The adjunct problem is every professor’s problem.

20 03 2012

While this piece from the NYT‘s business section is designed for any worker, it should have special relevance for academics:

These are the kinds of comments I hear in my work as a consultant:

• “I’m overwhelmed, and with all the changes going on here, it’s getting worse. There aren’t enough hours in the day to do my job.”

• “I have new responsibilities that demand creative and strategic thought, but I’m not getting to them.”

• “I have too many meetings to attend, and I can’t get any ‘real’ work done.”

• “I have too many e-mails, and, given day-to-day urgencies, the backlog keeps growing.”

• “I feel like I’m not giving the right amount of attention to what’s most important.”

And here’s a common kicker, for those willing to admit it:

“I just can’t keep going like this.”

To quote the Talking Heads again, “How did I get here?” The answer is technology:

Though one person may now be producing the previous results of three, she’s not being paid three times as much. That’s the whole point of companies using technology and other improvements: fewer people are now needed for the same results.

But the workers who remain also tend to have much more responsibility. And they can’t just comfort themselves with the notion that their companies are more efficient than they used to be, because all of their competitors have the same new tools, and are using them to gain any advantage they can.

While those of us on the tenure-track have not yet been replaced by machines, technology allows our managers to develop new and annoying ways to track our productivity (whatever that means in an educational context). What we have been replaced by are adjunct faculty members who experience all of the problems of our coming all-online higher ed utopia and get none of the rewards. If we had more tenure-track faculty colleagues, there would be more people to share in the bureaucratic scut work that everybody hates. Instead, they get more classes and we tenure-track faculty get more technologically-inspired paper to push.

Yet their problem is our problem for more than just that reason. As this piece about the recent Left Forum conference explains:

“Adjuncts are the people under the stairs” who have lost control over their career possibilities and their lives, said Ms. [Debra Lee] Scott. “We have been deprofessionalized. And by de-professionalizing us, the administration has gained control and silenced the faculty. Now our influence is more managed, and they can keep us impoverished.”

Notice the transition there. They’ve deprofessionalized adjuncts, but have silenced the whole faculty. I don’t think that’s a mistake. While people like me may not be deprofessionalized (at least not yet), the fact that this has already happened to our adjunct colleagues keeps most people like me silent in the hopes that they won’t ever get around to deprofessionalizing us. I wouldn’t count on that strategy working in the long run. What we should be doing is demanding the redirection of productivity gains towards better compensation for faculty of all kinds.

Solving tenure-track problems without solving the problems of adjuncts (assuming such a thing is even possible) won’t make you any happier since you’re still going to get too much scut work because you don’t have enough colleagues who are payed to help you with it. More importantly, your chosen field will never get the respect it deserves as long as there are people who are being paid poverty wages just so that they can break into a profession that is hardly lucrative anyway. Heck, even business professors complain that they don’t get wages equal to what they could earn in the private sector.

In short, we’re all in this together. As Eugene Debs said in the Canton, Ohio speech that got him arrested:

I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks.

If calls to solidarity have no effect on you, then just think about your own longterm material self-interest. You’ll never earn the salary that you deserve as long as people are doing the same work that you are for substantially less money.




14 responses

20 03 2012
Tim Lacy

Reblogged this on Thinking Through History and commented:
This is an excellent post. The adjunct problem is a general labor problem.

20 03 2012

I just read this blog entry on the adj-l mailing list, and am happy to discover your blog!
I am editor of VANGUARD, the newsletter of the Connecticut Conference of the AAUP, and I wonder if you would be willing to grant us reprint rights for this piece. I’d be happy to hear from you. –Ruth Anne Baumgartner

20 03 2012
Jonathan Rees


Just throw in the blog URL at the bottom of the piece.

23 03 2012

Many many thanks. Will do.
May your followers increase.

23 03 2012

Given the two-tier system made up of tenured instructors and non-tenured adjuncts, with very different pay scales, job security, professional development support, and physical provisions like private offices, calls for “solidarity” ring hollow. What’s more, the primary vehicles to effect change in the higher education workplace–faculty unions–have been emphasizing the needs of the upper tier, with their most common response to the problems of the lower tier being new tenure-track (or upper tier positions), as if to solve the problem of the lower tier by minimizing it.

The lower tier of non-tenure-track faculty are not para-professionals who liberate the upper tier from “scut” work; the grades and credits awarded by the non-tenured lower tier have the same value as those awarded by the upper tier, and the tuition charged for their classes is the not discounted the way their pay is. Just as males or Caucasians should not be treated preferentially, shouldn’t there also be “equal pay for equal work” for faculty?

Shouldn’t we embrace Debs’ “rise with the ranks” idea–a single set of working conditions for all?

Jack Longmate
Adjunct English Instructor
Olympic College, Bremerton, WA

23 03 2012
Jonathan Rees


I think you missed the point of the post. I do embrace the idea of a single set of working conditions for all because if TT track faculty do nothing everyone in the future will be adjunct to one degree or another.

29 03 2012

That’s right.

24 03 2012
Betsy Smith

Attitudes are slow to change, but until they do, everyone in higher ed, from students to contingent faculty and staff to full-time staff to tenured and tenure-track faculty, will continue to suffer, at different rates, it is true, but we all need to acknowledge that we are in the same boat. How can we keep this ship from sinking? What, Jonathan, do you suggest that full-time faculty do to stem the tide of adjunctification and put us back on course?

Betsy Smith/Adjunct Professor of ESL/Cape Cod Community College

24 03 2012
Weekend Reading « Backslash Scott Thoughts

[…] The adjunct problem is every professor’s problem. […]

26 03 2012
What can tenure-track faculty do about the adjunct problem?, Part 1: Don’t work so hard. « More or Less Bunk

[…] than anything else I’ve written about adjuncts in this space, but I think the title, “The adjunct problem is every professor’s problem,” captured a sentiment that really needed to be said. Unfortunately for me, capturing a sentiment […]

28 03 2012
Belief and Lazy Consensus: Focusing on Governance - ProfHacker - The Chronicle of Higher Education

[…] The simultaneous erosion of tenure-track positions over the past three decades and the systematic abuse of contingent appointments has, as Debra Lee Scott has recently observed, left professors discombobulated: “We have been deprofessionalized. And by de-professionalizing us, the administration has gained control and silenced the faculty” (via Jonathan Rees). […]

28 03 2012
What can tenure-track faculty do about the adjunct problem?, Part 3: Don’t mourn. Organize. « More or Less Bunk

[…] held them back. Why should you worry about how much anyone else is earning? Well, I hope I’ve answered that question already. However, if those answers didn’t sell you on co-operation, let me give […]

24 04 2012
Has it really come to this? « More or Less Bunk

[…] Rutgers quoted one of my favorite icons of that time, who I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog more than once. “Do not worry over the charge of treason to your masters, but be concerned about […]

20 07 2014
You are not special. | More or Less Bunk

[…] faculty, I’m not sure this line of argument is going to work. Instead, I’d explain how the adjunct problem really is every professor’s problem. Drum dialectics into the heads of these mushroom upstarts and we’ll all be better off […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: