Academia's Indentured Servants
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On April 8, 2013, the New York Times reported that 76 percent of American university faculty are adjunct professors - an all-time high. Unlike tenured faculty, whose annual salaries can top $160,000, adjunct professors make an average of $2,700 per course and receive no health care or other benefits.
Most adjuncts teach at multiple universities while still not making enough to stay above the poverty line. Some are on welfare or homeless. Others depend on charity drives held by their peers. Adjuncts are generally not allowed to have offices or participate in faculty meetings. When they ask for a living wage or benefits, they can be fired. Their contingent status allows them no recourse.
No one forces a scholar to work as an adjunct. So why do some of America's brightest PhDs - many of whom are authors of books and articles on labour, power, or injustice - accept such terrible conditions?
"Path dependence and sunk costs must be powerful forces," speculates political scientist Steve Saidemen in a post titled " The Adjunct Mystery". In other words, job candidates have invested so much time and money into their professional training that they cannot fathom abandoning their goal - even if this means living, as Saidemen says, like "second-class citizens". (He later downgraded this to "third-class citizens".)
With roughly 40 percent of academic positions eliminated since the 2008 crash, most adjuncts will not find a tenure-track job. Their path dependence and sunk costs will likely lead to greater path dependence and sunk costs - and the costs of the academic job market are prohibitive. Many job candidates must shell out thousands of dollars for a chance to interview at their discipline's annual meeting, usually held in one of the most expensive cities in the world. In some fields, candidates must pay to even see the job listings.
Given the need for personal wealth as a means to entry, one would assume that adjuncts would be even more outraged about their plight. After all, their paltry salaries and lack of departmental funding make their job hunt a far greater sacrifice than for those with means. But this is not the case. While efforts at labour organisation are emerging, the adjunct rate continues to soar - from 68 percent in 2008, the year of the economic crash, to 76 percent just five years later.
Contingency has become permanent, a rite of passage to nowhere.
A two-fold crisis
The adjunct plight is indicative of a two-fold crisis in education and in the American economy. On one hand, we have the degradation of education in general and higher education in particular. It is no surprise that when 76 percent of professors are viewed as so disposable and indistinguishable that they are listed in course catalogues as "Professor Staff", administrators view computers which grade essaysas a viable replacement. Those who promote inhumane treatment tend to not favour the human.
On the other hand, we have a pervasive self-degradation among low-earning academics - a sweeping sense of shame that strikes adjunct workers before adjunct workers can strike. In a tirade for Slatesubtitled "Getting a literature PhD will turn you into an emotional trainwreck, not a professor", Rebecca Schuman writes:
"By the time you finish - if you even do - your academic self will be the culmination of your entire self, and thus you will believe, incomprehensibly, that not having a tenure-track job makes you worthless. You will believe this so strongly that when you do not land a job, it will destroy you."