July 29, 2003

Why Do People Teach as Adjuncts?

I don't ask this question snidely. I understand that unionizing can improve conditions for adjuncts, but probably only to a point. It certainly doesn't lead to the tenure track. Over the long term, adjunct teaching will still offer *far* less in terms of remuneration and job security than other employment.

So then I ask: Why do it? What's the appeal? What leads a highly-educated person to choose a career that offers remuneration and security that are appallingly incommensurate with that person's achievements? That don't come close to meeting one's basic economic needs?

-- Kevin Walzer, Why teach as an adjunct?

This is a good question. And at the moment, I don't have the answer (or I should say, I don't have an answer, for I'm certain there is more than one answer to this question). Or rather, at the moment I don't have time to provide the kind of response that I think the question deserves. So for now, I leave it to my readers...


In the comments to this entry, Chris responds to the question as follows:

I continue to do it because despite the ridiculously low pay, I can still make more as an adjunct than I can at anything else for which I'm qualified -- e.g., Borders, Barnes and Nobel, Kinkos, and/or waiting tables.

In other words I'm screwed ... err ... I mean trapped. More schooling is not an option for me. And while I may be a reasonably smart guy, quick on the uptake, capable and all the rest, who's going to hire me? I'm sure many others here would say something similar to this: if someone would give me a shot, I think I would probably do okay, maybe even better than okay, but in this day and age, and in this kind of job ecomony, who's going to give me the chance? Answer: no one.

I know some people will find this unduly defeatist and pessimistic. I sincerely hope they are right.

But I can't help thinking of the comment that a history PhD made to the "PhDs and Nonacademic Careers: Information Underload" entry a couple of weeks ago. After noting that "of the group [of eleven] that worked and hung out together [in grad school], only one of us is actually a professor," Alisa summarizes the career paths of the other ten:

The others? Not one of us is working retail now, although most of us - myself included - did for a time after we walked away from history. The longest any of us stayed in that place was 2 years, and that was me. Four of us are in library science in some capacity, mostly at universities. (Sandy is chief archivist in the rare books collection at University of Chicago, Ian occupies the same position at Ohio State, and Sally is chief archivist at Butler University. Jennifer is head librarian at McGill, up in Canada.) One went back to grad school after several years, and is now a clinical psychologist. Michael does data base analysis for the State Department. He actually taught for a few years, then decided that the horrors of academic politics were not sufficiently offset by the joy of teaching. Carol went and got a bachelor's in occupational therapy, and is doing that. Barry is an editor for one of the big publishing companies, and Tim got his law degree and now works as an editor for one of the big legal publishing companies. Aaron worked as an employment counselor for the state he lived in, and just recently decided that he would go to law school. He just finished his first year.

The optimistic conclusion: "We are, all eleven of us, professionals. Some of us still have academic connections, and all of us still pursue intellectual professions. We did not get stuck in Starbucks or Barnes and Noble."

Much as I appreciate this comment, and much as I want to focus on the optimistic, I can't help wondering whether this sample doesn't tend to confirm Chris' pessimism, part of which stems from being in a position where "more schooling is not an option." From the sounds of it, the typical trajectory of the ten was not directly from retail work into other work in more promising fields. Rather, it strikes me that most of the people in this sample did have to go back to school. I'm assuming (perhaps wrongly) that the four people in library science had to do a library science degree. The clinical psychologist clearly had to go to school, as did the occupational therapist. Then there are the two who chose law school. Out of ten, that's eight whose career shift involved more schooling.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at July 29, 2003 05:24 PM

Would it be even slightly analogous to ask: "Why do college grads work for temp agencies?" Would it offer, if not answers, at least an angle on the question?

For me, it might point to words like "appeal," "choose," and "career." But that may be precisely the sort of myopically protesting logic of entitlement that makes other folks impatient.

