I’ve been told that I’m burying the lead too much here, or that I risk obscuring my core beliefs about the broader situation, so I just want to clear that up here. This will probably be my last on this subject for awhile.
The American university system has been guilty of many historical crimes. Perhaps the most glaring and most obvious is the broad conspiracy to exclude Jews, which existed for decades or centuries at some of our most prestigious and influential institutions. Another is a history of loose or nonexistent ethical standards for research, on both human and animal subjects, which led to a lot of exploitation and suffering. On both of these issues, we’ve seen great progress in the last hundred years. (I still believe in the capacity for human institutions to be reformed, and I think that predictions of the imminent death of the physical university show ignorance about history, the persistence of institutions, and the genuine need businesses feel for a higher education system, particularly as a matter of signaling.) More diffuse and harder to reform are issues of university complicity in economic structures that I find immoral, including how universities like mine are embedded in the defense and agribusiness industries, or more generally, how they perpetuate the American class system. These are at once reasons to sharply criticize the academy and something that can’t be directly blamed on the academy. Eliminate the university system and capitalism finds a way to replicate its classist functions anyway.
The plight of adjuncts is somewhere on a spectrum of these historical crimes. Adjuncts are woefully underpaid, terribly open to exploitation, and live in fear of being let go without reason or cause. They perform the bulk of the teaching in the university writ large, along with graduate students, and yet individually they are profoundly replaceable. Many cobble together enough money to survive by teaching four, five, or even six courses. This has to degrade the quality of the instruction offered to those undergrads taught by adjuncts, to say nothing of the great burden that this kind of workload puts on adjuncts. (Trust me: the work of teaching a college course is far greater than the time spent in class itself.) Adjuncts lack even minimal job security. They frequently operate in a culture of disrespect or, at best, neglect. They are often subject to the whims of undergraduates who criticize and attack them for having standards or refusing to hand out A grades like candy. (They are then blamed for participating in grade inflation.) All in all, the working conditions of adjunct labor in the United States are brutal, and reform is both a moral and practical necessity which all members of the broad academic community must work together in solidarity to fix.
Like I said, I believe reform is possible. There is a nascent movement afoot to unionize adjuncts. Anyone who supports academics, labor unions, left-wing organizing, or simple economic fairness should support this push. Existing faculty unions should incorporate this movement into their own or, at the very least, express and maintain meaningful solidarity for these movements and support them where they can. Contingent labor needs to stop being contingent; they need long-term contracts, better pay, health benefits, and meaningful bargaining power within the university. This is actually possible, even as we try to limit the growth in tuition. The university simply needs to stop sinking ungodly amounts of money into administrative hires and salaries, dorms and gyms and dining halls, football coaches, and the like.
Unlike seemingly everyone else, I believe that both the percentage of faculty who are tenured and the absolute number of tenured faculty can grow again. I believe that, for all of its many problems, the growing movement for assessment within the university can be a wedge through which better conditions for teachers and more funds for hiring tenure track faculty can be procured. It will necessitate a body of faculty who are willing to teach somewhat more than they do now. I think that the supposed dilemma between being a researcher and being a teacher is a false choice, and I in fact think that most people who want to be university professors are eager to teach. The choice is not between everyone teaching a 4/4 and everyone teaching a 1/0 with a sabbatical every two years. We can make teaching and research possible for a broad number of scholars, through equitable and sensible systems, such as teaching rotations and research rotations.
Finally, I think supply-side reform is also important. Graduate programs should take on fewer grad students and divide their funding dollars among those fewer students so that they live less cash-poor lives. Faculty need to counsel undergraduates not to enter PhD programs unless they are in those rare STEM and professional fields where there are strong odds of post-graduate employment. This should include a refusal to write letters of recommendation even for students who are adamant. Prospective and current grad students must be relentlessly reminded of what they’re getting themselves into. For both grads and undergraduates, the federal government should institute a hard cap on student loans, both in terms of yearly loads and lifetime loads. Unfunded PhD programs should simply cease to exist. Grad students should be hounded not to take on debt and should be actively discouraged from enrolling if they don’t have the financial wherewithal or spousal and familial support to survive on their stipends. Programs that consistently fail to place their graduates should be disbanded. Again, progress is possible: when word got out that law school students were graduating without jobs in droves, law school applications plummeted. Similar things can happen here.
