Problems of Part Timers

Another study (found via KUAL) has highlighted the many problems with a heavy reliance on adjunct instructors in higher education. This has been a controversial issue for a generation at least, and where I went to grad school it was discussed ad nauseum by the graduate students who were doing the bulk of the teaching in the lower level classes. They eventually unionized, though I’m not sure they’ve ever gotten much of a benefit from that.

What impresses me about the more recent entries in the debate over part time adjuncts is the emphasis on the problems caused to the students, not just the teachers. Rhetorically, I’ve always thought arguments that teachers were being manipulated had little effect on the public. If someone wants to earn a PhD in a field with few jobs and refuses to do any other kind of work, how sympathetic is anyone supposed to be that the person has to teach six classes at three different universities to make ends meet? Other adjuncts sympathize. The rest of us just think, why don’t you go do something else then? Or, stop being such a sucker.

The average parent paying for college probably doesn’t care about the status of the college instructors, but they should care if the reliance upon and poor treatment of adjuncts means their children are less likely to graduate. The part timers and faculty unions should have been pushing this agenda all along instead of complaining that part timers don’t have tenure or academic freedom. Most workers don’t have tenure or academic freedom, so why should that bother them.

I was looking back through books like Will Teach for Food and related tomes and couldn’t help but notice the sense of entitlement driving the eventual turn to bitterness regarding the unavailability of tenure track positions. I’ve run across this a lot over the years. It’s the idea that just because you finished a PhD in some field, the world owes you a job as a professor. As long as the arguments were based upon resentment that highly educated people didn’t get the jobs that the seem to think they were owed, it’s no wonder nobody was paying attention. The success of books like Tenured Radicals and others and the inability of the professoriate to make their case to the public has in practice meant that nobody really cares about the part timer problem in academia.

Some previous arguments I’ve read have tried to paint people like me as a problem, arguing that it’s terribly important for freshman writing teachers to have tenure track jobs and PhDs in any field whatsoever. There doesn’t seem to be much evidence that that’s really the problem. The subject of a writing class is writing, and having a PhD in a field other than writing studies guarantees nothing.

It’s also that the shift in emphasis is no longer trying to make me out a villian for being a part-time writing instructor that I find attractive. The problem isn’t inherently that someone is part-time, or not tenured, or whatever. The problem for student development, according to some of these newer studies, is that the relationships with students that benefit their retention and graduation can’t be built when teachers are shuffling around between two or three universities to make ends meet. While I teach writing only part time, I’m fully a member of the university community, and in fact have more permanence than the full time writing instructors here, who are ineligible for tenure and have a maximum contract of five years. I’m not contributing to the exploitation of part-time instructors – even though I am one – because the university fully supports me and I have the time to devote to my students.

So for personal and rhetorical reasons, I’m glad for the recent shift away from complaining about the poor treatment of adjuncts – which in general is shameful, and the university administrators who treat them so badly should be publicly shamed – to showing how that poor treatment affects student learning. The problem isn’t part timers. The problem isn’t a lack of tenure. The problem isn’t that people resent not getting the kinds of jobs they think they’re owed. The problem is that the way higher education treats its part-time instructors destroys the community necessary for learning.

Some people these days seem obsessed with online univeristies and distance education. These education institutions seem more appropriate for dispensing facts and credentialing people cheaply. However, they can never replace the community that comes with student life on campus or engaging others in discussion in a seminar room. There is a level of education that requires more than the presentation of some facts and some online quizzes, and that more is lost when colleges and universities become like businesses and the instructors become like day laborers. Nobody outside of academia cares that some PhD can’t get a cushy job. They might care when the complete lack of cushy jobs means that their children aren’t graduating.