25 May 2012


The Atlantic | Laura McKenna | The Good News and the Bad News About Public Colleges

The bad news is that a growing number of faculty at state or public colleges are adjunct instructors. Adjuncts are temporary faculty members who teach classes for low pay, no benefits. They do not have the protections of tenure. They are often not unionized. 1 million of the 1.5 million people teaching in American colleges are adjuncts. The number of adjunct faculty has increased dramatically over time. LinkedIn reports that it is the fastest growing job description.
This is exactly what I was talking about last week. Why is this bad? Can I have some arguments against adjuncts that rise above question-begging, please?

I can see why you would think this situation is bad for the adjuncts, but why is this bad for consumers? (Both students and tax-payers.)

Actually, scratch that. We can't assume this is bad for the adjuncts themselves. If anything, we ought to assume this is good for the adjuncts, as determined by their revealed preferences among the relevant possibilities. We know only that they judge it to be better than the alternatives, i.e. getting a different job in the private sector. All we can conclude from this is that it's worse than the job they wish they had, but better than any other job they can get. That's it. They obviously believe the combination {be an adjunct in my field of study; have low income} is a better option than {work in some other field; make more money}. Who are we to second guess that choice?

(Yes, of course they would prefer {job in the field I am passionate that also pays well} but I would prefer to eat pizzas that both taste delicious and cause me to lose weight. Sadly neither of those are valid options.)

This debate is parallel to the debate about minimum wages. We could pay the people who are adjuncts more / give them more desirable and expensive positions, but then there would be fewer of them and more people would not get to work in academia at all. That would be good for the people who can get those jobs, and bad for all the unseen people who can't. Why are we assuming that's a good trade-off to make?

Here's how McKenna describes why more adjuncts is bad for students:
All these adjuncts are bad news for undergraduates at the public colleges. Many adjuncts are excellent teachers, but their temporary status and their exclusion from faculty meetings means that students can't rely on them for advice on course selection. It's difficult to develop relationships with faculty that may not have their own offices or might teach at multiple schools. It's also hard to be an excellent professor when you're poor and your career is unstable.
(1) I have never been able to rely on tenured faculty for course selection advice either. They rarely seem to think that understanding undergrad (or even grad) curriculum requirements is their purview. Also they hear about course quality only second-hand, and what they do hear (and say) is filtered by much concern for decorum. Much better to seek advice from more senior students who have first-hand experience and have more leeway for honesty.

(2) How many faculty did you develop a relationship with, especially outside of the semester you were actually in their course? Maybe this says more about my engineering faculty or my social outlook, but for me that number is about two.

(3) It's hard to be an excellent (teaching) professor when you have a research agenda to keep up with as well. I see no reason to believe that being poor or having an unstable career is more of an impediment to excellent teaching than is writing grant applications, preparing tenure packets, supervising dissertations, revising paper submissions, planning conferences and editing journals, attending committee meetings, etc.

What I'd really like to see is data about whether students who have adjuncts as teachers do any worse learning the material than those who have tenure-track faculty. Until I see that I have no reason to believe they're any worse.

(And even then we've only established that there is a cost to having more adjuncts. We would still need to weight this against the benefits.)

PS I love how adjuncts being "not unionized" is in-and-of-itself a bad thing. The condition of being unionized is treated as the benefit, not the actual results they may get from unionization. Unions, churches, roads: by themselves they're just tools, not end goals. They're only useful if they get you somewhere.

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