Posted by: Mike at July 29, 2003 05:55 PM

Personally, I don't mind earning less than those with Law/Medical/Business degrees. If money had been my primary aspiration, then I would have gone to Law or Business school (no way to med. school). But there's less and then there's LESS. You know what I mean?

But to the question, semi-implied in Kevin's comments that IA glossed, of why do this, or why continue to do it, the answer (for me) is simple -- and also pathetic, I suppose. I continue to do it because despite the ridiculously low pay, I can still make more as an adjunct than I can at anything else for which I'm qualified -- e.g., Borders, Barnes and Nobel, Kinkos, and/or waiting tables.

In other words I'm screwed ... err ... I mean trapped. More schooling is not an option for me. And while I may be a reasonably smart guy, quick on the uptake, capable and all the rest, who's going to hire me? I'm sure many others here would say something similar to this: if someone would give me a shot, I think I would probably do okay, maybe even better than okay, but in this day and age, and in this kind of job ecomony, who's going to give me the chance? Answer: no one.

Posted by: Chris at July 29, 2003 07:21 PM

The teaching loads adjuncts have make it nearly impossible to publish. Adjuncts who do not publish decrease their chances of getting a tenure-track job, because the teaching experience gained in the job is regarded as superfluous, irrelevant, or even detrimental (the average PhD in the humanities gains immense amounts of teaching experience while a graduate student).

Thus, from the position of the adjunct, it is maximally advantageous to devote as little time as possible to teaching. This would threaten their job security, if their teaching performance were measured in a way that could detect effort put into teaching. Student evaluations do not, nor do haphazard faculty evaluations.

Most adjuncts, however, refuse to engage in what they see as an immoral practice. They do devote enough time to teaching that publishing becomes difficult or impossible. They thus tend, if I follow the statistics correctly, to never get tenure-track jobs. Why a candidate's publication record would be so important for jobs where little publication is expected is a very good question, but I strongly suspect that it remains a major--if not deciding--factor for hiring decisions everywhere because of the "buyer's market" and "unceasingly strive upwards" principles. There's also the "prestige" factor in which a candidate from a lower-tier school would generally have to publish twice as much as a candidate from a higher-tier one to compete.

Very few people pursue the PhD to become adjuncts. Most regard adjuncting as a temporary measure. Few, I suspect, are bereft of skills which could be used to gain better employment outside academia. Therefore, departments who hire adjuncts count on them not doing what's in their self-interest and/or simply don't care about the quality of the education they provide. Since the alternative to adjunct teaching would be tenured faculty teaching more classes, in most cases, moral cowardice and sloth on the part of faculty (nb: not administrators, in whom the former quality is a prerequisite) explains why we have adjuncts.

The lure of academia is so strong that there will, for the foreseeable future, always be people willing to work as adjuncts. I'd say that graduate programs are, in general, too easy. Graduate students should have increased expectations for their scholarship, and they should endure constant, regimented abuse from faculty. Their stipends should be decreased, and government loans should either not be made available to them or drastically curtailed. Placement data should include provisios such as "These people did find jobs, but they were both smarter and more industrious than you." If universally carried out, this plan would solve the job crisis in a few years, increase the quality while decreasing the quantity of scholarship, and make our universities much better places to educate the young.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at July 29, 2003 07:31 PM

ditto Chris, the new proletariat is edjacated,

and Chun, the "lure of academe" is also called identification, and it might not so much be the lure, as the last refuge, now failing/falling

Posted by: meika von samorzewski at July 29, 2003 08:36 PM

Chun, how would your grad school reforms increase the quality of scholarship? And if they would increase the quality, why not take it a step further and consign all scholars to military barracks?

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 29, 2003 08:45 PM

Because those would survive to produce it would have to have the fanatical commitment characteristic of the best scholars.

I think that many people in graduate school would not commit themselves (as fully as circumstances permit) to scholarship if they were not, and I think that this (again, fanatical) devotion is required to do serious work.

I'm assuming the average quality of scholarship is in decline. This may not be true. If it's not, I'm certainly wrong.

