Tuesday, November 18, 2008

I am the Man

I was having a conversation the other day with Super Rad, one of my colleagues who's just too radical and cool for school, if you know what I mean. Super Rad talks a lot about interventions and commitment to revolutionary action. Standing in the hallway, leaning on the door jamb, Super Rad was complaining about how poorly the adjuncts are paid.

So I said that we could go a long ways towards solving the problem if everyone with tenure in our department (including both of us) agreed to take a 20% paycut and redistributed the money to the adjuncts. You should have seen the look of abject horror that passed his face. It was worth it.

Here's the thing; our tenured salaries are subsidized under the current system by the use of adjuncts to teach large numbers of students in our department. Since we're not going to solve the economic crisis in our state teaching Shakespeare or Marxist theory, and since we aren't going to suddenly get a huge influx of money, we need to be realistic about the problem. We are the problem, or at least we benefit from the system as it's set up. We tenured folks are, so to speak, the man.

And yet, I made a decision to take this job based in part on the salary and my calculation I could live on the salary and preferred to live on this salary for this job rather than on a slightly higher salary at my previous job. And I made a decision to take on the mortgage I have because I did the math and figured I could make payments on my salary. So I don't really have 20% slack in my budget. Yes, if I had to take a 20% cut, I'd stop putting money into retirement savings, make some other cuts, and get by for now. But if I don't have to, I'm not.

It's hard to give up privilege, isn't it? But we should at least recognize our privilege. Or does it even matter, so long as I'm not willing to give it up?

On the other hand, I think I bring significant skills and qualities to my work that our adjuncts don't bring. And so I think I'm worth my salary. Or maybe I'm just making excuses?


  1. Ah yes, Berkeley syndrome.

    What exactly are adjuncts?

  2. Anonymous10:11 AM

    I may not be the typical adjunct, but I certainly don't think the tenure track folks bring anything to the table that I don't have.

  3. Anonymous10:12 AM

    I mean in my current situation, not as a general principle.

  4. No. Making all faculty become as poorly paid as adjuncts is not the solution to anything -- least of all to the problem of poorly paid adjuncts. If you really want to help, work for higher wages for everyone. Volunteering to take a pay cut will only help cement the salaries of adjunct faculty at their current abysmal levels.

  5. A few things:

    1) Yes, those of us on the t-t are the man. We are complicit in a system that not only oppresses others but also that depends on that oppression to exist in its current form.

    2) I think it does matter that we recognize our privilege, and I also think that it actually doesn't help anyone if t-t people on the lowest end of the payscale for t-t employees (those in humanities and fine arts disciplines) take a further cut in order to support adjunct labor. The fact of the matter is, adjuncts in English serve the general education curriculum, i.e., the entire university. If there were no such thing as gen. ed., ostensibly the need for adjuncts would go way down. Thus, it's not just English faculty who need to be taken into account - it's people in high-earning disciplines like accounting, too. In which case, we're talking about broader systemic issues about salary equity, and not just about some t-t people in a department riding on the backs of adjuncts in that same department.

    3. Are our t-t salaries really subsidized by the use of adjuncts? Because that would assume that we need to enroll that many students in order to pay t-t faculty their salaries, which seems to obscure the added costs of increased enrollments (more advisers, more facilities necessary, more equipment costs, more layers of administration), the use of grants, endowments and state funding, and the fact that t-t salaries have been stagnant for the past 20 years if one takes inflation into account. (http://chronicle.com/weekly/v55/i11/11a00101.htm) So while I'm willing to buy that I'm benefiting from the exploitation of adjuncts and that I'm part of the problem, I think it's reductive to say that t-t faculty are the sole problem, the sole reason that adjuncts exist.

    4. Finally, to respond to Anastasia's point, what t-t faculty bring that adjuncts don't is service. Institutional, departmental, community, whatever. All of that invisible work that committees do, and all of that bureaucracy of things like advising students within majors, etc. T-T faculty don't only teach, nor do they even only teach and do research. If that were all that they did, I'd say that what I bring to my institution isn't that different from what adjuncts bring. Now, part of the reason t-t folks can do all of that is because they are paid adequately and receive adequate benefits to devote their time to those parts of the job. But is it fair to say that a t-t person shouldn't be paid for that work? That my job is no different from an adjunct's down the hall, who is only on campus when he/she teaches his/her classes and for maybe one office hour a week? Again, there are systemic reasons for those things about an adjunct's performance, but it does make the job that an adjunct does different from the job that I do.

    Sorry to be so long-winded!

  6. I was going to make Dr Crazy's last point too. But I have to say that, while our university is different and in a different system, there IS an expectation on adjuncts to do research and service.

