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What's Wrong With (the Rhetoric Surrounding) Adjuncts?

Part-time professional experts
Eric Charles, Ph.D.
This post is a response to Why Research Professors? Part 1 by Eric Charles, Ph.D

The Adjuncts vs. Professors conundrum has been on my mind. In a recent post, I talked about why it should be hard to compare what adjuncts bring to a classroom with what research-active professors bring to the classroom. I avoided the really tough talk in the last article, and I will avoid it here as well. However, I hope to lay some groundwork, inspired by a recent story.

The story involves a woman who died at 83, having taught French for 25 years at Duquesne University, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The context of the story, as usually presented, is that Duquesne is not letting its adjuncts unionize and, due to the lack of a union, the woman died without proper healthcare and neigh homeless. The details of the story are sketchy; as in, they are only loosely sketched out anywhere I have found them. Where were social security and medicare? How does a college stop the organization of a well-mustered union? Etc.

All that aside... while I do not think I am a heartless troll, I have trouble fully sympathizing with those who feel that the woman should have been entitled to more from Duquesne than she received. The plights described in the sketched version of the woman's story are NOT unique to adjunct professors, it is a trait that many members of Expertland share:

Lawyers, statistical analysts, surgeons, and many other types of experts typically get paid for delivery-of-skills only, and the hourly rate they get paid is expected to cover preparation and training. For example, I recently had some great conversation with a motivational speaker who gets paid several thousand for an afternoon. That may seem like a lot, but he has spent decades perfecting his presentation, and he still spends at least a full week on each one, between preparatory work, travel, and take down. He is hard-pressed to do more than 3 workshops a month, and that places him squarly in a non-extravagant salary band, despite the seemingly insane hourly rate.

Similarly, but on a lesser scale, an adjunct professor teaching first year french might make $3,000 a course, which works out to about $50 an hour. Surely there is a lot of prep the adjunct has done throughout his or her life to prepare for these in-class moments, and the delivery is expected to reflect that. However, when push comes to shove, someone teaching one class is only working three or four hours a week for the college, six to eight if you include office hours. The rest of the time is equivalent to the prep and take down routinely expected of other experts.

So now some questions: If your business had a lawyer, or sign-language interpreter, or engineering consultant, who worked for 6 hours a week, would you give them health insurance? If you had someone giving your child piano lessons or french lessons for 6 hours a week, would you give them health insurance? Would it change if your kids were getting group lessons? What if they were older? To get back to the original issues: Why should it be different if you are a college that has someone teach two rooms of students, each for 3 hours per week? I'm not saying that this is the way the world should work, but I am saying that it is a situation in no way unique to academia, and that adjuncts are not in particularly more plight than any other expert who works as a part-time contractor.

So, does the attitude of the college makes sense? Yes. Are many adjunct professors being exploited? Yes, again. The problem is in the job itself. Many people doing the job are not the type of people the job was originally intended for. Unfortunately, the academic job market is so out of balance, and there is a mass of degree-holders so myopic in their job-seeking... But I'm trying to put off the hard discussion for at least one more post...

The story that started this off was about adjunct professors trying to become steel workers. When I was in graduate school at UC Davis, similar processes lead to my suddenly becoming an automotive worker—United Automotive Workers (UAW) 2865. The result was sad. The adjuncts I know do not want to be treated like members of a factory line. They don't want (as we received in graduate school) a quote of how many hours they are to spend grading every week, as if each week was the same. They don't want to be represented by people who see them as laborers, and treat the rest of the college as management. Neither graduate students nor adjunct professors do jobs comparable to the groups these union organizations normally represent. Forming a dedicated adjunct union is not a bad idea, but making it so adjuncts are treated like factory-line workers won't help anything.

If we think clearly about what adjunct professors do, we will realize that they are skilled contract labor, who usually get paid a fairly high hourly rate to deliver a concise service. There are many dedicated adjuncts who deserve to be treated much better than they are treated. However, we are not helped by romanticized rhetoric that hides what the job actually is.

Eric Charles, Ph.D., runs the research lab at CTRL, the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning, at American University.

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