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Academia's Indentured Servants

Most adjuncts teach at multiple universities while still not making enough to stay above the poverty line.

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Self-degradation sustains the adjunct economy, and we see echoes of it in journalism, policy and other fields in which unpaid or underpaid labour is  increasingly the norm. It is easy to make people work for less than they are worth when they are conditioned to feel worthless.

Thomas A Benton wrote in 2004, before tackling the title question,  "Is Graduate School a Cult?":

"Although I am currently a tenure-track professor of English, I realise that nothing but luck distinguishes me from thousands of other highly-qualified PhD's in the humanities who will never have full-time academic jobs and, as a result, are symbolically dead to the academy."

Benton's answer is yes, and he offers a  list of behaviour controls used by cults - "no critical questions about leader, doctrine, or policy seen as legitimate", "access to non-cult sources of information minimised or discouraged" - that mirror the practices of graduate school. The author lived as he wrote: it was later revealed that "Thomas A Benton" was a pseudonym used by academic William Pannapacker when he wrote for the  Chronicle of Higher Education - a publication said to employ more pseudonyms than any other American newspaper. The life of the mind is born of fear.

Some may wonder why adjuncts do not get a well-paying non-academic job while they search for a tenure-track position. The answer lies in the cult-like practices Pannapacker describes. To work outside of academia, even temporarily, signals you are not "serious" or "dedicated" to scholarship. It does not matter if you are simply too poor to stay: in academia, perseverance is redefined as the ability to suffer silently or to survive on family wealth. As a result, scholars adjunct in order to retain an institutional affiliation, while the institution offers them no respect in return.

Dispensable automatons

Is academia a cult? That is debatable, but it is certainly a caste system. Outspoken academics like Pannapacker are rare: most tenured faculty have stayed silent about the adjunct crisis. "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it," wrote Upton Sinclair, the American author famous for his essays on labour exploitation. Somewhere in America, a tenured professor may be teaching his work, as a nearby adjunct holds office hours out of her car. 

On Twitter, I wondered why so many professors who study injustice ignore the plight of their peers. "They don't consider us their peers," the adjuncts wrote back. Academia likes to think of itself as a meritocracy -  which it is not - and those who have tenured jobs like to think they deserved them. They probably do - but with hundreds of applications per available position, an awful lot of deserving candidates have defaulted to the adjunct track.

The plight of the adjunct shows how personal success is not an excuse to excuse systemic failure. Success is meaningless when the system that sustained it - the higher education system - is no longer sustainable. When it falls, everyone falls. Success is not a pathway out of social responsibility.

Last week, a corporation proudly announced that it had created a  digital textbook that monitors whether students had done the reading. This followed the announcement of the  software that grades essays, which followed months of hype over MOOCs - massive online open courses - replacing classroom interaction. Professors who can gauge student engagement through class discussion are unneeded. Professors who can offer thoughtful feedback on student writing are unneeded. Professors who interact with students, who care about students, are unneeded.

 
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