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An ex-adjunct’s view to this year’s fun at the MLA

12 January, 2014

I gather from Twitter that there was a panel on “the most important issue facing our discipline” and hardly anybody came. Reading around the various conversations, it’s easy to see the usual blaming and complaining. Blame the people who scheduled such a panel across from receptions! Blame the gatekeepers for making it hard for people to get in (and by the way, from what I can tell, the person who organizes the MLA badge police is way too into it — sheesh!). Complain that really, there’s no point anymore; people have just given up. Throw in the towel. Infer from the lack of attendance that no one gives a shit.

People new to this blog might not know that I started writing it when I was trying to get my career back together after taking a really, really long time to finish the thesis, during which time I’d taken jobs working outside academia, trying to be a married person with a kid, etc. I started blogging when one of my best friends was also contingent faculty, and when the much-missed Invisible Adjunct blogged regularly. In fact, this blog is in its twelfth year, and a lot has changed in my life. Not much has changed, except for the worse, in terms of the academic labour market and increasing reliance on contingent faculty. It occurred to me this morning that the reason some of us bloggers might seem less sympathetic than we should be to the plight of today’s adjuncts is that we’re well over the shock. In my case, I’m a bit weary of seeing the same old battles being fought over and over again, between the wrong people, in ways that are not likely to do much good. And to be honest, I get tired of inaccurate hyperbole.

Let me be clear on this: the problem of adjunct labour is not an issue facing anyone’s discipline, unless you buy into the idea that adjuncts are less qualified than those who got the brass ring of T-T/’permanence’. It’s a labour issue. It’s one of the three most important issues facing higher ed, in my opinion, along with decreased funding, and the effects of decreases in K-12 spending and NCLB on the current and future generations of students. But it isn’t a disciplinary issue. Moreover, I think treating it as a disciplinary issue is one of the reasons that we haven’t been able to do much about contingent faculty issues. It’s fine for the AHA and the MLA and whatever other professional organizations have done so to issue statements and urge their members to do their best to beat back the tide, but it’s not really very sensible to think that, on any campus, TPTB are going to listen to the faculty in any single discipline, especially if it’s in the Humanities or Social Sciences. It’s a systemic problem, and needs to be treated as such.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it at professional meetings. But we also need to think about why people attend those meetings and how the system works. The problem with conferences like the MLA and the AHA is that they’re hybrids that don’t necessarily serve everybody in their respective fields very well. They’re pretty good for the modernists, but there isn’t a year that goes by where the pre-modernists don’t mention the dearth of panels that are aimed at them. It’s not surprising that you find medievalists leaders at DH and pedagogy panels — hell, we have to get on the programme somehow. And yes, we tend to be interested in those things, because frankly, it’s hella difficult to get our hands on a lot of our sources, and digitization helps make the playing field hilly, rather than Himalayan. Anyway, for a lot of pre-modernists, it makes a lot more sense to go to specifically Medieval, Med-Ren, and Classics conferences.

I think that how we see our professional meetings, and how we see conference attendance in general, has a lot more to do with lack of attendance at ‘state of the profession’ panels than does a “nobody cares” attitude. In no particular order, here are some perfectly good reasons why a panel on an admittedly important — in fact, vital — issue might not get the attendance it deserves:

  • It’s a panel at a huge meeting, and it would be a pretty crap meeting if any single professional panel could draw people away from what might be the only panel that seems really relevant to their research.
  • It’s across from receptions, and people are just tired. One way of avoiding this is to get the organization to offer a hosted bar with better booze at the end of the session.
  • Conferences are relatively short, and big, general meetings are often the only times people can catch up with old friends in different fields. Or network. Or see something in a city they’ve not visited before.
  • A lot of the attendees of such meetings are stuck in interview rooms and/or discussions with fellow search committee members, or are prepping for/recovering from interviews.
  • After a couple of decades, some people don’t really see the point of discussing contingent labour: they’d rather see something that looks like an action plan.
  • Conferences are expensive, duh. That’s not just true for grad students and adjuncts. So we gravitate to the things that are most immediately interesting to us. For some people, conference funding is not only contingent upon presenting, but upon giving some sort of report on the panels in their field that they attended.

