First-Year Commodity: The Adjunct Professor Labor Crisis in Composition Departments

Yesterday, I spoke at the Thomas R. Watson Conference at the University of Louisville about the use of adjunct professor s in composition departments. It was a pretty big conference with lots of concurrent sessions, so I didn’t have a huge audience, but those who attended were engaged and a good discussion followed the panel, which also included a paper from Christy Desmet (UGA) on MOOCs, Deborah Miller (UGA) on the “managerial unconscious” in writing programs, and Kathy Houff (Temple) on online universities like Phoenix.

I really wish more people could have heard our panel because it was solid. At any rate, I wanted to share my part here on the blog. It’s focused mainly on composition departments, considering the conference was on comp/rhet, but the piece is applicable to adjunct professor s and the Adjunct Project in general. The presentation follows.


Disposable Adjunct Professors

I’m going to talk to you about the Adjunct Project, but before I do, I want to tell you a story that comes from one of its respondents. This story was posted on the Adjunct Project website, from an adjunct professor who identifies himself only as “dancesintheruins,” for fear of retribution by his institution.

I’ve been teaching at two institutions for a few years. I’ve had four classes every term for that entire time; either two at each institution, or three at one and one at the other. Some terms I taught as many as six sections, which I discovered was more than I could take on. Just bought a house not too long ago. For the coming term, however, both institutions offered me only one section, citing “terribly low enrollment.”

The term begins this week for one institution, next week for the other. While trying to get ready for the term beginning next week, I looked up my room assignment and saw the word “cancelled” next to the only section I had been assigned.

I understand that as adjuncts we are at the mercy of forces beyond our control and beyond the control of our department chairs. I understand that I should have seen this day coming–and maybe I did. What bothers me is that no one had the decency to tell me that my only section was being cancelled.

This professor learned he was unemployed a week before classes started and no one had even bothered to tell him! It would be nice to dismiss this as an isolated incident, but this kind of thing is happening at colleges all over the country. People are being treated with complete disregard due to the corporate university model which places money above all else.

The new career track for university faculty is that of the Disposable Professor. As we rely more and more on adjunct professor labor, we slowly surrender our power on college campuses. Contingent faculty are, by definition, powerless. Completely replaceable. No tenure, no bargaining rights, no contract, no voice. First-year composition departments are all too familiar with this reality, as they are staffed predominantly by non-tenure track, contingent faculty. Adjuncts, and therefore the composition departments they staff, are powerless in the economic equation of the “corporatized” university.

In response to this trend, I developed a study known as the Adjunct Project which is designed to gather information on this unsettling shift towards the commodification of composition departments. The data from the project is unique in that it is entirely crowd-sourced. That is, it was gathered collaboratively as adjuncts entered information about working conditions at their respective colleges on a live Google Document. To date over 2,000 entries have been added and the document has been viewed about 100,000 times. This presentation is an exploration of the Adjunct Project’s data, as well as a look at the ramifications that data might have on future discussions of the Writing Program’s precarious status as a commodity of the university economy.

First, let me give you a little background information on the state of non-tenure-track faculty. According to the AAUP’s latest “Report on the Economic Status of the Profession,” more than 70 percent of American professors are now off the tenure track. Seventy percent. This ratio has skyrocketed by 280 percent in the past 30 years. Almost three-fourths of higher education faculty members are employed not in tenured, but in highly tenuous positions. These professors have no job security and no voice. Most work for unlivable salaries and receive no health insurance, retirement, or any other benefits commonly associated with professional jobs in the United States. And each year it’s only getting worse. Non-tenure-track appointments have climbed 7.6 percent in the past three years alone.  At this rate, it’s only a matter of time before “college professor” is no longer a viable profession.

This trend isn’t going to reverse on its own. It only took me one year as an adjunct, during which I observed the warning signs and witnessed the mistreatment of my adjunct professor colleagues across the country, to recognize that something needs to change. Stopping a pattern this pervasive will not be easy. It requires a collaborative effort, consisting of discussion, data collection, and action. Power only shifts through solidarity of the masses. Although my own situation at the University of Georgia is pretty decent, I have friends at other schools who teach under much worse conditions. As one who always pulls for the underdog, I started making a little noise and, as a result, a national advocacy organization reached out to me.

New Faculty Majority and Adjunct Professors

In late January, I was invited to attend a summit meeting in Washington, DC hosted by New Faculty Majority (NFM), a national coalition which, according to the mission statement, is dedicated to “improving the quality of higher education by advancing professional equity and securing academic freedom for all adjunct and contingent faculty.” It was my responsibility to cover the weekend on Twitter and on my blog, Copy & Paste. A couple of the writers convened Saturday evening to discuss outcomes and potential future plans. Two distinct perspectives emerged from this breakout session, dividing the group on the question of whether NFM should manage state chapters locally or whether the national group should grant local chapters complete autonomy. We eventually agreed that adjuncts needed both a strong national presence to unite the movement as a whole, and also a way to connect adjuncts locally in order to take direct action immediately.

