Adjunct Action Continues to Gain Strength

Adjunct Action Continues to Gain Strength

There’s an excellent piece up today at The Chronicle of Higher Education on adjunct professor faculty unions. No sense trying to replicate the top notch reporting that Peter Schmidt has done regarding Adjunct Action and the SEIU. Just head over to The Chronicle‘s site and read the article.

Peter Schmidt is a senior reporter at The Chronicle, and he is the newspaper’s specialist on faculty unions. His stuff is always worth reading, but this in-depth piece of reporting on the work of Adjunct Action is especially strong.

Ever since I saw the Adjunct Action Twitter account a year or so ago, I knew the group was on to something big. I’ve been an outspoken proponent of their work since day one. The first unionization victories in Washington, DC led to the “metro-organizing” strategy which seeks to unite adjuncts by region rather than by school.

This makes much more sense because the turnover rate for adjuncts at a given school can be relatively high—too high to count on the strength generated by the adjunct numbers alone. Plus, if an administration found a way to force out a group of adjuncts, the union would be significantly weakened.

Not so with the metro-organizing strategy because this union gains strength from several area universities and is therefore less affected by the staffing changes at any one school.

It was this metro-organizing approach, in particular, that caught my attention. Since those early days, I’ve watched with excitement as Adjunct Action has spread from city to city: DC, Boston, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, St, Louis, and others. New cities are being added regularly to the group’s organizing roadmap.

Adjunct Action is the closest thing I’ve seen to a national union for adjunct professors. Lots of promise and potential here. I’ll continue to promote the organization and relish its victories as it spreads across the country.

Unfortunately, as a southerner, there isn’t much chance a union will come my way in the near future. But I will, of course, be cheering on the successes of my colleagues in the north, midwest, and west coast as Adjunct Action continues to grow and gain strength.

English Professors Are Among the Lowest Paid Professors


According to new data on professor salaries released today by The Chronicle of Higher Education, pay for English professors and history professors is among the lowest across all disciplines.

The Chronicle‘s new data table on average salaries of tenured and tenure-track professors at 4-year colleges and universities reveals median incomes of professors across all disciplines and career levels. The salary data is the most current available on professor pay, reflecting information for the current 2013-14 academic year.

According to the chart, the discipline with the lowest-paid professors is visual and performing arts. New assistant professors in that field earn an average of $54,671.

Professors of History, theology, and English earn just a notch above the lowest pay at $55,691, $55,876, and $55,987, respectively. Basically the entire group of humanities-based disciplines fared pretty poorly in this salary cross-section.

The highest-paying discipline for new assistant professors is, not surprisingly, business, with an average salary of $107,066. Double the pay for the same rank and title in humanities departments.

Professors in these same departments who are late in their careers, having earned tenure and received the highest promotion level of “full professor,” earn salaries that are similarly disparate. In other words, the trend continues as professors develop in their careers.

Full professors in English, for example, earn an average of $85,404, while full professors in business earn $123,233 on average. So the disparity does not actually increase exponentially, but the business professors of course start far ahead of their humanities-based colleagues.

The highest-paying of all professor jobs in 4-year colleges are found in the legal and professional studies departments. These professors, who are presumably practicing or former attorneys, earn an average of $143,757.

Average Professor Salaries Determined by Private Sector

As these trends reveal, professors who have higher-paying alternatives in the private sector command higher salaries in the university. Makes sense. In order to compete with the private sector, schools have to offer better packages to prospective employees.

Currently, humanities professors have fewer non-university options and therefore, have less negotiating leverage for academic jobs. They have to take what they can get.

This presents all the more reason why alternate academic jobs would benefit Ph.D. holding job seekers. By creating government and private sector positions for humanities Ph.D.s, we would be generating market competition for those degrees.

This market competition would give humanities people more options, thereby creating leverage in negotiations for academic jobs.

Professor salaries for humanities fields like English, history, and religion are notoriously low when compared to industry standards. That contrast becomes even more glaring when factoring in the value conferred upon terminal degrees in other fields that operate more fluidly in the private sector outside of the academy.

Creating alternate non-professorial paths for humanities professionals would also make life better for those within the academy by facilitating leverage in salary negotiations.

Don’t Be Too Honest

Honest Abe

Honest Abe knew the importance of a well-crafted image.

Sometimes our culture’s tendency towards transparency can leave us overexposed. We say too much. We give more information than is necessary. Not always a big deal, but it can be. For example, overexposure can be disastrous for people on the job market, for whom careful image maintenance is of utmost importance. Therefore, I recommend carefully filtering the information we share with others.