The list above is certainly not all-inclusive, nor will every one of those reasons suit every conference. But they do exist, and they are valid reasons why it’s wrong to infer that a lack attendance indicates that no one cares about contingent faculty and the state of higher ed. People care. People who got the brass ring care. They try to change things. They are not the enemy. But honestly, in my own experience looking for jobs while an adjunct and as a ‘tenured’ faculty member, it’s thinking in terms of disciplines that undermines even the best-thought-out attempts to address the contingent labour issue.

Universities are organized by disciplinary groups and disciplines. More importantly, funding and staffing are organized and allocated along these lines. At places like SLAC, of which there are many, the choice is seldom whether or not to add adjuncts or FT lines: the number of FT faculty justified by enrollments is far less than the number of funded positions made available. I can think of a couple of departments at SLAC with FTEs so high that they have to hire a number of adjuncts would seem to justify at least one, and probably two, other permanent faculty, even though there aren’t many students majoring in those fields. But then you look at other departments that not only rely on adjuncts to meet their FTEs, but also have a ratio of 70-90 majors per permanent faculty member. That means a much heavier workload for the faculty in those departments in terms of advising, etc. So who gets the lines, which are never enough? </p?

Some people, like me, are always going to mention, out loud, in front of the administrators and the rest of the faculty, that the number of lines that have been approved is nowhere near what we need, and that over-reliance on contingent faculty and/or overloading courses prevents us from carrying out implied promises of our mission statement. A few others will agree, but we all know that won’t change things this time around — unless some miracle gets people in the professional schools to forego part of their significantly higher salaries. Others are just going to defend their disciplinary turf. More permanent faculty = more money for a department and a more consistent workload for the permanent faculty. It takes milliseconds for a systemic problem to become an issue that directly affects individuals. In other words, an issue that is a real problem for higher ed is, once it hits the ground of any university, is no longer systemic, but personal: faculty have to weigh a general principle against immediate costs to their own lives and careers. No one who is already overloaded is going to give up the possibility of hiring contingent faculty if that’s all they can get. If they’re smart, though, they’ll track the long-term costs and benefits of searching for, interviewing, hiring, and working with adjuncts to justify permanent positions.

That’s just one of the more understandable ways that thinking of contingent labour at a disciplinary level undermines addressing it as a systemic issue. I think that, in many cases, it’s the biggest problem at the level of individual institutions. But it’s a problem that isn’t transparent to most people. For any number of good reasons, we don’t really talk to the outside world about turf wars on our own campuses, or the clashes in departmental or divisional meetings where long-standing feuds may have set patterns that won’t be changed till the dinosaurs are extinct. We can’t talk about parallels to Supreme Court nominations, where faculty desperate for a new line nevertheless pray they don’t get it while certain people might dominate the search process. Take any of those things and add them to other factors, like finding out that the brass ring needs constant polishing in order to keep it, or people who have deluded themselves into believing that academic hiring depends entirely on merit, and thus are entitled to their jobs and somehow better than contingent faculty, or that faculty governance is dying in the face of growing overpaid, non-academic bureaucracies, and it seems clear to me that accusations of not caring, or of academic haves willfully ignoring the have-nots are just too simplistic.

Am I saying that it’s a hopeless situation? No. Am I saying that people with permanent jobs have no ethical obligation to stand up for contingent faculty and try to reverse the tides of the academic labour market? absolutely not. But this situation is not new. And it is less a situation of haves and have-nots than a situation of haves and have-mores. There needs to be national (and probably international, especially in terms of the UK) organization to address the issue. In the US, where accreditation agencies have a lot of clout, faculty need to come up with ways to use their assessment reports to show how a reliance on highly-qualified contingent faculty nevertheless has a negative effect on student learning, e.g., because it’s hard to track consistency in addressing outcomes amongst a constantly changing pool of instructors; because contingent faculty can’t be expected to interact with students at the levels needed to achieve those outcomes, etc. Parents and students need to know that the person whose teaching was instrumental for a student’s changing majors or turning their study habits around might be gone without notice. Government funding agencies should be lobbied to give more funding to those institutions that commit to better hiring policies.