    Our adjuncts are paid a lot more than yours, from what I hear, but the calculation is deliberately designed to exclude the percentage of a "real academic job" that would be for service and research (usually assumed to be around 50% at our university. So we get around 50% of the most junior salary if teaching a full-time equivalent teaching load, but only paid during actual teaching weeks.

    Anyway, I can't fail to notice that it's precisely those adjuncts who are around the dept most often, who serve on committees and get involved in the dept's life, and who seem to continue an active research programme, who are the ones that get rehired. Those who just come in to teach a class and then leave don't get rehired.

    Not to mention, doing NO research and NO service and the subsequent gap on your CV is death if you then want to apply for future jobs or grants.

    Personally, I'm on three committees, organising a conference, in charge of one of our big outreach programmes to local schools, and trying to keep up with research. None of the above is paid, and to an extent it's my choice to do it. I won't lose my job (right away) if I don't. But it gives me the chance of a job next year.

  7. Maybe this isn't relevant, but here goes: When the G20 people are drinking wine at $500 a bottle and the Wall Street people are being all noble about their "sacrifice" because their bonuses this year will only be in the 7-figure rather than 8-figure range, making us fight for the ever-thinner slices of the academic pie seems just plain wrong.

  8. Anonymous12:21 PM

    just to clarify, what I meant is that I could do the fucking job is someone would give it to me. I don't deserve to be an adjunct.

  9. Anonymous12:24 PM

    Honestly, the original post says "I think I bring significant skills and qualities to my work that our adjuncts don't have" not "I do work that adjuncts aren't paid to do." Obviously, I know t-t faculty have responsibilities I don't have. But am I less qualified? Less skilled? Less worthy and that's why I'm paid $3,000/semester and I feed my kids government funded cheese?

    No. Fucking hell.

  10. MSILF, Adjuncts are instructors hired for short term, usually limited contracts to teach classes or perform other specified duties. Depending on local practices, they may be rehired indefinitely, but there is minimal job security. And in most areas/fields, the pay stinks.

    Anastasia, I can't speak to your specifics, but in my case, I bring knowledge and skills about teaching Shakespeare, early modern lit, drama, and poetry that none of our adjuncts have. I was hired to fill a specific curricular need, and wouldn't have moved here if not for the combination of tenure track contract and adequate pay. I also bring significant experience in three other English programs; this experience helps me make stronger curricular decisions, know more about outside programs for advising, and so on. Our adjuncts tend to have more limited experience in other programs. I hold a terminal degree; most of our adjuncts are MAs. I've had significantly more training in teaching composition, and in pedagogy in general than our adjuncts. So, yes, I'm willing to assert that I have skills and qualities they don't have.

    I adjuncted for a year, learned a lot doing so, and am grateful for the opportunity. And when I did, I accepted my adjunct contract, and thus deserved to be an adjunct. If I hadn't wanted to accept the contract, I could have made other choices, left academia, found a high school job, or something else.

    No one deserves to be abused or treated badly at work or elsewhere; I wasn't either at my adjunct job, though I was paid a pretty low salary. Still, it was nearly double what I'd made as a grad student.

    LumpenProf, Given my state's current dismal situation, adjunct salaries are already set in concrete. My suggestion wouldn't change the problem systemically, but would change things for our departmental cohort.

    Dr. Crazy, Thanks for your thoughtful comment. My colleague had already suggested that deans and higher paid folks should take a pay cut; I was trying to get him to think about himself as also being privileged within our system. I wasn't trying to say that TT faculty are the sole source of the problem, but to point out that we benefit from exploitation of adjuncts.

    StyleyGeek, Your system sounds more humane than ours. Unless something is stated on the adjunct's contract here, we can't consider it in reviewing their work or re-hiring. The idea is that if we start making re-hiring decisions based on service (and that isn't part of the contract), then everyone will have to do service in addition to their contracted work, and thus they'll be subject to even worse exploitation. That said, our adjuncts do a lot of unpaid service, and it sucks. They're good people, and they work hard.

    Undine, When rich people (and everyone else) see higher education as a public good again, and put money into it, then things will change. But so long as our national discourse sets out education as a private good that people should pay for themselves, then it's not going to change.

    Anastasia, I'm certain you have skills that would enable you to earn a lot better money than you'll ever earn in academics. And if more adjuncts made the decision to leave academics rather than take the dismal paychecks they get (and if PhD programs didn't produce way more PhDs than there are positions), then those few who stayed would be paid more because of market forces. Til then, schools will pay as little as they can. It sucks, but it's true.

  11. Anonymous2:00 PM

    most of the adjuncts where I work are terminal MAs and I don't think they have all of the same skills that tenure track faculty do. HOWEVER, I am an adjunct. I fall into that category. I speak from that place. And when I compare myself to the tenure track faculty, I do not see a difference in quality or skill. The only difference is that I have not yet earned my phd (which is, in my particular case, not entirely my fault).

    That's all I meant.