If I may move on to some more potentially offensive generalizations, the degree of neuroticism (and I'm not exempting myself), inutility, and narcissism found among graduate students in the humanities has to contribute to the problem. Think about how much has been written about the "job crisis" over the last thirty years and how little has been actually done about it. Every moment I sit here typing comments, getting weaker, someone's in the library getting stronger.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at July 29, 2003 09:00 PM

I'm not persuaded that the best scholars are characterized by "fanatical commitment." No doubt fanatical devotion can sometimes lead to great scholarship. But it can also lead to narrow antiquarianism, combined with delusions of grandeur.

"Every moment I sit here typing comments, getting weaker, someone's in the library getting stronger."

So why aren't you in the library?

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 29, 2003 09:07 PM


I don't see your point. The best scholars learn more, think harder, and see more clearly. I don't see how devotion could do anything but intensify these characteristics.

What do I mean by "best?" That which is considered so by other scholars, averaged over a sufficient number of years. If there's someone you think has an undeserved reputation, you'll have to admit you were wrong if she still has it (allowing) in fifty years.

Those who would succeed would write their dissertations in the odd moments they could snatch from their Bartleby-cubes without even going to graduate school. That's my humanistic story, and I'm sticking with it.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at July 29, 2003 09:34 PM

"I don't see your point. The best scholars learn more, think harder, and see more clearly. I don't see how devotion could do anything but intensify these characteristics."

Of course the best scholars learn more, think harder and see more clearly. But you're not allowed to switch from "fanatical devotion" to "devotion" here: while I take it as a given that scholarship requires devotion, it was precisely the benefit of fanatical devotion that I called into question.

The problem that you don't seem to acknowledge here: many not-so-great, and some perhaps even rather shoddy scholars are also "fanatically devoted" to their work, to the exclusion of all other interests and commitments. Doesn't make their work better, just makes them less interesting, and dare I say it, less amiable as people.

Your proposals for reform might ensure that only the very best scholars could make it through the hoops. Or they might ensure that only the most single-minded (and narrow-minded) could make it through the hoops.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 29, 2003 09:46 PM

I was saying that the level of "devotion" is directly proportional to those three characteristics.

My observations differ, re devotion and quality of work. It may have some effect on personality, but it's a variable one, if so. The mediocrities I've met in academia have been characterized by a conspicuous lack of devotion to their scholarship.

I also disagree that single-mindedness causes a narrowness of perspectives. Being fanatically devoted to scholarship does not preclude catholic reading tastes or a love of gardening. We've already established that graduate students tend to have severe personality problems to begin with, so I don't think my proposal would aggravate those overly.

Posted by: Chun the Unavoidable at July 29, 2003 10:11 PM

Why do adjuncts stay and suffer? Why do I stay with the Happy Tutor who constantly spanks me? Unless you are into it, you will never understand. But once you have tasted love dashed with pain, you will never go back to sweetness and light. Adjuncts have Stockholm Syndrome; they love those who beat them. And who can blame them? Life outside of academics is just vanilla. Getting caned helps some, but I still miss the Yale English Department. (Sorry, IA, to be so trangressive, but I did want to testify that if you love pain, there are other outlets than Academics.)

Posted by: Dick Minim at July 29, 2003 11:27 PM

Chun, are you goddamn using fucking irony again? It's time to get strict.

I suppose you're not afraid of the Comfy Chair!?

Posted by: zizka at July 30, 2003 01:44 AM

Actually Ellen just signed a contract to teach one English Comp class at NJIT next semester, her first adjunct gig in probably 8 years -- she is doing it because she wants to work but the hours she has available are quite constrained from Sylvia care. Looks like she will net a bit of money from it after increased daycare costs, not enough to make us rich but every little bit helps. Basically she was just really missing the interaction with a class which has been part of her life for 20 or so years of teaching, and adjuncting seemed like the easiest way to get some.

