Lumpen Proletariat on Campus


Today is “National Adjunct Walkout Day.” If you did not know this, or even what an adjunct is, you’re not alone. The word “adjunct” means something added to another thing but not really a part of it. In this case, we’re talking about adjunct instructors, who are part-time university and college teachers who carry a hefty portion of the educational load on America’s campuses.

National Adjunct Walkout Day is a nationwide proposal for adjuncts to bring attention and reform to abusive working conditions by refusing to teach, or some other similar remedy.

For the record, I’ve been employed as an adjunct instructor at four different colleges and universities over the past five years. In that time, I’ve taught almost 30 different classes. I am paid anywhere between $1,500 and $3,500 per semester class.

Although I’ve considered writing about this topic for some time, I’m doing so now for two reasons. First, I’m concerned about the direction of recent events, especially National Adjunct Walkout Day. Second, I seek to challenge the prevailing opinion that adjuncts are somehow the victims of unfair employment practices.

On the surface, the case for reform seems strong. Many colleges and universities depend upon adjuncts to teach the majority of course offerings. To meet budget expectations, schools have increasingly relied on low-cost, high-yield adjunct and non-tenure-track professors. From 1999 to 2011, their numbers grew steadily from roughly half a million to a full million. Back in the 1970s, less than half of all university and college faculty was composed of adjuncts and other temporary teachers; today, that proportion has swelled to around three-quarters.

The Great Recession has been a mixed bag for adjuncts especially. Drops in enrollment and retention over the last six years or so mean fewer students, hence fewer classes. Some colleges and universities have responded by increasing class sizes and requiring tenure-track and tenured professors to teach more classes, with little to no increase in compensation. This means fewer employment opportunities for adjuncts. But many other institutions have responded by hiring even more adjuncts, who work for far less than tenure-track and tenured faculty while producing comparable results.[1]

The Affordable Care Act has also been a mixed bag for adjuncts. The law’s mandate to provide health insurance for employees working 30 hours or more a week has led schools to avoid this obligation by lowering the number of classes an adjunct can teach and limiting the amount of time he or she can legally spend on prepping and grading. This forces adjuncts to look elsewhere for teaching opportunities that once were to be found all in one place. It also means that the school can now hire an even greater number of new adjuncts, providing more employment for more people. The same work that used to be done by one teacher before the advent of Obamacare is now being done by two or more.

But if more adjuncts than ever before are currently working, with new positions opening all the time, what’s the basis of the complaint? Why National Adjunct Walkout Day? The industry is booming right now because adjuncts are typically hired for $1,800 to $5,300 per class. The school pays the instructor a price roughly equivalent to what a single student pays the school to take the instructor’s class. The school ends up pocketing enormous sums, which vary depending on the total number of students enrolled in the course.

As a result, many adjuncts live below the poverty line, are on food stamps, and have little to no health or other employment benefits. Many lack offices of their own and have little to no job security from semester to semester. These employees are sometimes right to feel abused.

But these and many other arguments notwithstanding, the current plight of adjuncts is largely of their own making. It stems from a variety of causes, all related to the lack of ambition and prudence. The reluctance or inability to secure additional employment, to publish in reputable journals, to finish the Ph.D. degree, or to do the very best work in the worst of conditions are the main causes of all present misery and discontent.

Adjunct work is part-time work. This means that even if one manages to cobble together several classes at several different institutions, there is still a lot of valuable time left over for other pursuits. And considering that adjuncts always teach the same class or classes over and over again, prepping and grading ought to consume less time as well. The adjunct position ought to be a supplement to an already existing income, rather than the main source of household revenue.

For example, some adjuncts have day jobs in addition to teaching evening and weekend courses. Some will argue that the education level required to be an adjunct excludes the possibility of getting another job, even at minimum wage. Working elsewhere for minimum wage is seen either as beneath the dignity of the well-educated, or extremely difficult given the hiring preferences of companies.

But since National Adjunct Walkout Day is also going by “Adjunct Dignity Day” in some places, and since these kinds of jobs are truthfully very easy to obtain for anyone of any education, there is little actual worth to the argument. For those who want to make a career of teaching, adjunct work certainly shouldn’t last forever. It should be temporary as the name implies—a stepping stone to greater things.

And it can only be that if you put in the work. This means, among many things, publishing in reputable journals. The prospect of a full-time, tenure-track job is considerably enhanced by the publication of a substantial scholarly article. While I have no evidence to support this, my suspicion is that at least the majority of discontented adjuncts threatening to walk out of class are currently unpublished.

More than publishing, finishing the Ph.D. degree should be the number one concern of every adjunct. Even with the rising numbers of graduate students earning doctorates each year, compared to the shrinking number of tenure-track faculty positions, the problem shouldn’t be enough to deter those who have already started from finishing.