Those are all things that can be done without resorting to collegial cannibalism. I’m not sure how, and I’m not offering to lead. I’m just saying that a couple of decades of knowing that there’s a problem, and knowing it’s systemic gives the issue of contingent labour a history. And since I’m a historian and all, it kind of seems like a good idea to try to understand the history, see what’s been done, and what hasn’t and go from there, rather than (to throw in yet another overused metaphor) re-inventing complaints and resentments that keep the focus on the trees rather than the forest.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. sophylou permalink
    14 January, 2014 4:40 am

    Really appreciate this. I agree that it’s not a disciplinary problem. Contingency is also an issue in libraries and archives, where labor issues are similar in some ways to academia proper, different in others (lots of us are by definition never going to be tenured, so there isn’t as strong of a tenured vs. not split across the board — I think there’s a wider range of tensions… degreed vs. not, part-time vs. not… yay for diverse tensions? hmm.) Faculty also don’t necessarily see what’s happening in their libraries, staffingwise, but job scarcity and contingency are issues for us, too.

    I also find it frustrating that the discussion has become so polarized and so framed in a particular set of terms. I could also think of reasons for the session not being attended similar to yours, but I also think that I would have been reluctant to attend such a session if I thought it were going to be an in-person version of what’s been happening on Twitter. The back-and-forth tone-policing and the limited positions available just make me inclined to disengage. Plus, my own stance is all kinds of fraught and complicated because I was NTT faculty for three years after getting a PhD 2000ish, and am now in a field that gets held up as an alternative career for humanities PhDs but can be fairly unwelcoming to them (and my job almost went contingent last year). In other words, I’m angry about contingency, too, but I’ve lived through this already, I’m not tenured and will never be if I stay where I am, and I can’t necessarily stand as an example of alt-ac green green grass, so I kind of don’t know how to enter this conversation, especially on the terms being laid out. I empathize, but I also want to stay out of the Twitter conversations as they are. (Regrettably, I think I just waded in.)

    I am really appreciating your posts on this, though.

    • 14 January, 2014 7:12 am

      Thanks! I think it’s more the insistence on polarization that’s getting to me. And also, the refusal to acknowledge that this underclass is still not an underclass in a meaningful sense seems to do nothing

  2. Jenn permalink
    14 January, 2014 11:24 am

    I’m a tenure-track prof in the business school and I agree about the importance of having the majority of faculty (in all disciplines) be tenured/tenure-track. But simply paying some of us less will not work in our fields. The reason we get paid more is because of private sector job opportunities.

    I had a few academic offers and some private sector ones and the private sector ones were at higher pay. If individual departments lowered their pay they would not be able to recruit anyone and if all departments did it, the majority of talented folks would avoid higher ed all together. Anytime you have a academic field that requires skills that are lucrative, you necessarily must pay them more. That is, unless you don’t care about having someone who knows, for example, about accounting be an accounting professor.

    That being said, I do sympathize with the adjunct problem in the humanities.

    • 14 January, 2014 3:41 pm

      Jenn, I have heard that argument so many times, and it only works up to a point. The truth is, anybody smart and hard-working enough to have earned a PhD would make more in the private sector. In fact, my latest raise just took me to a grand total of $2000 more a year than I made in a private sector job in 2001. If I had stayed in that job and only been given raises at the rate of inflation ( unlikely, since I have never gone more than 18 months in the private sector without a promotion and/or merit raise), I’d be making 30% more than I make as a history professor.

      I am sure that my institution is not much different from other SLACs, especially if they have accreditation with the AACSB or a similar agency: faculty have a lower teaching load; more administrative support; and most of them still run their own businesses and/or make money from consulting. Where A&S faculty (the majority of us) are on campus 30-50 hours a week, only of a minority of business faculty are. It’s similar for Health Professions faculty, although they are on campus as much as the A&S faculty, because of labs and clinicals.

