Thursday, August 24, 2006

 

Dibs

IHE did a piece last week on an adjunct alleging age discrimination because she was passed over for a series of full-time positions that eventually went to younger candidates. Several commenters called this piece to my attention, apparently to make the point that my thesis about discrimination against the young was misplaced.

I don't know enough about the specific case referenced in the article to say whether the allegations in that particular case are true. What I will say is that the article speaks to a different, if related, issue.

Many colleges have a cohort of long-term adjuncts. These are people qualified to teach, who have taught classes at a given school for years or even decades. Many of them are outstanding teachers, and they've demonstrated loyalty to their departments. No argument there. In my experience, many long-term adjuncts are the spouses of executives, so low pay is not an issue for them. Some have full-time jobs elsewhere, and pick up a course or two each semester as a sort of hobby that happens to give them some walking-around money. (We have one of those – a high school teacher by day – who has taught one evening course per semester here since the early 1970's. He loves what he does, and we're lucky to have him.) And some are dedicated academics who are desperately looking for full-time teaching jobs. I worry about the last group, especially since I was once a member of it.

Underlying the article and several comments has been an assumption that long-term adjuncts earn 'dibs' on full-time positions when they become available. I strenuously disagree.

Assuming that a department exercises meaningful quality control when re-hiring adjuncts – and that's a HUGE assumption – I agree that someone who has stuck around over time has earned respect as a teacher. That's not the same as agreeing that he has earned first refusal on a full-time job.

The best way to explain my objection is to play out the 'dibs' scenario. What if we adopted a 'take a number' system, like a deli?

First, and most obviously, we would exclude anybody whose research is recent. We'd guarantee that undergraduates would never get full-time professors whose graduate training is current. By drawing only from the immediate geographic area, we'd prevent people with new contacts and different kinds of training from making the cut. So from a purely academic/substantive point of view, it's a terrible idea.

Second, we would, in effect, indefinitely extend the poverty of graduate school. The hard sciences have 'postdocs,' in which recent Ph.D.'s earn low adult salaries while looking for professorships. In the humanities and social sciences, and at teaching institutions generally, this is not the case. If seven years of doctoral training were to be followed in all cases by 5-15 years of mandatory adjuncting, circling the airport while waiting for a runway to clear, the human impact on the people involved would be devastating. Right now, the folks who spend years waiting for a runway to clear are doing so by choice, even if the options from which they have to choose suck. Adopting a 'take a number' system would make it mandatory. The most economically vulnerable – young parents, people from working-class backgrounds without parental wealth to fall back on – would drop out, regardless of the quality of their work. We would be the poorer for losing those perspectives.

Third, we would effectively allocate teaching positions based on either wealth of spouse or tolerance of poverty, rather than on ability. The first would be a drastic and offensive historical step backwards, and the second even more so. If we want professors to be respected as professionals, they should be able to make adult livings.

Fourth, we would freeze institutions into hiring decisions made with different criteria, many years ago. Needs change. For example, when a given adjunct was hired twenty years ago, the main desiderata were ability to teach in a classroom and ability to show up for the timeslots nobody else wanted. Now, we need someone who is fluent in online teaching. Is it automatically the case that somebody hired in 1986 to teach a couple of evening sections is the best candidate? I say, if she is, she'll win in a fair fight. (And if the fight truly isn't fair, then by all means, use the relevant legal channels.) But if she isn't, the college should be free to hire someone more capable of doing the job that needs to be done now.

Fifth, and this is what I always get flamed for but it's still true, there's something to be said for having generational diversity on your faculty (just as there is for racial or gender diversity). If we build in so many hoops that nobody under 40 gets hired for anything ever, the blind spots will simply get worse. If you prefer arguments from race or gender, then we'd simply be extending the reign of the old white guys and executive wives for another generation. Departmental inbreeding, already a serious problem, would get even worse.

When a college has a full-time opening, the fair and reasonable thing to do is to post it publicly and have an open search. That means nobody has first dibs. If the loyal long-term adjunct is the best candidate, great – I've hired a few of them myself. But if not, the college needs to be free to pick the best candidate. Choosing somebody with new and interesting research, a new set of professional contacts, and training in the latest methodological innovations is not prima facie evidence of ageism. It just isn't. It's doing what is supposed to be done.

Am I being a cruel and heartless bastard to the long-suffering adjuncts out there? No. I say it's much more cruel and heartless to feed people false hope, the better to keep exploiting them. If people would drop the 'dibs' fantasy and face the reality of the marketplace, chances are, some would find other lines of work. In the long term, that's probably the best outcome for some people. Others would stop beating themselves up and make peace with their situations, and that's fine, too. The hard and objectionable fact is that there are fewer full-time jobs than people who want them, so some people are going to be shut out. Should that be decided based on who brings the most to the table, or based on who can tolerate a life of mac-and-cheese the longest?

Comments:
Agree 100%! I was in a similar position when hired over four years ago as a new graduate. Another person, an adjunct who has been around for quite some time, was very bitter about being overlooked and wouldn't talk to me for two years. However, my school was looking for someone with an ability to utilize various teaching methods and she was (and still is) a strong proponent of "lecture is the best" method.

So, yes, hiring practices should be fair and open to all candidates; and the best person shoud be hired, regardless of age or years of teaching experience.
 
Agree 90%!

many long-term adjuncts are the spouses of executives, so low pay is not an issue for them.

For very many people, "low pay" feels equivalent to "little valued". It's not an issue in the sense that they won't go hungry, no. But you can be sure they notice, and take issue.

Would you consider it reasonable to include spouses' pay as a factor in the hiring decision? I presume it's not actually prohibited by federal law.
 
Actually, I'm fairly certain you're not allowed to ask about relationship status during the hiring process.

I'd think that would put 'spouse's pay' far out of bounds.
 
I agree with many of your points. The problem that I've seen (and, I think, experienced) is that some faculty automatically overlook adjucts/internal candidates as being less worthy somehow, even if they are competitive candidates (e.g., recently coming from top graduate departments, doing good research and getting good teaching evals).

What your arguments overlook is that there is somehow a clearly defined and agreed upon "best candidates" -- people get passed over for all sorts of reasons irrelevant to the actual position at hand.

So, in the case of hiring someone *because* he/she has been an adjunct for a long time - yes, I agree; but it also happens that people are not hired *because* he/she has been an adjunct for a while in that department.
 
My point in mentioning spouse's pay is to explain why people are capable of hanging on for a long time while being paid very little. We have a flat rate we pay all adjuncts, regardless of what their spouses/partners, if any, make. It's not what I consider a living wage, but some of our adjuncts don't need a living wage, so they can stick around for years. I'm trying to explain their endurance. It's not something we look at when hiring.
 
Hey, I can comment and put off doing my syllabus for a few more minutes! Yes, I'm a long-term adjunct (10 semesters)with great teaching evals, recent Ph.D., hot topic and all that but its highly unlikely I'll get hired because my institutions runs its highly touted, 60 credit core curriculum, with almost nothing but adjuncts! In a clever move, its considered a university program not a department, so there's no department to hire folks. Big Time U is just down the street so there's always a steady flow of willing ABDs and Ph.Ds.

Teaching is seductive but the low-pay and corresponding sense of low-value is corrosive. Long-term your teaching declines as you "steal back" time, reduce prep, etc as a way of balancing the low pay. My course would be perfect to add an on-line component but I won't do the preparation and additional work it requires for what I'm paid.

I have made the painful internal adjustment and realized that adjuncting is not a route to a full-time job. My goal now is to develop other work options so that teaching is truely an "adjunct" to my other work and not a path to an academic career.

But Dean Dad, what about the long-term health of schools that rely on adjuncts not as a temporary fix for immediate hiring needs but as a long-term solution for cheap teaching? Are adjuncts corrosive for the institution too? Or are they the only thing that keeps them afloat? (I see what I make and I look at the class of students and think of what they pay for tuition, and there's a big gap that's going somewhere!)
 
