Treating Adjuncts Like Peons

Here’s a fun job: adjunct professor, as described by University of Akron adjunct Maria C. Maisto writing in a Sept. 10 manifesto in Inside Higher Education:

I teach English composition — one of the most labor-intensive teaching assignments out there. This semester I’ll have to respond to 85 students on two different campuses and almost 2,000 pages of writing, and I want to give them all my very best effort as a teacher. At home I’ve got three kids under the age of 12 — one with Asperger’s Syndrome, one a toddler — and a spouse who has to look for a new job in the worst economy in decades….
The [clicks of recognition]? When I faced the prospect of having to support my family on my adjunct’s salary alone ($20K over a year to teach the same number of courses as most full-time faculty members, and not even that when I don’t get summer work). When a colleague who — like me — was denied unemployment insurance over the summer because she supposedly has “reasonable assurance of employment” without a contract, at the same time couldn’t get a loan because she couldn’t show adequate proof of employment without a contract. When I heard about an actual single-parent adjunct who had to sell her plasma to buy groceries. When a friend who has taught “part time” for decades at one institution was turned down for a “full time” position at twice the salary plus benefits — to teach exactly the same courses and do all of the extra work that she had always done voluntarily — at that same institution.

When I discovered that buying into the university’s insurance plan for my family might cost more than my monthly paycheck. When an administrator on my campus actually acknowledged —publicly — that Walmart treats its part-time employees better than colleges and universities treat adjuncts and that we constitute a “highly educated working poor.” When 17 adjunct colleagues and I wrote a letter to the editor of our local newspaper drawing attention to contingent faculty working conditions and only one tenured professor from our department would join the two officers from our campus AAUP chapter I had invited to sign it. When I realized that my children are likely to have college instructors who are either overworked, distracted tenure-stream professors or undersupported, freeway-flying contingents — in either case, effectively being prevented by colleges and universities from being given the highest quality education possible, and of particular concern given the diverse needs of so many student populations—Aspies like my child, parenting students, and veterans, to name a few. When I saw the confusion in a bright young student’s face as I told him I couldn’t, in conscience, recommend that he pursue a graduate degree in English and a career in college teaching if he also intended to support himself, much less a family.

Maria Maisto is 41 years old and doesn’t have a lot to show for the 20-odd years she’s spent in academia, including several years of work on a doctoral degree in comparative literature from the University of Maryland. Here’s the story of her life from the Chronicle of Higher Education, which focuses on an adjunct-activist organization she recently co-founded called New Faculty Majority:

After her family moved from the Washington area to Akron in 2004—in part to escape a pricey housing market—Ms. Maisto began teaching as an adjunct at the university in the fall of 2005. The first sign that the path she chose might not be so smooth: “I didn’t get a handbook,” Ms. Maisto says. “And there was no orientation.” The second sign: She became pregnant with her third child and knew that “there were no resources for adjuncts in my situation.” During the entire 2006-7 academic year, which would have been her second at Akron, Ms. Maisto was out of work and out of pay.

I know I ought to feel sorry for Maria Maisto, but I don’t. And it’s not just because less than a week after her manifesto appeared in Inside Higher Ed, she abruptly quit Akron after the semester began to fill a full-time “emergency” (read: temporary) position at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, where the workload is undoubtedly even heavier but employee benefits are available.
The reason I can’t feel sorry for Maisto is simple: she chose to lead the life she leads. She’s no high-school dropout with limited job options. Quite the contrary: She received her bachelor’s and master’s degree from Georgetown University, one of the nation’s most elite colleges. Had she chosen another career—any other career, from teaching high school to working as a paralegal at a law firm to manning a cashier at that Wal-Mart (where she would have undoubtedly been promoted to management)—she would by now be comfortably fixed at at least three or four times her University of Akron earnings, with good chances of a secure future for her children, including her disabled son. In fact Maisto had worked for a while after her stint in graduate school at two higher-education associations in Washington, according to the Chronicle, but she chose nonetheless to be an poorly paid adjunct because “she could never shake the feeling that she belonged in a classroom.”
That sort of attitude—that if you have a postgraduate degree, you’re too good to do any other kind of work except teach in a college setting—is the precise reason why adjunct professors are systematically exploited by the colleges that hire them. And exploited they are, especially during the current recession, when tenure-track professors, with their relatively light teaching loads, the hours-off they require for scholarship and research, and the job benefits they customarily receive, are starting to look to many cash-strapped institutions like luxuries that can be trimmed.
Adjunct faculty (or contingent faculty, as they are sometimes called) now account for at least half of teachers at colleges and universities, or about 800,000 people in all. These part-timers aren’t on salary but are instead paid by the course: anywhere from $2,000 to $4,000 (and even more in the sciences) per class. Maisto, for example earned only about $3,000 apiece for each of the six classes she taught. Perks, benefits, even spaces in the faculty parking lot typically don’t exist. And while some adjuncts are retired professors or people with full-time off-campus jobs who are working for pleasure, the vast bulk of the are simply unemployed Ph.D.’s or near-Ph.D’s who cannot obtained full-time tenure-track jobs because the universities that granted their advanced degrees granted them to too many other people, especially in the overcrowded humanities for which undergraduate demand is in steady decline.
Graduate programs and the professors who staff them are partly to blame for the oversupply of credentialed academics who find no market for their services. University professors, secure in their tenured berths, love graduate students. Unlike the hordes of undergrads majoring in beer, sports, and hookups, most grad students are serious, hardworking, and genuinely smart. Furthermore, as teaching and research assistants, they’re sources of cheap, eager labor for professors who need footnotes checked or exams graded. Professors, snobs that they are, tend to regard jobs outside of academia as beneath the talents of anyone with intellectual aspiraions.
I’ll let William Pannapacker, an English professor at Hope College in Michigan, who, under the pen-name Thomas H. Benton, has written a series of scathing critiques of this system for the Chronicle bearing such titles as “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go, take over for me. Here’s an excerpt from his March 2009 essay:

Academic labor is a precisely tuned system: Provide no more costly tenured positions than are needed to keep the graduate students coming and the adjuncts working. And, when that balance begins to arouse skepticism about the fairness of the exchange of labor for opportunity, the rhetoric of “love” becomes all the more powerful: “We don’t need to pay you fairly because you are doing it for love.” (Such a bargain should particularly alarm women, who are now the majority of graduate students in the humanities and the overwhelming majority of adjuncts.)

For more Pannapacker, click here and here.
So please, Ms. Maisto, do yourself and your family a favor and give up the adjunct activism (it’s not going to get you anywhere) and try to find yourself a real job. Remember that except in a slave system every economic transaction requires two willing parties. You were only a used and abused adjunct because you let yourself be one.

Charlotte Allen

Charlotte Allen blogs for the Los Angeles Times and writes frequently about cultural trends for the Weekly Standard.

3 thoughts on “Treating Adjuncts Like Peons

  1. I genuinely like your article. It’s evident that you have a whole lot of expertise on this topic. Your points are properly made and relatable. Thanks for writing engaging and fascinating material.

  2. Of course Ms. Maisto should bow out of adjuncting if she can’t support her family on her miserable salary–and that is exactly what she did. She’s an adjunct no more, and more power to her.
    My post simply pointed out that it takes two to tango. Colleges and universities wouldn’t pay adjuncts pitiful wages if there weren’t hordes of people willing to take the adjunct jobs. Hordes of people who refuse to do any other kind of work because they were “trained” to teach in college, and by gum, that’s what they’re gonna do, even if they can’t get a tenure-track job because the graduate schools they attended turned out a vast oversupply of credentialed people relative to available positions.
    That’s fine–but if you insist on working for peon wages under wretched conditions because you consider other kinds of work beneath your talents, you forfeit your right to complain. As I wrote in my post, Ms. Maisto is not a high-school dropout with limited job options. She’s got two degrees from Georgetown University, one of the finest schools in the nation. Most of her Georgetown classmates are probably earning comfortable livings doing work they find reasonably satisfying. Most of them are probably not full-time adjunct professors.

  3. You have reinforced, Ms. Allen, the nature of the problematic treatment of adjunct & contingent faculty in higher education, and you have denounced it as inequitable: yet you have elected to shift the blame for the nature of this inequitable system to those who find themselves most disadvantaged by it.
    You have blamed my colleague for failing to find a real job like working at Wal-Mart, so that we might better support our familes. Should we shut up and leave the system well (or bad) enough alone? Is this your recommendation?
    Did you even read Ms. Maisto’s article? She was not whining. She is not asking for your pity. She is taking on an institution which has, for far too long, mistreated those whom you, yourself, have identified as bright and sincere. And she will succeed, in spite of individuals like you who disclaim her efforts and who urge her to give up a fight that has just begun.
    Perhaps she should adopt the position of the Athenians as recorded by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War:
    “But you and we should say what we really think, and aim only what is possible. For we know that into the topic of human affairs, the subject of justice arises only when the force of necessity is equal, and that the powerful exact what they can and the weak grant what they must.”
    Ms. Allen, one would not be misguided in taking this statement as the quintessential statement of political realism. You have offered that Ms. Maisto should simply bow out of the fight and find something about which to be happy–her education and training be damned.
    Power is defined, in part, though, by the extent to which control is ceded to those over whom it is brandished. Your very typical and unoriginal approach to this issue manages to not say very much at all; yet, in a breath, you have so eloquently illustrated the reason why we (adjunct & contingent faculty) shall prevail.
    The river is too wide, you say: it cannot be bridged. The mountain is too high, you fear: it cannot be climbed. The problem is too difficult, you muse: it cannot be solved. And so it goes, in ad naseum.
    Smallpox continues to ravage young children. Wheat languishes on the Indian subcontinent. African Americans remain at the back of the bus–and worse. Women, such as yourself, lack the vote.
    Ms. Allen, the status quo is unacceptable, and we aim to change it. We are New Faculty Majority: The National Coalition for Adjunct & Contingent Faculty, and our numbers are growing daily. You might do well to monitor our progress at http://www.newfacultymajority.info.

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