June 16, 2003

Do Adjuncts Behave like Scabs?

In the comments to "The Adjunct Track: A Slow Train to Nowhere," Mr. Thomas H. Benton makes a provocative suggestion:

My thinking in regard to my off-the-cuff comment about the Teamsters is that some adjuncts behave like scabs. Some of them make it impossible to act collectively; they function as a surplus army of the unemployed, they drive down wages, and then they condemn the rest of us who don't adopt their individualist outlook as unjustified complainers (I'm not thinking of KW here--more like Jill Carroll, though some of what she says is sensible under the circumstances). Essentially, the "I-can't-believe-I-get-paid-to-do-this" adjuncts sell out to their exploiters in the hopes of getting crumbs from the table.

Here's where I'm torn. Adjuncts are a downtrodden lot, but I wonder if academic workers who are committed to change and collective action need to draw a line and declare, 'You are with us or against us.' And, if you are an adjunct who undercuts wages, expands the tyranny of flexibility, refuses to help your fellow academic workers, and then proclaims how wonderful the system is . . . well, what would a serious union movement do?

So Mr Benton has visited a blog entitled "Invisible Adjunct" and left a comment suggesting that adjuncts, or at least some adjuncts, behave like scabs. To which I reply, Good for you, Mr. Benton. This is a delicate and thorny issue, and I'm glad you've raised it. One of the problems surrounding discussions of academic work is that we are all too polite, and let's face, all too embarrassed, to confront the issues openly and frankly.

I'm torn too. To work as an adjunct is not only to consent to one's own exploitation but also to participate in the unfolding process of the deprofessionalization of academic teaching more broadly. And this is quite apart from whatever pronouncements one makes on the topic: whether one says, "Adjunct teaching is a bad deal" or "I can't believe they pay me to do this!" it is the teaching at a low wage that contributes to the devaluation of teaching.

There's no question that adjuncts represent a surplus army of cheap labor. And there's little question in my mind that the existence of a surplus reserve of unemployed/underemployed workers drives down the wages/salaries of the fully employed. From one perspective, we can say that every time an adjunct agrees to teach an English literature course for $2,500, that adjunct is contributing to the devaluation/degradation of the profession of teaching English literature.

In common parlance, the term "scab" refers to someone who is doing something in relation to labor union activity. A scab is someone who crosses a picket line, who refuses to join a union, who takes a job as a replacement worker for a worker who is out on strike and so on. I think it's obvious that adjuncts are not scabs in this way. They are not refusing to join a labor union. In fact, it is the full-time faculty labor unions who refuse to admit adjuncts to their membership (as far as I know, the only full-time faculty union that bargains on behalf of adjuncts is the one at CUNY). Nor are adjuncts crossing pickets lines or taking jobs as replacement workers as full-time faculty members go out on strike.

So the term can only make sense in a looser way, as a means of calling attention to the ways in which adjunct labor undercuts the salaries of the fully employed. To call adjuncts scabs even in this looser way, however, would only make sense, I believe, within the context of a movement on the part of full-time faculty to actively resist the adjunctification of their disciplines. Such a movement (not necessarily synonymous with unionization) would have to involve, at the very least, a two-pronged effort to bring the number of PhDs in line with the number of tenure-track positions:

1) a scaling back of graduate students admissions (in some disciplines, a dramatic scaling back); and
2) a campaign to convert part-time into full-time positions

Such a campaign might also require an insistence that the practice of teaching at a fully accredited four-year college or university requires the PhD: though graduate students can still work as teaching assistants, no one can serve as primary instructor for a course without the PhD. Yes, this sounds harsh, but this is what professions do (e.g., doctors, lawyers, chartered accountants) to maintain their labor monopolies: though aspiring entrants can serve in any number of apprenticeship/assistantship capacities, they are simply not permitted to perform certain tasks/services without the full credentials.

The major problem here is that academic professional associations do not license their practitioners. There is obviously no social contract with the state, which is what medical doctors clearly have: the state grants them a legal monopoly over the provision of certain services, they agree to police and enforce credentials and licenses: if you practice surgery without a license, the state can – and I hope will – prosecute you. Leaving aside the question of state interest (and most of us would agree that the state has a compelling interest in preventing an amateur from performing surgery, but does not have a compelling interest in preventing an ABD from teaching an undergraduate survey), there is not even an extra-legal licensing system overseen by the various academic professional associations on behalf of their own members. Nor is there likely to be one, and I would go further and say there probably shouldn't be.

