July 13, 2003

What, if Anything, Can Adjuncts Do?

A reader has asked me to address the issue of what adjuncts can do about their situation. Frankly, at the moment I am not optimistic and am inclined to answer, "Not much." But that's not a very satisfactory response. So I'm throwing the question out to the readers of this weblog.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at July 13, 2003 11:56 PM

Quit. Organize. Don't mean to be glib, but I don't see anything else.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at July 14, 2003 01:45 AM

chun somehow overlooks the option
most commonly chosen: continue
being abused by the system (aka "despair").
also the most hyped: *beat* the system
(a la jill carroll or the _adjunct_advocate_).

even without the dismal state and prospects
of the general economy, it's not like
there's some heck of lot of *better* jobs
(less exploitative or easier to organize,
say -- i'm willing to stipulate that one
might make more money elsewhere if it will
slow down the knee-jerk reactions from
soi-disant "capitalists" -- who are actually
still "workers" whether they like it or not:
*nobody* on this list "earns" their income
primarily by investments from what i gather).

point being, "quit" and "organize"
are both far easier said than done.
i myself am currently more inclined
to the latter option:
-- but "quit" and "despair" are
both very attractive at various times.

Posted by: vlorbik at July 14, 2003 05:56 AM


Posted by: Dorothea Salo at July 14, 2003 08:53 AM

1. Put aside the petty disputes that have divided the academy and alienated the public.

2. Draft a bill of rights and responsibilities.

3. Organize on the local and national levels.

4. Pool resources to provide funding for leadership, writers, strikers, and blacklisted workers.

5. Shut down business as usual in the professional societies and administrative conferences.

6. Put protesters around every university president's building around the clock. Stage sit-ins. Bus people in for the most visible/egregious cases.

7. Alert the media. Make the exploitation of academic workers and the cheating of students out of their education a national issue. Outrage the parents who are being robbed too. This is a BIG story.

8. Ostracize those who oppose you in every possible way. Do not read, hire, or otherwise support anyone who participates in the current system. Criticize those who do, including visible tenured faculty (expose the most hyporcrtical for what they are.)

9. Refuse to work under unfair conditions. Go on strike at the worst possible moments. Bring the system screeching to a halt. You will not be respected until you have power.

Posted by: Thomas Hart Benton at July 14, 2003 09:36 AM

I think that you guys should have sex with your most attractive students in exchange for good grades. If the university won't reward you, get the students to.

Posted by: zizka at July 14, 2003 09:56 AM

A few comments, THB:

1 makes me shrug (how many adjuncts participate in these disputes anyway?), I like 2, but I question how possible 3 is, and without 3, how do the rest of them happen?

Except 5. 5 is pretty huge, I must say.

Did you see Chris's response to Miriam in the comments to the demoralization post? That kind of desperation (give me some job, ANY job, I'll compromise myself however it takes) does not augur well for a movement.

I'm not trashing Chris, btw; Chris's frustration makes me hurt. I'm just saying there are plenty lots more Chrises out there than IAs or THBs.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at July 14, 2003 10:52 AM

In terms of organizing, there are also major difficulties because of the ways in which adjunct labor is defined, and in "right-to-work" states (such as Georgia), gaining recognition as a collective bargaining unit would likely be almost impossible. It was hard enough in a "pro-union" state such as Illinois, where I was an adjunct for a couple of years.

I'm thinking about some of Thomas's strategies, and many of them were successful in helping University of Illinois grad students to gain union recognition. By the end, many local media outlets were portraying the Graduate Employees Organization as a bunch of "troublemakers," and even the student paper (at one time a strong ally) was publishing editorials against unionization efforts. The grad students were finally successful when they siezed the administration building the night before the board of regents was due to meet to discuss the university's racist mascot, "Chief Illinewek." Their success was the culmination of five years of hard work.

Some form of organizing--at national and local levels--can be valuable, but I think Illinois's case points to many of the difficulties involved as well as the importance of good timing.

Posted by: chuck at July 14, 2003 11:13 AM

My 'just give me a job, any job, I don't care where or what', along with my willingness to 'beg, borrow, and/or steal to get one', while truthful expressions of where I am in all of this, are also expressions of a general sense of disempowerment, castration, abandonment (by everyone from advisors to other adjuncts), and the growing realization that no one really gives a fuck and I am on my own out here.

