“We Call Them Ad-Cons”

Peter D.G. Brown at Inside Higher Ed:

When I began teaching at Columbia and Barnard in the 1960s, almost all the positions in their German departments were tenure-track. I came to SUNY New Paltz in the 70s, when there were only a couple of virtually silent and invisible part-time adjuncts among the 35 teachers in the entire Foreign Language Division. It was not until a few years after the dawn of the new millennium that I, like Rip Van Winkle, “awoke” after decades to a brand new reality: the number of tenure-track faculty in my department had shrunk to a mere 10, while some two dozen adjuncts were now teaching the bulk of our foreign language courses. Yikes!

As everyone in academe now knows, the professoriate has experienced a radical transformation over the past few decades. These enormous changes have occurred so gradually, however, that they are only now beginning to receive attention. The general public has remained largely unaware of the staffing crisis in higher education. As contingent colleagues around the country came to outnumber the tenured faculty and as they were assigned an ever larger share of the curriculum, they became an inescapable fact of academic departmental life.

Nationally, adjuncts and contingent faculty — we call them ad-cons — include part-time/adjunct faculty; full-time, nontenure-track faculty; and graduate employees. Together these employees now make up an amazing 73 percent of the nearly 1.6 million-employee instructional workforce in higher education and teach over half of all undergraduate classes at public institutions of higher education. Their number has now swollen to more than a million teachers and growing.

I must confess that belonging to the de facto elite minority makes me very uneasy. Most tenured faculty view themselves as superior teachers with superior minds. In this view, the arduous six-year tenure process clearly proves that all of us are superior to “them” and have deservedly earned our superior jobs by our superior gifts and our superior efforts. I must also confess that we tenured faculty really do appreciate the fact that ad-cons have unburdened us from having to teach too many elementary foreign language courses, English composition and the many other tedious introductory, repetitive and highly labor-intensive classes, to which we tenured souls have such a strong aversion that it must be genetic.

As I got to know my adjunct colleagues better, I began to see these largely invisible, voiceless laborers as a hugely diverse group of amazing teachers. Some are employed at full-time jobs in education or elsewhere, some are retired or supported by wealthier others, but far too many are just barely surviving. While instances of dumpster diving are rare, adjunct shopping is typically limited to thrift stores, and decades-old cars sometimes serve as improvised offices when these “roads scholars” are not driving from campus to campus, all in a frantic attempt to cobble together a livable income. Some adjuncts rely on food stamps or selling blood to supplement their poverty-level wages, which have been declining in real terms for decades. At SUNY New Paltz, for instance, adjuncts’ compensation when adjusted for inflation has plummeted 49 percent since 1970, while the president’s salary and those of other top administrators have increased by 35 percent.

Megan McArdle:

Now, he’s lumping together a bunch of different things:  I don’t really care if part timers and graduate students don’t get paid much . . . at least as long as the graduate students are on track to better jobs.  The core issue is full-time adjuncts, and whether the graduate students have a reasonable shot at a tenure-track position.

Unfortunately, the answer now is that they don’t.  Academia has bifurcated into two classes:  tenured professors who are decently paid, have lifetime job security, and get to work on whatever strikes their fancy; and adjuncts who are paid at the poverty level and may labor for years in the desperate and often futile hope of landing a tenure track position.  And, of course, graduate students, the number of whom may paradoxically increase as the number of tenure track jobs decreases–because someone has to teach all those intro classes.

I have long theorized that at least some of the leftward drift in academia can be explained by the fact that it has one of the most abusive labor markets in the world.  I theorize this because in interacting with many professors, I am bewildered by their beliefs about labor markets more generally; many seem to think of private labor markets as an endless well of exploitation where employees are virtual prisoners with no recourse in the face of horrific abuses.  Yet this does not describe the low wage jobs in which I’ve worked–there were of course individuals who had to hold onto that particular job for idiosyncratic reasons, but as a class, low wage workers do not face the kind of monolithic employer power that a surprising number of academics seem to believe is common.

Will Wilkinson:

What I mean by (1) is that once one has bought into the academic status framework, it’s hard to escape it. Graduate school is basically an extended period of socialization into the conviction that academia is more exalted than just about anything else.

What I mean by (2) is that many people who have been so socialized have a preference for working in academia so strong that they are willing to forgo lots in salary, benefits, and security in order to secure employment, however tenuous, in academia. The high demand for these jobs, and the large supply of those qualified to do them, creates a competitive buyer’s market for academic labor, bidding down salaries, perks, etc.

What I mean by (3) is that increasing the supply of adjunct jobs relative to tenured jobs creates a rising status premium for the tenured and reduces their responsibility for the least desirable elementary courses. Left-leaning tenured profs will object to these developments if asked about them. They will support adjunct unionization, rail at the administration, etc. But generally they won’t lift a finger to do anything about it since they’d be worse off if the system changed. Furthermore, if your progressive credentials are impeccable, you can easily brush off charges of hypocrisy. If necessary, it is always possible to use the situation as an illustration of the fact that exploitation is structural and outside any one individual’s control. A pity, really.

Shrink Wrapped:

I will certainly  “not …  jump straight into the generalizations about how this always happens in socialist countries” but rather I would like to offer a different kind of generalization.  I have written at length on the increased narcissistic pathology among my generation.  Those of us who went into Academia carried their narcissistic pathology with them and one way in which such narcissism is expressed is by an over-valuation of one’s own mental productions, ie ideas.  The Narcissist values his own ideas, which, when extended and structured, becomes ideology, far more than he values the human beings who are impinged upon by his ideas.  Leftists care about The People, not people.  The People are victims who must be supported and protected, while mere people are typically beneath their notice.

Are there exceptions?  Of course.  Many Academics, even Left wing Academics, are lovely people who tip cab drivers and waiters quite well, but as a group, those who see people as mere ciphers representing a group, don’t much care for the individual.  (And, yes, I note the irony of my comment.)

James Joyner:

It’s simple supply and demand.   There is a vast oversupply of people qualified to teach in most academic disciplines and most institutions are facing budget shortfalls.  So, rather than pay, say, $50,000 a year plus benefits to hire a young PhD as a potential lifelong colleague to teach four courses a year (or, eight, in a teaching school) they instead farm those courses out to part-timers for $3000 each.    A substantial savings!   And there’s a long line of people waiting for the privilege!  Why, that’s not exploitation at all!


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