About 15 years ago I was approached by a college interested in developing a new program. I spent one full year consulting on this, for free, and putting miles on my car to travel to meetings. Of course I expected to be hired for the first full time job as a result. Instead they hired a local that had been tapped to teach a few of the first classes. They offered me the classes but I had a full time job in another city 60 miles away.
 
I'm at an institution that has with some frequency converted adjuncts into permanent f/t positions and/or (in much rarer cases) into t-t positions but which also has hired people fresh out of grad school (such as me). From my perspective, here is what I think adjuncts have against them when trying to be hired from the institution where they adjunct:

1) The longer you're there, the more time you have for people to become irritated by you. Maybe you are "qualified" on paper for the job, but if you ruffle even a single feather, annoy people, act as if you're bitter about your situation, people will take that into account. It's not fair, but the unknown quantity does benefit from this, as it is a lot easier to have your game face on in a couple of interviews and in correspondence than in an everyday setting.

2)As my grandmother would have said, why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? It's gross, but why bother hiring somebody f/t or to a t-t post when you know they're not going anywhere? By hiring somebody else, you get two for the price of one.

3) The workload of adjuncting works against your research agenda, particularly if you actually do service even though you're not on the t-t (as some of our adjuncts do). Not enough hours in the day to show that you're actively engaged in the profession while doing all of this stuff for the institution, and we do look at the professional engagement issue quite closely when looking at t-t faculty hires. Being a good citizen at the current institution and being a good teacher isn't really enough.

As far as my colleagues who were "converted" into non-adjunct positions, in my experience they seem to have been so beaten down by the adjuncting experience and are so grateful that the university finally acknowledged them that they don't seem willing to speak up when they disagree with something or to fight bigger institutional battles with any conviction. Not true in all cases, but true in some, and I think that's a bad thing. Sometimes I wonder, though, if this is why these were the chosen ones to be converted, because they never irritated or angered anybody for like 10 years, you know?
 
I'm a PhD student at school where adjuncts are unionized (amazingly enough, with huge support from students and permanent faculty--the school was basically going to shut down if the adjuncts went on strike, even the graduate school where no adjuncts teach). What I understand about their contract is that long-term adjuncts get priority for future adjuncting positions, especially right of first refusal for courses they teach or new courses in their programs. They are not promised consideration for tt or ft jobs. This is probably because there are relatively few tenure lines in the programs that hire the most adjuncts, i.e. the continuing education programs (some of which, like the language courses, are also used by the degree-granting parts of the school). This strikes me as really reasonable; it takes some of the question out of adjuncting, and gives the teachers more stability, but it doesn't make an unfillable promises about tenure. I don't know if other schools have these sorts of principles, but it seems a very union-y idea, so maybe we're unique. (As in every other thing, it seems.)
 
Well, I also agree. All of my adjunct positions were at unionized campuses, where adjuncts with X amount of seniority got right of first refusal for the classes they were qualified for -- adjunct sections, that is. Generally, this worked well, but not always, because sometimes people were not particularly assiduous about the reviews and classroom observations that were supposed to go along with gaining this status.

Also, I had more than a few conversations on the subject with adjunct faculty that were pretty unpleasant. Remember -- I was contingent, too -- on 1-year, pro-rata contracts, but most of the longtime adjuncts saw those as being something they should have dibs on. And you know what? It pissed me off. These people di do service -- but usually union service that was very important in terms of pay and benefit equity for adjuncts. But the time they spent on lobbying for equity was time they weren't spending on keeping up in their fields. And a lot of the older adjuncts had terminal MAs, but with a glut on the market of PhDs ...

And some of the adjuncts had applied for multiple positions, like mine and T-T positions, and repeatedly not made the cut, yet held on, bitter and resentful, and still somehow hoping that more service would get them the permanent job. WTF??? I'm sorry, but if you stagnate, you stagnate. And if an institution clearly thinks you aren't worth hiring ... you have to wonder what they'd do without that clause in the contract that gave them seniority in the first place.