Posted by: Jeremy Osner at July 30, 2003 11:30 AM

Simply put, I started teaching as an adjunct because I didn't know any better. At the time I was looking for a break from a very successful career in the private sector, and thought this was the only route to get a full-time teaching position.

As an outsider I was totally unaware of the inmates-running-the-asylum foggy bottom that is higher-education. While my student evaluations were higher than full-timers and my respect among peers was solid, I made the mistake of not learning the rules of the game before playing.

The rules of the game are that being an adjunct is akin to being the amatuer player at the Masters. You get to play but you are not considered to be a serious contender for future tournaments. And once you accept the adjunct label you also unknowingly accept that you will never get the same consideration for a full-time position as though without the adjunct stigmata on their CVs.

Given the overabundance of PhDs and MFAs, combined with the limited number of full-time openings, it is an employers market. And at the moment the employers continue to use adjuncts to get them through tough financial time$, but give them the stink eye when it comes to hiring.

In a sense, what the academic community is saying is that it is better to be unemployed than to sink to the level of being an adjunct. Of course most adjuncts don't learn this little lesson until it's too late.

Posted by: Steve MacLaughlin at July 30, 2003 12:15 PM

I considered adjuncting at my alma mater just as a means of getting my foot in the door and becoming known. I have a substantial background as an instructor in military and corporate environments. My opinions as to the organization of the department, nay, the very existence of said department pretty much closed the door on it though.

Posted by: JSAllison at July 30, 2003 12:51 PM

Is there any hard (as opposed to anecdotal) evidence for this "adjunct stigma"?

Posted by: dsquared at July 30, 2003 01:31 PM

What would constitute hard evidence? Not being facetious, I am really wondering whether and how this could be supported. I believe there is a stigma (and there's lots of anecdotal evidence in the comments to this blog), but I have no idea how to demonstrate this.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 30, 2003 01:36 PM

I've always felt out of place on this board in one sense, since I'm not what is here called an adjunct (an underpaid, abused PhD).

Recently I realized what I really am. I am what used to be called "an adjunct professor". A not-fully-credentialed scholar who has special knowledge which allows him to teach a subject useful to the university.

The old adjunct slot was originally intended for marginal people like me who were not really dependent on the university for their livings. It works well for amateur scholars, retirees, and wives. Our motives for working are not mysterious.

The adjunct position of today is a way for universities to cut costs by exploiting the PhD glut. After 2 or 3 years, as far as I can tell, full-time adjuncts are people who are trapped.

Posted by: zizka at July 30, 2003 01:40 PM

Chris doesn't say what his field is, so it's hard to respond to the question of who else would hire him. Since IA is a historian, though, as is Alisa (who reported on her grad school cohort), I plugged "historian" into the US government job web site. It turned up six current jobs. Historians & others interested in government work can check out "usajobs.gov."

Posted by: Random Reader at July 30, 2003 02:18 PM

Do you need to go back to school to get a non-academic job if you have a PhD? Here’s some more anecdotal information.

I think it depends largely on the alternate field you choose and the economic conditions of the new field.

In my rather limited circle of acquaintances, I've run across several professionally employed PhDs who have had no additional formal training. They include technical and marketing writers/managers, translators, an sgml/xml consultant, a writing business owner, and a bookstore owner. They started out in English, Philosophy, Geography, and Economics. (This excludes the school principal and the biochemistry PhDs involved in the brewing industry.)

I made my way from a Ph.D. in English and unionized adjunct teaching into the high tech world. I got the first entry-level job by building up a very small portfolio of non-academic writing and a very basic understanding of the high tech industry I work in. After a short temporary contract when I had to prove that I could do the job and learn quickly, I was hired fulltime. Since then I've had a variety of interesting technical writing and project management jobs and so far have avoided layoffs endemic to my industry.

Was the process of moving into a new field easy? No, it was heart-breaking.

Posted by: HM at July 30, 2003 02:46 PM

Re: reschooling

I probably could squeak into the kinds of jobs I want to do without an MLS, IA. It's just going to be a lot easier with it.