      I am not suggesting that faculty in professional schools take a huge cut, but surely there’s a middle point?

      • Jenn permalink
        14 January, 2014 4:02 pm

        I disagree. It is not about being smart enough to make money in the private sector, it is about having a desire and skill set to do things the private sector values (anything to do with numbers, for example). Accountants and economists do things that many smart, well educated people would not like to do. There are a lot more people who enjoy teaching and learning about history/literature/etc than enjoy learning advanced applied calculus.

        This sounds far more hostile than I mean it to be……I guess I’m saying that, sure, you can cut faculty salaries of those departments above the mean salary. The consequences are that a lot will leave (there are plenty of outside opportunities to absorb them). In the business department there is a stronger culture of output (research/teaching) than observed input (face time in the office). My history professor friend and I talk about this a lot! Just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they are working…..well, some of them 🙂

      • 14 January, 2014 7:30 pm

        If you look at union schools that enforce wages across disciplines, they tend to have amazing humanities faculty– leaders in their respective fields– and rock bottom economics faculty with practically empty cvs, or publications in international journals nobody has heard of.

        Outside opportunities are important. The models fit the data.

        Nothing precludes an economist or an accountant from going into sales, marketing, customer service, or many things an A&S degree can lead to. A lot of folks on Wall Street do exactly those sorts of things with their econ degrees (for 6-7 figure annual salaries). (They would have more difficulty with museum curator or government linguist kinds of positions, which are more focused to certain humanities PhDs.)

        There’s also a glut of bio PhDs, physics PhDs and math PhDs. Their skills are useful, but the supply and demand still meet lower on the price/quantity axis than economics or accounting (or pharmacy). They have better outside opportunities that match their PhD skills than many humanities PhDs do, but still not as much as in certain other fields (there are several programs that retrain physics PhDs to work in finance!). Really the only big mystery not solved by simple supply and demand is how schools can get away with paying nursing faculty so little in comparison to their outside potential wages (I blame the patriarchy on this one).

        From the university’s bottom-line perspective, at my uni, the business school brings in several times what the university gives it from MBAs and grants. They’re subsidizing many other departments. They earn those high salaries. The economics department brings in 1-2x what it’s taking from the university. Some professional schools are a big drain on money but others bring in a lot. Most of the humantities departments bring in (from students) about what they get.

        Of course, this is getting into exactly the kind of infighting that the article was decrying.

        Really we need state and federal government to stop de-funding higher education. And maybe humanities programs can think about creating a guild like Vet schools, Med schools, and actuaries do if they seriously want higher salaries and lower unemployment. Otherwise outside opportunities for humanities phds need to be a lot more clear and a lot more focused so it’s obvious what to do and there’s little stigma attached to leaving academia for a lucrative outside position.

  3. 14 January, 2014 5:44 pm

    I am not debating the amount of work; I am debating the sort of work and the value placed upon it. The sort of work that takes up business faculty time is far more portable and self-serving (in the sense of advancing one’s own career, as well as financially) than is the work done by people in A&S. While it’s true that many people in the humanities wouldn’t choose to be accountants or economists, it’s also true that many accountants and economists wouldn’t want to work in marketing, sales, customer service, or many other areas that an A&S degree can lead to.

    As for the greater emphasis on output, I have to disagree. While business faculty across different levels of institutions may be expected to publish more, any A&S faculty who wish to improve their standing and position have to meet equal or higher standards with fewer resources and at greater personal cost. The reality is that business and professional faculty at most sorts of colleges and universities have far more in common with faculty at top-tier universities than do their A&S colleagues.

    This sort of market-driven justification undermines the idea of the university as a place of learning, and re-imagines it as a place of training. It also holds no water when you remove the assumption that it’s possible to place a monetary value on what academics do, and that private sector businesses should be able to set that value. Based on what you’re saying, my colleagues in Maths and Sciences (still part of A&S, as is Econ at many universities) should have pay and conditions more like what the people in the professional schools have. Hell, my sister, with her. BSc in molecular and cell bio and who started working about twelve years after I did makes more than I do, and more than my junior colleagues in biology. Yet I never hear colleagues in the professional schools say that A&S should pay the math and science faculty significantly more than those of us in the Humanities. In fact, where the professional schools have positions that duplicate those in A&S, for example, PhD biologists who teach classes required for the Health Professions, or PhD economists and statisticians who could just as easily teach in a business school, there is absolutely no difference in qualification, yet positions in those schools pay far more for teaching equivalent classes.

