built on others’ backs?

So I went to an “untenured faculty” meeting at Columbia recently. Rather foolishly I expected the meeting to be about the plight of the assistant professor. You know, struggles, stress, fighting for more respect, how do deal with feelings of insecurity, etc. That was exactly what it was about, except that with the exception of me and another sociologist friend, the meeting was almost completely filled with adjuncts. I never really knew how much of the teaching at Universities happened by folks who are treated, well, to put it bluntly, very poorly. And by all reports, things are getting worse.

As I left the meeting, instead of feeling a sense of solidarity with my fellow junior faculty members, I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt. I walked in thinking that I would be surrounded by my people* – those who could REALLY understand how bad I had it. And I left feeling like a jerk, because compared to the adjunct folks, I had it great.

It also made me think about what happens every time I push for a course release or joke in my classes that the University doesn’t give a damn if I can teach – pushing my work onto someone else and symbolically devaluing that work in the process. And though the adjunct problem is not particularly bad in my department compared with, say, languages, (though we do hire folks at around $5000/course with no benefits to teach required grad and undergrad courses) it kinda made me think. Whose backs is my sweet job built upon?

And let’s face it, without tenure my job really isn’t that sweet.

*So this link isn’t really to “my people”. But given that my mom is from Ireland and my dad from Pakistan, and I’ve often felt unique in my heritage, I found the link funny!

25 thoughts on “built on others’ backs?”

  1. If only I could draw, I would redo the parable of the shmoo as a drama about tenured and adjunct faculty.

    In any case, it seems almost certain that your job (and mine) is built on the backs of the adjunct faculty, in the sense that if somehow that job title was eliminated your job would become much less pleasant (or, perhaps more plausibly, you’d just move to a new place with adjuncts). I think whether and why exactly one should feel guilty about this is a harder matter. I might do my own post about this sometime.


  2. Lower-tier schools have long relied on extremely-underpaid part-time free-lance instructors who receive low per-course stipends and no benefits, and many top-tier schools have long relied on long-term lower-paid adjunct faculty for the bulk of their teaching. The steep rise in the faculty salaries paid to those on the market at private universities is made possible by low-paid adjuncts. This is producing a competitive spiral in faculty salaries that impacts the publics, and many publics are going the same way to deal with the financial implications. My top tier public university has a relatively low reliance on adjuncts, and this has contributed to major budget problems. My department has philosophically resisted the creation of a two-tier faculty and we have many fewer lecturer-taught courses than most of our peers. Except in emergencies, we restrict lecturer posts (which are admittedly very low paid) to our own advanced graduate students, as a temporary billet that cannot be held for more than three years. The escalation in faculty salaries for new hires and retentions coupled with the ongoing budget crisis has led to a shrinkage of faculty, making it harder to get our courses taught.


  3. OW: You should consider uncorking a post of your own about this, as I suspect you have one inside you.

    I find the question of the morality of the two-tiered system very knotty and have not thought it all the way through. The orthodoxy, even if you are at a place with a very plain two-tiered system, is to think that a two-tiered system is bad, which jibes with my own egalitarian tendencies. At the same time, I think two-tiered systems are employing people who are making free decisions about their employment, and it’s hard for me not to feel like it is ultimately patronizing to tell somebody with a Ph.D. that they can’t be a long-term adjunct even if they want to because it would be exploiting them.


  4. I’m with Jeremy on this one. While I prefer more equality in some ways, I don’t think we can ignore the market completely. Perhaps the “free decisions about their employment” aren’t as free as they sound given that adjuncting will hardly leave you in a position to make yourself competitive for top-level research positions. But if top-level research requires release from teaching then what to do? By the way, while not all top-level research brings in money, some of it does and it helps subsidize the adjunct pay creating jobs that didn’t exist before. Is that necessarily a bad thing? That is, if those adjunct positions weren’t there at all, would that leave the people occupying them in a better or worse position? Or is that a wrong way of looking at the question?


  5. A school that uses few adjuncts has its problems too. For one, as Jeremy implies, some people want to adjunct a course a year or so for reasons that may or may not have to do with money. Every year in sociology when I was chair we had way more people who wanted to adjunct a course or two than courses available to them, because we have a bias/determination that T&R faculty should teach our students. Furthermore, reducing or eliminating adjuncts at one school doesn’t solve anything–it’s a myth that those who ND doesn’t hire as adjuncts will end up with full-time tenure track positions at ND or elsewhere. The problem is way bigger and more systemic than that.

    We have also tried to deal with this at ND with something a three-tiered system: tenure track, adjuncts, and something in between called “Special Professional Faculty.” These people are hired to teach (not do research) and have renewable 1-5 year contracts (depending on seniority). Sounds better than being an adjunct, and for some people it is. But it doesn’t solve the class problem.


