Fixing Psychology

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Adjunct Professors and Unions

Adjunct Professors and Unions: Some Questions and Answers
Eric Charles, Ph.D.
This post is a response to What's Wrong With (the Rhetoric Surrounding) Adjuncts? by Eric Charles, Ph.D

This is the third in a series of posts about adjunct professors. The first post, about research professors vs. teaching-only professors, went mostly unnoticed, but the second post, where I started to dissect the rhetoric surrounding adjunct professors, generated some serious and lengthy discussion in the comments. Before I try to do more, I want to publicize some of that discussion, especially the information supplied by Ana Tamayo of Adjunct Justice and Robin Sowards of the Adjunct Faculty Association, which is affiliated with the United Steelworkers. Because we have different experiences, and likely different images of what an ideal university and an ideal faculty member look like, our approaches to the problem are different... and they should be.

 

Robin and Ana represent good organizations. In the end, I think Robin, Ana, and I differ only a little in terms of what we think proper treatment of college instructors looks like. We all agree that adjuncts don't make a living wage in many parts of the country. (There are many parts of the country where $2,700 a course is a healthy living wage, but most adjuncts don't work in those parts of the country.) We agree that adjuncts should be seen as valued members of the academic community, and that those who do their jobs well and desire to move to more permanent positions, should have the chance to do so.

 

However, I think we differ a lot in terms of the changes we think will best get us to that point, and what we think will happen to most current adjuncts when such changes are made. I am not against faculty unions in general, especially at schools without healthy shared-governance practices. But that seems different to me than joining forces with well-established unions that typically deal with very different workplaces. Robin points out that the Steel Workers now represent workers across a wide variety of businesses. True enough. However, the goal of a traditional company is profit, and there is clear managerial hierarchy, topped by owners. At most colleges, the goal is not profit, the hierarchy is quite unclear, and there are no owners. Few term or tenure-line faculty that I know want to be viewed as traditional “workers”, and I suspect that many (but certainly not all) adjuncts would feel the same, were they recognized as such. There is no proper sense in which a department head or dean is the boss or manager of a tenured faculty member, and the job would be much less appealing if there were. Depending on the university culture, a tenure-track faculty member might well have to act as if the department head or dean is their boss, but that is not a sure-fire gambit either, as other faculty have a big say in tenure decisions. Further, the closest you have to an employer, legally, is usually the board of trustees, who, at most colleges, know little about what is going on, and don't control any day to day decisions. Robin points out, correctly, that flexibility is a job perk that can be collectively negotiated, just like any other aspect of a contract, but the formalization of such relations is not always a good thing.

 

One interesting question for discussion with Robin and others at organizers might be: To what extent SHOULD the job of a college professor be like the job of high school teacher? Is there (as my initial post in this series suggested) good reason to have a faculty made up of teacher-researchers, or would it be better to have a majority of faculty who were pure teachers? As Robin points out:

All of my part-time faculty colleagues are so devoted to their students that they go way beyond what they are contractually obligated to do in order to mitigate the damage the administration is doing to the education students are getting; they pay for their own computers out of their tiny pay, they buy their own copies at Kinko's, they spend countless extra hours doing extra work for students who need help or are excited about the material, etc. But they should not have to do so, and, collectively, will not be able to continue doing so in the long term.

But... and this is an argument I get in often regarding other topics... so long as her colleagues are willing to do this, there is no problem from the point of view of the administrators or the students. The administrators look down, and see a bunch of students getting a decent education. The students look up, and see a bunch of dedicated teachers who seem to love their jobs. If the administrators saw how bad things were, some would care, but others would not. If the students knew how bad things were, many would care at least a little, but we have no idea how many would care enough to do something about it. This brings me to one of Ana's perceptive comment.

