The Lorax's Dilemma

© Universal Pictures, Photofest

Dr. Seuss' The Lorax (2012). Directed by Chris Renaud, Kyle Balda, Shown: The Lorax (voice: Danny DeVito).
November 25, 2013

If you have ever been a child or raised one in America, you might be familiar with The Lorax, Dr. Seuss' dire fairy tale about the environmental costs of corporate greed. The hero of the story is the Lorax, a squashed little creature who claims to "speak for the trees." He finds himself pitted against a faceless businessman named the Once-ler who wreaks havoc on the pristine landscape in order to produce a mysterious but popular commodity called a "thneed."

Although Hollywood turned the story into a big-budget film a few years back, I grew up on the book and a 1972 half-hour cartoon special. More faithful to the story than the contemporary full-length film, that TV show nonetheless added an exchange between the Lorax and the Once-ler that did not appear in the book but has always stuck in my mind.

When the Lorax points out how the Once-ler's factory has poisoned the air, polluted the water supply, and destroyed animal habitats, the Once-ler responds by asking whether the environment should take precedence over the positive effects his business creates in other realms.

"What do you want?" he says. "I should shut down my factory? Fire a hundred thousand workers? Is that good economics? Is that sound for the country?"

"I see your point," the Lorax responds, with a sad shrug of his shoulders, "but I wouldn't know the answer."

At the ripe old age of 44, I feel like the Lorax these days far more than I used to. I was a lot smarter when I was younger. If you showed me a problem, I would assume there was a solution and set about looking for it. These days I see a lot more problems than solutions, and, more often than not, I find myself throwing up my hands in the face of complex problems, uncertain what to think or believe. Like the Lorax, I know something's wrong, but I can't figure out what I should do about it.

Nowhere have I felt the Lorax's dilemma more deeply than in the growing reliance of American higher education on adjunct labor. I have begun drafting a half-dozen columns over the past year on the topic, trying to find something to say, as tenured professor, that moves beyond hand-wringing or empty gestures of support. I never seem to get beyond the first few paragraphs.

Like the Lorax, I can see the devastation that our increasing reliance on poorly paid adjuncts wreaks on their lives. I talk with the adjuncts at my college, follow lots of adjuncts on Twitter, read their blogs, and pay attention to news stories in The Chronicle and elsewhere about the scope of the problem. I have heard, read about, and witnessed enough of the damage that the system causes to recognize that we have to make changes of some kind.

And yet the Once-ler in this situation speaks clearly to me as well. At my college, we are in the midst of our second round of budget cuts this year, as we face up to the hard realities of a shrinking pool of college-age students in our part of the country. We should pay our adjuncts better wages, or hire them full-time.

But those proposals will get exactly nowhere, given that every department on the campus has been required to make substantial budget cuts. And when top administrators lay the numbers out for us, I can see the logic of their argument. We don't have the money to do the right thing.

I see their point, in other words. But I don't have the answer.

So as much as I would like to offer a grand solution for how to transform higher education in ways that provide better wages and living conditions for adjuncts, I just don't have one. Instead, I want to offer three simple suggestions for what tenure-track and tenured faculty members in higher education can do to improve the lives and careers of their adjunct colleagues.

In doing so, I hope to offer a complementary perspective on two excellent essays by Elizabeth Keenan, who has a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from Columbia University and teaches music history as an adjunct at both Columbia and Fordham University. In two blog posts, Keenan describes "How to Be a Tenured Ally" and "How Not to Be a Tenured Ally." Her smart list of suggestions for those of us who are tenured or on the tenure track deserves a wide readership among its target audience.

I offer my own recommendations here as a supplement, and on the assumption that all faculty members in higher education, adjunct or tenured, should be advocating for adjuncts to receive higher pay, multiyear contracts, and the ability to form unions and negotiate for better working conditions. But those kinds of solutions are not under my direct control; I can't walk onto the campus and make them happen tomorrow. The recommendations I describe here are ones that I can control, and that I believe most tenured faculty members could at least influence on their campuses as well.