  6. Whose backs is my sweet job built upon?

    This can be said of any conventionally good job, anywhere. Hello, division of labor. (This isn’t intended as some kind of absolution, just a recognition that this is a pervasive feature of work in any complex society.)


  7. BM: I think the divergence in opinion among us here is stronger than it might appear. You say “reducing or eliminating adjuncts at one school doesn’t solve anything.” My position is not only do I not think it solves anything, I’m not sure it helps anything. Indeed, this is what I’m uncertain about. I think my opinion would depend mightily on the means by which adjunct positions were eliminated. Having the same number of regular faculty but just having them teach more–perhaps, for instance, by making it harder to buy out of courses–seems to me like it’s just reducing the total number of jobs and so only beneficial from the welfare perspective of the adjunct if one sincerely believes the adjunct is making a mistake by accepting the job in the first place. (Of course, it could well be beneficial in terms of the quality of instruction for students.) Having more regular faculty to teach the courses is of course a better solution, but seems to me to be only an authentic position if coupled with an idea of where the funds for the extra lines would come from. (Ditto, although easier to financially manage, for the idea that the problem is not with adjuncts per se, but that they should receive considerably greater pay than what they do.)


  8. Rather than focusing on the two-tired system, I wanted to address the guilt you felt and feeling like a jerk.

    Last year I was going to work every day feeling sorry for myself (although related to a different aspect of my job), until I had an experience that brought my face-to-face with people who would have given almost anything to have my problems. I felt like the biggest donkey for a couple days. After the feeling passed, I felt much better about myself, and my job (and found other things to complain about). I hope your feeling passes quickly too.

    I agree that if you ask people who are adjuncting, even taking into account any effect of cognitive dissonance, a significant number would feel it was a choice that they made that works for them (and lots of them wouldn’t want your job).


  9. I think the bigger issue is that, from what I’ve heard, some universities are having less tenure-track faculty and more adjuncts, so overall there is less good and more bad jobs.


  10. I’ve got a really bad cold, so I’m probably not articulating my thoughts very well, but, it doesn’t take long in this conversation (one I’ve been a part of many times) to get down to a simple question of why research is more valued than teaching. That’s the bottom line isn’t it? Those who do research and more of it get paid better than those who don’t and instead are focused primarily on teaching.

    Jeremy, you’re right on target in terms of identifying the issues. My thoughts here are that some kind of policy stance like “we’re going to reduce the class problem by reducing the number of adjuncts” is hopelessly simplistic and completely unworkable as long as the different activities have different value. I think it might be more useful to think of the changing numbers and presence of adjuncts as an indicator of something else more fundamental (a change in the relative values of research and teaching, the ascendence of ranking systems, the increased competition for prestige among colleges and universities) for which bandaids and the kinds of poorly thought-through interventions by the typical amateur higher education administrator aren’t really going to produce any kind of desired correction.

    I’m not attributing anything I’m criticizing here to anyone in the thread, these are just the kinds of ideas that often come up in conversations (both official and informal) about the matter.


  11. To pick up the thread, I agree that we need more systemic thinking. One approach would to make the teaching-only positions better-paid more stable posts whose occupants are officially recognized as members of departments. It would help to be more honest with ourselves about budgets. Although research grants bring in revenue, undergraduate tuition (or state funding for undergraduate instruction) effectively subsidizes research whenever a faculty member is paid by the university (not grants) to teach fewer students than would pay his/her salary in tuition or state subsidy. Unless we can make the argument that it is taxes or endowments that are paying our salaries in this case, and can make the case that public/endowment funding for research is a worthwhile thing. (Which I think we believe.)

    Another issue to think about what is going on in the funding of public higher education. A higher proportion of the population is going to college than in the past. So the total cost per year of all the students going to college is going up and, thus, the share of the economy (public or private) being spent on college is going up. Taxes are covering less and less of the cost of public instruction and tuition more and more of it, as the total amount being spent on all college is going up.

    Morally, the question is the same as the holiday gift question. How do we operate in a hierarchical system, especially when we are on the high end of it? I do not mean to say that this has any easy answer. But I believe that being honest about the question is better than pretending it does not exist.


  12. What I find interesting about the “two tier” problem is that when addressed, we often ask:

    1.) What can we do about the bottom tier? How can we understand their position better?
    2.) What are the organizational properties that lead to the present arrangement?

    Think about the literature on class; this is what we do. It strikes me that there is a missing question here. And those of you who know about my own work won’t be surprised what it is: “What about the top tier?” Call me a self-indulgent sociologist, but when I think about this problem I think less about organizations and people who are not me, and more about people who are like me.