I believe the only real hope here is through something more informal: a campaign to link teaching to rankings and prestige, so that anything above a certain percentage of courses taught by non-PhDs and/or by part-timers, becomes a mark against a university, a sign of its inferiority.

I think it’s important to insist that such a movement would be (I use the conditional tense here because frankly, I don't see any such movement; to the contrary, I see a lot of resistance to the very idea that such a movement might be warranted) different than the attempts to unionize adjunct teachers. The problem with adjunct unionization is that it can only hope to achieve an amelioration of horrible working conditions (low page, lack of benefits) -- from really bad to not quite as bad -- without addressing the broader problem of deprofessionalization. Indeed, I worry that it might even contribute to the further deprofessionalization/proletarianization of academic labor: that is, that it might further institutionalize and confer legitimacy upon the existence of permanent underclass working outside the tenure track in a second tier.

So the problem I have with the way Benton has framed the issue (and admittedly his suggestions are tentative, he acknowledges that he is "torn," and is clearly not issuing absolute pronouncements) is that it seems to begin at the wrong end. The increase in adjunct teaching has undercut wages, yes. But now that these wages have been undercut, and as adjunctification continues, we are approaching a situation (in some cases and in some disciplines) where we might as well say, What an adjunct earns for teaching a course is not so much an undercutting of some other standard or normal wage but is actually the standard, set wage for teaching that course.

There are also a lot of issues here concerning why it is that adjuncts agree to work as adjuncts. I'd like to address this delicate and depressing aspect of the problem, but this will have to wait until I return from vacation (leaving tomorrow, return Sunday).

Let me add that I have singled out Mr. Benton's comment not because I am unsympathetic but rather because I am sympathetic to his perspective. But I want to insist that a movement to resist the two-tier academic labor system would have to be undertaken by full-time faculty. I don't expect to see such a movement any time soon.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at June 16, 2003 12:53 PM

I by and large agree with this, although I'm not sure professors have the power to do this even if they had the will to fight. The only dissent I'd make is that I'm not sure a PhD is necessary across the board. For example, I'm not really sure what the point of a doctorate is in, say, the fine arts. If a university had a great actor or painter teaching those subjects on a part-time, or even full-time basis, I wouldn't hold it against the school if that individual lacked a research degree. And I'd probably make similar exceptions for the business school. Now, whether fine arts and vocational training is a proper function of a university is an entirely different matter. . . .

Posted by: James Joyner at June 16, 2003 01:31 PM

Excellent post with so many threads! I'll address just two. In the community college system in my state, the two full-time faculty unions do bargain for adjunct faculty and have, in fact, made some impressive gains. When, however, I wrote an article for my union's newsletter about what I saw as the continued elitist attitudes of my full-time colleagues towards their part-time colleagues and the need to abolish such ways of thinking, I was told it would not be published as it might be too offensive to our full-timers.

Secondly, I think we have to accept that most full-time faculty do not want to see an end to adjunctification, at least in some disciplines. In English, whether we are speaking of a four-year university or a community college, full-time faculty do not want adjuncts to disappear because they do not want to be "stuck" with the job of teaching freshman composition, the most difficult, time-consuming and emotionally-draining work of their profession. When I had the audacity at a department meeting to suggest that more full-time faculty teach EN 101 at my college and we reduce the number of part-time faculty doing so, it was as if I'd grown three heads. Maybe I had.

Posted by: Cindy at June 16, 2003 01:47 PM

That does seem to be the rub, doesn't it? What those faculty may be resisting, out of their own sense of professionalism, is the administration's (probably reasonable) belief that teaching is part of what they were hired for and part of what granting tenure is about. This would also explain why many departments refuse to acknowledge their adjunct colleagues as "real" faculty; "real" faculty are not "meant" to teach basic introductory courses.

In my own experience, the places that treated me most decently as a temporary hire were the ones where everyone took turns teaching the less-popular-but-central GE and survey courses, sometimes getting time off or the chance to do a new experimental course as their reward. This included part-timers, when the economics (governed by the administration, not the department) permitted it.

The solution, then, would be to redefine the sense of the profession to include teaching as an essential component -- even or especially of intro surveys -- alongside research and service. I know this is in the language of many tenure rubrics, but is it the case in practice? Is it part of the overall culture of the professorate?

