Two recent stories involving adjunct instructors have made clear something that most of us in higher education have known for a long time: most Americans, whether college graduates or not, have absolutely no idea how college-level instruction operates in the US.
The first story involved Alex Morse, whom members of the University of Massachusetts Amherst College Democrats claim acted inappropriately because he dated undergraduates (who were not his own students) at that college, while teaching a single class as an adjunct instructor, in his early twenties. The ensuing scandal revolved around the “power over students” Morse allegedly wielded as an adjunct instructor, which, as anyone who has been blessed with this dubious title would know, is laughable, at best. (The accusation was entirely unfounded and may have been motivated by politicking.)
The second story involved an Emerson undergraduate who confronted her instructor, posted their correspondence on Twitter and tagged the college, for allegedly not having enough authors of color on his syllabus. The instructor’s reply was a tad snippy: “If you are dissatisfied with the syllabus, I suggest you drop the course,” but we should bear in mind that there is a good chance that he spent the past month or so turning his normal course into a remote learning class, which probably took many weeks of stressful planning, troubleshooting, and instruction from chairs and colleagues—and, as an adjunct, this extra preparation probably went uncompensated. Those attacking the adjunct instructor seemed wholly unaware of this.
Adjunct instructors are some of the most exploited workers in America. We invest considerable time and labor—and acquire hefty loans to pay for the required master’s degree—so that we can make poverty wages, receive zero benefits, no job security and very little hope of a full-time position. This is pervasive across higher education in the US. According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), more than half of all faculty appointments at American universities are now part-time and more than 70% of all instructional staff hold non-tenure-track positions. Over the past forty years the number of full-time tenured and tenure-track faculty has dropped from 45% of all faculty in 1975 to 30% in 2015. The number of contingent faculty has risen by the same percentage: from 55% of all faculty in 1975 to 70% in 2015.
As the AAUP points out, this does not mean that adjunct instructors are working part-time: many of us teach more classes than full-time faculty, sometimes at several colleges, instructing hundreds of students per year without a teaching assistant, in order to make ends meet. We often hold second or third jobs as well, because, even with our overburdened teaching loads, we cannot make a half-decent living. A 2020 study by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) found that “Nearly 25 percent of adjunct faculty members rely on public assistance, and 40 percent struggle to cover basic household expenses.” The study also found that close to a third of adjuncts make less than $25,000 per year, putting them below the federal poverty line for a four-person family, and another third make less than $50,000 per year. There’s more: 20% of contingent faculty rely on Medicare for their healthcare provider, while 45% have recently put off important health care needs due to cost. The picture is clear: the vast majority of instructors in American higher education are living on an economic knife edge—with all the stresses and degradations that go along with this class position.
Why then do so many people think that college instructors have power over students and institutions? Well, adjunct instructors do have some power. They control and set standards for their courses, assuming their department doesn’t dictate this to them. They are in charge of assigning grades to their students and can, in small ways, affect their academic and professional careers. In many departments, feedback from contingent faculty is welcomed, though rarely taken into serious consideration, and there are adjunct councils and liaisons in many, if not most, colleges. But there are many recourses for any student who is dissatisfied with her instructor’s performance, pedagogical approach or disposition. Often, because of the ridiculous cost of higher education in America, the student is placed in the role of customer and the instructor is placed in the role of employee and an attitude of the customer is always right pervades administrative discussions.
But the more important reason is that this subject is not discussed much in American politics, media or classrooms—for good reason. Even Bernie Sanders, who made tuition-free college one of the major planks of his 2016 and 2020 presidential runs, more often focused on the plight of students than instructors. This obfuscation benefits the institutions that would invariably like to continue exploiting their contingent faculty and facilitates students’ beliefs that they are getting the best possible education from instructors who are leading cushy, middle-class lifestyles. This is one of the most maddening ironies of being an adjunct instructor.
There is a lack of class analysis here.
The case of the Emerson instructor provides a clear example of how racial politics can lead people to believe they are attacking powerful adversaries when, in reality, they’re helping perpetuate the abuse and oppression that working people face on a daily basis. There are serious racial inequities in American academia. The problem is how administrators choose to close these inequity gaps—or at least appear as if they were closing them.
In the Kabuki theatre that is equity training at most colleges and universities, hundreds of contingent faculty members—who make poverty wages, receive no benefits, can be fired at the college’s slightest whim and often have to work several jobs to make a lower-middle-class income—often have to sit in a room all day listening to a diversity, inclusion or equity expert talk about how they need to address their implicit biases and micro-aggressions. Faculty are encouraged to examine their equity report, which shows how many white students they passed over the years and how many from marginalized backgrounds. If there are disparities in favor of white students, instructors are encouraged to consider why they fail more students of color and if this might be because they are implicitly racist.
The administration and their diversity experts, who are often paid hefty sums of money to facilitate these activities, are in effect requesting that the instructors do more labor. Some adjuncts are paid hourly to attend these trainings, but there will be no compensation when it comes to implementing these techniques in the classroom and the administration will continue to treat adjuncts as second-class citizens, but, as they often remind us, it is our duty as educators to undertake this emotional work. We’re asked to plumb the depths of our souls for our racist inclinations, drag them out into the light and try to eradicate them—a task, that Robin DiAngelo reminds us, can never actually be accomplished.
This puts the onus of addressing serious racial inequities onto individuals. The diversity experts have become so good at their jobs that they’ll even preempt discussion by saying that they’re not asking you to solve racism: they’re just asking you to recognize that you are a racist. In the classroom, this labor often translates into having one-on-one meetings with students, chasing them down for missed work, being flexible with due dates, and developing more understanding when it comes to classroom conduct issues. Most instructors, myself included, are happy to do this work to a certain extent, because we care about students, but the demoralizing effect that it has on contingent faculty when an administrator or colleague claims that they’re not doing their jobs is palpable.
Similarly, when an undergraduate learns that her teacher is white and male and reads this as power and privilege, with zero consideration as to the class position of this instructor, she is, whether knowingly or unknowingly, feeding into a system that would much prefer to divide people up along race lines than to bring them together through class consciousness.
The condescending, elitist posturing of the college professor is gradually dying away in twenty-first-century America and many instructors and administrators are, rightly, now advocating a more learner-centered approach. But this requires more labor from instructors who are already paid far too little. Until adjunct faculty are fairly compensated for their labor, requiring them to not only fulfill the basic requirements of their jobs, but also to accommodate their class policies to meet each student’s unique struggles, is, at best, punching at ghosts; at worst, it papers over the systematic class warfare that is perpetrated in American classrooms every single school year.