May 26, 2003

The Second Weekly Invisible Adjunct Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence (No Cash, Just Glory)

This week's Invisible Adjunct Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence (No Cash, Just Glory) goes to Joseph Duemer of reading & writing for the following pithy observation (comments to Where the Adjuncts Have Equal Status):

That presumably qualified people are willing to work for $1000 per course is the data point that puts the period to the sentence of serfdom.

Nicely put, Mr. Duemer. Your noble contribution exempts you from the burden of our taille.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at May 26, 2003 04:25 AM

Clearly, not a nice situation and probably not a sustainable one. What is your proposed solution? I get the sense that you want humanaities departments to stop using adjuncts and restrict teaching to tenure-track faculty. That cannot be enough. All you will get is no jobs at all for most of the people currently working as adjuncts. I think it is more fundamental than specific employment arrangements. Something like demand for the courses. Consider this. In finance (where I teach, as an re-trained economist), we pay adjuncts more than ten times that $1000 figure. In every other respect the arrangements are what you seem to characterize as serfdom. They are paid well because there is a large demand for their services. The only workable solution I see proposed on this site is to ajdust supply, ie, stop producing so darned many PhDs in these areas. Any other ideas?

Posted by: gerald garvey at May 26, 2003 03:13 PM

I don't think it is simply a question of lack of demand for courses. After all, one could argue that there is a demand for the courses that are taught by adjunct faculty: otherwise, why offer these courses at all? Indeed, since adjunct faculty are often hired on at the last minute to meet an unanticipated surge in enrollment (eg. we need another section of intro. to English lit or intro to western civ) or unhired at the last minute due to lack of enrollment, adjunct-taught courses are arguably more receptive to changes in demand.

I think the problem stems from two issues: (1) the lack of alternative job markets outside the academy weakens the bargaining power of humanities faculty; and (2) this weak bargaining position has been greatly exacerbated by the overproduction of humanities PhDs.

Certainly, a reduction in the numbers of humanities PhDs is a necessary first step. Beyond that, I don't have a solution. It's too late for me, at any rate. But I have to believe that it's not too late for humanities disciplines to start taking active measures to reverse these trends.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 26, 2003 03:29 PM

On the question of demand for courses, Alex Pang makes a very interesting point:

What's happened with the academic job market, it seems to me, is something different. It's better thought of as a bad outcome of a conspiracy of the narrow interests of administrators and permanent faculty. Why do I say this? Look at the kinds of courses that are taught by adjuncts: introductory lecture courses, surveys, service-intensive courses like English comp. This isn't because administrators or department heads have tried to create a more rational market, or to match teaching supply and course demand more effectively, but one driven more by convenience and hierarchy: it's a way for administrators to cut costs, and for senior faculty to focus greater love and attention on their graduate students, enrich the collective intellectual life of their institutions, etc.

If you believed that this was happening because of a macroeconomic logic, you'd conclude that universities were operating under the assumption that it was impossible to know, semester to semester, whether there would be enough demand for Western Civ or differential calculus to have anyone permanently hired to teach it; but that it absolutely essential to have lifetime 24/7 access to specialists in [insert favorite absurd example of something]. What SHOULD be happening is the opposite. Since academic fashions change as quickly as any others, but the need for students who can write a decent paragraph and compute the area under a curve does not, universities should have spent the last two decades outsourcing their high-level, theoretical work, and investing resources in a permanent cadre of teachers.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 26, 2003 03:36 PM

Thanks for those responses. I realize now that my view of the demand for courses was distorted by the fact that I work at a graduate-only institution. I am sure you are right that there is a huge demand for the "blocking and tackling" courses at the undergrad level. I will try to come back with some lessons from my own undergrad experiences (I had a major in classics as well as econ). Plus have a chat to my colleagues at the Claremont Colleges (you know, Pomona, Claremont-Mckenna, etc..) about their situation.

