On Adjunct Faculty as Victims

We may critique modern American higher education for many reasons. But there is one fact that embarrasses academic administrators more than any other: as colleges and universities have embraced a monomaniacal fixation on social and economic justice, they have cultivated an ever-increasing reliance on the exploited labor of “adjunct faculty,” who teach courses for a tiny fraction of what it would cost to pay tenure-track or tenured professors to teach them. Almost ten years ago, some estimates suggested that adjunct faculty (sometimes called “contingent faculty”) made up nearly three-quarters of all U.S. college and university instructors. All signs point to an ongoing inflation of that number.

Adjuncts are hired on a per-course basis, and they receive none of the perks of full-time faculty. Some adjuncts teach as many as six or seven courses per semester, crisscrossing American cities as they, in many cases, teach at multiple institutions at once. The going rate for an adjunct to teach a course is usually less than four thousand dollars. Thus, in order to generate an income of $40,000 (before taxes), an adjunct would need to cobble together a schedule of at least 10 courses per year—many more than most tenure-track faculty teach in a year.

While academic administrations maintain a studied silence regarding this trend, many professors have voiced support for this newly discovered aggrieved class. Indeed, it has become fashionable to talk about adjuncts as a unique caste of academic victims. Their status as victims, however, is vastly exaggerated. It is true that many adjunct teachers work hard. It is also true that they are underpaid. However, although they are perhaps victimized, we shouldn’t consider them victims. Above all, this is because their victimization is consensual. Some explanation is in order.

“Adjunct teaching” is an appropriate term for the labor in question here. The word adjunct means “adjoining” or “supplementary.” Thus, “adjunct teaching” is teaching that someone does “on the side.” This means that those who lament that adjunct faculty can’t “make a decent living” by teaching are missing a crucial point: adjuncting was never intended to serve as the basis of one’s livelihood. Properly understood, adjunct teaching is something that supplements your primary income. Today’s chronic adjuncts are trying to make a full-time job out of a position that was never meant to be one.

[Related: “From Tenured Professor to Lumpenproletariat: The State of Higher Ed Faculty in America”]

Historically speaking, adjuncts were older professors who no longer wanted to keep a full schedule, and thus retired, with the intention of keeping busy by teaching a course here and there. Another class of adjuncts comprised those who had some unique knowledge or expertise gained through work outside the university: these people were brought in to teach on a per-course basis so that students might benefit from the wisdom of their professional experience. These two groups do not reflect the typical American adjunct professor in 2023.

Today’s adjuncts are mostly people who hold advanced/terminal degrees in an academic field. Many of them are younger—typically under 40. They were unable to secure a coveted tenure-track position after completing their doctoral studies. Sadly, this is an all-too-common experience for PhD holders—especially those in humanities fields like English, history, philosophy, foreign languages, cultural studies, and others that have seen reduced numbers of declared majors in recent decades. The fact that this experience is so common shows that if adjuncts are victims, they are largely willing ones. Many professors warn students who are considering graduate school about the realities of the academic job market—and they should. But even if one’s undergraduate professors kept quiet on the matter, anyone who does their due diligence before applying to a doctoral program should know that very few graduates successfully find tenure-track jobs.

The truth is that most PhD holders were aware of the scarcity of desirable positions. But like so many ambitious graduate students who hold themselves in high regard, most assume they will beat the odds. Obviously, that means that most of them won’t. But to give up on a career for which you spent upwards of a decade training creates a form of psychic turmoil that proves too much for many. Plus, after spending years as a graduate student, acclimating your habits and behaviors to the delightful pace of academic life and the perks that it affords … well, it is doubly hard to settle for a job outside academia. Especially when most of those jobs require you to be there from 9 to 5, five days a week, 50 weeks a year (and don’t call you “professor”). Thus, many advanced-degree holders would rather be underpaid as an adjunct teaching six classes each semester than take a non-academic job in some other industry that might pay $70,000 per annum. In short, many of those who adjunct full-time have made a rational decision to be exploited.

Ironically, as the number of highly credentialed people who are willing to serve as adjuncts goes up, colleges and universities make the obvious financial decision to expand their reliance on adjunct labor by killing tenure-track faculty lines. This ensures that with each generation of newly minted PhDs who attempt to make a living via adjunct teaching, the number of desirable jobs in academia is reduced, meaning that today’s graduate students will face an even more competitive job market when they complete their degrees.

[Related: “The Rise of the Pseudo Faculty”]

This self-perpetuating cycle shows just how craven these institutions are. After all, if so many of their graduates cannot find desirable jobs in their area of expertise, why don’t the doctoral programs begin accepting fewer students?