Social media is one place where we can easily talk too much. I’ve seen people bad-mouthing students–even quoting directly from papers, which is a major violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). If an employer spots you violating federal law on Twitter, what do you think the chances are that your application will go right in the trash? Pretty good, I’d say.

Another potential honesty pitfall for job seekers lies in the materials we pass on to hiring managers. Just like on social media, we also have a tendency to talk too much when it comes to resumes. There’s no reason to include unnecessary information on a resume. Stick to the relevant details and experience only. Transparency is not always a good thing.

In a new piece for the Vitae career network by The Chronicle of Higher Education, I discuss these incidents of overexposure wherein we can sink ourselves on the job market with a single tweet. Complete honesty is not always the best policy.

Read more: Job Seekers, Recalibrate Your Honesty Filter

Two Big Problems With Graduate Education in the Humanities

Graduate School in the Humanities

“Graduate education in the humanities is in crisis.”

Departing MLA President Michael Bérubé and I apparently agree on many things.1 Of course, he’s been in the academy a lot longer than I have, but you don’t have to be an industry veteran to recognize the precarity of graduate education in the humanities. Sure, humanities departments have been saying this for years. The “sky is falling” rhetoric blisters the landscape of critical humanities journals past. Graduate education in the humanities has always been hypersensitive to its marginal status in the American university, but this time, it’s for real.

In his February 18th2 article “The Humanities, Unraveled” Bérubé develops a speech he gave at this year’s annual meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools, during which he discusses this prognostication of crisis for graduate education in the humanities. Like I said, we’ve all heard this too many times, but I like Bérubé because he suggests some real reasons why. Outlining reasons helps us discuss solutions to these self-inflicted problems of humanities departments.

In this article, I’ll share my Two Big Problems with graduate education in the humanities, and I’ll begin to formulate some possible solutions.

Problem 1: Too Many People Want to be Professors

The current structure of graduate education in the humanities is flooding the job market. Everyone wants to be a professor, but only a fraction of those who begin a graduate education will achieve that goal. It could be a game show hosted by Regis Philbin: Who Wants to be a Professor? The odds of getting a tenure track professorship these days approximates the odds that someone would win a million dollars on that ubiquitous nineties game show.

Not quite the same thing maybe, but the barrier to success is the same: too many people want to win. Not everyone can win. Not everyone can become a tenured professor. I wish that weren’t true, but it is. There are a limited number of jobs and an unlimited number of applicants. If we keep graduating far more humanities PhDs than we have jobs for, we will continue to exacerbate the problem. Duh.3

Bérubé points out that “of the 1.5 million people now employed in the profession of college teaching, more than one million are teaching off the tenure track, with no hope or expectation of ever winding up on the tenure track.” How do you like those odds? Not so much.

Problem: Graduate education in the humanities is overproducing, which floods the market with supply, thereby reducing demand and devaluing the “product.”

Solution: Stop accepting so many students into PhD programs. Or, at the very least, start preparing PhDs for jobs other than college professor.

Problem 2: Graduate Education Has Learned How to Exploit This Market Dynamic

Uh oh. Now we have a real quandary. The very people who are in a position to solve these problems actually benefit from perpetuating them. Oops. Somebody effed up.

Before returning to graduate school, I worked in middle management for a few years in the retail world. For about a year of this time, I had an operations director who was a complete ass. He was incredibly rude to everyone and he made asinine decisions on behalf of our store when he knew nothing about our day to day operations. Like the time he forced out about 10 times as much inventory as our store could hold because it would “increase sales.” The only thing it increased was waste when we had to toss all the perishables. But, I digress.

At some point during his year at the top, our HR manager left the company (probably due to the jerk OD), and this guy decides that he’s going to appoint himself director of HR while still maintaining his operations role. In other words, he was the source of our problems and also the “solution” to them. If we wanted to file a complaint about his abusive behavior, guess who we had to talk to. Yep.

Thank god this egomaniacal prick got canned not long after that when the president of the company and his VP’s got word of this injustice.4

When you think about it, though, this dynamic exists also in graduate education today. As the heading of this section informed you, departments (and administrators) have learned how to exploit this market dynamic which is overproducing PhDs. It’s called adjunct and graduate student labor. The very people who are creating the problem are the ones who benefit from it. So why change? Just keep talking about how bad it is, make it look like you care, and then sign acceptance letters with your other hand. Presto! You’ve got yourself your very own cheap labor force that will never be exhausted.