    So I wonder about what those of us on top have done that either helps produce or aggravate the problem. And I can’t help be think that one of the problems is that we’ve collectively decided that teaching doesn’t matter. At least at the top tiers. And god forgive me for pointing to Regan, but that trickles down.

    Now, yes, yes, we do care more and more about teaching. But let’s be honest. I am NEVER going to get tenure on the basis of my teaching. I suspect that if I get it, teaching will only be used to justify the decision (and if I don’t, it will be offered up as an excuse, “he worked too much on his teaching”). And this is not a Columbia story. It is a sociology (or perhaps academic-wide) one.

    As for the plight of the adjuncts, I keep thinking, “$5K/class… If I taught a 4-4, shuttling myself around the city, I’d be making 40K a year… which isn’t bad. But in NYC, with no benefits, etc. that turns out not to be a lot of money for someone as qualified as I!” And then I realize that at this point, at least, lots of these folks are MORE QUALIFIED than I.

    So back to my self-indulgent guilt.


  13. I don’t think adjunct faculty as a group suffer from the lack of value given to teaching per se. I mean, clearly, some adjuncts are spectacular teachers who, if teaching was valued more, would be tenure-track faculty members and *other people* would be the adjuncts. I’m inclined to think this would be more meritocratic, although I’m not sure.

    I guess one could argue that if teaching was more heavily valued than there is no way that universities could pay the low salaries to adjunct faculty that they presently do and meeting their new higher standard for what constitutes adequate teaching. Maybe, I’m not sure how this would shake out in practice, other than presumably the end of the wildly unqualified graduate student lecturer (yes, I was one of these myself once upon a time).

    I think the main consequences if everybody in the world woke up tomorrow suddenly much more concerned about the quality of teaching vs. quality of research in universities would be: (1) better teaching overall, (2) a wildly disproportionate gain in teaching quality at elite universities compared to other universities. So the difference between quality of education received at elite universities versus elsewhere would be even greater than it already is, and whatever role elite education plays in status reproduction would be strengthened.


  14. There are at least two (probably orthogonal but possibly negatively correlated) dimensions to “quality of teaching”: (1) content, i.e. the amount, richness, depth, etc. of the ideas presented and (2) form, the engagement, creativity and student-centeredness with which material is presented. As far as I can tell, more elite schools tend to be higher quality on criterion 1 but not on criterion 2.

    The theory of the teacher-scholar is that one’s engagement in research keeps you engaged with upgrading & expanding your content in teaching. Some of the best teaching can be done by inexperienced but enthusiastic grad students teaching in their area of expertise. Several of my most memorable courses as an undergrad at an elite school had this character. Of course, that isn’t what we hire them to do at my school: we plop them into service classes on topics they know nothing about.


  15. “I think the main consequences if everybody in the world woke up tomorrow suddenly much more concerned about the quality of teaching vs. quality of research in universities would be: … (2) a wildly disproportionate gain in teaching quality at elite universities compared to other universities.”

    Wait, why is that? You lost me.


  16. I think that, precisely because teaching quality is not more specifically identifiable and is not more valued, the best teachers are *far* more broadly dispersed across different and different kinds of institutions than the best researchers. If teaching was the main thing that was valued, I’m presuming those same people would be the subject of the kind of poaching and retention battles that highly-regarded researchers now have, and would end up vastly disproportionately concentrated at a relatively small number of places.


  17. Ok, unless people just aren’t mentioning it, I’m the only person to comment so far who has actually been an adjunct. And I had a pretty decent situation–I was doing dissertation work and just picked up 3 sections at the local community college for teaching experience and a little extra money, so it wasn’t long-term and it wasn’t my only form of income.

    And it SUCKED. For me and for the students.

    I had no business being put in charge of 3 sociology courses, only one of which (Intro) I could make any claim whatsoever to being competent to teach (and I wasn’t). I’m a good teacher now (I think), but then I was inexperienced, unprepared, and intimidated, and it was a disservice to those students to take courses I taught.

    The pay was abysmal. $5000 is high for adjunct pay. I made $4100 TOTAL for all 3 courses–before taxes.

    As a way to try to guard against total incompetence, the state mandated which textbooks had to be used in courses taught by adjuncts, meaning I had no control over the book, and I had a set of outcomes I had to prove I’d met for each chapter. It was boring and demoralizing and led to just teaching out of the book. I had no help learning how to be more effective at teaching. At the end I could check off a number of things students had been exposed to, but I can’t say that any of them “learned” anything.

    And because the pay was so horrible, I soon realized I simply couldn’t afford to put in more than the very minimum amount of time and energy unless I basically wanted to be a volunteer. And given that I just had to teach out of the book with very little room for creativity anyway, by halfway through the semester I was just going through the motions. It was economically irrational to do otherwise, and too depressing to invest too much of myself in it.

    And this was for a set of courses where I knew I was only there 1 semester.