There are many reasons, but they all have to do with money. Enrollment numbers are a critical concern for the financial well-being of any college or university today, especially in an era of reduced state funding. Rejecting any qualified applicant (or underqualified ones with potential) is leaving money on the table. Further, in many states, public colleges and universities get greater reimbursements from the government for enrolling students in graduate-level courses: Texas is one such state. On top of all that, tenured and tenure-track faculty at many large public institutions resist teaching entry-level courses in their discipline. For administrators to demand that they do teach freshmen courses would inhibit the school’s ability to attract top candidates for faculty positions.

This means that the English department, for example, needs to find teachers for the many sections of English 101 and 102 that thousands of students take each semester at a large institution. Who do they hire for these courses? Graduate students—whom they often pay at a rate comparable to adjunct faculty. So, the truth is that the number of graduate students accepted is often primarily determined by considerations of how many teachers will be required for lower-level courses in a given year. Think about that: whether those graduate students will eventually be able to find a lucrative position teaching in the field is irrelevant for admission decisions. Essentially, doctoral programs are accepting students with the foreknowledge that they will likely end up as adjunct faculty (or end up leaving academia altogether). If job-placement numbers for their graduates get low enough to threaten the program’s reputation, many institutions will take their best grads who didn’t secure jobs and offer them official (non-tenure-track) positions as lecturers or research assistants to pad the placement numbers.

Our colleges and universities glorify themselves as “agents of change” who are moving our society in the direction of “social justice”—but their simultaneous reliance on adjuncts makes this laughable. Of course, adjunct teachers are underpaid. They are exploited. In that sense, they are “victims”—but many of them are willing ones, which is an important distinction. As American college enrollment continues to decline, schools will look to cut costs. This virtually guarantees that their reliance on cheaper adjunct labor will grow. It seems that the only way to stop the cycle is for those qualified to serve as adjunct teachers to refuse to do so. If schools found that they cannot find adjuncts to staff courses, it would incentivize them to create more full-time positions (even if those are only “lecturer” spots, which are more stable and well-paid, despite not being tenure-track). If that’s too much to ask, it might be enough for many full-time adjuncts to start treating these jobs as supplemental work to be done “on the side”—as the name implies and as academic history supports.

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  • Adam Ellwanger

    Adam Ellwanger is a full professor of English at the University of Houston - Downtown, where he studies the intersection of rhetoric, politics, and culture. Reach him on X @1HereticalTruth.

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13 thoughts on “On Adjunct Faculty as Victims

  1. The legions of adjuncts in America’s higher education system is shameful and morally culpable. It is a system that brazenly exploits those who have devoted their life to giving back…in a word…to service. Under run-away capitalism, the care and concern for others has no place. Such devotion to service as a teacher, especially in the beleaguered humanities, is for “suckers” who should know better. Orwell would have a field day with this nonsense.

  2. Much of this essay could be filed under the heading, “let them eat cake.” The governing presumption seems to be that we adjuncts are little more than hobbyists who could simply pivot from academics at a moment’s notice. Does the author really think we worked all those years to get a doctoral degree so we could become part of the academic peasantry?
    Let’s just look at my situation. After thirteen years of teaching every term, teaching exclusively upper division and graduate level courses, writing five books, developing new courses, presenting at conferences on my own dime, getting student evals that are at or above departmental averages, working without insurance or any benefits, my contracts are still term to term. I make roughly what I did a decade ago. The UUP just renegotiated our contract. TT faculty did great. Admin folks did great. Adjuncts, not so much.
    At The University at Albany, there are no pathways to permanence. After thirteen years, I was given a two term contract with no course guarantees. I could be silently fired and have no recourse. So, when individuals like Mr. Ellwanger write such high-handed, detached, tripe from the safety of their tenured perches, I have little to say that’s kind.
    In closing, I feel obliged to say one thing about the idea of being a “victim.” Scholarship is what I spent half my life training to do. There aren’t a lot of jobs for people in my specialty outside of academia. The administration knows I’ll take whatever they give because I have little choice. I guess I could be the best educated Target manager in the country. So, yeah, I’m a victim, a victim of a rigged system predicated on the exploitation of vulnerable people. What Ellwanger seems incapable of grasping is just how much he benefits from the exploitation.

  3. An English professor such as yourself should be ashamed to write such tendentious clickbait. Your argument is that adjuncts are “willing victims.” Aside from this being an oxymoron, it’s also completely false. Nobody chooses exploitation; that’s absurd.

    You claim that many people pursue terminal degrees because they are too vain to believe that they won’t be the special people who become full-time faculty. I hate to break it to you, but it’s absolutely shoddy argumentation to suggest that it is vain or egotistical to imagine that you might be able to land a full-time job with a graduate degree. There is nothing “special” about holding a full-time job in any other industry. You have drunk the whole pitcher of Kool-Aid if you sincerely think this is somehow true in academia.