Hopelessness and showy despair can be emotionally satisfying, but they are not meaningful tools for achieving progress. And progress is possible.
Solidarity and support in favor of adjuncts and against these labor conditions is my first and most important priority. Beyond that, I have been making several arguments:
- While many faculty members have been complicit in these problems, and historically faculty should have worked far harder to oppose them, these problems simply are not the result of faculty decisions, and the people who most deserve both blame and resistance are administrators and legislators. This is not an emotional defense of faculty. It is an acknowledgment of reality.
- The people who write about these issues frequently fail to articulate a coherent political strategy; frequently direct their criticism and anger towards individuals who are not meaningfully responsible for the conditions they rightfully criticize; and frequently argue in a way that I believe actually serves the interests of those elements within the university system who create and perpetuate the conditions these writers deplore. I am not making an argument about tone– I see no need to spare the feelings of the tenured. I am making an argument about effectiveness.
- Many within this debate fail to locate the discussion in a broader economic context where workers everywhere are facing flat wages and attacks on their labor power and job security. Further, many fail to recognize that the basic labor conditions within the American university are no different from those anywhere else, and in particular, fail to recognize that tenured and contingent faculty alike are fundamental members of the labor class who must develop solidarity in pursuing their own rational self-interest against those who control the means of academic production. Non-unionized workers directing their anger at unionized workers rather than against their bosses is a classic failure to think strategically within capitalism, and only a romantic notion of what the university is keeps people from recognizing that this thinking applies to the academy.
- The jobs crisis in the academy is not new; in some fields, it’s been going on for 30 years. It is not to our advantage to pretend that it is new, nor to act as though the fact that there is a jobs crisis in academia has been some kind of closely guarded secret.
- It is likewise to no one’s advantage to misrepresent differences between fields, focuses, and programs on the academic job market. It simply is not true to say that all fields face the same labor markets. It simply is not true to say that one’s choice of specialization has no impact on their odds of being hired. It simply is not true to say that there is nothing you can do to make it more likely you will get a TT job. Acknowledging these facts is not victim blaming and does not constitute delusion about the market.
- Misrepresenting very bad chances of getting a TT job as literally zero chance does not help prospective grad students, and in fact the repeated assertions that grad students have literally no chance at TT employment makes it more likely that you will be tuned out completely. There is no contradiction in saying that thousands of people are hired for TT jobs but that many thousands more are not. Indeed, that’s reality. We should traffic in reality. Just as heading to Hollywood to be a movie star involves terrible odds that are nonetheless non-zero, and just as people should be counseled not to make the attempt by people who care, some do succeed and some will take the risks despite those odds, as bad of a decision as we all may think that is.
- Finally, it is neither practically useful nor morally fair to treat graduate students, an at-risk and exploited population, as uniquely deserving of disrespect, mockery, and derision. Further, it is not fair or practical to act as though prospective or current grad students have a variety of better options in the labor market, or as though all of them were ignorant of the odds before they started, or that none of them will survive failure on the job market. That is particularly true because the people generating that disrespect, mockery, and derision so often fail to heed their own advice: they tell others to leave the academy because it is exploitative and precarious while they themselves remain within that system of exploitation and precarity. Further, they argue that others should pursue maximally practical and secure employment while they themselves pursue impractical and insecure employment such as in journalism or professional writing. Again: what is needed is solidarity, for both practical and moral reasons.
I wish I could do more for adjuncts, particularly given the likelihood I will be one in the future. I am always willing and eager to hear suggestions. As usual, I recognize my powerlessness but maintain a commitment to work despite it. I will try my best to spread this message as far as I can, to academics and non alike. I will criticize anyone, faculty member of not, who does not adequately express support and sympathy for adjuncts, or who minimizes their plight. I will work within institutions in whatever way I can to support contingent faculty, and I will address them with absolutely equal respect and friendship as I show to tenure track faculty. I will do what I can and I will listen when others tell me ways to do more and do better.
I had no place to go, besides grad school. I applied for jobs for two years prior to starting. I got, I think, 4 interviews. I know I got zero offers. My own future is uncertain. But the university will continue to exist, and we as a society are responsible for doing all we can to make it a more just place. I refuse to despair because despair is a luxury of the privileged, and I refuse to blame those who themselves are victims of the system when there are enemies enough to blame. There’s nothing left to do but work.