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Adjuncts are Better Seen, Not Heard


(revised and modified from 3/1/12)

Patti Smith, punk guru, often moves into spoken word when she performs live. A constant refrain is “we’re all f**ked.” But, she says this, repeats it, works it into everything she does as part of an existential gesture to motivate her audience into action.

For some Adjuncts, the answer is: walk away. I couldn’t agree more. Sometimes you simply need to walk. (I’m a former back of the house worker: dishwasher, prep, sous, exec, partner–I’m very aware that throwing up the middle finger and slamming the door behind you as you move on with your life is part of the “at will” life.)

But, I simply disagree with criticisms from administrators and full time colleagues that the lofty goals or an idealized graduate degree that accompany adjunct dissatisfaction primarily inform the problems we face as temporary migrant intellectual workers.

Perhaps it is necessary to “get over” the idea that as a professor you’ll be living the life of the mind. However, I must ask, especially for community educators: When? When was that ever the case for me? I needed to fight for every second of every research or writing or editing moment, especially my first book which was a reworking, like everyone else, of my over-specialized dissertation. I was charged with teaching traditional and non-traditional students, leading them from point A to point B.

Where is the responsibilities (ethical or moral) on the part of our colleagues to create the conditions for sustainability and equity in departments–like say English or Philosophy or History–that are filled with advocates for social justice and “postcolonial” thinking and postmodern approaches to empowerment, and power/knowledge, and the rest of the critical theory progressivism that has also been absorbed into the very machine we often serve as cogs? What’s the responsibility of professional organizations to set (and then enforce through legal and direct action means) reasonable industry or disciplinary standards regarding the volume of graduate degrees awarded each year?

When leadership fails, when administrative incompetance is allowed to run circles around disciplinary wisdom, heritage, and effective solutions, is it failure on the part of the “wide-eyed” graduate student or hopeful Visiting Professor or Adjunct if working conditions are allowed to deteriorate? Or, is it neglect or disinterest (is there a difference?) on the part of Chairs, senior faculty, administration, and above (e.g., hiring professors the first day of class or distributing textbook vouchers two months after the start of the term)?

Like the “corporate presidency,” the “corporate university” model doesn’t work. Yet, the most incompetent higher-ups and the loudest defenders of “the system,” are all rewarded. (And yes, having regular access to a doctor or knowing months in advance the schedule you will keep each term is sadly still considered a reward for what I consider an expectation, perhaps even right.)

The bubbles and crashes of the last decade proved this without any doubt. It’s time to face a different fact: colleges and universities are best run as non-profit organizations. Yet, the people who claim to know more about running a business oftentimes have no place in higher education beyond the donors office or key development administrators or the Board of Trustees. Many know how to run a business into the ground.

They do not understand that key fields need the protection of grant underwriting, donations, and creative/effective uses of tightening budget to sustain their activities. Forget about sharing resources; using the successes of emerging fields or professional and technical courses of study in a more general funding of a college goes against the departmentalization we have accepted as normal when we budget.

Non-profit models also help workers in fields that simply cannot keep up with market demands; their existence and contribution to the broader education of students, especially in the Liberal Arts have never met capitalist criteria for success or profitability. But, it’s just *bad* business practice, and typical of the neoconservative and neolibreral turn, to force departments like Classics and History, Literature and Philosophy, and maybe even the harder applied sciences–advanced Neuroscience, Astrophysics, and Geology. One could even argue that forcing these disciplines to the open market is a backhanded way to guarantee their “failure.”

What do you say to a college or university that consistently runs on the Five Hour Energy of eleventh hour crises and bad policies and zero transparency about enrollment, section, etc. decisions and winds up cancelling courses that could generate about $30K in revenue after paying the less than 20% to the instructor? Is it a former graduate adviser’s fault that people who do not understand the nature of their own business–higher education–are making decisions that have resulted in a near systemic collapse under the weight of 60-70% migrant at will temporary labor? How can you sustain curriculum with a faculty that does not know when their next paycheck will arrive? How can you connect complex initiatives across multiple departments if you cannot take the time, as a faculty, to even meet or plan or reflect?

I think that’s the nature of the crime: the decisions made by real people–not some market or some wish-fulfillment desire on the part of the Adjunct–get attributed to some automated, naturalized, and then universalized “ghost in the machine” rather than the flesh, blood, and bone of human beings making really bad decisions, without recourse, without self-regulation, without adherence to professional standards or even following binding arbitration. Without consequence other than having to spend an extra hundred dollars for flowers dispatched from the lowest bidder to the latest adjunct funeral.

Why pretend the machine isn’t programmed by people who desire the resultant misery we have collectively experienced? Let’s choose to carry the weight of the horrors and disappointments we have experienced and transform them into action steps that can make crystal clear our grievances to people who do not hold our best interest in mind. If they did, we wouldn’t need to register our complaints in public, private, in print, or online.