Many adjunct positions only require a Master’s degree; some don’t even require that, if the candidate has prior field-related work experience. However, almost all tenure-track positions require a Ph.D. in hand, or at least strong evidence that the work will be completed soon. The best remedy for the suffering adjunct, then, is not walking out of the classroom, or some other public display of frustration, but private effort and tenacity.

Finally, no matter the harshness of the situation, no teacher should ever threaten to walk out because of money or other selfish motivations. Not ever. There is a deep, permanent obligation to the student that takes precedence over almost every other consideration. The Marines say, “God, Country, Corps.” We should say, “God, Country, Class.” National Adjunct Walkout Day harnesses a torrent of misplaced emotion and envy that now threatens to make shipwreck of conscience. We must do the day’s work. That means doing our best, without complaint, for the good of all involved.

Jacques Berlinerblau wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education that “To read an account of a part-timer’s daily grind is like reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” While all honest, free-thinking part-timers would reject this as overblown, you would have thought it was true to hear some of the moaning that has led up to this day, with thousands apparently preparing to walk out. Just spend some time on the organizers’ Facebook page.

If any literary comparison is needed, a better one might be the beginning of Shakespeare’s Henry V. Consider young Hal’s odyssey among “courses vain” to prepare himself for later life, and the surprise deliberateness and eventual success of his plan

If any literary comparison is needed, a better one might be the beginning of Shakespeare’s Henry V. Consider young Hal’s odyssey among “courses vain” to prepare himself for later life, and the surprise deliberateness and eventual success of his plan:

The strawberry grows underneath the nettle,
And wholesome berries thrive and ripen best
Neighbored by fruit of baser quality;
And so the Prince obscured his contemplation
Under the veil of wildness, which, no doubt,
Grew like the summer grass, fastest by night,
Unseen yet crescive in his faculty.

The comparison has its limits, of course, but the main point is that adjuncts who don’t want to be adjuncts forever should be actively engaged in working and preparing among the nettle, not complaining about it. They shouldn’t be threatening to cheat their employers out of something, and I don’t mean deans or other campus administrators.

In the end, we don’t work for a college or university. We work for the student. And we should start acting like it.

[1] While some adjuncts and their advocates argue that this represents a case of “equal pay for equal work,” the evidence suggests otherwise. Students taught primarily by adjuncts have lower retention and graduation rates than those taught primarily by full-timers.

Reader Discussion

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on February 25, 2015 at 12:14:41 pm

"Students taught primarily by adjuncts have lower retention and graduation rates than those taught primarily by full-timers."

What should have been expected? Full-time staff have more time to devote to their students, as opposed to the part-timer that divvies more of her time elsewhere out of necessity.

If anything, this fact should be of some concern to the school's administration, that those students receive less attention from their part-time instructors, for some "unknown" reason.

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on February 25, 2015 at 17:23:22 pm

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.

* * *

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.... 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.

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on February 25, 2015 at 20:38:33 pm


Can not tell if the last section is autobiographical - if so, I feel for you, my friend. Hopefully your situation has improved.

It does tend to make one look long and hard at Mr. Stevens essay above. in my own experience, one of the best teachers I ever had was an adjunct (he sometimes posts here BTW) - but he was an exception. I wonder how many parents know (or care?) about these circumstances and the effect it has on the quality ( actually breadth and depth) of their child's education.

Lawler has [posted on the issue as well - with a somewhat different spin on it.
I am curious as to what YOU would propose in this matter.

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on February 25, 2015 at 22:13:35 pm

"In the end, we don’t work for a college or university. We work for the student. And we should start acting like it."

Maybe in some abstract, otherworldly sense of morality and duty, one that's Kantian much more than Platonic. The modern university classroom ain't exactly an olive grove where philosophic friends meet to discuss the true, the good, and the beautiful.

An adjunct is literally employed by the university, not the students, who don't exactly pass the hat to provide the material support a good adjunct needs. The university sets the formal terms of employment (via the contract) and the practical (and intellectual) situation of teeaching. Most signficant about this situation is the admission policies for students, the specific courses that are required, the size of courses and sections, the broader curricululm in its intellectual substance (or lack thereof), and -- as the reply above illustrates -- the popularity ratings of "student evaluations" as the *only* was of assessing an adjunct teacher's merit and performance.

So the adjunct teacher inherits all of the mindless, bureaucratic, utilitarian, trendy organization of current universities and their constituents, but without the minimum of leisure and material security that tenured professors (of whom no one should assume are ispo facto better teachers, better writers, or better minds).

It is fundamentally true, of course, that every adjunct who teaches under these conditions has chosen to accept them. And it's also true that is is just to keep one's promises (to teach, as formally contracted to).