    I’m going to have to think this out a bit more, and give it it’s own post, I think. But for what it’s worth, I don’t read any hostility in your comments, and appreciate hearing your views.

    • Jenn permalink
      15 January, 2014 11:45 am

      Yes, it would be wonderful is state funding supported this view of the universities and paid A&S faculty more. I don’t think it would work at all to pay some fields less than what they can make outside the university so upping the pay of everyone to the top of the salary schedule (I’m guessing finance) is the only way to pay all faculty the same AND not require people to go against their own incentives (that is, not require that some professors in some fields act against their best interests with respect to pay. I’m not sure the feasibility of paying all faculty $140,000+ (the going rate for junior finance) so we are logically left with some inequality.

      • 15 January, 2014 5:27 pm

        I think you’re missing the point here. “Best interests” is so broad as to have almost no meaning in this conversation. If financial well-being were the standard definition, then by your reasoning, we’d ONLY have professors in the professional schools. That’s hardly the point of the university. We’d also have a lot more people going into the trades rather than to university.

        I’m certainly not saying that all faculty should make six figures — at most places, that’s not even a possibility. But if an assistant professor in business starts at a higher rate than someone in A&S who was just promoted to full professor, or if a biologist can get a 30% raise by changing divisions on the same campus (and at the same time make more as an assistant prof than their full-professor biology department chair in A&S, then I think some of the money for creating more permanent positions could be found by trimming administrative and professional school salaries. I think the main cuts should be made in upper-level administrators, but that’s only part of the picture.

  4. 14 January, 2014 7:31 pm

    That typo in my last comment is the fault of my iPad’s auto-correct. Just sayin’

  5. 15 January, 2014 7:02 am

    Just saw nicoleandmaggie’s comment.

    I’m going to have to look into those figures, because at my institution, tuition is the same for business students as those in A&S, but A&S faculty generate >150% more FTEs on average per faculty member AND overall than do their colleagues in business. Since they are paid less and their classes have fairly low overhead (with the usual exceptions in lab sciences), they subsidize other schools and divisions. Health Professions generate a lot of tuition, but because of high salaries and overhead (labs, equipment, teaching space on the local medical campus, etc.), they also don’t subsidise others divisions, either.

    And again — market-driven models of academia miss the point of academic degrees.

  6. 16 January, 2014 7:00 am

    You go, ADM! Also: in budget cuts, when you don’t get a raise for 5 years and all your travel money is cut and the library does not buy books and they start contributing less to retirement, and you are making $140K+, you can carry it. But if you are making a third of that, like our assistant professors, it makes it hard to carry the career.

    Most of the people in the business school also have lucrative consulting gigs on the side, from what I can gather, and I have a feeling that is part of what they are up to when not at the office.

  7. 16 January, 2014 3:49 pm

    Also, on business: Chicago and Harvard business schools are complicit with a lot of poor practices and are responsible for the 2008 collapse and much harm in places like Latin America, very obviously, but also here and elsewhere. So: perhaps those “bad” business schools created when you cannot overpay that faculty are actually NOT bad? Perhaps their research does not make it into top tier journals in that field because it is in fact GOOD?

  8. 17 January, 2014 3:20 pm

    Yours is the first post I’ve seen that mentions the role of accreditation bodies! And even with suggestions for what kind of data they would take seriously … that’s really helpful. I’d like to add that the third-party comment system allows people other than faculty to comment to accreditors on these issues, so anyone who cares about adjunctification can do something about it.

    I have compiled links to the relevant US agencies, their accreditation criteria (with notes about which criteria are most relevant to adjunct issues), and their third-party comment systems and accreditation schedules. Folks can find it at my blog,


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