The next day, I returned home to Georgia and wrote about our discussion and about the summit as a whole on my blog, all the while continuing to ponder the problem of how to connect adjuncts both nationally and locally. A large component of this quandary is the relative invisibility of adjuncts. Because adjuncts are often prohibited from participating in departmental meetings and governance, they rarely have an opportunity to connect with each other or with the department. On top of that, many teach at multiple schools in order to piece together a living, so they aren’t able to spend much time on any one campus socializing. Finally, as you saw with dancesintheruins, adjuncts are afraid to become visible or to speak up because their jobs almost always depend on keeping quiet and doing what they’re told. As you can see, any attempt to connect adjuncts to one another is inherently difficult. So, I came up with an idea I thought would address these issues of subalternity, disconnectedness, and anonymity.

The idea was to create a collaborative Google Document that was completely open and editable for anyone who viewed it. I would crowdsource the information (pay, benefits, contracts, etc.) which had been swept under the rug for decades by asking the adjuncts themselves to report it. No one knows the working conditions better than those who live them every day. I set up the document as a Google spreadsheet, entered my own information for adjunct professor conditions at the University of Georgia (which, as I mentioned, are quite good compared to most schools), and began sharing. When I created the spreadsheet I remember thinking how great it would be if we could get a sampling of 100-200 different schools. This would allow us to have a pretty good idea of median working conditions for adjuncts across the country.

The response was overwhelming. Within a week we had crossed the 1,000 mark. The interest generated by the spreadsheet was unexpected. It was just strikingly clear adjuncts across the country were eager for a data repository such as this one. Social media fueled the spreadsheet’s rapid expansion; everyone wanted to add their schools and to see how they compared with others.

We know now, based on the data gleaned from the spreadsheet, that the national average for instructor pay is less than $3,000. In many cases, it is far less. A quick scan of the spreadsheet reveals that many adjuncts, in fact, earn closer to $2,000 per course. Calculating these per-course pay rates annually exposes the stark reality that the average adjunct professor who teaches a 5/5 course load is barely cracking $20,000. And that’s without health insurance or a retirement package.

Connection to Economic Power for Adjuncts

Earlier, I alluded to the Adjunct Project’s ability to shift power to the workers. As the university becomes increasingly corporatized, the purpose of higher education is less and less about learning and more about making money. We just have to recognize that this is the case, and stop pretending it’s not. With that in mind, if our universities are profit-driven, we should keep in mind that, in Capitalism, the corporation has no conscience. People and ideas matter only insofar as their ability to generate profit.

And this is what concerns me. Based on the data gleaned from the Adjunct Project, it’s clear the university faculty labor system is headed in the same direction. People–teachers–matter only to the extent that they possess an exchange value. Most colleges will release fully employed adjuncts at the drop of a hat, even if they have garnered stellar teaching evaluations. I know this because I’ve seen it happen. I’ve talked to adjuncts who have lost their jobs with less than a week’s notice and no severance.

This dynamic then presents an obvious problem to composition departments, which are quite often staffed almost entirely by adjunct professor labor: it makes the entire department tenuous. The whole department’s existence is subjected to the mercy of market forces and to the budget in a way that just isn’t true for departments with mostly tenured faculty members.

As my fellow panelists will illustrate, the rise of MOOCs and of other forms of online learning could potentially have a serious impact on the preservation of comp departments. In this time of extreme budget cuts and loss of public support for higher education, administrators are looking to trim budgets every way possible, and if an entire department can be cut out and replaced by a Massive Open Online Course or absorbed by other departments under the guise of “writing intensive” or “cross-disciplinary composition,” it will eventually happen. When that time comes, if seventy-five percent (or more) of the department is made up of adjuncts, there will be absolutely nothing we can do about it. No recourse. By allowing our departments to be staffed contingently, we are passively complicit in the dismantling of composition studies.

Beyond that, running a department full of underpaid and exploited adjuncts is really just a disgraceful business model. The new composition department might as well be a temp agency. It’s time to stop it and take back our departments and our dignity, and to show some respect to our teaching colleagues.

The first step towards turning this trend is to demand contracts for our composition faculty members. We should never accept nor should we offer anything less than an annual contract. Contract length should rise with seniority–one year, then three, then five. Adjuncts are professionals and they should not have to reapply for their jobs every semester, and wonder whether or not they will be able to pay rent in January.

