with liberal arts and humanities degrees.

Class of 2015 graduates from those disciplines are employed at higher rates than their cohorts in the class of 2014, and starting salaries rose significantly, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ annual first-destination survey of recent graduates in the workforce.

Degree holders in area studies—majors like Latin American Studies and Gender Studies—logged the largest gains in full-time employment and pay, with average starting salaries rising 26% to $43,524 for the class of 2015, compared with the previous year’s graduates. Language studies posted the second-highest salary gains.

Of course, those evil STEM people tend to make more money:

Computer-science graduates posted the highest starting salaries in the survey, reporting an average of $69,214. They unseated petroleum engineering majors, who usually top starting-salary rankings but have dipped amid the energy-industry crisis.

Not all liberal arts majors are enjoying boom times. History majors’ starting pay rose 3.7% year-over-year, and visual and performing arts majors were the sole group of humanities students for whom employment declined, with 2.3% fewer graduates employed six months after graduation.

So keep that in mind.

But no, you are not forced to the slave mines of academia. You chose to be there.

So I don’t want to hear whining about it. Sure, organize a union, but don’t be surprised if that changes very little.


Yes, I know I keep saying the same thing over and over, but I also keep saying the same thing over and over re: public pensions and the 80% funding myth…. and the reason I keep repeating myself are the other people keep saying the same dumbass things.

Stop that.

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