That said, if I were convinced that people were serious and committed, I would be the frist to sign on to any efforts at collective organization. What I will not do, becasue I did it once and got shafted (and fired) for it, is be the instigator.

An aside, responding to ThB's #5: I have a friend here who is an editor for a widely read alternative weekly, and I have pitcehd the idea for a story on adjunctification to her several times, alas, to no avail. 'Not an issue with wide enough general interest' she says. And when I suggested, as a come back, the fact that the spin should be on how the general college consumer -- parents students -- is getting screwed, silence was the answer. So how do we get the media's attention?

Posted by: Chris at July 14, 2003 11:22 AM

Part-time faculty like myself have to reach a point where either we continue to accept the status quo or leave. Attempting to make changes is costly on many levels and what price are some willing to pay if this means no job security and labeled as a troublemaker? for every person who gives up his or her adjunct status to explore alternatives, there are two or three people who will gladly replace that individual. What does that say?

Posted by: Anna at July 14, 2003 12:30 PM

Push to get rid of tenure. That would tend to equalize compensation among teachers and allow adjuncts to replace the less-competent tenured.

Posted by: pj at July 14, 2003 01:11 PM

"I think that you guys should have sex with your most attractive students in exchange for good grades. If the university won't reward you, get the students to."

Ahem. I believe you are currently teaching a summer semester course? But since you say "you guys" rather than "we," I'll assume this is because you yourself wouldn't dream of doing something as stupid as having sex with a student. Right, Zizka? :)

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 14, 2003 01:38 PM

How many adjunct professors does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

Posted by: Steve at July 14, 2003 01:46 PM

The problem is a massive oversupply of applicants. The only solution is to leave the field.

Obviously, there are structural problems with academia but the main problem is too heavy costs imposed on consumers (students and their parents). Hardly conducive to increasing pay for adjuncts. Sometimes one just has to accept that one can't change the world. Just make your life as good as it can be.

Posted by: JT at July 14, 2003 01:56 PM

Pehaps you could pool your research into alternative careers, and draw in ideas from the many thousands who have gone before you, leaving academics for business, government and nonprofit work. You could use this site, among other resources, to create a record of what works. Leads of no interest to one person, might be of interest to another.

What will you call yourself 3 years out? Ex-Invisible Adjuncts? Invisible Intelligentsia? Or will you just answer to your new title, as staff writer, executive trainee, JD, etc?

Colleges have alumni associations. Could there be an association of ex-adjuncts? An old boy or old girl network to give the "recent graduates" a hand?

Could you run down through your respective instutitions the names of the Losers Who Went Before, and see if they would like to join this conversation?

Posted by: The Happy Tutor at July 14, 2003 03:11 PM

Chris -- I know that. Sorry I didn't make my knowledge clearer.

JT, the problem there is a mindset that makes any non-acad job "failure." Lots of people working on that, but the academy as a whole isn't, best I can tell.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at July 14, 2003 03:13 PM

I wouldn't think of endangering my .065 adjunct $1500 / year career. She can bat her hot little eyes at me all she wants. She can beg. No way.

At my 30 year college reunion, no joke, there were two teacher-student couples who had married right after the graduation exercise. One of the spouses was actually the head of the alumni office in charge of the reunion. I suggested to one couple that they were illegal and should have their marriage annulled.

That really was the old days. When I was an undergrad, all gays were in the closet -- which was half the foreign language department -- but the up side was that furtive relationships were politely ignored unless the police became involved (which they never were, to my knowledge). So many things were going on which probably couldn't happen in these PC, liberated times.

Posted by: zizka at July 14, 2003 03:23 PM

1. Warn all graduate students-to-be about graduate school, even if you know they won't listen!

2. Don't wait around your department, hoping for full time work. Very few adjuncts work their way up the career ladder, into a full-time position. That would be way too logical for academia.

3. Let the public know about the part time situation, especially nice neighbors who have laid out $15,000 for their child's tuition this semester.

4. Establish solidarity...but don't assume that just because the adjuncts in your department all make piddly sums that they somehow feel the burning desire to unionize. Some adjuncts are the classic "lawyer's spouse" and don't need the money. Many adjuncts are outta there as soon as they find full time work (and who can blame them?). If a political opportunity affords itself, most will abandon solidarity, in the rush for the elusive tenure-track position. I think we place way too much trust in people's willingness to forego individual needs for the betterment of the group's standing (or why labor unions weren't a snap to set up here in the U.S.).

