My Friend Is an Adjunct

June 05, 2007

Question (from "Merv"): A friend of mine has been an adjunct composition instructor at Small U, where his wife is a full-time tenured professor. He applied for the full-time, tenure-track position that opened up in his department, but it hired someone else. Even worse: The part-time job he's held for seven years is being given to the spouse of the new hire. I know things are bad in academe, but this strikes me as the height of injustice. Is there anything my friend can do?

Question (from "Susie:"): My circle of friends includes Über-Adjunct, a generalist who teaches in more than one field at several local community colleges. Her "plan" is to spread herself around until some department is so taken with her that it offers her a full-time position. I take great discomfort in talking shop with her because I am working on my dissertation and am keenly aware that the use of adjuncts erodes my future prospects. Do I try to enlighten her?

Answer: Ms. Mentor sighs, procrastinates, and sighs again, for there is no subject so painful and so ubiquitous as the role of adjuncts in higher education. More than half of the courses are now taught by part timers -- who include paid-by-the-course local citizens, career instructors, graduate students, and visiting stars who swoop in to teach one course a week. The stars, who may be artists or politicians sharing their knowledge, are lauded and fawned over. Everyone else is at least mildly wretched.

Adjuncts' working conditions are often miserable. Some are unionized, and some have health benefits, but too many are raggedy stepchildren who teach first-year English composition for as little as $2,000 a course. Sometimes they are hired just a week before classes start, whereupon they scramble to get texts, plan lessons, and find the buildings -- to which they will wheel everything in a luggage cart because few have their own desks or offices. Some adjuncts teach at two or three colleges a week, and their lives are measured out in freeway miles.

Adjuncts are among the most dedicated and skilled teachers in academe, but they are rarely rewarded. "This is a great plaque," said "Rowena" when she won her teaching award, "but it won't buy food."

Ms. Mentor concedes that she was not called upon to rant about the plight of adjuncts. Nor was she asked to denounce the faculty members who still blithely steer their most eager students to graduate school ("You'll make a great professor"). There has been a severe job shortage for Ph.D's in the humanities since the 1970s. By 1983, when the Modern Language Association held its centennial celebration in New York, a large group of dissidents threatened to stage a "Parade of the Adjuncts" to protest the plight of the underemployed.

But Merv and Susie were not asking for a description of "Mentorland," the ideal society in which all great minds would be cherished, employed, well paid and well fed. Rather, this month's correspondents have -- they say -- friends with problems. (Since "I have this friend who has a problem" is a common masking device, Ms. Mentor will remind her flock that anonymity is guaranteed and that she always disguises identifying details.)

Merv's friend has been betrayed, or so Merv feels: no full-time job and then no adjunct position, either. Ms. Mentor mourns for Friend, but there is little that he can do. Unless someone promised him, in writing, a full-time job or a continuing adjunct slot, he would seem to have no legal rights.

Does he have a moral right? Perhaps, but Merv hasn't said so. Merv has not, in fact, made a strong case for Friend. Does Friend have stellar teaching abilities, important publications, or extraordinary talents? Did Friend teach classes no one else could handle, such as conversational Arabic? Did Friend create enticing new courses ("YouTube and Mine," "Eat or Be Eaten") that students clamored to take? Was Friend irresistibly charming when he and his wife held scrumptious dinner parties for all the powerful people who might be doing the hiring?

Friend needed a unique niche and needed to be loved -- but now he must, like thousands of other adjuncts, consider leaving academe, trying a commuter marriage, or lobbying his spouse to change jobs. But humanities Ph.D.'s do often fare well in the "real world," working for humanities and arts councils or engaging in community activism and political writing. The world needs educated people outside the ivory tower, and what seems like a wall may turn out to be a door.

Über-Adjunct, meanwhile, has been busy currying favor, seeking the love that Friend did not find. Her efforts to charm powerful people may work, if she's seen as "collegial," bright, fun to have around. She presumably has the academic credentials, and community colleges are less wedded to the idea that the perfect job candidate must be from Somewhere Else (a delusion common among research universities, especially if Somewhere Else is an elite university with a slightly snooty reputation).

But Über's friend Susie has a moral objection -- that the use of adjuncts as cheap labor is killing the tenure-track posts that offer security. If a tenured full professor retires or dies, universities often hire three or four adjuncts for that salary. Institutions praise the "flexibility" of non-tenure-track jobs -- but only the hirers benefit.

Ms. Mentor hisses along with her readers: "Exploitation." And she agrees that all would-be faculty members ideally should refuse adjunct positions and demand full-time ones with benefits, which would lead to . . .

Unemployment, Ms. Mentor fears. Academics aren't known for their solidarity as workers -- or as Susie's comrades might argue, ungently, "The halls of ivy are covered with scabs." This is not Mentorland.

In the absence of utopia, Ms. Mentor exhorts full professors to notice the adjuncts among them, and honor and pay the toilers whose work allows the tenured to teach their esoteric specialties. She would like voters to harangue their legislatures for more money to hire full-time faculty members. She would like the rich parents of students in wealthy institutions to demand full-time salaries for those who teach Grayson and Muffy.

But she would also like Merv to write good recommendation letters for Friend, and for Susie and Über-Adjunct to continue to be friends, enlightening one another about ways to burrow from within, ask impertinent questions, and nudge and lobby for change.

Obedient cringers and meek mice will not be welcome in Mentorland.

Question: After I get tenure, when do I get to wave a two-bird salute to the self-promoting, self-important, truth-bending director of our program?

Answer: Whenever.

Sage Readers: Ms. Mentor encourages disobedient and reckless summer reading, and especially invites suggestions for informative, even incendiary texts that might be good for adjuncts to peruse.

Her last month's request for summer reading recommendations netted an odd méelange, including Nigel Marsh's Fat, Forty, and Fired; Alison Bechdel's Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic; Norah Vincent's Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey into Manhood and Back Again; and several novels, including Robert Pease's The Associate Professor, Zadie Smith's On Beauty, Allegra Goodman's Intuition, and Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons. Further treats are encouraged.

As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes gossip, rants, and queries, and reminds readers that while she can rarely answer personally, many common situations have been covered in her archive, in The Chronicle's online forums, and in her first tome, Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia. She also seeks further dragons to slay for her second book in progress, "Ms. Mentor's Perfect Wisdom for the Academic Soul."

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her Chronicle address is

Her views do not necessarily represent those of The Chronicle.