The Academic 'Labor System'M
(Can you think of a more boring title for a blog post)
It's taken me over a week to work up even this lame response to this post by Conscientious Objector that responds to the things I was discussing below about grad school, etc. I've got a pile of papers to grade, the final draft of the JRRT Encyclopedia Table of Contents to complete (almost 1000 entry topics thus far), and a paper to give in Vermont in a week that still needs a lot of work. But it's rude to be silent so long, and I apologize to Objector and anyone else reading the exchange.
But although I see where Objector is coming from, I'm afraid I can't agree with the analysis given in the post. There are two problems being mixed: the "oversupply" of graduate students in comparison to the jobs they want, and the existence of the adjunct system. I think the first is not really a problem because I stand by my comparison to the arts, sports and entertainment: there is an oversupply because being a professor is a very desireable job. In that situation, more people will want to take a gamble on that job, despite the comparitively low pay (versus other jobs that require similar training) and difficult odds of success. I don't think academia is a Ponzi scheme any more than the entertainment business, and if you think adjuncting sucks and is dead-end, compare it to trooping from audition to audition with no guarantee of any positive result, even if you've ponied up your money to get your Equity card.
Objector says that graduate students overvalue their investment because they don't understand the market, but I'm not sure I can agree: I knew exactly how bad the market was when I decided to go to graduate school for my Ph.D. (I'd already gotten one M.A. and was working on my second), and in fact the year I got my job there were 127 applicants for my particular job, and only 25 medieval jobs in the job list. But getting a Ph.D. seemed worth the gamble because, like all the young, ambitious people hoping to get a foot in the door in entertainment, I was sure I could win, and because the actual process of going to grad school seemed better than other alternatives at that moment. I think most people make similar choices, and when you choose to take the gamble, you have to have back-up plans and be prepared to live with the results (if I wasn't a professor now, I'd be running a pet store somewhere, either just finally setting out on my own or getting ready to. Seriously. That was the plan and I moved forward on it while in grad school. But I digress.)
The other question is whether the adjunct system is exploitive or not. Since we don't have many adjuncts at Wheaton, and we don't have graduate students teaching classes, etc., I don't know this system first hand as much as most. But it seems to me there are different categories of 'exploitation,' and some are worse than others. The worst, in my opinion, is the hiring of multiple adjuncts so as to avoid having to pay full-time benefits. This seems morally wrong to me, and stupidly inefficient: if you need five classes taught, hire one person for five classes, not five different people. We have tried very hard (and at least this year, succeeded) at Wheaton to avoid this.
But we simply don't have the resources to create the five new tenure lines that we'd need, just in English, to cover all of the classes that get covered right now (our department is 11; there's no money for such a huge increase). We can only hire people full time if we have the guaranteed resources for a tenure line (i.e., the college accounting people can project a suitable revenue stream 30 years into the future. Rumor has it that the college had to raise $250,000 for each new tenure line it added during the recent period of growth, and that number is only so low because Wheaton relies much more heavily on annual funds versus endowment compared to other schools).
So we could do a few things: eliminate most lit. classes and all teach 4 (out of five classes) English 101's. That seems like an intellectual impoverishment for the students. We could cut the number of English 101's in half, using some kind of test to pick out 50% of the students, saying they don't need English 101. We could elminate English 101 and say that students need to learn that material in high school and tough luck if they don't. Or we can see if there are people around who want to teach English 101 for a wage that the college can afford.
At Wheaton the rule is that there is no such thing as a non-tenure-track, full-time teaching job. If you teach the full course load, you are making progress towards tenure. So theoretically we have no second-class citizens (i.e., no full-time, non-tenure track jobs), but instead a fair number of third-class citizens (adjuncts who couldn't even get full-time work and thus no health insurance, etc., even if they could piece together work from multiple institutions).
Our solution, imperfect as it was, was to lump together adjunct positions into 4 classes plus some tutoring or administrative responsibility. The adjuncts thus got full-time benefits (and now, multi-year contracts), but didn't go 'tenure track' because they were doing other things than teaching. They're not expected to do committee work, teach indep. studies, attend events (though they're of course welcome). We negotiated pay packages that were much better than the 3000 per class that adjuncts got (i.e., they don't get $12,000 for four classes).
Is this exploitation? I don't know. And I don't know if I'd feel exploited if I took such a job. But again, I don't think it's as bad as the situation in many other occupations. Adjuncts at Wheaton do have a foot in the door for tenure lines that open up, and at least four of our eleven in the department have started this way and have had tenure lines eventually open up (though they had to go through the whole search procedure, etc.)
Do big schools, and places where teaching is less important, exploit people more? Probably. But I don't know first-hand. Our Writing Associates are excellent, and they do a great job, but they don't put in nearly as many hours as I do (nor should they). Then again, I put in a lot more hours on campus than people at big universities (somehow I manage to publish just as much, or more, though, but that's another blog post). Their contracts are infinitely renewable (though not guaranteed beyond however many years are on there); if I'd not made my tenure, I'd have gotten the boot.
Does the 'adjunct system' enable the entire academic system? Definitely not. Most departments at Wheaton don't have any adjuncts and, as I pointed out above, if we had to elminate adjunct positions, the department could cope. Maybe things are different at places with graduate students and no emphasis on teaching, but I wonder if those places couldn't adjust if they had to.
This comes back to the supply/demand problem. More people want the things that come with a college job and environment than there are jobs for them. The 'adjunct system' allows them to have some of those things. Would I have made that trade-off? (of financial security, etc. for the college environment?) probably not, since I was interested in the pet trade. But I know people who've taken significant pay cuts (in IT, for example, and a friend who does landscaping) to work in the college environment, so there are other compensations even for underpaid, overworked adjuncts. I think the Wheaton model suggests ways to be more humane, to stop people from having to juggle three or four jobs, and to get a better working environment (and we got those things because we argued that it was better for the students). It would be great if there were more money in the system, but I've seen the budget: there isn't, and our students pay 30K per year. But again, I think the parallel is entertainment, or sports, or publishing: people want to get paid for doing what they love and so often accept very low pay. I just can't see it as a boot in the face.