On a hopeful note, I think that this sort of shift may already be happening on a subtle, generational level -- the great majority of my cohort have simply accepted that teaching undergrads is going to be part of their professional life, whether they have a particular fondness for it or not.

Posted by: Rana at June 16, 2003 02:09 PM

We ought to keep a distinction in mind here between undergrad teaching (including the standard frosh-level surveys and intros) on the one hand, and the sort of undergrad teaching that feels like remedial high school teaching. I agree that full-time faculty should do their share in teaching courses in the first category, although in my experience (in philosophy) they generally _do_ share in that teaching & have no expectation not to.

But the courses in the second category really are another matter. Now, some departments don't have much of that second category (thankfully, including my own field of philosophy), but others get a stuck with a big chunk of it: comp for English departments, painfully low-level algebra and trig courses for math, first-year language courses for langauge and literature, and so on. These courses are only connected by accidents of content to their home departments -- it is unlikely that there is anything at all in one's training as an academic in such fields that makes one particularly well-suited to teach these courses. Indeed, sometimes having the PhD makes one _less_ well-suited: brilliant mathematicians are notoriously insensitive to which sorts of math problems mere mortals will find trivial or challenging. So as long as universities will need to staff such courses, we should expect the relevant full-time faculty to resist having to teach them. And, moreover, I am suggesting that it is not inappropriate that they do so. What they do need to recognize, though, is an unsustainable tension in the current system: adjunctification of these 'high school' courses _and_ counting the enrollment in those courses towards their own department's credit. I know at least some institutions do split things here: Harvard, for example, has a separate 'expository writing' program with its own (non-English department) faculty.

Posted by: JW at June 16, 2003 03:32 PM

UMass's professors union does include contract faculty.

Why aren't professors resisting the tendency to create a two-tier system? Because their departments are in competition with other departments to show maximal efficiency (most "seats") with the best bottom line. In some colleges and universities, departments that cost a lot without teaching many students may be cut.

Something similar happens in the non-profit world. People who got MSWs and LICSWs in order to help people are made heads of departments. Then they have to cut the hours or wages of other social workers.

Posted by: RA at June 16, 2003 04:28 PM

I hadn't thought about the two levels of intro undergrad courses from the perspective of departments/fields where the correlation is weak. Blame my training in history -- the GE intro survey courses are not as removed from the seminars in the major in terms of topic and basic background as they might be for other disciplines. The range of students and abilities is often broader, but the basic practice is not that different in classes that are not intensive workshops. So I can see why someone trained (and hired) for a fairly specialized teaching position might not be willing to teach a course in something so removed from their field that it might well be something else entirely.

On the case of the brilliant theoreticians who can't (won't?) teach undergrads, I'm a bit more skeptical; presumably they did well enough as teachers to be hired and tenured in the first place? So what has now changed? Am I naive to think that people hired with the expectation that they will teach as well as add to the base of knowledge are defaulting on their part of the bargain if they refuse to help out with the less-desirable aspects of the job?

It may be that eventually there should be a formalization of teaching and research faculties, with some people being part of both, others not, but would it work?

Posted by: Rana at June 16, 2003 08:02 PM

Rana, I wasn't trying to invoke the spectre of the brilliant theoretician who can't teach undergrads courses _at all_, but rather the ones who may be ill-equipped to teach _especially_ low-level undergrad courses. Really, if you're enough of a math braniac to succeed in contemporary mathematics, then it will be very, very, very hard for you to understand what aspects of, say, algebra II the typical human will be struggling with, and which parts truly can be treated as trivial. It's not just that the person will enjoy such teaching less -- I'm claiming they will actually be _worse_ at it!

But maybe math is just a bit weird in this way. I can't think of an equivalent phenomenon in philosophy (outside of formal logic, of course!), or history, or the sciences.

Posted by: JW at June 16, 2003 10:42 PM

My angle on this has always been different than everyone elses' except maybe language hat. It's out in the open now, since I'm one of the hobbyist adjuncts (.065 @ $28,000 / yr., thank you very much) and a non-PhD. to boot. No hard feelings.

The problem with adjunct arganizing is -- who are your allies? Administration is bitterly against you; when push comes to shove, tenured faculty probably are against you; the taxpayers don't care much; liberals are heavily influenced by university administrations and somewhat by tenured faculty. The only allies I can seen are students, just maybe, and other unions. And unions haven't been very lucky over the last 20 years plus, and many adjuncts will be uncomfortable standing in solidarity with, e.g. maintenance men.