Sorry. I just get cranky about this, because the adjunct system really sucks. It's abusive and wrong. But adjuncts need to understand that there is such a thing as shelf life, and unless they act as if they are real, competttive candidates, why should they be hired? Really. I know someone who was on a hiring committee and watched one of his adjunct colleagues talk himself out of a job. He showed up for the interview in T-shirt, shorts and sandals, and pretty much answered all the interview questiosn with variations on "well, you all know what I/my teaching is like." Why would that person be hired?
 
Straw man argument, Dean Dad. I don't know of any place in this country that automatically gives the most senior part-timer a full-time job when one comes open.

Sure, some senior adjuncts have first crack at adjunct classes, but that's something else altogether.

Philip

Philip
 
I agree with Dr. Crazy, with the flip side being that adjuncts (who are qualified, and mobile) are often better off getting TT positions elsewhere as well. While I am peeved to have not been hired by the schools where I adjuncted, I also am much happier starting fresh with a TT position at a new school.

I also agree with Philip -- in my experience, the idea that internal candidates have some preference is a myth. And with ADM - the adjunct system if often abusive and fosters bitterness (though in other cases it can provide valuable teaching experience and/or part-time "hobbies" for professionals - in these cases it at least benefits the adjuncts as well).
-anon 7:19
 
I wouldn't even call it a myth. I think it's a default belief, mostly unexamined, held by folks who think they've been screwed over. "After x years of service, to just bring in someone new like that..." Well, yeah.
 
Your idea that long-term adjuncts are the wives of executives is unbelievable to me. I and many of my fellow adjuncts work at 2 or 3 or more adjunct jobs to make ends meet and we have been doing so since graduate school. My college hires from the outside. Why get rid of adjuncts who make less than 1/2 for each course they teach when you can hire a newbie and a newbie who is the right color.

It's a crying shame how adjuncts are treated. A part time job at the local grocery store would give me medical and pension benefits, yet, I am offered none where I am. If I teach 10 courses in 12 months (a lucky year), I make LESS than 1/2 what a full time instructor makes. Adjuncts are unionizing for the treatment they deserve. Unfortunately, there is practically nothing that can be done in right-to-work states.

I competed for a recent position and was called to the 2nd interview. Unfortunately for me, another person (from outside the college) was hired. I need the money. I need the benefits. I need the recognition that I am a valued member of the college. I'm good enough to be an adjunct, but not good enough to be a faculty member. What is the message here? I get excellent evaluations from students and faculty. Eight and one half years of dutiful service, tutoring on my own time, teaching hundreds and hundreds of students, learning all that I can to be the the best teacher I can be and finally, I realize that I have gotten myself into the most confounding of situations. I have finally realized how we are being exploited. In the words of my union organizer, "it is scandalous." Scandalous, indeed!

We are truly an adjunct nation.
 
The DEAN should be ashamed of himself!!!!!!!
 
Why? Spell it out. Don't hide behind easy moral indignation, or some airy slogan like 'adjunct nation.' Spell it out.

The market is trying to tell you something. If you're really being that badly exploited, which may very well be true, then find another line of work.

If you believe that you're above the material constraints that bind, oh, I don't know, everybody else, I'd like to know why.

If you bothered to read my piece, or my blog more generally, you'd notice that I agree that it's scandalous how poorly adjuncts are paid. My solution -- some people finding other things to do for a living -- would actually help fix the problem. Name-calling does not, nor does ignoring reality.
 
Dean Dad!!! Now that's not anonymous.
If you're not part of the solution...blah, blah, blah. Why not work to change your college's policy on hiring! Pulease
 
Dean Dad!!! Now that's not anonymous.
If you're not part of the solution...blah, blah, blah. Why not work to change your college's policy on hiring! Pulease
 
Why not go to adjunctnation.com?
 
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