Adjuncts want, most immediately, more pay – a livable wage. They want space on campus in which to work. They want benefits, of health insurance especially, and a budget for essential work-related expenses (such as computers and support for their maintenance and repair). They want job security: renewable contracts guaranteeing long-term or consistently longer-term employment; advance notice for teaching appointments. They wish, most broadly, for equality: a role in faculty governance; a stake in the curricular or operational decisions of the department; the respect and support of their tenured peers.

Noel Jackson, “A brief dispatch from Boston’s Adjunct Action Symposium“, this week

The US Campus Equity Week has just finished highlighting the working conditions of the off-track teachers who keep America’s higher education systems running. There are tropes here that don’t translate easily into the Australian context—working for Walmart wages, qualifying for food stamps, missing out on healthcare—but Rebecca Schuman’s drive to show search committees how bad things are is pretty frank. And it’s just as obvious here as there that the idea of graduate student teaching as a rite of passage towards a tenured career has become a redundant fantasy.

I think we’ve been slow to recognise this in universities because we’ve focused inwards and backwards, in the naive belief that things could be made better now just because they were different before. But the reality is that universities didn’t just lose their way momentarily; they are changing in step with the broader workforce, where middle class contingency is expanding beyond the traditional freelancing professions.  As the 2010 Intuit Report intuited, it’s time to “imagine a world where contingent work is as common as traditional employment.”

Contingent workers – freelancers, temps, part-time workers, contractors and other specialists – are hired on a nonpermanent basis and don’t have full-time employment status. Yet these pseudo-employees increasingly work as if they are full-time.  … By contracting directly with a business or through an agency, these contract workers increase business efficiency, agility and flexibility. They also cost less and turn employment expenses into variable costs.


Two unflinching pieces on the adjunct experience really stayed with me:  the first, by Joseph Fruscione for Hybrid Pedagogy, argues that adjuncts should break with the omerta that keeps students (and by extension their parents) in the dark about who is actually teaching their classes; and the second, by Josh Boldt of the Adjunct Project, comes right out with it: adjuncts need to ask themselves whether they are addicted to the experience of being exploited.

As long as we refuse to admit we have a problem, we’ll never be able to change anything. Too many of us continue to sacrifice over and over again for this addiction. And why? For the students? They wouldn’t know the difference. For the institution? God, I hope not, because they obviously are not sacrificing for us. For ourselves? That doesn’t even make sense. For the craft? A romantic ideal, but the only craft you can eat begins with a K.

The fact of the matter is tens of thousands of us fall on our swords every year. Just like any good addict, we are expert manipulators—except we are the victims of our own justifications.

Elizabeth Keenan, in a guest post for the AAUP Academe Blog, “How to be an Tenured Ally“, gives ten suggestions for tenured academics troubled by adjunctification, who want to take a stand that falls short of breaking the system itself. Mostly, they’re common sense practices of fairness and professional respect: know who your colleagues are and what they’re paid, make sure they have the resources they need to do their jobs, and when you have the chance, lobby for their experiences to be taken into account when your institution thinks and plans. Like Noel Jackson, she also thinks that fuller inclusion of adjuncts in governance would be a good thing: participation at Senate and departmental meetings.

The problem with the strategy of making contingency better is that it’s exactly how we end up colluding with and perpetuating the new culture of pseudo-employment.  Increased engagement in governance matches the strategies the corporate world is using to get more out of their contingent workers. Today’s greasy takeaway came from a demoralising webinar on “Best Practices in Hiring & Onboarding a Contingent Workforce”.  Among its revelations: disengagement and poor morale among the casually hired can “have a negative impact on productivity and the value of the contingent workforce”—well heavens, who knew? The real risk of contingency is to the organisation.

But the bit that really made me want to bang my head on the keyboard was the display of a snazzy dashboard to help companies manage their onboarding online so that they can “maintain a pipleline of warm talent“. This avoids the messiness of bringing new employees up to speed with organisational culture after they’re hired, implicitly a waste of time on the company dollar. Pre-boarding shifts the time cost back to the employee, without the smallest amount of commitment from the employer.

When humans are reduced to human resources and their lives are calculated in this way, nothing can be said about the lived experience of being kept on tap. Instead, recruiters burble on about “finding people that can perform the job … that are actually engaged and actually interested in your organisation’s corporate culture and your goals”.  And as luck would have it, universities are filled with these actually engaged and actually interested pseudo-employees who now want to come to meetings and help run the institutions that can’t afford to invest in their careers, their hopes or their everyday wellbeing.

Changing this goes well beyond helpful tenured allies lobbying for a place for casuals in planning; it will involve senior managers admitting to an addiction problem of their own. Higher education is maintained by labour co-dependency that we cover up with strategic plans and marketing visions in which casualisation is airbrushed from view. Meanwhile our most skilled, experienced and highly credentialled colleagues keep churning through the pseudo-recruitment processes that we’ve installed as a quality assurance KPI, and manage like a really bad online dating experience. We keep the facts away from undergraduates and their families, and we downplay all this when we’re recruiting PhDs, because we need them to believe in academic career futures for just as long as it takes to sign them up.

And our radical new friends in Harvard, Stanford and MIT aren’t disrupting any of this. Whenever you see a celebrity online prof surrounded by her grad student teaching team, or wherever you read that MOOCs have given “the common person access to elite professors” and the result is “star-struck” students who show up like “groupies” and want their photos taken, you know that they haven’t the least interest in changing the model that reserves professorship for the few.

Quite the opposite.

and because you know you want to look:

8 Responses

  • RCB

    I’m about to “light it the fuck up” today with my response to the “addict” piece by Adjunct sell-out Josh Boldt. Bring popcorn. This is gonna be good!

    fantastic piece BTW!!! 🙂

  • Hoping you would blog something about Campus Equity Week – did not disappoint. Alas, the endless, almost housework like tasks of churning and sharing across networks goes less noticed. posts. By week’s end, I’ve come to feel like the adjuncts’ adjunct, invisible and without an identity of my own, an acadomestic sweeping the tubz, moving articles and social media to keep the best/most interesting and relevant moving and as widely read as possible, the most memorable curated so they don’t disappear.

    • I’ve been worried a little by the kind of fatigue carried by adjunct organizers. It’s such an overwhelming task. Your curation is so important, and really appreciated all the way over here on the other side of the planet. And I think you’re right that in many conversations, including about MOOCs, there’s something that feels like sweeping the leaves, as we all try to keep up, and keep up together. Thank you, and thanks for making the time to add a comment. You have really got me thinking about blogging, curation and acadomestic labour.

  • Now that’s what I call a hammer without a pink handle.

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