Lastly, when a major manufacturer in New Hampshire approached my former college to certify a machine tool program, they were the ones who asked for at least two graduation tracks: certification and associate of arts. They wanted their employees to gain the critical thinking skills and global understanding of their present personal and professional situation in addition to increasing their vocational strengths. They offered free classrooms; their scheduling ideas inspired our faculty to come up with hybrid and accelerated models. It was a fantastic collaboration. But, it failed. Administrators and long-time faculty in General Education resisted the call to innovate; they also misunderstood the promise of increased revenue as an attempt to control the curriculum. Would the corporate entity then object to us teaching X or Y text or controversial essays that challenge corporatism or embrace capitalism, and so forth. Slowly, the initiative lost momentum and most of the regular faculty moved on with their lives.

I don’t think the graduate degree granting institutions had anything to contribute here in this example of gross mismanagement, lamentable professional will, and the ongoing tyranny of lazy bureaucrats who simply do not wish to work more than two or three days a week. Just a tiny bit of effort and support would have increased department revenue by about $50K per semester and $100K in an accelerated, eight week scenario.

Sure, higher education isn’t the promised land. But, our professional home is also not best thought of as a corporation. It’s time to get back to simple non-profit wisdom, forget about casino-styled capitalism, and build communities rather than break them with false promises, bad policies, neglect, and budgetary ignorance that cannot possibly increase revenue or support/sustain emerging programs and even their successful cousins across the curriculum.

The Time is Now; The Struggle Continues (August Wilson, 1945-2005)

About Dean RCB

Dean of Academics Lebanon College Philosophy and Integrated Liberal Arts Writer & Producer (theatre, television, film) Composer & Producer RCB lives in the Upper Valley with his wife and four boys.

5 responses to “Adjuncts are Better Seen, Not Heard

  1. Pingback: Migrantintellectual: a link to other Adjunct thoughts « adjunctconnections

  2. Irene

    Our college is in the midst of a “compensation study” conducted by The Gallagher Group. I was surprised to be part of it this time, as an adjunct, since I was not part of a Hay Study that reviewed FT faculty pay a few years ago.

    I thought I would share some thoughts:
    The person that interviewed me was extremely professional, engaging and personable. I actually learned a lot in the process. One of her questions was which of our colleges strategic planning initiatives mattered most to me. I had answers to share, because I am very familiar with our colleges´s accreditation and planning articulation. BUT, how many other adjuncts out there are?

    I was intrigued to learn that it is the responsibility of the individual to review any contract (even an adjunct one) with a lawyer, and not to expect a college HR department or any other third party to review it for me.

    I was fascinated to hear her address “changes in the labor market” for adjuncts and she asked me which colleges I felt were comparable, so as to compare apples to apples. I argued that we observe nationally that we have had steady, significant changes in the adjunct labor market for over 2 decades, and isn´t that significant? Her response was that certainly any job description will have a cap on compensation. To which I inquired, “what about top executive salaries that have grown exponentially — to the tune of Ohio college presidents making over 1 Million annually in total compensation?” Her response was agreement, and an observation that a cap should have been set early to avoid that (or something to that effect). I was left wondering, who should have been responsible for that — taxpayers, Board of Trustees, our state Board of Regents? No wonder we keep confronting budget issues: pay cuts to adjuncts, but our President got a Board-approved 3% salary raise last year, while also considering outsourcing our custodial staff!

    So, here we are — an Adjunct Nation — the new Faculty Majority. Taking actions but seemingly hardly putting a dent into the issues. Who´s listening to us? Fellow adjuncts, and maybe some FT colleagues.

    Oh, and I inquired if the Gallagher Group would take into consideration Josh Boldt´s spreadsheet, The Adjunct Project. I was asked if it was “self-reporting” and I said “yes”. Guess what? She said they can´t take such information into consideration.

    So, I wanted to share this here because I have yet to see anyone post anything about “compensation studies” and what the BEST strategies are for addressing adjunct issues that way.
    I hope I represented my fellow adjuncts well in my interview, but I am not sure The Gallagher Group (a reputable consultant and expert in HR and Employee Law) will make any recommendations that will change anything.

    AND, even if The Gallagher Group does make significant favorable recommendations for adjuncts, such as the MLA, and other agencies seeking changes in higher education, I feel that colleges are not compelled (mandated) to take any action on, especially when colleges are still singing budget woes (while their top execs gladly accept pay raises even when there are hiring freezes).

    GET to know your Board of Trustees, the accreditation process that applies to you, figure out if you are a stakeholder (taxpayer to the county your institution is in), and map out your state legislature. There are many things we need to be educating ourselves about in order to articulate the issues with entities that are in a position to hear us.

    • SOme quick thoughts — I’m on a deadline.

