This post is in response to What's Wrong With (the Rhetoric Surrounding) Adjuncts? by Eric Charles

This is the third in a series of posts about adjunct professors. The first post, about reaserch professors vs. teaching-only professors, went mostly unnoticed, but the second post, where I started to disect 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. I have at least one more post coming in this series, but first I wanted to give a belated response about Adjunct Unions.

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. 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.

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.)

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 doing something else is an answer! It is not a desirable option for many people, which is an important point, but a completely different point. First, hardly any Ph.D. programs train people to teach, so it is an odd tact to take expecting a guaranteed teaching job as the outcome of completing a Ph.D. Second, no one is guaranteed a job in their chosen profession. Third, we are talking about highly, nay, ridiculously trained people here, so to say they have no other options is a bit odd. 

I have had many friends who were disappointed to not find permanent academic jobs after graduate school. Many who colud not find permanent positions worked as adjuncts for a while (or did post-docs for a while) and then eventually, and sadly, left academia. After some bouncing around, all who left academia seem pretty happy, and are in rewarding jobs. One or two still carry chips on their shoulders about not getting that dream professorship, but even those ones seem to be living perfectly good and rewarding lives, including working in jobs that make use of their advanced skill sets.

The fact of the mater is that if there is a glut of people who are unwilling to do anything other than teach college classes, then Universities are in a "buyer's market", and it is completely rational for them to pay poorly. (I am NOT saying that it is morally right, but it is understandable why they do it.) That adjuncts feel trapped, and that they feel there are no other jobs they could do, and that their friends in academia do not understand that there is a perfectly good world full of alternative jobs out there, are all parts of the problem that needs to be resolved... and those particular parts of the problems are unlikely to be solved by unionization. Unions are, by design, focused on people who are in the jobs they represent, and it is not a typical priority of a Union to help people leave for greener pastures.

In any industry it is rough being a full-time part-time worker. Adjunct positions are designed to be part time, and there are many people for whom such arrangements are ideal --- people who already have, or do not neeed a full time job. For others, being an adjunct is a perfectly good, but non-ideal holding pattern to fly in for a few years. But if you are talking about people who lack an alternative sources of income, you won't find many for whom adjuncting is it a good long-term solution, and the unions will never be able to fix that completely. Those people face tough choices, but, when push comes to shove, they are mundane tough choices. They are the tough choices faced by millions of poeple who want a better job: That you can't find the job you want, in the area you want, for the pay you want, is hardly a tragedy unique to the fringes of academia.

And, the average Ph.D. should be in a much better position than the average displeased or underemployed worker. They tend to be more mobile and are used to mastering difficult tasks. Changing career trajectories is an obvious option.

So, I think Adjunct Unions are a perfectly fine idea, and I have nothing against collective bargaining. I think that if they are done right, such efforts will benefit both the adjunct instructors, the universities, and the students. I am more suspcious of large unions, and less suspicious of unions that can focus on the unique position of adjunct instructors. In the end, however, I think many adjuncts would be better served by efforts to help them do something other than adjuncting. And I think the conditions the Unions are working to improve would improve more rapidly and more naturally if there were not so many people desperate to do that work. We need to support adjunct professors, particularly those who are using adjunct work as their sole source of income. But, in the end, no amount of support will take away the tough choices of everyday life.

About the Author

Eric Charles, Ph.D.

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

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