This is a really interesting and thought-provoking essay that I think anyone concerned about the state of higher education should read. Riederer makes a complex argument. Here are some excerpts:
The rise of adjunct labor in universities is also a student issue. Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. And when the average graduate of the class of 2014 leaves school with over $30,000 of debt (nearly twice what the average was twenty years ago, adjusted for inflation), it’s an important consumer issue, too. Students deserve to know how their universities are spending their money, and how they’re contracting with their teachers, especially those teachers who have the most student contact. Courses like composition—a universal requirement at most colleges, and given in small groups—are taught almost exclusively by adjuncts. For such courses, many colleges employ “small armies of adjuncts,” and at large universities where large classes are divided into smaller discussion sections, those are often taught by grad students. Yet students are often unaware of the way their colleges contract with their teachers—after all, who would tell them?
When Andrew Scott, a composition instructor in Indianapolis, explained adjuncting to some of his students, he wound up being called into his supervisor’s office for a scolding. A group of his students at the private university where he was adjuncting (he also had a full-time position at Ball State) had arrived early for class, and were talking in the hallway. When one student mentioned a history teacher who seemed eager to get the students to like her, and whose class didn’t have a lot of work, Scott explained how her work situation was involved: “I knew the instructor was an adjunct, and that she taught at several places to cobble together a living. I told the students that she was an adjunct, and that the class was easy because she was afraid of losing her job.” Adjuncts are often evaluated solely based on student evaluations. As Rebecca Schuman put it in her Slate article “Confessions of a Grade Inflator,” “popularity is the only thing keeping them employed.”
Scott had this conversation with his students outside of class, because the students had brought it up, and because he considered it “a teachable moment.” But it still got him into trouble, probably because of this comparison: “I said that the university pays the janitor who scrapes the gum off their desks more per year than me and most of the people who teach their first-year classes. My private university students couldn’t believe that, but it was true. Even a low estimate shows how that’s true. Ten bucks per hour for forty hours a week equals an annual salary of $20,800.” One year Scott taught seven courses at that college, and made under $15,000 for that work.
Ten days later, Scott’s supervisor called him into her office because she’d heard about a “classroom incident” in which he had “ranted” about adjunct faculty pay and working conditions. “The director was especially worked up about my janitor comparison. She wanted to know if I’d really said that, and how I could possibly say that,” Scott recalls. The situation worked out for Scott—his other job made it possible for him to leave Marian, and he told his supervisor during the meeting that it would be his last semester. But not all adjuncts would be in such a position. And this dynamic is one of the reasons that adjunct conditions remain obscured from students: for workers without job security, the line between scolded and fired is uncomfortably thin.
Last fall, Karen Gregory was teaching a labor studies course in the City University of New York system when she found herself the object of media scrutiny because she included in her syllabus a short text describing the adjunctification of CUNY, and what it means for students:
“To ensure that we remain conscious of the adjunctification of CUNY, we ask that you do not call us ‘Professor.’ We are hired as adjunct lecturers and it is important that you remember that. You deserve to be taught by properly compensated professors whose full attention is to teaching and scholarship.”
The text, which was developed by the CUNY Adjunct Project and distributed for teachers to include in their syllabi, briefly describes the history of CUNY’s increased reliance on adjuncts. It explains how adjuncts are paid and what that means for students:
“Adjuncts are not regular members of the faculty; we are paid an hourly rate for time spent in the classroom. We are not paid to advise students, grade papers, or prepare materials or lectures for class. We are paid for one office hour per week for all of the classes we teach. We are not paid to communicate with students outside of class or write letters of recommendation. Out of dedication to our students, adjuncts regularly perform such tasks, but it is essentially volunteer labor.”
Another exchange in the IHE comment thread handily brought up a problematic rhetorical strategy that arises often in the discussion of the adjunct bubble: the comparison to fast-food workers. One commenter wrote, “You know what’s demeaning? Earning a PhD and making less money than a manager at McDonald’s.” And another replied, “You know what’s demeaning? A PhD who thinks she’s better than a manager at McDonald’s.” This exemplifies a serious problem in the ways that advocates for better working conditions for adjuncts make their argument. (A related problem is that adjunct advocates sometimes dramatize their argument by using phrases like “slave wages,” “slave labor”). Yes, college-level teachers should make more than cashiers at McDonald’s. Not because they hold advanced degrees—to pay someone for merely holding a degree is naked credentialism; to believe you deserve more money because of your credential itself rather than what you do with it is to misunderstand the value of work—but because as a culture, we value the dissemination of knowledge more than the distribution of hamburgers. Or at least we say we do.
American universities are on a dangerous trajectory of “corporatization,” operating from the view that students are consumers and instructors are just one more cost of doing business. It used to be common for administrators to be professors who took a break from teaching to perform administrative duties for a short period of time, or took on admin duties in addition to their classes; they were people whose first commitment was to research or teaching. In his book The Fall of the Faculty, Johns Hopkins professor of political science Benjamin Ginsburg writes that “Forty years ago, America’s colleges actually employed more professors than administrators.” But while the faculty-to-student ratios have remained constant (with both groups growing at around the same rate), the administrator-to-student ratio has increased dramatically. And Ginsburg notes that though administrators often extol the virtues of using part-time contingent labor for teaching, “they fail to apply the same logic to their own ranks.” In 2005, 48 percent of college faculty were part time, compared to only 3 percent of administrators.
But to talk about these structural issues is to deviate from the idea that work is sacred, and that—especially in this economy—to have a job at all is a gift. Advocating for better pay and conditions is not just impolite, it’s ungrateful. This dynamic applies to any group of workers that speaks out on its own behalf, but there’s a special factor at work in the way that people critique adjuncts who want better conditions. Teaching college is a white-collar job. It is not dangerous or degrading; it happens on college campuses, which often are pleasant and have trees and sometimes inspirational phrases about learning carved into stone buildings; it is—except for the low pay and lack of benefits and constant uncertainty about the future—a good job. Gregory calls this a “cruel double standard: you’ve made this choice to go into a bad career that has high social status.” Many of the comments directed at her, and others who raise the adjunct issue, are concerned with protecting the sanctity of teaching. A professor should not be so vulgar as to talk about the material reality of her life.
When I was adjuncting at Columbia, I remember calculating the maximum number of hours I could spend on my class before I reduced my pay rate to under $15/hour. It was less time than I would have liked to spend, but I couldn’t work for less than that. So I taught differently: I assigned fewer drafts, I held shorter and less frequent conferences, I read student essays faster and homework assignments hardly at all. When I realized I was not going to be able to do right by my students, I stopped classroom teaching. In part, this anecdote is just that—a little story about me. It depends on the particulars of my financial situation and personality. I didn’t want to have a job in which my time was so undervalued that I felt I was either doing a poor job or giving my time away as a gift. But it’s also not just about me. Others have written about how the circumstances of adjuncting force them into grade inflation, or into designing easier courses so that they’ll get better student evaluations.
Will you forgive me a moment of English-teacher pedantry? I may not be a professor but I am certainly an English teacher. Throughout this piece I’ve been taking the liberty of using adjunct as a job title and even as a verb. The term actually means “a thing added to something else as a supplementary rather than an essential part.” If teaching is a supplementary rather than essential part of college [remember, we’re talking about the people who do most of the teaching on college campuses across the nation], why go?
Go read the whole thing.