    You also say that most adjuncts teach more than full-time. How is it that you can argue that these faculty, who teach all the required courses and work twice as much as you, aren’t “needed” as full-time faculty? There is some truth to the notion that universities are hypocritical for pretending to be paragons of society justice while having these abysmal labor practices. It is unclear how you can move from this to “adjuncts choose to be exploited.”

    Get over yourself. You were lucky to find a full-time position. The hiring decision certainly wasn’t based on your intellectual honesty. This article contains so many fallacies that you should include it in your rhetoric curriculum.

    Administration loves hiring a loudmouth conservative to trot out once in a while to justify their disgusting labor practices. Every token conservative in the university system is reviled by his colleagues and praised by his masters for advancing their agenda. How many appaearances on Tucker Carlson are you counting on to supplement your paycheck this year?

  4. All praise to the young, in the current state of America Academe, who bravely pursue higher studies qualifying them to teach, with the current prospect of never enjoying other
    than “adjunct” teaching. They are not even a serf class, which masters howsoever oppressive do wish to continue farming and have children, but slaves, expendable.
    at any time. And definitely so, if they don’t go easy on the students, whose anonymous evaluations can deprive you of being hired next time, for veterans advise innocent beginners: ‘make sure your final assignment asks, “how did you feel about what we read?” Talk about a potent cause of soaring grade inflation!
    The current tenured generation has failed to pass on to their own students the steady path of teaching and inquiry that their teachers secured for them. And it would take a revolution to reverse it, for adjuncts, enjoying no vote, please the bloated “administrator” majorities ruling Academe, who love the resulting ‘fall of the faculty’. Moreover, the instrument of all this degradation, the anonymous evaluations innovated around 1968, substitutes their “please the customer” goal, for the faculty’s traditional “teach the student,” which purpose once animated Academe and justified its public support.
    ” In the long history of the University, back to medieval Europe, and the longer history of its noble precursors, back to the schools of antiquity, back to Aristotle’s Lyceum and to Plato’s Academy, if the phrase “student evaluations” had been heard, it would always have meant the evaluation, more exactly the judgment, teachers give of their students, but suddenly, as the University was about to begin its second millennium, in the New World, in the United States of America, ‘evaluations’ by students of their teachers were instituted.” For more, read the rest of my “What Do Student Evaluations Teach?” first published in 1993 in Perspectives on Political Science but better on my Friends of the Republic website. Dr. Michael Platt

  5. The argument here is that exploitation may be excused when the exploited come willingly:

    1. It’s not at all clear how willingly most adjuncts become adjuncts.
    2. It sholdn’t matter. We have learned over time that exploitation is wrong.

    In private industry, explotation is waived aside as good business (OMFG), but most adjuncts work in the public sector where any exploitation is nothing short of a violation in the public trust and an abuse of the power instilled in the government by the democratic process.

  6. The growth of adjunct teaching is one symptom of higher education’s inability to change the way it teaches in this fast-changing and interdisciplinary world.
    A few observations (randomly listed) that add up to the seminal problems of increased part time teaching: increase costs and inflexible programs.

    1) faculty unions rarely include adjuncts in their negotiations. So administrators are not the only culprits

    2) Faculty hold onto curriculums , the Carnegie credit system like they are written stone. This leads to credit creep, low graduation rates, high student costs.

    3) professional adjuncts can enhance degree programs but are often spurned because they do not have traditional academic degrees.

  7. I have been an adjunct for over 36 years teaching business courses. Initially it was a part-time job to supplement my income while pursuing my career in industrial management. Now it is a job which keeps me busy since I retired from industry.

    I started at a two year college and then moved to a four year college where I have taught for 30 years. It is a institution which has always valued my input and made me feel I am part of something.

    I am able to bring real world business experience to students and teach them more than theory. I started with freshman courses and now teach senior year material.

    I have had the opportunity to teach undergraduate and graduate courses during these years. I have been involved in course and curriculum development.

    While I understand the plight of my fellow adjuncts trying to earn a living, I do not see myself as a victim.

  8. your discussion might make sense for the PhD holders who teach as instructors or lecturers at universities. HOWEVER: at the community college level where ALL of us are at least quailified for the full time positions, 75% of faculty are part time temp. And NO we did not want to ‘fall’ into adjunk Hell.


  9. I taught adjunct in Humanities for years, at many places and did not complain. I also found a job, luckily. I got into great debt doing it, with kids who suffered to some degree. Its true I knew what I was doing. That much is correct. Its true that ‘they should get other jobs’ if they are worried about their future.

    This is missing the point however that those who choose to teach are paid serf salaries, while all those who choose to simply accrue money for a living, without doing much if anything for society or others, are rewarded with high to pornographic salaries. Fact is, we could all do that. Its not hard getting a BA in Econ then earning a huge salary looking at ‘markets.’ All my wealthiest friends are basic intellectually; all my educator friends are kind and giving, and broke.

    A civilized country would reward teachers. Not America, where teachers live in miserable areas and drive 1990s cars.

    Randian greed and short term instrumentalism as religion. Nice.

    If you want a Darwinian race to the bottom of material pits of greed, you shall have it. The irony is all this knowledge that feeds capitalism came from, well, teachers of some sort.

  10. I taught as an adjunct economics instructor for 15 years during the 1980s and 90s at two different campuses in the Seattle area. Not once did i feel “exploited” or “victimized”, and had another part-time non-teaching position elsewhere that included fringe benefits, which the adjunct jobs did not. At that time the compensation was $2500 for a semester class, which in 2023 dollars is about $6000 according to an inflation calculator on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website. I never attempted to take on enough classes to make a full-time living. Rather, I took the adjunct assignments because I genuinely enjoyed teaching college students and always learned something new myself.

    I never once detected that students considered me to be a second-class instructor, was respected by the regular full-time faculty, and didn’t have to attend faculty committee meetings (this latter I considered a definite benefit !) I never had any regrets or felt ashamed to be contract adjunct staff.

    My sense is that some regular tenured or tenure-track faculty may feel threatened by the presence of adjuncts in their academic departments. I can only guess the source of this threat, but perhaps they believe that their own positions may at some point be eliminated as institutions look to cut instructional costs. In any case, I am proud of the teaching that I did and look back on the experience positively.

  11. One thing that I would like to see is the concept of “meaningful employment” being applied to graduate schools and particularly to doctoral programs — that would put an end to this exploitation in a hurry.

    State lotteries have to tell you what your odds of winning actually are — grad programs don’t and if they were held accountable and had to justify people spending a dozen years and no small amount of money to actually earn less than they would have started at had they never gone to grad school, things would change in a hurry.

    Colleges exploit adjuncts for the same reason that Leland Stanford exploited Chinese laborers in building his railroad — because they can. Reality is that retired professors are RETIRED and the specialized knowledge ought to have been considered in the hiring of tenure track positions. No, they are exploited because there isn’t a whole lot of other things one can do with many doctorates, and we are creating people who are desperate because they are both over educate and under educated for most everything else. (A lot of people with graduate degrees drive trucks.)

    The whole bottom is going to fall out of the education racket in the near future, but to consider adjuncts as anything other than exploited is bullshyte.

  12. I have held two adjunct positions. The first was teaching a Saturday morning class at a community college, which I did for experience and a nice supplement to my weekday job. I was hired on short notice for the second position while I was a PhD student on one campus due to an unexpected faculty death on another campus – and was offered a full-time three year non-tenure track contract before the semester was over, which paid more than a graduate assistantship (a key factor as I was married with a child) and included up to 12cr/semester tuition benefit. My department treated me no different than a tenure track faculty member, gave me a graduate appointment allowing me to sit on master’s and doctoral committees, and promoted me from Instructor to Assistant Professor while I was on contract. In fact, I was treated with more respect by my colleagues at that school than tenure-track Assistant Professors were in the Big Ten department I moved to after that contract expired.

    I had a good experience as an adjunct and have no regrets. Of course, my doctorate is in a field where demand exceeds supply and comes not just from academia, but also industry and government, so I never felt “trapped.”

  13. Mr. Ellwanger failed to mention why adjuncts are often hired instead of tenure-related faculty: they are hired for their expertise in one particular topic area. This is particularly true if they are teaching graduate level courses.

    But let’s focus on the undergraduate degree. You need someone to teach subject X twice an academic year. Ms. Smith has that expertise so she gets hired. But she doesn’t have expertise in subjects A, B, C, and D that also must be taught. Or, she could teach subjects A, B, C, and D but they are already taught by tenured faculty. Under either of those circumstances it would make no sense to offer Ms. Smith a tenure-track position.

    Adjuncts may also fill in for a faculty member who is on sabbatical leave. But that faculty member will be return, which means creating a new tenure-related position for a temporary absence excessive and irresponsible.

    It is worth noting that adjuncts are, by definition, part-time employees. Many corporations do not offer the same full benefit package or salary to part-time employees as they give to full-time employees. Nor are these part-time positions guaranteed to morph into full-time positions. Why should academia be different?

    If Mr. Ellwanger is concerned about the plight of adjunct faculty, I would suggest instead he focus on creating non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty positions. At my university NTT positions are (minimum) one year contracts with a teaching load of 3 courses per term. They are full-time employees so they enjoy a full benefit package. Promotions to higher salary levels are available. Faculty must hold the appropriate terminal degree in their field and obviously must be capable of teaching a breadth of courses rather than just one or two. NTT do not transform into tenure-track positons. I think that would resolve most of the concerns raised in the article.

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