Bérubé references Marc Bousquet and William Pannapacker who, he argues, have both suggested that graduate education in the humanities is a “shell game.” Bérubé goes on to cite Bousquet’s “argument that the Ph.D. is actually the ‘waste product’ of a system designed to produce cheap teaching labor” and he himself writes that “the system has been redesigned in such a way as to call into question the function of the doctorate as a credential for employment in higher education.”

Problem: The same people who have the power to change things are also the ones who benefit from keeping things the same.

Solution: Option #1: Stop accepting so many students into PhD programs. Oh, have you heard that one before?

Option #2: Incentivize graduate programs to do a better job of supporting their graduates. Here’s a thought: Only allow programs to accept as many students as they successfully place each year. How about that for an incentive?

Option #3: Cross-disciplinary hiring and graduate admissions committees that include equal voting rights for graduate students and non-tenure-track faculty. There needs to be some kind of system of checks and balances that regulates the influx of exploitable labor.


Is graduate education in the humanities in crisis mode? What do you think? Unfortunately, we’ve kind of created a “boy who cried wolf” situation. It seems to me though that, due to the massive oversupply of labor and also the unprecedented defunding of higher education, coupled with the political attack on anything that isn’t STEM-related, the answer is a definite yes.

What’s your take on all this? What other problems do you see and what should we do to fix them?

Notes: 1Not to mention our sharing of the stage at the 2013 MLA Presidential Forum2Which happened to be my birthday, in case anyone was wondering. 3Since we’re doing the nineties thing and all. 4Some middle manager sent them an email calling attention to it. Hmmm.

MLA 2013 Convention and the Year of the Adjunct

MLA Boston 2013

Did you feel it?

During the first weekend of 2013, Boston pulsed to the beat of the adjunct. At the MLA 2013 Convention, you couldn’t turn around without hearing about contingent faculty issues in one form or another.

It all began on Thursday evening when the convention kicked off with the historic, first-ever all-adjunct presidential forum. Outgoing MLA President Michael Bérubé presided over a panel that consisted of New Faculty Majority Executive Director Maria Maisto; Beth Landers, a French professor at the University of Missouri; and Bob Samuels, president of the California AFT University Council and a lecturer at UCLA. What an honor it was for me to speak in the company of these great leaders and teachers.

I had the privilege of opening the forum and beginning what will become one of the most important weekends in history for adjunct justice.

The massive ballroom contained the largest audience I’ve ever addressed, and I confess to being a little nervous. I knew, though, that I had to record the audio of my speech, even if it would be one more thing to worry about. After all, most of the people interested in hearing it couldn’t afford to fly to Boston and attend the conference.

The audio worked out pretty well. Better than I thought it would, in fact. I had my recorder right next to the pages, so you will hear them as they turn, but other than that, everything is pretty clear. In the first minute or so, you’ll hear Bérubé introducing us and then I start at about the 1:20 mark. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. Hope you agree. You’ll see the audio player at the end of the post or you can listen here now.

More on Adjuncts From MLA 2013

But my speech was just one of many during this MLA 2013 weekend. Maisto, Landers, and Samuels all gave excellent presentations, as well. Several panels also featured discussions and papers on adjunct labor. Then there was, of course, Bérubé’s presidential address, a rousing call to action and passionate defense of the humanities and those who teach them–all those who teach them, including and especially those who do it for next to nothing.

As soon as he finished speaking, the place erupted. Maria Maisto and I stood up and the rest of the ballroom followed. The speech was well-worthy of the standing O, as was Michael Bérubé for all the work he has done for adjuncts and for the future of university faculty. Audio of Bérubé’s address should be available soon on the MLA website.

As if all this wasn’t enough, The Chronicle of Higher Education and I released the new version of the Adjunct Project to much excitement and buzz. Editor Liz McMillen and I fielded questions and listened to stories during a reception on Saturday, while two marketing professionals from The Chronicle deftly conducted demonstrations of the new site. It was more than I ever could have imagined last February when we adjuncts built our spreadsheet. We’ve come a long way and our level of public exposure continues to grow.

Read more about the weekend and MLA 2013 from William Pannapacker in The End of MLAlienation and What if the Adjuncts Shrugged?

Also, more on the Adjunct Project at Adjunct Project Reveals Wide Range in Pay and MLA Sessions Keep the Focus on Adjuncts.

Were any of you at the conference or following it on Twitter? What were your high points?

My MLA 2013 Presidential Forum Speech:

MLA 2013 Speech