Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Adjunct Project

The Chronicle of Higher Education has created a website for The Adjunct Project, which collects information from instructors on adjunct salaries in American higher education. Some adjunct teaching pays well: at Harvard, the salaries reported are $9,500 to $12,575 per course. But the national average, according to the project’s data thus far, is $2,987 per course. And adjuncts at sixteen schools report salaries of less than $1,000 per course. Notice, whatever the amount of money involved, how the language of adjunct teaching echoes the language of migrant labor, where workers are paid by the bucket. Adjunct faculty who travel from campus to campus to put together a living indeed form something of a migrant community within higher education. (The Chronicle reports on one instructor who left Vermont for California in search of better pay — shades of the Joads.)

Think about the numbers: $1,000 to teach a fifteen-week course — really a sixteen-week course, if we include a final examination. That’s $62.50 a week, fifty cents more than Ralph Kramden made driving a bus in 1955. Even if one underestimates the time required to do the weekly work of a course — three hours in the classroom, perhaps one talking to students outside class, perhaps four of preparation, perhaps another four grading papers or exams — that work comes out to $5.20 an hour, far less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25. Subtract Social Security and taxes, and the numbers are even more dire.

The exploitation of adjunct labor is the shame and scandal of American higher education. If Frank Donoghue is right, college faculty of my generation may well be “the last professors.” I don’t mean to suggest that “college” itself will disappear. But tenured and tenure-track faculty form a smaller and smaller percentage of teaching personnel, and I suspect that the four-year residential experience will be available to fewer and fewer students. Mitt Romney’s grandchildren will “go to college,” of course. So too, for that matter, will Malia and Sasha Obama. As less fortunate students turn to so-called massive open online courses (MOOCs) — courses soon to be “monetized,” the possibilities of teaching even as an adjunct will be fewer and fewer.

Faculty sometimes joke — cruelly — that college would be a great place without the students. Now, I think, administrators are beginning to see it the other way around.

[In The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), Frank Donoghue noted that tenured and tenure-track professors then composed only 35% of college teaching personnel in the United States. The percentage continues to drop.]

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