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.