Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Cog's Eye View

Academic Cog has a very interesting post on contingent academic labor from the vantage point of a TA working under an adjunct lecturer. Academic Cog writes:

... huge numbers of classes are being taught by people who know they are here only temporarily and who already have an eye on the future and one foot out the door, frantically scrambling to grab a permanent position. Because the adjunct positions are there permanently, only with different individuals cycled in and out of them, what the university ends up with is instructors who are permanently job seeking and distracted. If you put 30 hours a week on an intensive and draining job search, how much time are you going to put in additionally to a job that pays you crap wages? How will that time break down per student given the class sizes?

In short, why invest any more time or effort or collegiality or service into a university that is investing practically nothing in you?
This is yet another face of the current reliance on contingent faculty to teach an ever increasing share of college classes. There are very good reasons to limit the number of years a university can exploit a particular adjunct at starvation wages (and to my mind the fewer years the better -- zero would be ideal). But as Academic Cog notes, the adjunct positions themselves are there permanently. This means that there is revolving door of new faces occupying these underpaid and overworked positions. The result of this is that the institution is buying faculty who cannot afford to invest the time and effort into their teaching that everyone involved -- students, administrators, TA's, other faculty, and not least the adjunct faculty member him or herself -- wishes to be able to devote to teaching.

This is why the question of adjuncts and accreditation begins to loom so large. Adjunct use creates structural limitations on the quality of instruction -- through no fault of the hard working adjunct faculty themselves. Unlike Confessions of a Community College Dean (CCCD), I think linking university accreditation with limits on the use of contingent labor is exactly the right place to apply pressure. Universities cannot be expected to resist the lure of cheap contingent faculty labor without some equally powerful disincentive. Accreditation provides universities with a materially relevant reason to limit their use of adjunct faculty. Moral arguments alone against this exploitation are always doomed to fail when confronted with the realities of a limited budget.

CCCD is rightly concerned, though, that externally imposed limits on the number of adjuncts allowed will simply encourage institutions to game the system and may even force some institutions to increase their use of adjuncts up to the legal limit. This is why I think it will still be necessary to eliminate the existing wage differentials between contingent and tenure-track faculty. As long as adjuncts can be hired on the cheap and without benefits, institutions will continue to exploit them. In fact, the fiduciary responsibilities of an institution's administrators will virtually demand it. Therefore, a twin-pronged strategy focusing on linking accreditation with minimizing adjunct use, coupled with raising adjunct salaries seems necessary.

As to CCCD's other concern about the relevance of limiting adjunct use to the goals of accreditation itself, there is Marc Bousquet's recent article in Inside Higher Ed. CCCD writes:
More to the point, what is the point of accreditation? I've always understood it as a way of assuring prospective students that the institution is what it says it is, rather than some fly-by-night operation. To the extent that it's really about the students, I'm not entirely sure what a magic cutoff number for adjuncts has to do with it.
As Marc Bousquet writes:
First-year students are more likely to persist to their sophomore year when high-stakes “gate-keeper” courses are taught by permanent faculty, and campus unions generate significantly greater undergraduate experience of tenure-stream faculty, observe two studies just released at the annual convention of the American Education Research Association.
This can be coupled with other findings that show that:
A national analysis of graduation and program completion rates at community colleges has found that institutions with higher percentages of full-time faculty members have higher completion rates.
And student retention and persistence to graduation are certainly legitimate and appropriate concerns for accreditation.

Or you can simply look again at the situation faced by Academic Cog who, as the TA for an overworked and underpaid adjunct, sees firsthand the ways students get short-changed by these working conditions:
You know what they call the TA who makes up for this situation by putting in extra time and effort to actually teach the students something about writing and critical thinking and writes lots of insightful, constructive comments on drafts and essays?



  1. Brilliant post. This should go in IHE and the Chronicle!!!

  2. I'm glad you like the post Zero. And now it looks like IHE has taken you up on your suggestion too.

    There is also another issue raised by Cog's situation that hasn't been discussed yet, and that's the apprentice aspect for teaching that TA positions are supposed to provide. Being a TA for another beginning teacher doesn't quite do that job. And short changing grad students on their already minimal teacher training doesn't seem a good policy for anyone.

  3. This is the thing & it's something we talked about a lot when I was in graduate school and we were unionizing.

    I was a T.A. for an adjunct a couple of times, in large lecture classes, and it was a strange experience because I was an advanced graduate student in a long program by that point, had already been a T.A. in 2 disciplines, etc., and it was very odd: the adjunct had less teaching experience than most of the T.A.'s, wasn't that well prepared, wanted to give everyone A's, didn't want to go after plagiarists, etc., so I didn't learn a great deal about teaching from the experience - although this didn't really matter in my case since I had other experience and it beat being a barista or something for the summer. Ah yes, and another summer I was a T.A. in a program directed by a burned-out instructor. This again was OK since the other T.A.'s were cool and we knew what we were doing, and the instructor was only administrating the program, not teaching in it - and we were paid pretty well. Still, one would have learned more with a professor in charge.

    On the other hand, I was also a T.A. for another much more advanced T.A. and this experience was fantastic. This T.A. is now a very renowned person and it was already clear she would be; what she was doing with the course was really responsible but also really original and innovative, and it turned out to be one of my important formative teaching and learning experiences.

    But the apprenticeship question brings one to the real crux of the issue: low T.A. pay is justified because one is "learning," but one is in the process of gaining experience in *any* job one does,
    and many T.A.'s keep teaching the same or similar courses. As in, I taught a foreign language for a few
    years and English composition for a few years, as a T.A. Those courses are to some degree formulaic and after the first year or so the learning curve on teaching is not very steep - you've already figured out how to do it, and the next semester you go and do it again with minor adjustments. At that point I do not think the "apprenticeship" justification for low pay is a very good one.

  4. In my view, a lower than living wage is never justified, even for those just learning. But you are right that even that even that excuse evaporates once graduate programs are pushed to the point of needing grad student labor just to cover their courses, rather than allowing grad students to teach as part of their graduate education.

  5. Yes. Back when I was in graduate school, especially in the early days, the T.A. salary was a living wage - not for a fancy lifestyle, but you could do it. And we only taught one course. Now people teach two courses and still have to take out loans.