One thing Alisa didn't mention was the stretch of time between the Ph.D and the new schooling. I took four and a half years to go back. I suspect that's not at all unusual; I know Alisa, and I know it took her a year or three too.

So just because you can't reschool now doesn't close off the possibility forever. In fact, the time off on balance I would guess to be a good thing.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at July 30, 2003 02:56 PM

There's a difference, however, between those who are, say, in their mid to late 20's, even early 30's, and someone at the 40 mark -- not to mention, someone at the 40 mark so far in debt that even the credit counselors shake their heads.

Borders here I come -- wooo hooo!

Posted by: Chris at July 30, 2003 04:35 PM

*shrug* All sorts of ways to talk yourself out of what you want, Chris. I'm not a-gonna help you do it.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at July 30, 2003 05:05 PM

Chris, I have a friend who actually left a tenure-track job to work at Border's. He hated the school he taught at enough to do this. He worked at Borders for about three years. In the meantime he did some freelance writing to supplement his income. Eventually he began looking for a professional-level job and was hired to work in the communications department of a major bank. He was recently promoted and now works as an assistant vice president. By the way, he's nearly 50.

My point is that your employment situation is what you make of it. If you think you'll never be qualified to do more than work at Borders, and therefore don't take any steps to move past working at Borders, then that's where you'll stay. But that doesn't mean that you *can't* take any steps to get out of retail.

My situation coming out of grad school was identical to yours. Instead of working at Borders, I was working at Burlington Coat Factory. Hated it, hated it, hated it. It was even worse than adjuncting. Eventually, out of desperation, I packaged my published articles as "freelance writing" and found a professional job in marketing. It was B.S. (or so I thought at the time), but it worked.

Perhaps Borders can be a stopgap--there's no shame in that. But if you assume it's all you'll ever be able to do, then that will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If my friend and I can do it, I see no reason why you can't.

Posted by: Kevin Walzer at July 30, 2003 05:06 PM

Let's see. When I made the leap, I was in my late thirties and had exactly 300$ in the bank. I had some debt but made the transition before it became unmanageable--I am debt-phobic.

Re-invention is possible but it's not always happy or pretty to look at while it's in progress. And if I have to do it again, I'll bitch and complain, but I know it's possible.

Posted by: HM at July 30, 2003 05:20 PM

I think we've talked about this before. But I'll repeat myself.

Adjuncting requires no heavy lifting. It isn't dangerous. It is clean work; in two senses: there's no washing dirty dishes, there's no approving questionable accounting. It is, and this distinguishes it from, say, high school teaching, essentially unsupervised.

It doesn't consume one's time. A part-time adjunct, teaching 2 sections of a single course (so having a single prep) twice a week, 30 weeks a year, will spend on the order of 700 hours a year on work-related activity. Someone working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year will spend in excess of 2700 hours a year on work-related activity. Those 2000 hours difference are a big driver. Kevin Walzer boasts of his 60 hour weeks: another 1000 hours a year squandered on working.

If one wants to spend one's time reading, thinking & writing, then there is much to be said for any academic position, even an adjunct's, over a non-academic position. Nor is it just the time--two to three thousand hours a year--to let you read, think and write. An institutional affiliation is valuable; so is faculty-level access to a decent library.

Of course, tenured faculty have the same light demands on their time. They have an institutional affiliation; they have the same access to the library. Of course it is preferable to be tenured faculty rather than adjunct. But that isn't what's on offer.

Posted by: jam at July 30, 2003 06:24 PM

Jam, you are quite right that there are far worse jobs out there than adjunct teaching. But the scenario you sketch out -- 2 sections a week of a single course -- is by no means typical. It is, however, the scenario that many university administrators like to believe (or pretend to believe) is the case.