    Despite all the many accounts here of people who are just happy as pie to have a part-time teaching job with no benefits or long-term stability, many adjuncts desperately want full-time tenure-track teaching positions. They cobble together sufficient incomes by teaching 6 or more courses a semester, often at different institutions. Some burn out and go through the motions, while others care so much about their students that they put tons of energy in even though there is no incentive to do so–or they hope to someday get hired full-time and keep trying to improve their teaching. There is no time to do research with a schedule like this. So they get passed over when they apply for tenure-track jobs in favor of new Ph.D. recipients who TAd once.

    I know some adjuncts who make a little extra money teaching a class now and then and others for whom it is their sole source of income. But even for those who do it part-time, the low pay and instability are problems. I have a friend in Utah who taught at SUU. He taught regularly and had been a great help on a number of occasions when we needed a course covered or it would have to be canceled. And then last spring less than a week before classes started they canceled his class without discussing it with him. He had spent an enormous amount of time preparing the class, all for nothing. He has no idea if/when he’ll be asked to teach again. Although he has a full-time job elsewhere, he counted on the extra money he got by teaching each semester, and he can’t count on it coming in any longer.

    As a former adjunct myself and a current tenure-track faculty with a huge part-time instructor staff, I have enormous concerns about the quality of instruction, the low pay, and the use of part-time instructors as a casualization of academic teaching labor. To pretend that most adjuncts are happy people who are basically working for a “little extra money” or who have no interest in full-time tenured positions is in accurate.


  18. Incidentally, I just wrote a long post about this at the Free Exchange on Campus website (Free Exchange on Campus is a coalition aiming to protect academic freedom). Basically, I think that the problem comes down to the fact that the academy as a whole is trying to rework itself based on for-profit management principles. Overall, I compare this new form of management to WalMart’s “just-in-time” system, but I think that this is the most relevant part:

    Just-in-time operations for retailers may work, but for educators it is a disaster. Professors, at their best, are supposed to be working with students to provide them the tools they need to understand the world, both for their future employment and as engaged citizens. They are not lawnmowers, lawn gnomes, cheap clothes or groceries or any of the other thousands of items available at WalMart. They are not a product on a shelf waiting to be taken home by a family paying the lowest price. When a professor is teaching four classes at four different campuses without an office, they aren’t providing office hours, answering student’s questions, contributing to the service functions on campus – all of the things that allow professors to have a real impact on students’ lives. No, they are driving interstate highways rushing back an forth, trying to grade one exam in time to receive another that day. And, of course, forget term papers or semester projects that allow students to expand their knowledge to their own interests. In the ever-demanding just-in-time world, they give tests that can be answered by scantrons (if they are allowed to use the grading machine). Ultimately, education as a whole suffers and students who have the most tenuous grasp on a college education, first-generation college students, minorities, working mothers who are enrolled at community colleges and local state universities are the ones who are forced to deal with this the most.


  19. Reflecting on the exchange, I think part of the story is that relatively inexpensive college education for working class people is kept affordable by using cheap adjunct labor, while elite institutions catering to the affluent are on another path. The affluent demand a certain level of instruction or they will take their money elsewhere. Even adjuncts (exploited as they are) are paid better at schools catering to the affluent students. The low-paid adjunct situation was well underway in the 1970s, and may be older than that. The problem may not be increasing profit-orientations of schools, but the generally low funding and quality expectations for all services for working people.

    There are several issues here. One is the levels of inequality and the miserable working conditions for some people. The second is the appropriate stance for the well-paid tenure-track faculty with respect to the status of adjuncts at their institutions. And the third is the forces contributing to the fact that community colleges and other institutions serving working people rely primarily on overworked underpaid cheap contract labor, and what the stance of everyone (regardless of where they work) should be towards that.


  20. According to an ASA research brief in 2004, about 30% of all sociology faculty are non-grad student and “supplementary” (part-time and adjunct).

    I teach at a small Catholic college that is tuition driven. We have many adjuncts who teach semester after semester without benefits, without assurance of being able to teach the next semester, without an office of their own, without much say about when their classes will be scheduled, and without vote in the faculty assembly.

    If the college would fund a position, we could easily find a full-time faculty member to fill it. In fact, some of our adjuncts would like a full-time position. My dept (Psy + Soc) teaches courses used by a number of large majors. We have the second lowest cost-per-credit hr of any dept in the school – because we have to use this fleet of adjuncts to teach all those revenue-producing students.

    The declining number of children makes colleges very reluctant to increase the number of tenure-track positions: they tenured faculty will be there into the demographic shift, and it’s hard to downsize depts or areas with tenured people in it.

    At least at our school, the two-tiers operate as a caste, where privilege and access are tied to the type of appointment one has.


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