March 12, 2003

Adjunct as Entrepreneur?

Jill Carroll has been writing a column ("The Adjunct Track") for the Chronicle of Higher Education for over a year. Though she offers some useful advice on such tricky dilemmas as how to hold office hours without an office, the framework within which she chooses to view the issue of adjunct teaching strikes me as incredibly naive and highly misleading.

Basically, Carroll proposes to replace the "paradigm" of adjunct as exploited low-wage worker with that of adjunct as entrepreneur. As the Chronicle put it in a feature article published in August 2001, "Jill Carroll wants adjuncts to think about themselves as entrepreneurs selling a product to a client." Carroll teaches 12 courses a year at three separate campuses -- and "that doesn't count the continuing-education classes or the literature course for convicts on probation" -- and now earns $54,000 a year. She is, the Chronicle tells us, "a small-business success story."

The keys to her success? The keys are both practical and psychological. "The key, she says, is to develop courses like products: Systemize their production until you can reap the benefits of economies of scale. Make them classes you can teach over and over, without mountains of preparation each time." But successful enterpreneurship begins with a positive attitude: "It all starts with how you think," she says. "I know it sounds very pop psychology, sounds like Oprah. But it's true."

Yes, that does sound very pop psychology. And I'm afraid such pop psychology does not meet my criteria of what could reasonably be considered as "true." Kind of reminds me of that "don't sweat the small stuff and it's all small stuff" stuff. Sure, some of it, probably a lot of it, is small stuff. But it's not all small stuff, and just saying that it's small doesn't make it small.

In her latest column, Carroll reiterates her approach as follows:

"Finally you can pursue the entrepreneurial approach, which is the one I have advocated in this column. It's worked quite well for me and for lots of other adjuncts working in larger cities. This is as much a psychological strategy as anything, in that it chooses to view adjuncts as freelance workers who sell their services to different clients within their market.
Even though we don't set our own rates or get to charge kill fees, approaching the adjunct situation within this paradigm is fruitful for the new possibilities it creates. You hustle up as much work as you can in your area, always improving your quality of service (teaching, grading, whatever), becoming ever more time-efficient and skilled in your work so that you can shoulder more clients, and earn more money, without going insane."

I think this "adjunct as entreprenuer" strategy is nothing more than a compensatory fiction. It is, as Carroll admits, largely a psychological strategy. Yes, you are marginalized, underpaid, unsupported and exploited, Carroll concedes. But instead of allowing this to make you feel bad about yourself and your position (because it will otherwise make you feel very bad indeed, and you might even find yourself "going insane"), you should redefine yourself as a freelance worker, calling yourself an entrepreneur who delivers a "quality product" to a growing base of "clients," and finding a basis for self-esteem and self-fulfillment in the "skill" and "time-efficiency" with which you deliver your product.

Problem is, as Carroll finally admits in this latest column (and I think this is the first time she has made such an admission), the adjunct is not really -- indeed, not at all -- in a position to behave like an entrepreneur: "Even though we don't set our own rates or get to charge kill fees," she concedes. Well, that's a pretty big concession. That pretty much qualifies the notion of adjunct as entrepreneur into the region of sheer fantasy. As Keith Hoeller (Cofounder, Washington Part-Time Faculty Association) pointed out in a letter to the editor in response to its August 2001 article,

"If Professor Carroll were in fact a self-employed entrepreneur with years of professional experience, she would be earning $200,000 a year and not $54,000. She would set her own rates and allow enough to purchase her own medical and retirement benefits; cover her transportation costs, office rent, phone bills, and marketing and promotional materials; and set money aside for periods of unemployment. She would also write her own contracts -- and include hefty cancellation penalties" (Letter to the Editor, Chronicle, September 14, 2001).

Indeed. For all practical intents and purposes, the adjunct is a low-wage worker without benefits who can be hired and fired at will. So in what way can the adjunct be an entrepreneur, except in his or her own mind?

Anyway, is this what teaching should be about? The delivery of units of quality service (lecturing, grading, and etc) by freelance workers with no real stakes in the curriculum, the department, the institutions in which they work? And if this is ok, then why have tenured faculty at all? Why not abolish tenure, eliminate all but a few full-time positions within any given department (cannot entirely eliminate full-time positions, must keep a small permanent base of adminstrators/overseers), and have the bulk of teaching done by part-timers ("free-lancers")? I believe this is the direction in which we are moving, and I suspect there are legions of university adminstrators who would love nothing better than to speed up this process. Call me old-fashioned, but I think this is not a good thing. My problem with the growing use of adjuncts is partly, I will admit, motivated by self-interest: I don't like to be marginalized, underpaid, unsupported, and exploited. But part of it stems from a real concern over the future of higher education, and what the shift from full-time to part-time positions signals about this future.

But I suppose a part of me has to give Carroll her due: in attempting to redefine low-paid, contingent labor as an enterpreneurial strategy, she exposes the commodification of education and the corporatization of the university to sometimes brilliant (though often absurd) effect.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at March 12, 2003 03:28 AM

Entrepreneurs exist at the margins of the free market, using the term anywhere else is a sign of ideological dogma, the free market is dominated by the managers of the industrial and government planning processes, they work in teams, they are Galbraiths technostructure

don;t belief them when they peddle entrepreneurism for everyone else, its just a way to disempower you, get organised like they are

Carrol is over-identifying with this ideology in order to feel good about herself, Carrol is being adapted by the technostructre to suit its needs, it may work, it may not, particularly when the rewards of identification fail to materialise. rewards??? POWER

Posted by: meika von samorzewski at March 17, 2003 09:18 PM

Yes, I agree. Entrepreneurs flourish or (more often) fail at the margins of the market. Entrepreneurship involves risk, and risk is something that the major players want to avoid at all costs. Much of what bills itself as entrepreneurship is nothing more than puffery.

Carroll's strategy will not work. Though it may earn her a position in academic administration. I shudder at the thought.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at March 17, 2003 11:06 PM

the Soviet system had no cash/consumer goods for workers and used identification with the entire project as the reward itself, ...virtue as its own reward... it seems we are moving that way too, only this time the "Soviet Heroes" are entrepreneurs who wash your socks

Posted by: meika von samorzewski at March 18, 2003 11:12 AM

Well, a lot of lack of real world knowledge here ...

""If Professor Carroll were in fact a self-employed entrepreneur with years of professional experience, she would be earning $200,000 a year and not $54,000."

I know a lot of entrepeneurs who make in the 30k to 60k range.

The real problem with Carroll's identity is that she has a unique niche, one that she has successfully developed in an urban area that makes it easy to cover several institutions and exploit her niche rather well.

But what that really says is that if you have the ideal physical location, and have the ideal background (an in demand niche and an identity within that niche) you can barely scrape yourself into the bottom tier of professional employment.

It is really a scary cautionary tale of just what you can't do if you are "only" "normal."

Posted by: Anon Again at October 25, 2003 10:29 AM