Why the Adjunct System Hurts Students

March 25, 2014, 1:45 pm

tee-rhrI left Zenith University a little over two years ago, but every once in a while one of my former students hunts me down for a recommendation. Fortunately, I actually kept a lot of those letters I wrote, so in most cases it doesn’t take more than a nip and a tuck to bring one up to speed: “Since graduating with high honors in history, Jason has worked for SEIU and interned at the Smithsonian…..) I don’t mind, even though I now have new students to write for. Zenith paid me well over the years (ok, not always as well as I wanted, but still.) I think writing recommendations for former students is part of some cosmic bargain hammered out over twenty years of tears and snot, to paraphrase Jodie Foster’s Golden Globes speech, even though I now work somewhere else.

But if I had been an adjunct there? No way. I have a number of friends and acquaintances who taught at Zenith — as a post-doc, a per-course lecturer, a visitor — who also receive these requests, and I advise them to turn them down on principle, no matter how beloved the student. This reminds me that, for those of us who want to return academic employment to a state of fair play, that not only do we do very little to involve students in our struggle, too often we shield them from the consequences of an adjunctified academy.

Students, of course, have their own troubles, and we are reluctant to burden them further. They, and parents, are rightfully obsessed with the cost of higher education, the hours they work to pay for it, and the long-term consequences of the loans they must sign for to get the job they will need to pay the loans. As this report on graduate student debt from the New America Foundation points out, while 40% of federally-funded student loans are going to graduate credentialing, one in ten borrowers owes $153,000 or more, which includes money borrowed to finance a B.A.

So is it any wonder that these anxious people has either drunk the Kool-Aid sold by policymakers that full time faculty are too expensive; or, alternatively, that they simply have not noticed that faculty are increasingly made up of temporary, part-time, or per-course labor? In fact, I often found at Zenith that students had no idea what the difference was between tenure-track and other faculty; how jobs were defined by departments and administrators; why some majors were supported over others; or why a visitor hired to replace a faculty member on leave couldn’t stay when the tenure-track person returned.

Yet, students have a long and honorable history of organizing for social justice, and frankly, we ought to put ourselves on the table. This needs to begin with education, and students need to know that the adjunct system hurts them — not because adjuncts are under qualified — but because they are not paid to do the things students need to move them forward. This includes:

  • Writing letters of recommendation. Ideally, a letter comes not from a talented pedagogue from whom the student has taken one inspiring course, but from someone who has seen that student develop over time. “How long have you known this student?” is on nearly every recommendation form I have ever figured out. So is the question of what hierarchical “percentage” the student fits into, and what the comparison cohort is. Finally, not everyone goes straight to grad school: the adjunct who taught you today in Delaware could easily be in New Mexico next year with no forwarding address — or out of academia entirely.
  • Advising. I know, I know – it has become economically fashionable for colleges to hire professional advisors, or hire their own graduate students as advisors. I interviewed at one school a few years back that has put advisors in “pods” all over campus, so you can drop in and get advice whenever you like from a complete stranger who has never met you before. However, this isn’t about getting real advice. It is about credit counting, making sure that you have the requirements for your major, and all the core courses necessary for graduation. What it isn’t about is talking about how to develop a student’s intellectual interests, create bridges between majors that represent something more substantive than multiple credentials, create coursework that supports a capstone project, or point a student to the teachers who will be good mentors.
  • Academic support outside of class. Some adjuncts are required to have office hours for the small sum they are paid; a few are paid extra to meet with students; and the vast majority do not even have offices. Furthermore, many adjuncts teach far too many students in far too many places to do the careful review of written work that students need to become better writers and thinkers, much less spend the time reviewing early drafts of papers or help a group of students develop a digital project.

Each one of these things, when adjuncts are substituted for full time faculty, threatens the educational outcomes for a student. Let me be clear — I am not saying that adjuncts are inherently worse or uncaring teachers, although they may become so, over time, as their burdens grow and they come to see students as part of the exploitation machine. Many adjuncts are better teachers than people holding down full-time jobs. Some have special expertise and don’t want to teach full-time, while others have incredibly creative teaching ideas drawn from different institutional settings, and many care deeply about their students.  Nor are adjuncts inherently less capable or caring as mentors and advisors, although over time, they will correctly learn to conserve their energy and commitment to others so that it corresponds to the lack of commitment made to them.

It is, however, time for full-time, tenured and tenure-track faculty to begin to educate students to the moral problem of casual classroom labor, the false narrative that it is our salaries that put them in debt, and the obvious drawbacks that an exploited labor pool has for them. These are people, after all, who organize on behalf of campus janitors, who protest budget cuts, and who force their schools to buy local food, pay workers a living wage rather than a minimum wage and sell college gear made by fairly-paid workers.

Shouldn’t they know that some of the worst-treated workers in the university are at the front of the room?

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