      I think Adjunct Spring direct action should target accreditation entities as well as Boards of Trustees. Why? The former, such as NEASC in New England, acts as the watchdogs; they have fallen asleep at the controls like Securities Exchange during banking crisis (see INSIDE JOB documentary). The Boards are thicker than bricks. So, the only way to get their attention is to fuck with the bottom line as well as to engage in public relations campaigns that relentlessly target their willful participation in Adjunct exploitation.

      Student to local legislator to Chamber of Commerce to town government and up from there — this proved effective in NH. Most people think all professors are paid the same, receive full time benefits, and are living “the good life.” Even among my full time colleagues, I’m not convinced they are living as good a life as they did twenty years ago.

      Every person, every political entity fears something. Buzz and trending stories related to the real time conditions of Adjuncts even scared the regional newspapers. Most of the newspapers were reluctant to even cover the union drive. When pressed, the answer was the same: it really isn’t “attention grabbing.” Code: we have college board members on our board and they are blocking our attempts to cover this.

      So, we make it “attention grabbing.”

      Back to your reply: //Oh, and I inquired if the Gallagher Group would take into consideration Josh Boldt´s spreadsheet, The Adjunct Project. I was asked if it was “self-reporting” and I said “yes”. Guess what? She said they can´t take such information into consideration.//

      Part of the accreditation review is self-study and part of self-study are responses to surveys, open ended questioning, and data-driven analysis of the institution. Gallagher Group is playing the same game other outside groups play when it comes to studying private or public colleges. They want to get the big bucks for conducting the surveys, crunching the numbers, etc. On the other hand, there are a lot of inaccuracies on The Adjunct Project spreadsheet that support the need for outside analysis. Then again, the Adjunct Project isn’t attempting to be socially scientific–it’s a first step toward more traditional data-driven studies.

      We need to up the ante — and you’re right. Who is listening? I say we up the ante by coordinating live and virtual direct action with the accreditation “authorities” and the Boards that pretend they have had nothing to do with the problems we all face.

      Will write more after I get some more text written. Sigh. Good thing I’m being paid on sabbatical to complete the article, huh?!?! 🙂

  3. Just for the record, I also come down on your side of this issue. I agree with Pennsylvania adjunct’s premise that fighting to maintain the intellectual integrity of our universities is not for everyone. And I also see his point that the university is (increasingly) run like a business, but I disagree with his suggestion that we should throw in the towel and walk away. I think instead that it’s our duty as intellectuals and professors to push back against this corporatization. It’s easy to forget sometimes that we are in fact the majority.

    • Hey brother Josh,

      The PA/ADJ post provoked me into a deep meditation on corporatism and non-profit solutions.

      I think I handled it well. Had to edit for tone a few times.

      Dealing with more conservative administrators reminds me of those strange moments when my prog-ness comes out in ancap or neocon political discussions — I often need to remind my opponent on how BAD their business model serves the very interests they claim to have mastered: efficiency, productivity, profitability. I find myself in meetings with Board of Trustee members in NH saying things like —

      “So, if we follow your plan, we should increase revenue, increase new Full Time hiring lines, and best accommodate our students in an increased number of General Education sections.” They almost always nod in agreement.

      “So, why hasn’t this happened in five years?” And their response is: too much cost in benefits and salary; bad investments in marketplace; etc. “The plan failed, then, correct?” They freak.

      “I mean, we do assessment for a living; we write strategic plans and essential objectives, set benchmarks for our students, evaluate and re-evaluate our teaching and curriculum and pedagogy — but in the case of the “business” of higher education, we’re expected to remain silent while your approach has not met key plans, objectives, benchmarks, evaluation criteria, etc.”

      And at this point, someone calls “lunch.” And they leave, publish a memo stating exactly the opposite of what they need to do.

      i’m a student of existential thinking and Badiou — I’m well aware of how tiring these conversations can be and I have thrown in the towel a few times myself. But, I come back to the fight for a very simple reason: to become one of a growing collective of Eumenides who refuse to be cornered off into a cave. We’re here to remind ourselves and each other what I still like to call the “Mr. Pink call to action” — from RESERVOIR DOGS: “Someone’s got a red hot poker up our ass and I want to know whose name is on the handle?”

      A little harsh.
      But, it’s been a long day.

      Besides trying to write two articles, three reviews, draft my first novel, and raise a family, you know what I do now for a living, Josh? I’m an Arts & Entertainment and Social Media Coordinator for a growing cafe/community center out here in Quechee, VT. I love my job; but it’s not where the strength of my convictions reside. As of two weeks ago, I was going to interviews at hospitals to run a floor waxer or dispose medical waste or don a hairnet and serve up some faux upscale bullshit at the Dartmouth Medical Center. I’d do it; and I’ve done it. But, why? Why is it acceptable for good people — not clunkers, not researchers begrudgingly teaching intro-level coursework, but people who relearned how to teach so they could become better mentors AND maintain their research agenda — I don’t get it — why is it acceptable for us to work this hard and receive so little?

      Sorry to dump.
      I’m just not in the mood tonight to ignore the other Furies who keep me alive and kicking these days.

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