Sorry to be such a wet blanket, but I've been on the fringe of this issue for literally decades now and my pessimism is pretty ingrained.

Posted by: zizka at June 17, 2003 01:13 AM

The field of education is also an area approaching crisis levels when it comes to adjuncts. Most people who get PhD's or EdD's are older women, mostly career school teachers who decided to return to college. Many are in stable marriages with well-paid spouses and do not see adjuncting as a hardship, rather a hobby of sorts. With the large numbers of teacher retirements on the horizon, many of these women are finishing their doctorates instead, thus providing a continuous supply of adjunct labor. I'm not sure which situation is worse (and contributes more to what we have been talking about): adjunts who "have" to work or adjuncts who see no trouble at all with the low pay because they are financially stable to begin with.

Posted by: Cat at June 17, 2003 10:10 AM

You mentioned students as allies; how about grad students? If there is an existing union on campus for grad student employees, it may well be sympathetic to the needs and concerns of adjunct instructors -- they face many of the same issues, such as poor pay, unpaid overtime and lack of personal and spousal benefits.

I don't know about the "hobby" adjuncts; my father is one (he used to teach, then put in long long years with an increasingly ungrateful corporation when that didn't last) but he is so happy to be doing it that I can't begrudge him the opportunity.

Posted by: Rana at June 17, 2003 11:08 AM

As both ill-paid teachers and students, grad students sort of bridge the gap between adjuncts and undergrads. I actually think of them more as being a central part of the adjunct group (pre-adjuncts) rather than allies. Grad students are also the suckers of the future whom you want to wise up.

Posted by: zizka at June 17, 2003 11:25 AM

Rana, I think that I know what JW is talking about. When I was a TA, I was initially assigned a course numbered 'IS 099'. Since I was expecting a MATH or STAT I was wondering what's up. I was informed that 'IS' was for math courses which were below high school senior Algebra level. Not just remedial, but severely remedial. The university finally hired instructors with MS's in Math Education (i.e., high school math teachers), which was better for both those students and the math professors.

Posted by: Barry at June 17, 2003 01:32 PM

Since I raised the issue of full-time faculty not wanting to teach lower-level courses and therefore being happy to perpetuate the adjunct teaching situation as is, I just want to be clear I wasn't referring to what we might call "developmental" or "remedial" courses at the time. I stand by my original point: the average full-time faculty member does not want to teach freshmen--not pre-freshmen--courses, at least in the field of English. The issue is not that the typical full-time, tenured Ph.D. in 18th-Century Literature is not best suited to the task; after all, how is he/she any less suited than the part-time Ph.D. in the same area who probably is teaching the course? It is that he/she believes that the full-time, tenured (or tenure-track position) makes such work BENEATH him/her, or that grading all those papers detracts from his/her precious time writing articles for obscure journals that only a handful of similarly ensconced individuals will read.

But since the issue of "remedial" courses has been raised, I'm wondering what the argument being made here is now. Are those courses appropriate for adjuncts to teach? Or for people with Masters degrees only? How about ABDs? How high and how specialized does my degree and area of concentration need to be to raise me from the ranks of having to teach the great unwashed? (If I sound a little defensive here, it is because I am. At least half my course load is in basic writing each semester because I choose it; I happen to enjoy working with the students who take those courses.)

Obviously, I stand with IA's belief: the situation will not change until tenured, full-time faculty want it to change. And btw, I happen to be one of those tenured, full-time faculty myself :-)

Posted by: Cindy at June 17, 2003 02:05 PM

I agree with Cindy's basic contention that tenure-line faculty need to suck it up and accept -- or, better still, embrace -- teaching freshman. The remedial-level teaching should really be taught by trained professionals, as Barry discusses. I don't see where an ABD in a good math program would be any better at teaching such classes than a tenured prof.

Posted by: JW at June 17, 2003 03:41 PM

Thanks for clarifying the difference between what I call "GE" or "intro survey" courses and those better labeled "remedial." You don't get the latter in history -- or, at least, there are no such courses that administrators believe should be taught by the history department.