 

Ana points out:

You say who cares [about the situation adjuncts are in]? Maybe not today, but soon someone will, I think. Because already you see headlines of hurting budgets, of declining students. And sooner or later, this lack of education, this worthless attitude that administrations have shown in the care for the plight of contingent faculty, will come through. But then it might be too late. All the good teachers are leaving. Remember, faculty working conditions are student learning conditions. Who is going to learn, and what, if all good faculty are starved out?

To which I replied:

When I point out that most people do not care, I mean the point seriously, with the intention of causing reflection; it was not intended to be sarcastic. I agree with you that people SHOULD care, but we have failed to effectively convince them to. It is a problem, and we do indeed need Adjunct Justice!

As a further reflexive question: Why is this problem not better known? Adjuncts have room fulls of students, parents come to campus regularly, there are local and national newspapers. Something about the prudish attitudes towards discussing finances and careers? What would happen if every adjunct introduced themselves to class and to visiting parents with a brief description of their situation, and the impact it would have on student learning? What if every leaving faculty posted an article in the student paper, and asked the students to think about how they were treated when the almuni office called and asked for donations?

 

Ana's group is working hard towards the goal of promoting greater awareness of this problem, and her efforts deserve support. But the easiest way to raise awareness would be for everyone who is in this situation to talk about it more, to everyone.


Robin gave another analogy worth considering:

Imagine that physicians were only employed by large hospitals (because, say, the government only gave its imprimatur to hospitals and not to small practices), and every time you go to see your physician you had a 70% chance of getting a part-time physician (due to a deliberate decision by the hospital's administration). She doesn't have an exam room, so you have to undress in the hall. She has to share a computer with 30 other physicians, so you have to wait a couple of hours for her to retrieve your records. A handful of rich people can go to fancy hospitals whose physicians are overwhelmingly full-timers who are given the things they need to do their job; those people end up quite healthy. But you and I can't go to those hospitals. Wouldn't that piss you off? We could stay home and hope we just heal, no doubt; but shouldn't health care be readily available to everyone? Wouldn't we say that the hospital managers, paying themselves astronomical salaries, where mismanaging something that ought to be a public trust--indeed, something that claims to be a charity? 

It is a good analogy. Many would be pissed off, many would not. Some would see it as exactly what rich people are entitled to, others would see it is a major social injustice. If push comes to shove, I am somewhere in the middle, and if it is indeed a charitable hospital then I side fully with Robin. One big difference, however, is how obvious the disparity would be to anyone visiting both hospitals.

 

In the end though, I am still stuck on an early comment from an Anonymous poster. I pointed out that if the situation is very bad, then adjuncts can find other work. Anonymous replied:

This answer isn't really even a possibility for many people who are teaching. There are people teaching in the humanities, for example, who have a passion for teaching and are not interested in (or even hirable in) industry.

I am not sure what to make of this comment. Of course it is an answer! It is not a desirable option for many people, which is an important, but different point. First, Ph.D.’s do not train people to teach, so it is an odd track to take expecting a guaranteed teaching job as the outcome. Second, no one is guaranteed a job in their chosen profession, and we are talking about highly, nay, ridiculously trained people here. I have had many friends who were disappointed to not find permanent academic jobs after graduate school. Many served as adjunct instructors for a while, or did post-docs for a while, then eventually left academia. After some bouncing around, all seem pretty happy, and are in rewarding jobs. One or two still carry chips on their shoulders about not being professors, but even those ones seem to be living perfectly good and rewarding lives, including jobs that make use of their advanced skill sets.

 

While I continue to work on my analysis of the situation, one thing is increasingly clear to me: So long as people feel trapped in the job, the problem cannot be solved. This is true whether you think the union solution is best or not. Ultimatly, the power of a union is in the form of a strike, and it is very difficult for people to strike if they feel they have no other options. If you are not willing to stop doing your job under your current circumstances, then there is little you or anyone else will be willing to do to improve things.

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P.S. If you think Ana and Robin are right (whether or not you also think I am wrong) read more about their organizations and support them. Here are the links again: Adjunct Justice and Adjunct Faculty Association

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

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