Become someone's ally or mentor. Approach an adjunct in your department or on your campus who seeks an eventual full-time position and offer to read her work, observe his class, review her course materials, and write a letter of reference. If the adjunct is seeking a reference letter for an "alt-ac" (alternative academic) job, do a little research and find out what would be most useful for you to say in that letter.

Use your contacts to help connect that person to full-time job prospects. Because you are more likely to have traveled to conferences (on your institution's travel budget) and networked with others who might be in a position to hire a full-time faculty member, you might have a richer professional network than your adjunct peers do. Draw on it to support the people who are sitting in the same hallway as you, doing much of the same work, for a lot less money.

Dorothy Day once observed that we could solve the homeless problem in America if every family simply took in one extra person. We can't quite solve the adjunct problem in the same way; there aren't enough full-time jobs for all of the adjuncts who want one. But we can at least help the adjuncts on our campuses bulk up their job files, and we can take the time to demonstrate an interest in their work and careers.

Open committee memberships to adjuncts. It seems strangely oligarchic to me that faculty committees on most campuses are closed to part-timers. On the one hand, I understand that adjuncts—whose time at the institution may be brief—should not have the ability to bend institutional policy in ways that could negatively affect the permanent faculty. And yet does it make sense to have a small group of faculty members making decisions that affect a much larger group of faculty members who have no voice whatsoever? Why shouldn't standing committees of five, eight, or 10 members have one or two slots reserved for adjuncts, who could voice and advocate for their group's concerns?

Of course, many adjuncts, already overburdened with teaching assignments, would have no interest in serving on a committee, especially if they weren't paid for that service work. Committee work should never become an obligation for any adjunct. But I know that some adjuncts would have an interest in gaining a broader view of the campus and in connecting with their full-time colleagues through committee work. I am forming an advisory council for my college's new Center for Teaching Excellence, and I reserved space on that council for an adjunct. Immediately after the positions were announced, I had a handful of adjunct faculty members eager to serve. I am looking forward to hearing their perspectives on how the teaching center can best serve their needs.

Again, by no means should we ever require committee work for adjuncts. And if we are inviting them to serve on the faculty senate or on time-intensive committees (ones that meet multiple times a semester), they should receive appropriate compensation for that work. The salaries of the tenured account for our service work; the wages of adjuncts do not. But setting aside positions for them, even if they go unfilled, would give them the opportunity to influence the institution and would invite them more fully into the life of the campus.

Offer grants for work-related travel. Tenured and tenure-track professors know how important professional travel can be to building a career. Attending a conference can help you keep abreast of new developments in your field, meet and network with your peers, connect you to job opportunities, enhance your teaching, and allow you to get your research projects in front of publishers and editors. All of those prospects may be closed to an adjunct who has barely enough money to pay the bills, let alone travel across the country to an academic conference.

Of course, budgets are tight all over. Most colleges won't jump at the suggestion to add another budget line for adjuncts' professional development. But it seems to me that setting aside $5,000 or $10,000 in a multimillion-dollar budget is a feasible proposition. It would be easy enough to establish policies so that the longest-serving adjuncts have first access to the money, which makes it more likely that the skills and knowledge they pick up at conferences will return to benefit the college that pays the bill.

You might recall that the final act of the Lorax is to lift himself up by the seat of his pants and fly away in defeat from the once-bountiful lands that have been scarred and polluted by his greedy nemesis. We have not yet come to that place in higher education, and I hope we never do. But while people smarter than me work to formulate global solutions to the overreliance on adjunct labor in higher education, we can take small steps to improve the lives and working conditions of colleagues who work without many of the privileges we enjoy.

In that spirit, I hope all faculty members will continue the conversation here by articulating other ways in which the tenured can help make a positive difference in the working conditions and daily lives of adjuncts.

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English and director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College. His new book, Cheating Lessons: Learning From Academic Dishonesty, was published this year by Harvard University Press.