The other part of this equation is simple. Adjuncts should be paid a living wage in exchange for their work. In the past, most adjuncts were otherwise employed and taught one or two classes to supplement that income, but that is obviously not the case any more. If universities are going to employ adjuncts with a full-time courseload, those adjuncts should be paid accordingly. Again, it’s time to stop pretending this isn’t the case. The MLA has recommended $6800 for every semester-long course, which is more than double the national average according to the Adjunct Project data. Clearly, adjunct pay will vary according to region, cost of living, and institution, but there is no excuse for any school to pay an adjunct professor less than $4000 per course, meaning that teacher would earn $32,000 to teach a 4/4 courseload. Everyone here can probably agree that’s a very reasonable standard.

The Teaching Track: An Adjunct Professor Alternative

In order to accomplish this shift and remediate the increasing precarity of our departments, we will need to accomplish a dramatic re-branding of the concept of adjunct professorship. Now, that sounds difficult, but it’s really not that bad. We just need to redefine the terms of our non-tenure-track appointments in a way that both legitimizes the adjunct professor and also benefits the department and the university.

You may have read the appropriately-timed Chronicle piece this week by Robin Wilson called “2 Tracks For Faculty.” Robin and I spoke on the phone for an hour or so while she was working on the piece and then we exchanged several follow up emails about this idea of the teaching track. She beat me to press on it.

For those of you who missed the piece, here’s the deal. I call this rebranded educator role a “Teaching Track” professorship. When a professor is hired for the teaching track he or she would be offered an annual or a multiyear contract with a specified salary. Because this professor is hired to teach and will likely have minimal publication expectations, he will teach a full courseload, similar to that which many schools now call “lecturers.” Teaching track professors might be evaluated based on classroom observations, innovative teaching materials, and student feedback. After fulfilling, say, two three-year contracts, teaching track professors would be given a more semi-permanent contract–like a 10-year–that would suggest confidence and long term security.

I do encourage you to check out Robin Wilson’s piece for more details on our plan, if this idea interests. Great discussion in the comments, as well.

The main point is that, if a department consistently has five sections taught by adjuncts, they should instead hire a teaching track professor with a multiyear contract and bring stability to the department, thereby strengthening it and legitimizing and professionalizing the teaching track.

What Happens if Precarity Continues for the Adjunct Professor and Composition Departments?

Returning to the data from the Adjunct Project, I’d like to point out a couple statistics that will give you an idea of how bad things are getting in our composition departments (in case you didn’t already know).

  1. Almost two-thirds of all the respondents listed his or her department as English, Composition, Writing, Humanities, or some variation of these fields–well over 1000 entries. Just to give you an idea here, the next most cited department is sociology, with about 100 entries.
  2. Of those English department adjuncts, approximately 97% pointed out that the duration of their contracts is a single semester or that they do not even have a contract at all.

Therefore, English departments are by far the worst offenders in the exploitation of the adjunct professor. And, to make matters worse, we English departments have created for ourselves a workforce that has no security and no long term future, thereby effectively designing departments that are built on a foundation of sand and have zero bargaining power in the university economy.

Can we turn this trend around? Yes, we can. I don’t pretend to be an expert in university politics or in collective bargaining–I’ve never participated in either. In fact, as you may know, this is only my third year as an adjunct. So, I’m fairly new to this whole system, but I can tell you what I’ve observed, as I have done today. I can tell you that if something doesn’t change, our composition departments are going to end up in serious trouble. I can tell you that universities are looking to save money every way possible in this new economy. And, I can tell you that includes cutting entire departments, absorbing them into other disciplines, or replacing them with cheaper online alternatives, if that is possible. Finally, I can tell you that, based on the data from the Adjunct Project, thousands and thousands of our colleagues are being horribly mistreated and exploited as victims of the new university economy, and that this mistreatment threatens not only adjuncts, but entire departments.

The key to solving this crisis of adjunct labor is collaboration, as we have seen with the Adjunct Project. Thousands of adjuncts and their tenured colleagues have joined together and declared that this is not acceptable. It is worth noting here that much of the support for the Adjunct Project has in fact come from tenured faculty members. This is perhaps contradictory to what one might expect, considering the rhetoric that often pits full-time professors against part-time professors. Contrary to popular belief, it is not a zero-sum game. Arguments espousing that logic are merely propagating the “divide and conquer” method of dominating faculty politics. Faculty members have a common interest which is the pursuit and the sharing of knowledge, and a threat to one of us is a threat to all of us. The Adjunct Project has opened an international forum for discussion and that forum welcomes anyone who is interested in joining it—tenured and non-tenured alike.

Please check out the website and join the discussion. Thank you.

*Parts of this speech are excerpted from a piece I published in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of New Jersey City University’s journal Transformations. The piece is called “An Adjunct Collaborative: Economic Agency and the Professorial Subaltern.”

You might also want to read Crowdsourcing a Compilation of Adjunct Working Conditions.