Posted by: Rana at June 17, 2003 04:35 PM

A miniscule point of rhetoric: I've heard "I can't believe they pay me to do this" from software engineers making $90K/year, salespeople making $200K/year, and CEOs making $$$$/4-ever without any of their wages being driven down. Deriving some pleasure from one's job clearly has no direct influence on salary and it shouldn't be allowed to influence collective bargaining or collective action. Strikers are *fighting* for their jobs, not trying to leave them.

Posted by: Ray at June 18, 2003 01:06 PM

To Ray:

I see the rhetoric as a symptom that can contribute to a cause--a sort of vicious circle. (All the altruistic talk in teaching makes it harder for teachers to fight for fair compensation.)

There are also a lot of people who say, "I can't-believe they pay me," who are afraid of losing their jobs. It can be a symptom of fear at least as much as a truthful statement of someone taking pleasure in their job. In teaching, it's not enough that we do our jobs well--sometimes under appaling conditions--but we have to "love" it too. "Please, sir, may I have another."

I'm waiting for my chance to say to a six-figure administrator: "Well, if you love your job so much you should do it for free."

Posted by: Thomas Hart Benton at June 18, 2003 03:56 PM

Some others have touched on this, but badly treating the adjuncts may help, not hurt the tenure-trackers. Grunt work and low pay for adjuncts means better classes and more money left for the full-timers. If everyone had to teach the same courses, and everyone was paid the same, there would be a leveling down for one group and a leveling up for the other.

IA, I think you exaggerate the degree to which aspiring doctors and lawyers "are simply not permitted to perform certain tasks/services without the full credentials." After two years of medical school, students do a good deal of real patient care, even though they are still two years short of graduating. In the summer after the second year (of 3) of law school, it is customary to work in a legal office and do just about everything a beginning lawyer would do, including getting your work billed for.

Technically, this is all "under the supervision of" a certified professional, but that's often little more than a fiction. After all, one of the things a budding professional must learn is how to work independently.

Posted by: at June 18, 2003 06:09 PM

As a fairly recent addition to the adjunct community, I have a simple solution to the perceived disparity between adjuncts and full time faculty: communication, communication, communication. The first communication, of course is getting to know the full time faculty at your campus. If you work full time, as I do, this is often easier said than done. Its all about networking.

The second communication is being performed right here. We adjuncts need to talk to each other, to compare notes and experiences and to develop a sense of community.

The third is, perhaps, the most important. Communicate with the outside world. What if the statistics regarding ratios of classes taught by faculty vs. adjuncts for all major colleges and universities was made public each year? What if prospective students, as they were considering applying to one school or another, knew what percentage of their classes would be taught by full time staff vs. part time? Would this influence their decision process? What if these numbers overall were part of a continuing public record. Wouldn't it be interesting?

Posted by: Bob at June 20, 2003 11:25 AM

Many full time and tenured faculty are aware, however begrudgingly, that they are the last of their breed. In fact, I think many -- certainly not all, but many -- recognize that when they retire their lines will probably be re-classified, or eliminated altogether. And to the question 'why don't they do anything about this', the answer is that they feel powerless to do anything about the process, and in the interim -- that is, in the time between the present and their retirement -- they are more or less secure in their positions. In other words, there is a kind of 'I got mine' mentality, which seamlessly changes leads, in the words of one tenured faculty member I was speaking with last Spring, to the notion that 'I just need to get through the next ___ years to retirement'.

Where I teach the faculty is stratified into two main groups: a critical mass of "senior" members, 8 in all, all of whom are between 50 and 62 years of age, and then a smaller and younger group (4) who are all around 30-something. Then there is a third, much smaller segment (1 or 2 per year) of one-year appointments (I fall into this category). The joke, which is not altogether a joke, is that the group of 8 will retire almost en masse, their positions eliminated, and the 4 younger ones left to fend for themselves.

I laughed -- in a dark, ironic kind of way -- but the younger faculty don't seem to find the possibility quite as humorous. In fact, they tend to wipe away the observation with a wave of disbelief. This disbelief is interesting because it points to an essential core belief that surrounds most younger tenure-track or tenured faculty: as a result of their success securing a tenure-track position, many younger faculty exhibit a stunning faith in the soundness of the institution. This, of course, inspires an even darker laughter on my part.

Posted by: Chris at June 21, 2003 12:12 PM

I have observed the same difference in perspective between senior tenured faculty and junior tenure-track faculty.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 21, 2003 05:54 PM