Posted by: gerald garvey at May 26, 2003 06:28 PM

Though I may be wrong about this, I suspect that classics is one discipline where it does make sense to talk of a decline in student demand. In such disciplines (art history may be another), one doesn't see the huge increase in adjuncts that characterizes English literature and history: the "surplus" PhDs have to move on and out of the academy, because there just aren't part-time teaching opportunities (if that is the right term for it) in those fields. Adjunct-heavy fields are precisely those areas where student demand has remained constant and perhaps even increased: it's not that students no longer enroll in English composition or Intro to American history, it's that they now enroll in courses taught by adjuncts instead of full-time faculty.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 27, 2003 12:26 AM

I'm not sure I understand the objections to Gerald's original post. It seems correct to me. He says that the supply and demand curves meet at a low level ($1000/course) because of an excess of supply. If there was less supply (of teachers), then the wages would be higher.

BTW, those finance adjuncts to whom he refers are not doing it for the money. In my experience, they are retired/semi-retired and do so because it's interesting.

Posted by: JT at May 27, 2003 02:29 PM

I think the lack of relevant, well-paid outside work for many PhD's is a huge contributing factor to the lack of bargaining power. My husband has a PhD in statistics. Talk about bargaining power! You can make twice as much in industry as you can in the classroom, so many statisticians opt for the former. When and if they decide to enter university teaching, they have their pick of top universities, PLUS their industry experience makes them more desireable. This situation does not exist for most of the humanities majors. One could argue that if there was some sort of a comparable "industry experience" component, it would make many candidates stand out to search committees. In my field, education, there is at least the requirement that one has public school teaching experience before one holds a doctorate and enters the university to teach. Having a chance to gain industry experience is definately a factor to gaining bargaining power, no doubt about it!

Posted by: Cat at May 27, 2003 04:52 PM

JT: I don't really see it as disagreement, rather, trying to understand why the demand and supply curves are the way they are. I think our host (correct me if I am wrong!) is arguing that tenured humanities academics have a perverse tendency to exacerbate the situation. Their teaching consists mostly of training more new PhDs, contributing to the supply effect. Interestingly, the situation in finance/accounting is almost the opposite. Jerry Zimmerman at Rochester has a paper documenting a sharp REDUCTION in PhD production in these fields. As most everyone else has agreed, the driver is outside (extra-academic) opportunities. In the case of finance and accounting, many of us (myself included) tend to favor our consulting over PhD training.

I also think you are right that most finance adjuncts do not really do it for the $ we pay. The semi-retired folks you refer to are our ideal adjuncts. Sometimes, (when we get careless or desperate), we end up instead with people who want to use university affiliations to give them some credibility as investment advisors.

Posted by: gerald garvey at May 28, 2003 12:12 AM

"He says that the supply and demand curves meet at a low level ($1000/course) because of an excess of supply. If there was less supply (of teachers), then the wages would be higher."

I basically agree with this, so long as we are talking about the demand for tenure-track professors, in which there is most certainly an excess of supply.

Where things get complicated, however, is in the relationship between the demand for tenure-track profs and the demand for courses. As Alex Pang and others point out, it's not really the case that there are too many history or English PhDs because there is not enough demand for courses in history and English lit. The demand for the courses is there, but is being met by adjuncts rather than by tenure-track and tenured profs. Indeed, adjuncts tend to teach the courses for which there is a large and steady demand: introductory surveys, composition courses and the like. And such courses are arguably more useful than courses typically taught by tenured faculty: while most students don't really need to know about the politics and poetics of sexual transgression in Shakespearean drama, they do need to know how to write coherent paragraphs. I believe this situation is somehow related to an oversupply, which has cheapened the value of the degree and weakened the bargaining position of faculty.

"The semi-retired folks you refer to are our ideal adjuncts." It used to be the case in the humanities, too, that semi-retired people taught as adjuncts. Now it is young people ...

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 28, 2003 02:10 AM