Let me start by saying that I’ve hesitated to write this post for a few days because I don’t want to come across as that professor who doesn’t get the reality of life for the armies of adjuncts who are teaching college classes. I’m not that professor. I know lots of people who are struggling through adjuncting right now. The job market in History is horrible and it isn’t going to get any better.
Tanya Paperny had a useful editorial in the Washington Post about what life is like for adjuncts. For most academics, this is no surprise–she was teaching at four different schools and not really making ends meet. Paperny eventually quit the academy and found other work. This last point is what I want to talk about. The one thing I don’t understand about long-term adjuncts is why people do it. Why let yourself be exploited like this? I do understand reasons for short-term adjuncting–trying to make a go of it in a particular place that you don’t want to leave, graduate students or newly minted PhDs gaining teaching experience, keeping your foot in the door in case something actually develops at one of these schools, etc. All very good reasons. But long-term adjuncts is a harder phenomena for me to understand. It’s not like this is glamorous or particularly rewarding work. Teaching 4 intro level college surveys is no one’s idea of what they want to do with their lives and while you might occasionally get the student where the light bulb comes on when you teach them, that’s a mighty rare moment at that level. And with all the grading and class prep–not to mention traveling around an entire metro area to make this work, there’s no time for any other part of the job. Forget research, forget keeping up with the literature in the field, forget participating in meaningful service or teaching activities in higher education. You are a grunt and you are treated like a grunt and there’s really no hope for the future to not be treated like a grunt.
I think so much of it is the idea that the person has achieved this degree and now wants to use this degree because they don’t want to see the time they spent as wasted. And I get that from a psychological standpoint. Making $20,000 a year on the other hand is actually wasting your life, or at least the earning potential part of it. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t get PhDs in History or English or the languages. Sure there are no jobs at the end of it, but at least you aren’t going $150,000 into debt to get the degree. You are just delaying your income potential (actually paying to go to graduate school in these fields is just insane and no one should ever do that). But continuing to delay that income earning for years after your degree by holding on by your fingertips to the dream of a tenure-track job is just a bad idea because pretty soon you have a lifetime of doing this and no retirement income. I just participated in a conference at the University of New Mexico that is part of an American Historical Association and Mellon Foundation project on finding alternative careers with the History PhD (UNM has had a tremendous placement rate both inside the academy and in meaningful jobs outside the academy–a rate much higher than schools that are more prestigious and basically equal to many Ivy League schools which is why the AHA chose it for this program). There are good jobs one can get with PhDs that aren’t teaching college freshmen. And they pay much, much better than adjuncting. But they also require reading budgets and working within a government bureaucracy or corporate world and I get why people don’t want to do that.
I’m really glad that SEIU is organizing adjuncts. I know many people within the labor movement hate SEIU, but what other union is going to put real resources into organizing a no-wage sector where returning union dues will be small? Almost no other union. I completely support the National Adjunct Walkout Day and I wish more had participated. Adjuncts should probably go on a general strike to force improvements in their conditions. But to be honest, most adjuncts should also quit their jobs and find something else to do. Working at Starbucks would pay just as well.
Don’t let yourself be exploited if you can help it.