The Disposable Professor

This one is gonna sting a little. The new career track for university faculty is that of the Disposable Professor. As we rely more and more on adjunct labor, we are slowly surrendering our power on college campuses. Contingent faculty are, by definition, powerless. Completely replaceable. No tenure, no bargaining rights, no contract, no voice. If the administration has no use for an adjunct, she is unemployed. No appeal, no second chance. The adjunct has no value beyond that which is exploitable by the university. He is a disposable professor.

We have all heard of the “corporatization of the university.” We know that story. And we think we know who is to blame. The evil administration, of course. And believe me, they deserve a lot of the blame for sure. But recognize also that we are allowing it to happen, which is worse in some ways. We are not taking responsibility for the fact that we are permitting the creation of the disposable professor by our quiet acquiescence. The administration’s job is to run the business side of the campus. They have budgets and they have to meet them. They cut wherever they can get away with it. It’s in their nature.

It’s the job of the faculty, on the other hand, to ensure those budget cuts don’t dramatically impact the intellectual environment of the campus. It is our duty to push back when the academic integrity of the university is being undermined in favor of making money. And we are failing badly at this responsibility. We’re allowing the business side of the university to cannibalize the intellectual side. Consequently, we are complicit in the university’s corporatization.

Sadly, as evidenced by the data in the Adjunct Project, English departments are the worst offenders. An overwhelming number of adjuncts who have collaborated on the Adjunct Project teach in first-year writing programs. In fact, most first-year composition departments are staffed predominately by non-tenure track contingent faculty—instructors who are unconscionably remunerated and have no job security from semester to semester. We are standing by while the administration tells us how best to run our departments. In the eyes of the business-minded administrators, the best way to run the English department is the cheapest way. Why are we allowing them to make decisions for us that we know are killing the intellectual environment of our schools?

Paying our colleagues dirt, providing no benefits or job security, standing idly by while administration gradually picks away at academic freedom and strips faculty of tenure. They are running a business. They will never just decide to favor the intellectual side of the university unless they are forced to. Unless the business side is jeopardized by the actions of the intellectual side. If we want the American university to continue to be a place of academic freedom and intellectual integrity, we are going to have to fight for it. Otherwise, it will gradually slip away.

Fighting the Disposable Professor

The single most important thing to remember here is that WE HAVE THE POWER. It might not seem that way, but we do. We are the ones who actually make the university operate. Without the faculty, the doors can’t even open. Not only that, but we are the MAJORITY. We have the power. We just need to claim it. This will never happen if we act as individuals. All faculty need to unite to save our colleges.

Although my project is focused on the working conditions of adjuncts, the problem is not confined to adjuncts alone. Nor is this is an adjunct vs. tenure track issue. Not even in the least. We are all on the same team. We all want to keep our universities the cultural meccas they have traditionally been. This problem of the disposable professor is one that threatens every single one of us. If not us directly, then the generation that comes immediately after ours. We need to work together to fight the perpetuation of the disposable professor. Our power is in our solidarity.

With the invention of the disposable professor, comes departments that are increasingly commodified (especially adjunct-heavy departments like English and Mathematics). We are allowing a dollar value to be placed on intellectual thought. I don’t think I need to tell you how dangerous this is. The university economy is shifting towards the hyper-efficient and away from the aesthetic, and we are allowing it to happen. It’s time for the intellectual side to push back on the business side and re-balance this equation.

See Also: Crowdsourcing a Compilation of Adjunct Working Conditions

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


  1. Right on, Josh! It is imperative for the faculty, individually and as a whole, to take responsibility for the future of higher education. As individuals, we can begin in our classes, our departments and our research. We are likely to accomplish even more working collaboratively with others in our faculty unions, in campus governance bodies, in disciplinary societies and other national organizations, such as New Faculty Majority. Remaining isolated in one

    1. Recently I’ve heard both “information silo” and “toxic tree house” used to describe the “ivory tower” in particular and institutionalized education systems in general. It’s ime to build bridges, throw down rope ladders, let down our hair ~ set an example and take the lead for cautious tower dwellers.

  2. Josh-

    I wanted to say that I appreciate your use of “we” throughout this post and throughout others. As a current graduate teaching assistant at Eastern Kentucky University, I’ve been privy (or, ya know, kinda) to hushed conversations taking place in the copy and break rooms this week. I’m sure that you’ve already caught wind that your recent posts and collaborative efforts with other adjuncts on the Adjunct Project have caused some forward motion in the English department here. As a GTA, I am not on the listserv, and therefore do not know the full extent of the current situation, but it appears that discussions are happening among tenure track and non-tenure track educators, and the administration. I admit that I’m a bit disappointed that only a handful of instructors have earnestly asked my opinion on the matter, though my position as a GTA (soon to be grad-school graduate) means that I will directly be affected by any discussions had or decisions made.

    But I digress.

    I love that you used “we” throughout the paper, refusing to define educators by their “rank.” This mentality fosters a sense of community, camaraderie , and collaboration in English departments, all of which we desperately need. This feeling of “we” not only binds us by our professional responsibilities, but also by our personal love affairs with the written word. When did we stop being partners united by our dedication to spreading the love of literature, language, and writing to our students? When did we stop being partners united by our desire to make a difference in our students’ lives and in some small measure in the academic world?

    Perhaps I’m just being a young, idealistic graduate student. But what’s wrong with that? Maybe our profession needs more of those. More graduate students who strive to excite our students much like our mentors manage to excite us. More adjuncts who will plainly say, “This isn’t right,” and take steps towards changing the status quo. More tenure track faculty who earnestly ask their colleagues what they think and listen to their answers.

    This one is gonna sting a little.

    None of us are gonna get rich doing what we do. Most of us knew this from the beginning but entered the profession because we believe in the power of the written word to express human condition and to create change, because we want to instill this belief in our students. My favorite line from my favorite movie, Dead Poets Society, reiterates this cry: words and ideas can change the world. So let’s do it. You, Josh, certainly are already. Let us. Us: tenure track, non-tenure track, future educators. Let us unite in order to secure both a living wage and respect for ourselves and our colleagues.

  3. The new career track for university faculty is that of the Disposable Professor. As we rely more and more on adjunct labor, we are slowly surrendering our power on college campuses. Contingent faculty are, by definition, powerless.

    Yes, this is absolutely true. I’ve worked nearly a decade at various contingent positions at six different colleges/universities.

    I served as an officer for an adjunct-only union, and served on the elections commission for a combined local. In my experience, the biggest problem facing the contingent faculty is the tenured faculty. They understand they can push off the worst teaching times, the least desirable courses, and deny us even a seat at the table when it comes time to discuss fair treatment. I’ve seen supposed “union activist” faculty who considered me radical because I dared suggest equal-pay for equal work and that university-wide literacy tests should not be graded by adjuncts would would not be compensated for their time – yes, the very people who rallied to propose the Governor’s suggestion they work on Friday were more than okay with having their fellow faculty members work without pay.

    The unfortunately reality, in my opinion, is that faculty unions have already been broken. When a majority of faculty, teaching a majority of classes, for a majority of the direct-contact classes are part-time and/or temporary, then there is absolutely no reason for the administration to worry about what happens to me…or you…or anyone who isn’t happy with the lot they offer.

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