Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Hail to thee, our Alma Mater....

Hillary Clinton is visiting a community college today.  I wonder if if this topic will come up:

Over the past several decades, colleges and universities have come to rely on adjuncts in order to keep down education costs and tuition. According to the American Association of University Professors, "more than half of all faculty hold part-time appointments."

That simple fact usually leads to some kind of discussion about tuition costs and what students are actually paying for.  TPM cited the same statistic and made much the same argument about the poverty of adjunct teachers.   Interestingly the comments at both Slate and TPM overlooked this little fact, focussing instead on TA's (full disclosure, I was a TA for a year in graduate school, and completely in charge of the class; not just a guy handing out papers to an auditorium and grading them in some basement for the professor.  I had an office and office hours.  As an adjunct I'm still in charge of the class, get paid little better than I was as a TA, and don't have an office or office hours.  Most of my students call me "professor," not realizing I am not one and never will be.).

It's the comments where things get really interesting.  The top comment at Slate bemoans the fact any sympathy is being extended to impoverished adjuncts because "they don't have to do that job."  Because, you know, no one really needs to teach.  I mean, who needs teachers, right?

If I have to respond further to that kind of "reasoning," I can only assume you stumbled into this blog by mistake.

The comments at TPM focus on TA's and how this is just a pushing aside, if anything, of that kind of teaching.  It's the "more than half of all faculty hold part-time appointments" that disturbs me, for reasons no one addresses (well, why should they?  What do we need teachers for, amirite?).

If we are replacing more than half of our college faculty (which is well beyond the usual assumption that this is an English major's problem, English majors being emblematic of the degrees we don't really need, because we should just scrap the liberal arts anyway.  I mean, it's so medieval!) with adjuncts, we are gaining teachers who have stopped doing research when they got their degrees, and whose knowledge of the field is frozen in the year they graduated.  Not frozen in stone, but pretty well trapped in the past, which recedes more and more every year.  Adjuncts don't get paid to research or to keep up with knowledge in their field.  They get paid to stand in front of a class and to grade papers (grades being the most important part of a student's life, apparently.  I never hear from my department chair about my teaching unless it's a student complaining about the final grade in the course.).  They get paid to teach from a textbook and use a curriculum assigned to them.  They don't get paid to hold office hours (I still have memories of talking, in offices, with deans and professors; I did this from college through graduate school and into seminary.  It was, so I thought, one of the primary purposes of "higher education."  Not so anymore.), so they don't get paid to talk to students.

This is an interestingly awkward problem, because you cannot offer help to a student by discussing their academic work in a hallway (it's practically a violation of FERPA to do so anyway).  FERPA won't allow me to discuss their work via e-mail, and I don't want them having my private phone number.  I have no office, no office hours, and I'm paid by the course.  The less work I do, the better, because the number of courses I can teach is limited, I eat into my hourly rate when I do more than teach and grade papers; and I'm not going to arrange for a corner table at the local Starbucks 3 hours a week.

I never had a class in my major that was taught by a TA.  This was intentional on my part.  I went to college to learn from professors, not from recent graduates.  Now that is becoming harder and harder to do, and the result is we are eating our seed corn.  You cannot teach what you do not know, and slowly but surely we are turning colleges into high school classes.  Actually, high school teachers are, by and large, required to do continuing education to teach in public schools.  Adjuncts just need to have a graduate degree in their field; anything else they do is on their dime, and does nothing to improve their chances of getting full-time, much less tenure track, work.  Nor does it increase the per-class payment they receive by one dime.

So we are telling the adjuncts the field they work in is less and less important to academia; that their teaching skills are less and less valuable to society; and that what needs to be taught can be narrowed more and more.  We are shrinking the knowledge base, in other words; adjuncts who know only what they remember from graduate school (staying current in the field is for people who get paid for such information; adjuncts get paid to be warm bodies) are passing on diminished knowledge to people who eventually will be going to graduate school themselves and, at some point, teaching in those schools; many of them as adjuncts.

It's a noose; and we're tightening it.  In the name of what, exactly?


  1. Hiring more academic administrators?

  2. I don't miss the adjunct part of being an adjunct. I did enjoy the teaching part.

  3. June--pretty much. My college is crammed with 'em.

    Ntodd--according to the "top" comment at Slate when last I was there, that's no reason to be an adjunct. Heaven knows, encouraging people to do what they love is never in society's interest.....