Wednesday, August 10, 2011

On Homeless Adjuncts

I ran across this post at the Chronicle today, which links back to this series of posts at The Homeless Adjunct ... all of which are drawing much-needed attention to the reality of adjuncting today in higher education.

Adjuncting is something that's often discussed in academia as a temporary condition ... as something that grad students or recent Ph.D.s can do to supplement their income during their last few semesters before they go off and get their "real" tenure track jobs.

And indeed, in some cases/places, that is how adjuncting works. In my department, grad students would occasionally take a one-course adjuncting gig at a nearby institution to earn a few thousand extra dollars and some additional teaching experience ... in exchange for giving the instructors at the smaller regional campuses a much-needed break from their huge course loads. No harm, no foul. Alternately, I'd taken a few courses at Grad U with instructors who had day jobs but taught a class at night, just because they loved doing it. Again ... no harm, no foul.

What I didn't realize until I started reading postacademic blogs, however, was the degree to which adjuncting is becoming the norm in higher ed writ large, especially in urban areas with their captive pools of recent Ph.D.s and their high number of campuses in small geographic areas. Sadly, what I've learned since starting this blog is that adjuncting is gradually becoming the "new normal" in faculty appointments at many universities, particularly in the humanities (but also with a growing number in the social sciences as well).

Now, if you were a person who really enjoyed teaching and enjoyed having access to a variety of students and colleagues? Theoretically, perhaps an adjuncting gig wouldn't be all bad. However, because adjuncting is viewed by administration and other faculty (with serious intentional blindness, in my opinion) as a temporary/side/voluntary position, these positions are low paid, often have no benefits, and definitely have no security.

Most adjunct pay scales seem to hover somewhere around $3000/class. Certainly, for someone with a full-time job, this might be a great opportunity to earn some vacation money! But if you're someone who's trying to string together a full-time adjunct career by scheduling yourself a 4/4 or even 5/5? You're going to be lucky to top out at $30k per year before taxes.

And you can deduct your health insurance premiums from that salary, since none of the universities you adjunct at are likely to offer you insurance.

And sure, $30k per year might be an okay salary if you're living in rural Nebraska with a wealthy spouse. But for someone who's single and living in DC or NYC? Different story.

And finally ... (apologies for going full-tilt academic-snob for a minute) ... I'd argue that if someone spends an average of 10 years in graduate school, teaching and doing research while barely pulling in five figures? They deserve - yes, I said deserve - to make a living wage once they graduate. Sure, there might be a few outliers who are terrible at their jobs. But for there to be hundreds if not thousands of Ph.D.'s running around DC and NYC making $30k per year or less? That's ridiculous. And incredibly wrong.

That is not what those Ph.D.'s signed up for at 22 when they got their graduate school acceptance letters and danced excitedly around their rooms at the prospect of someday being college professors. That is not what current professors tell their incoming cohorts is waiting for them at the end. Instead, we get the starry-eyed "life of the mind" nonsense and continued repeating of the mantra "if you're good enough, you'll get a job. If you publish/teach/network enough, you'll get a job."

And then at the end, when these new Ph.D.'s are spit out on the other end and can't find work that pays a living wage, they have no choice but to think it was their fault. They weren't good enough ... or if they can manage to think critically enough about the structure of higher education ... they weren't smart enough to realize it was all a sham when they applied to graduate school.

That is wrong. And it's not wrong on the part of the students who come into graduate school wanting the "life of the mind." It's wrong on the part of the advisors and departments who continue admitting full cohorts and perpetuating the job market myths that let the system continue without reform.

This turned into a bit of a rant. Really, I wanted to make a couple of observations about the above posts I linked to, and encourage you to go over and read them:
  • There is a collection being taken up to help adjuncts pay their rent. There are adjuncts living in homeless shelters. On food stamps. This is what the university system is creating. A class of faculty who not only struggle to make ends meet, but literally can't pay their rent. This is their reward for all the years of university teaching and the long, arduous work of completing a Ph.D. 
  • Is the economy hard everywhere? Yes. But at least there is some public awareness of the high unemployment rate and of the way people working in other industries are struggling. But those of us who teach or have taught at the university level are seen as privileged, even elitist. The reality looks much different for a large segment of us ... but it gets no attention.
  • It's worth thinking about (as a commenter on the Chronicle piece points out) that this shift is likely deliberate, and is unlikely to get better. Universities may not be for-profit, but are they going to stop perpetuating a system where they can hire instructors to teach four classes at about a third of the salary that they'd need to spend to pay a tenure track faculty member? I highly doubt it. Of course, they will continue to hire some tenure-track faculty to not completely blow up the myths. But if you're in grad school, you need to seriously think about your chances in this shifting system.
  • It's also worth thinking about why (as another commenter points out) grad programs are continuing to admit full cohorts of students, all while knowing that the job market looks worse and worse every year, and that the shift toward adjunct/temporary faculty is underway. The university that is happy to take your money and give you your graduate degree is not your friend in this. If they're not shrinking their cohorts these days, this does not mean things are going to get better. In fact, I'd argue it's quite the opposite. Remember ... grad students are cheap teachers, just like adjuncts.
Good luck, everyone. You're not alone out here.


  1. Yes, yes, and yes. Say it. Say it again. Say it again and better, as you've done here.

    And you are absolutely NOT being an academic snob for pointing out that, at the end of a decade of professionalization and work experience, people have the right to expect a job that pays something like a living wage. They have the right to expect that their efforts -- and, indeed, their knowledge, skills, and experience -- should be respected, valued, and rewarded by their employers. That's not entitlement. It's the norm for most other professions. Companies and organizations wouldn't be able to retain workers or make progress in their industries if there wasn't a performance-based and experience-based reward system. People demand it. I don't care how much you love your job, how much of a calling it is -- at the end of the day, you're there because you're getting paid. Even if you start out as a Starbucks barista with only a high school diploma, you can work your way up to store management and even to higher levels in the company.

    Everywhere else, knowledge, experience, and skills count towards better pay, greater job security, better opportunities -- everywhere except in academe.

  2. I am a homeless adjunct who taught at a huge and prestigious university in the Midwest for less than a year. I believed their lies and mantra about "life of the mind." Reality quickly sets in when you are evicted and begging for food stamps. I explained my plight to the school. They don't care. Fellow faculty and administration try to convince you that is your fault when the blame lies in them. It is abusive. Abusers use the same tactics trying to convince their victims the abuse is their fault. The public needs to know that the universities are scamming them out their money for non-existent jobs and mountains of debt. What do counselors tell victims of domestic violence?? GET OUT! It will NEVER get better, only worse. I perceived this work relationship as abuse and did the same thing.

    After a 6 month job search, I found a higher paying job with excellent healthcare, dental, and other benefits. The university tried to convince me to stay working as an adjunct and work on my PhD. They dangled a carrot of a "future tenured position" after my I earned the PhD. Abusers use the same tactics when the victims want to leave them. I told them "NO THANKS!!!" and left. People do not realize how they try to trap you into a life of indentured slavery with their lies.

    I think that our higher education system is going to crash soon. It will be like the collapse of the mortage and automobile industry. Our economy cannot sustain billions of dollars in student loan being given to students who cannot find jobs after graduation. It is similar to crooked mortage companies giving home loans to low income people for their own greed and profit. It will be gratifying to see professors and advisors who conned you into graduate school in the soup line. People eventually reap what they sow. I'm happy I got out of that toxic environment before they sucked the life out of me any further.