The fact is, most adjunct faculty teach more than the equivalent of a full-time teaching load, often teaching at more than one college or university. Given the low rates of pay, they simply cannot afford to teach only one or even two courses.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at July 30, 2003 06:47 PM

No. 2/2 isn't typical. 3/3, with another course or two during the summer is much more typical. And such a load means more like 1500 hours a year in work-related activity. Still a lot less than 2700 (or Kevin's vaunted 3700).

I don't think freeway flyers keep it up. They burn out.

What struck me about your last comment, though, is you're still comparing adjuncts to tenure-track: "most adjunct faculty teach more than the equivalent of a full-time teaching load". That may be a reason to dislike adjunct teaching, but it isn't the choice offered. And so gives no insight why a person might choose adjunctry.

Posted by: jam at July 30, 2003 10:31 PM

What we need is a long-term study of an adjunct population. The longest I've ever known of anyone being an adjunct was 7 years, and they finally got a full-time position at the same college they had adjuncted at. I'm sorry, but 7 years is way too long to wait! I think some factors, especially for women, that keeps them teaching as adjuncts is that they are geographically bound. Many of us want to maintain a family, and are willing to take on adjunct work in order to stay close to their families. I think one reason you see so many adjuncts is due to an unwillingness to relocate, an unwillingness that I fully understand. I was geographically bound, and that is why I adjuncted. Also, I viewed adjuncting as a way to still build a resume. Thankfully I found full-time work early this year, but I could easily see that the adjunct branding process had already begun. I knew of several full time positions where I was part-timing, and they were all filled by outside candidates.
Finally, I do think that academia, much like the recording and movie industries, has an "image." People are dying to be part of this "club" even if it means taking on crappy jobs to just get a chance to line up at the door, let alone wedge your foot in it. The adjunct knows that for every one who quits, there are hundreds willing to take your place in line. It's that elusive chance that you could be called in for an interview that keeps you in this line of work. Overproduction of PhD's and a tight job market has made the formerly temporary adjunct a more permanent phenomena.

Posted by: Cat at July 31, 2003 09:53 AM

A curious tunnel vision here.

Universities employ a LOT a lot of people besides professors, adjuncts, and administrators.

I am none of the three, yet I am employed by a university, and I have full library access. (And pretty rockin' benefits, too, all things considered.)

It's not like it's *that* hard to get access to a research library.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at July 31, 2003 10:05 AM

Same here. BTW, non-faculty/alumni access is obtainable, for a few hundred dollars per year (at the university I work for). The difference between corporate and academic pay should make up for that in the first month.

Time is another matter, but unless one has a sweet adjunct gig [1], it should be at least as good to get a (non-academic) part-time job.


[1] Such as 2-3 identical courses on the same campus, in a subject one can teach in their sleep.

Posted by: Barry at July 31, 2003 10:25 AM

Jam, if you can live on what you earn from your 700-hour-per-year workload, then more power to you. I would love to have more time to write, read, and think myself. But I have a family to support. And I don't think I "boast" of having 60-hour workweeks; they're pretty grueling. In fact, I've written that having these kinds of workweeks over the long term is toxic in itself, since I see very little of my family when I'm doing this. I'm happiest when I have a balance between family and work, and a 60-hour workweek certainly isn't balanced.

Posted by: Kevin Walzer at July 31, 2003 01:05 PM

On the Librarian front --

I recently googled a friend of mine from graduate school. No one had heard anything about her lately -- she was in a tenure track position at a major midwestern state university's main campus. Turns out she didn't get tenure and went to library school. So it isn't only the never-employed-in-a-TT-role who have to go back to school sometimes.

The cautionary tale has me working harder this month on publication and less on teaching.

Posted by: Michael Tinkler at August 22, 2003 08:20 PM

All these comments on the dead-end of adjunct work have been really enlightening. I've just started teaching four classes per semester at a local college. Love the teaching but hate not having benefits. Since I also have an MLIS--after hearing all these horror stories--it may be back to the library for me.

Posted by: Zayn Munroe at December 16, 2003 08:27 PM