Set It… And Forget It!

The faculty and the adjunct…

I was at a college a couple of months back that was in the midst of faculty labor negotiations. At a rally for the adjuncts, one of the tenured faculty who was a leader of the full-timers’ union—a union that had just won its contract pretty strongly—was speaking in support of his part-time colleagues. “Why should you be paid so poorly to teach a course that I’m paid so extravagantly for?” he said, with that wink of arrogance to flaunt his privilege under the guise of “solidarity,” reminding everyone pretty loudly that he was a member of a club that would never accept the rest of them, and that he was pretty okay with that.

In all of our talk about contingent college instructors, sometimes we forget that there really are tenured and tenure-line faculty still out there. What role do they play in all this? (Aside from not nearly enough…) Why, for instance, did this particular university have two different faculty unions, one for the important people and an entirely different one for the rabble? And why did the adjunct union have to charge its members 1.3% dues on terrible pay, compared with the permanent faculty union charging its members only 0.7% of their much more “extravagant” pay?

One of my email correspondents said yesterday that she was increasingly aware (and increasingly frustrated) that the tenure-line faculty is still predominantly male, but that the work of teaching introductory courses was overwhelmingly female. We know from some pretty rigorous research that women face extraordinary hiring challenges, that the increasing gender equity in the awarding of PhDs is not matched by gender equity in awarding new assistant professorships.

The permanent professoriate get the upper division courses with the students who’ve already proven their capabilities, as well as all of the graduate students who’ve declared their allegiance to the discipline. The permanent professoriate also get time in their lives to conduct scholarship, and to travel to conferences to present that scholarship. The adjuncts and postdocs get the early career students, who are much more broadly arrayed in capability and dedication. They get to teach, and to teach only, with no support for their larger disciplinary or intellectual lives.

The leaders and the helpers. The professionals and the paraprofessionals. The men and the women.

But it’s even worse than that, really. In a law office, the lawyers work directly with the paralegals. Sometimes they say thank you. In a university department, it’s likely that the permanent faculty won’t know the adjunct faculty, certainly won’t ask their opinion about the curriculum (even though the adjuncts know exactly what students can and can’t do during the first couple of years of that curriculum), won’t invite them to participate in faculty development or faculty governance. They just take it for granted that the house will be cleaned and the children fed before father gets home.

The adjunct faculty are highly trained and highly capable. We can let them run independently, doing a set, constrained task without consultation. They’re like the nannies of the important family, entrusted with the children’s safety and well-being and intellectual enrichment. But according to, nannies earn a national average wage of just under $15 an hour. Your college’s teacher of Calculus 1 or first-year writing or second-semester Spanish probably does not. Nannies are just too damned expensive, and really, who cares if all the kids survive? A quarter of them are going to drop out in the first year, that’s just normal. We need… we need a Roomba! Five hundred bucks, charge it up and let it run. No oversight needed, it won’t take time away from our big important thoughts, and when it breaks down, we can find another one instantly.

If you think that metaphor’s too harsh, do something today to prove it wrong. Work on behalf of all of your colleagues, not just the ones who are members of the club.

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