Thursday, August 24, 2006


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?