5. Not to sound Jill Carol-esque, but try to find the best teaching jobs you can, become a regular, or find classes that are in the same location, anything to minimize the b.s.

6. I would strongly advise against settling into a mindset that this is a permanent situation. Continue to work as if this is temporary. Otherwise you will go insane, trust me. It almost happened to me.

7. Marry someone with money and/or a job in industry. This is probably easier to accomplish than finding tenure track work.

Posted by: Cat at July 15, 2003 09:10 AM

Dorothea: I felt that stigma of "failure," too, for a while and it took time to overcome. Now I realize that the PhD degree does not grant intelligence or ability. In fact, the experience has left me changed in a basic way: now I try to ignore all degree accreditations in evaluating people. I've gradually learned that some of the best people I've met are blue collar workers without college degrees and their quality is often a byproduct of their wisdom and ability to think clearly.

Cat: great post.

An anecdote: I was recently talking to a non-academic woman at a party recently and we started talking about her daughter, who had just graduated from college and was having difficulty in finding a job. She mentioned that the daughter was considering a liberal arts grad degree and the mother was aghast at the possibility. So the knowledge is getting out there!

Posted by: JT at July 15, 2003 10:53 AM

I actually put together a handbook made up of various articles referenced on this blog and others, as well as some particualrly eloquent posts, and various other miscellaneous pieces I've come across. My department, of course, will not officially sanction -- or distribute -- what I put together, so I wait until a student asks me personally about grad. school -- I'm asked about it fairly often. I tell them I'm not going to say anything one way or the other until they read it. And then I tell them to go back to their room, read this thoroughly, check the url's I've listed in it, and then when they're done come back and we'll talk further.

They usually return with a wide-eyed look of disbelief, and then we have a very candid talk or two.

I'm proud to say that I've only lost 2 to the grad. school miasma.

Posted by: Chris at July 15, 2003 11:28 AM

If you would like a website home for that, Chris, with or without attribution, let me know. I would be purely thrilled to give it space and design time. Just send me whatever files you're printing from, whatever format, and I'll manage the rest. Email dorothea at textartisan dot com.

JT, thanks for your response. I have changed in a very similar fashion.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at July 15, 2003 11:58 AM

Dorothea and Chris: I put something together at the URL below, about 80% taken from here.

I think that in the short term, the best response to the situaton is for individuals to get out, and for someone to "wise up the marks" by publicizing the reality of the situation.

One thing I have found out is that this problem is decades old, but that there's really no one with an interest (i.e., expected profit, institutional interest) in warning people off. So the word just doesn't get out. The disgruntled 30-year-olds of today didn't hear from the disgruntled PhD's 10, 20, or 30 years older until it was too late.

"Can I afford a PhD?":


Posted by: zizka at July 15, 2003 02:09 PM

Zizka: I already include your "Can I Afford a Ph.D." piece in my packet. (Guess I should have let you know before I went and downloaded it and printed it out)


Posted by: Chris at July 15, 2003 05:30 PM

No prob, Chris, I want to get it out there. I believe I put it public domain right up front.

We're dealing with a systematic skew in the flow of information. There's a lot more profit to be made in misleading potential grad students than there is in wising them up. If a U. can suck in a grad student, squeeze them for 10 years, and dump them, the U. profits. As far as I know there is no one whatever who profits from giving good info to prospective grad students.

Maybe someone should start a magazine? Or an e-zine? (NOTE: e-zines always lose money). And juice it up with relatively fun stuff. And maybe interview some headhunters or others helping career shifters. (Kevin Walzer?) What we have now is a discussion / kvetch session, but something a little broader could pull an audience.

Posted by: zizka at July 16, 2003 01:05 AM

Maybe Carine?

I'd contribute (I'm going back, so there should be plenty of juice!), but I can't take on an editorial stake at the moment.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at July 16, 2003 09:39 AM

re steve's question "how many adjuncts does it take to put in a lightbulb?"

answer: three; one to put it in and two to keep him from hanging himself while he's up there.

Posted by: jb at August 15, 2003 02:52 PM