Higher Ed Uncategorized

Complexity of adjuncts’ working situations

My friend Erin recently asked on Twitter what I thought about Matt Bruenig’s post on adjuncts. I realized I had more to say than just a tweet or two, so here are a few quick reflections on the post:

  1. Data use: The data Bruenig is responding to is from 2004—nearly a decade ago. I would be extremely hesitant to draw conclusions about today’s landscape from this data, when both higher education and the overall economy have undergone major changes in the intervening years. The Coalition on the Academic Workforce’s data (pdf) would be a better place to start. (The sample is smaller, but the data’s more recent, having been collected in 2010.)
  2. Desirability of part-time work status: One of the things that complicates advocacy for contingent labor conditions are the range of career goals of the people in part-time faculty positions. Pushing to convert all contingent positions to full-time, non-tenure roles would be an undesirable outcome for many. The reasons a full-time position might not be desirable are varied—some people have other careers, as Bruenig highlights, while others have family or personal considerations that make full-time work difficult or impossible. Still, in the CAW data, more than 70% of respondents indicate that they would probably or definitely accept a full-time, tenure-track position at their institution if that were a possibility.
  3. Adjuncting as secondary employment: Bruenig highlights cases in which adjuncts teach courses in addition to what they consider to be their primary employment. This may be normal in some disciplines (Bruenig cites business and education), but it is far from typical in the humanities, where many cobble together adjunct positions as their sole means of employment. A lack of benefits (like health care coverage) isn’t a major issue for people who hold a primary career outside of academe, but it is a huge concern for those who don’t have another means of support. Further, the CAW data paints a different portrait, with a majority of respondents reporting an annual personal income below $35,000.
  4. High average family income: To me, this suggests the importance of an alternate source of income, benefits, and stability for adjuncts. Teaching university courses as one’s primary employment should not require the privilege of a well-compensated spouse.

Admittedly, the complexities surrounding adjunct employment make it difficult to generalize, and measures that improve working conditions for some may be undesirable for others. Still, as the academic labor equation continues to shift toward increasing reliance on contingent faculty, it’s essential to work toward supporting working conditions that promote student learning and effective research outcomes—which means stable employment, reasonable compensation and benefits, and a voice in governance.