Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Plight of the Adjunct Professor: Is There An Equitable Remedy?

The world of academia is indeed somewhat strange to those who may peer from the outside in. Why, for example, at so many universities does one see TAs (graduate student teaching assistants) giving important introductory courses while the "hot shots" (tenured profs, often with multiple prizes or Nobels to their names) huddle in their offices pouring over abstruse research papers? Well, because the latter are the ones bringing in "the coppers" via grant money or donations, or whatnot. In addition, they are the ones providing the university with its name cachet - by way of published research that also makes its way to the media. (Not always with accurate results!)

Stranger still is the plight of the adjunct professor, hired part time to teach only a discrete number of credit hours in one or two particular courses and without any job security, benefits - and barely earning a minimum wage in many cases. This has only come to the fore recently with a widely circulated article, 'The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps', published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. See:


Add to that economic denigration the fact that non-tenured track instructors have been found to be superior instructors to tenure track profs - according to a recent study from Northwester University.  Neither is this the only study to find this..  In their book, Off Track Profs: Nontenured Teachers in Higher Education John G. Cross and Edie N. Goldenberg studied student evaluations at 10 "elite" universities from 1989 to 2001. The authors concluded that non-tenure track profs "sometimes, but not always" obtain higher scores than other types of instructors.

Of course, any studies based on student evaluations ought to be treated with some degree of skepticism. My own experience, especially in the States, is that most students lack the proper maturity and judgment to deliver an objective assessment of a professor's worth, or competence.  One recent letter writer to The New York Times (Sunday Review, p. 2, Nov. 17), a professor at St. John's University School of Law, observed aptly:

"Student evaluations can be manipulated. I get better evaluations when I hand out doughnuts during the classes when students fill out evaluations, even if I announce that I am attempting to affect results."

He adds that "adjuncts have a greater incentive to manipulate evaluations than tenured faculty" which is no doubt true in many cases. After all, lose that adjunct job - as "lower caste" as it's perceived to be and it becomes less likely you will keep the 'Wolf" from the door, in the form of the collection agencies.

The Law prof also is spot on when he observes (ibid.):

"While students are able to evaluate some things other important matters are beyond their ability to evaluate. For example, students cannot be expected to know when professors make inaccurate statements or skip over important points."

Another thing I found, in my brief stint as a Calculus physics adjunct (soon after returning to the U.S. from Barbados in 1992) is that too many students expect high grades even when they haven't earned them. They therefore see the evaluation as a means to "punish" the prof who didn't deliver what they believed they deserved - but in fact hadn't turned in labs for 3 weeks and even when they did left half of the experiments unreported, documented or explained. Yet they believed they ought to get a 'B' just for turning them in!

So here I must also agree with the St. Johns prof that "student evaluations are a better measure of popularity than competence."

In other words, adjuncts may certainly be better teachers than the tenured profs but studies independent of student evaluations are needed to prove it.

So why are the adjuncts treated so shabbily and is there anything that can be done to change that? If we know the reasons for the first, then we might be able to provide solutions.

A clue appears in the  article The Disposable Academic in the December 18, 2010 issue of The Economist  p. 156). The  piece concludes the Ph.D. degree is now all but useless and people essentially are investing a sizeable amount of money on a faint future chance of betterment - that never materializes. How or why has this come to be?  The reasons are complex and not always well understood. In the U.S. at least, the reasons are twofold: a) a current glut of Ph.D.s and b) inadequate research funding to support them.

The most forthright answer in terms of (b) was also proffered in the Times' Letters, which was:

"We cannot afford to pay adjunct faculty as much as tenured track faculty because their jobs generally don't include bringing in external dollars to keep the whole enterprise going. At a time when state legislatures keep cutting back on resources to universities, I don't see that we will be able to resolve the discrepancy any time soon."

This probably is the kind of statement that resonates with the cliché "the truth hurts". But there it is. In the case of astronomy, we in The American Astronomical Society are regularly besieged with dire warnings of the pressures brought to bear by budgetary constraints on astronomy and astrophysics jobs. An editorial in one AAS Newsletter noted, for example, that more than 6 out of 10 jobs for Ph.D. degrees in astronomy are "outside the academic marketplace". The percentage is slightly better (5 of 10) for Masters recipients.

This reflects the other aspect that so many continue to want to get the magic letters behind their names - producing more than the academic market can absorb. As with the normal labor pool, this creates a "labor surplus" that paves the way for poverty level wages (forcing food stamp applications) because universities find it cheaper to get the teaching job done with adjuncts. They leave the research and grant scavenging to the tenured.

The solution then appears to be obvious, although those aspiring to Ph.D.s may not like it: that is, stop glutting the market with higher degrees! Let the law of supply and demand work in your favor, and let the absence engender a labor shortage which the universities will then have to fill. (They may be able to do so with TAs up to a point, but not entirely, just as they can't use RAs entirely in the research environment.)

Ph.D. students themselves often pass as cheap labor, especially in American universities where they must double as research or teaching assistants. In the first case, they basically do all the scut work and research on behalf of the supervisor who ultimately may claim most of the credit for the work. As a teaching assistant, the Ph.D. student gets to grade all the primary staff's papers and hold tutorials. Most Ph.D. students - as I was- rightfully describe it as "slave labor" - given you're working seven days a week and 10 hours a day for a menial "assistantship".  Free time? Don't make me laugh!

According to The Economist article, 43% in the U.S. leave a program without finishing the Ph.D. The reasons again are as diverse as there are candidates: being enmeshed in negative office politics, philosophical clashes with one's advisor, exploitation by one's advisor (e.g. to get you to write papers to which s/he can attach his or her name and exclude yours), and poor organization of the department. But also noted in the same article, research has shown "those who finish the Ph.D. are no cleverer than those who do not.. Poor supervision, bad job prospects or lack of money cause them to run out of steam".

Meanwhile, those who do leave a Ph.D. program often have much more success in finding a non-academic job that pays well but that is also satisfying. The Ph.D.'ers, on the other hand, find a lack of jobs for their specific high credentials, and end up on food stamps while doing adjunct work. Who are you going to cry for more?

The sad fact today for the aspiring Ph.D. is that even if they make it through their sundry hurdles there are no assurances of glory...or academic jobs, at the end.  The wonderful futures they imagined as tenured profs sitting in their hallowed offices in the halls of ivy may turn out to be pipe dreams They may instead have to look forward to a lifetime of peripatetic adjunct teaching, scraping together many hours at different institutions just to make ends meet - just to avoid food stamps.

I don't see this changing any time soon, so long as states continue to cut funding, especially for higher education. State universities are then forced to "catch as catch can" by grabbing as many grant -seeking tenured profs as available, leaving the adjuncts to the low paid teaching jobs. Bear in mind the lower funding thresholds mean more private assistance is needed and also that fewer research opportunities are available. It also means that corporate funders are more likely to insinuate into the fabric of academia today. And so we see outrages like "studies" showing "millions more need statin drugs" - because academic research funded by Big PhRMa disclosed it.

Hopeful Ph.D.s already serving a adjuncts can at least take heart concerning one reality: The tenured profs can't last forever, Eventually they will die out and the universities will need to replace them. Unfortunately, no one knows how long that will take.

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