Still, the notion that the conditions under which adjuncts attempt to teach are acceptable, economically and otherwise, and that adjuncts should not try to improve that situation by collective action -- or, more insultingly -- that adjuct work is just punishment for unambitious teachers, is simply unreal. "Higher" education is rife with defects and dishonesty and administrative morass, but individual adjucts, as the sub-janitors, are the very least repsonsible for institutional ills.

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on February 26, 2015 at 10:22:34 am

Can not tell if the last section is autobiographical – if so, I feel for you, my friend.

You’re very kind – but no, all that text was written by Rachel Riederer, editor of Guernica Daily. I have embedded a link to Guernica Daily in the text, but this website displays links so faintly that I’m not surprised you didn’t see it.

What to do about our educational system? Wish I knew. Allegedly we have the best in the world, yet it seems to generate a lot of waste and dissatisfaction.

To focus on one aspect of the problem, universities justifiably value research and publishing. Perhaps less justifiably, they regard the task of teaching undergrads merely as a way to pay the bills. Good teachers may be more common than ground-breaking researchers, so universities are not crazy to tacitly encourage people to specialize, and to reward the scarcer specialty more highly. The plight of adjuncts is merely the fulfillment of this dynamic – except that rather than giving priority to research and publishing, hiring committees are exclusively focused on it. They treat the people who teach undergrads as glorified babysitters, hired by the project, with no expectation of quality short of refraining from hurting anyone.

Where is the push-back from the consumer? Students go to college to gain a credential, the institution’s prestige, a four-year adventure away from home, and an education. The education is the hardest part to evaluate; if you haven’t received a good education, by what standard would you judge the quality of the education you are receiving? And in any event, by the time a student gets to experience the low quality of the education, she’s sufficiently invested as to have little incentive to blow the whistle and leave. So the situation persists, a kind of "Emperor's New Clothes" scenario.

Add to this the fact that much of the cost of universities is borne by the public, through grants and foregone tax revenues, and you have market failure in a box.

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on February 26, 2015 at 17:42:48 pm

Psych 101: A correlation does not imply cause and effect.

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Image of Maria
on February 28, 2015 at 18:18:05 pm

Several thoughts here, in no particular order:

1. I advise my students not to take lower level classes with adjuncts, for all the reasons nonbodyreally notes in her post above. You are more likely to get a rigorous education studying with someone who does not have to depend on student evaluations for their continued employment. Of course, many students are perfectly ok with getting an "A" for doing not much work. That is a good plan in the short run, but in the long run bad for the student, but many of them only think about the short term. That goes with being 18, among other things.

2. Not all adjuncts are bad. The woman who teaches con-law at my university is a full partner in the most presigious law firm in town. She has a Ph.D. to go with her J.D., and is a terrific teacher. But she makes considerably more than most of my tenured colleagues from her day job. She teaches because she wants to. In my department, we had a superb teacher, a published scholar, who taught upper division courses in Renaissance/Reformation history. She did this not because she needed the paycheck, but because she wanted to retain a connection with a university. Most adjuncts do not do the kind of work as these two do. But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater either. Sometimes adjuncts are win-win for everyone involved.

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Kevin R. Hardwick
on March 01, 2015 at 01:00:35 am

Continuing from above:

3. At my university--a good teaching university, of the sort that is fairly typical at least in Virginia--we do not hire people who can not teach well. Granted, there are limits to what the hiring process can tell you, and we do on occassion hire people who turn out not to be great teachers. But in my experience, we succeed more often than we fail. This is the experience too of most of my colleagues who teach at universities similar to mine. But teaching is not something one learns in graduate school. Rather, it is learned in the doing. And since we will not hire someone who does not have a track record of teaching success, and who can not demonstrate teaching skill in an actual classroom as part of the on-campus interview, what this tends to mean is that pretty much everyone we hire has some prior experience as an adjunct. Its rare to hire someone directly from graduate school, with no independent teaching experience. We--and our students--clearly benefit from this. In essence, adjuncting is a kind of apprenticeship, in which adjunct professors can acquire valuable job skills. The people damaged by this system, it seems to me, are the ones unable for whatever reason to compete successfully for a tenure track job, and who nonetheless persist in the job for many years.

In my experience--it is partial and anecdotal, so take with a grain of salt--anyone with the intelligence, self-discipline, communication and analytical skills necessary to complete a Ph.D. can, if they choose to do so, transition into another career. The skills possessed by Ph.D.s hold up reasonably well in the non-academic job market. I have known quite a few people who successfully have made this transition--almost always into jobs that pay much better than does university teaching. So the people who become career adjuncts do not do what they do because they lack alternatives.

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Kevin R. Hardwick

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