Friday, August 23, 2013

Dr. Amelia Wants to Know...

I got an email recently from the Hamsterfurweaving Weaving World Congress' interest group on fur conditioners about a colleague who lost his adjunct position and was now in extremely bad financial straits. Like close to homeless. He was older, and unlikely to re-tool for another career, hadn't saved for retirement due to many years of freeway fl ying, and wanted some help to get to a part-time gig he had in another part of the country. It wasn't much - it's a big group, so assuming quite a few people participate, it would be like funding a Kickstarter. The request didn't come from the faculty member in need, but from someone I do know professionally. So I guess it's legit.

I have so many questions. But the big ones are this:

The request led to a lot of discussion about how the Affordable Care Act states that if faculty get paid for 9 hours, the institution has to provide them with health care. Instead of doing so, many, many adjuncts are either getting hours cut or are getting let go entirely.

1. Whose fault is this? The government, for putting the university in that situation? The university for putting the adjunct in that situation? The adjunct for putting themselves in that situation? Doctoral programs for producing too many workers for too few jobs?

2. What are the long-term impacts for the education we provide? It seems like if you must use adjuncts, experienced adjuncts are better, right? But these kind of restrictions on hours make it less likely that people will be able to keep an academic career together, as they must work at even more institutions. And since we are supposed to be making education less expensive, how does that work under this model?


  1. Blame all and none of the above. Everybody you mentioned played a hand in creating the current state of affairs. However, each group was looking out for their own self interest, which is expected, understandable and defensible.

    Your second question is wotth discussing, though I suspect that conditions in academia are changing in ways that make the future hard to predict. How we can make today's system work could be irrelevant if tomorrow's system is very different.

  2. I've run into this exact issue this semester. As an adjunct I am limited in the hours I can teach. I do not need health care (my partner as excellent benefits) and I wish their were a way to wave those benefits. I just need money. In the end my department chair somehow got them to allow me 12 hours this semester after who knows what kind of battle (or perhaps the lack of enough bodies?) she engaged in and what this means for next semester. Whole systems sucks and I have no clue how to fix it!

  3. How old is "older"? My pity for a person of middle age and older that hasn't managed to find work that supports themselves is limited. Especially if that person is a guy who probably didn't abandon his career to take care of kids.

    I'm of course assuming that the person in question isn't mentally handicapped or has some other difficulty. If they've just managed their lives poorly--well, throwing a bit of money at them at this point is absolutely not going to help, unless you plan on taking this sad sack under your collective wing in perpetuity. Doctoral programs do indeed produce too many graduates. Universities do indeed abuse them. But at a certain point a person has to take responsibility for themselves and attempt to find work that will pay the bills and provide a modicum of retirement. Someone smart and educated enough to teach college has the skills to do that.

    Cobbling together a "career" as an adjunct into middle age and beyond, expecting that to serve as your main source of support in perpetuity, is just bumfuck stupid. You can take up a collection for him that may buy him another month or so, but you cannot fix stupid.

    It is not necessary to use adjuncts. They are not a "must". Not if you budget enough money for ft lines. People say it's "necessary" but it's not. Universities do it because they CAN, not because it's "necessary." It's amazing how much money will show up to expand a stadium or create new administrative positions. Believe me, if universities could hire skilled workers at less than minimum wage to expand stadiums they would. If they could hire adjunct administrators they would. They can't. So they don't. Then they say they "have" to hire adjuncts. Bull. Shit.

    The answer to all of this is to fight the use of adjuncts every step of the way.

    1. Also, I'm as prey to the inertia/preference for familiarity that keeps people in jobs that aren't really good for them long past the time they should have quit as the next person, but helping somebody move to take up a part-time teaching gig strikes me as enabling an unwise decision. He may have limited retooling options, but there's got to be some sort of job in the teaching/tutoring/training area that would use his skills. Also, at this point, if he's going to move, he needs to do so with an eye to better cost of living/a better social safety net/a wider of job opportunities, not in response to a single part-time job (maybe he has done this; in that case, I'm being a bit unfair. But from Amelia's description, this sounds more like someone who's stuck in a rut, and determined to dig it deeper. Hey! we've got another round of unsolicited advice going).

  4. On the point about the Affordable Care Act I guess that the cutting down hours or firing part-time faculty is an unintended (hopefully) effect of the law itself. It is really hard to figure out how the government could have gone around this, unless they had gone for an European-style tax-supported universal health care system.
    There's a valid argument against uncontrolled government expansion, but the present solution -- a bizantine and unaffordable antimonopoly-law-shielded insurance-companies behemoth -- is not probably the best solution to the problem of affordable health care. A similar case would be the privatization of defense through Blackwater-like defense contractors: it creates more problems than it solves and evades public control.
    (Yes, we love long sentences across the pond).

  5. From where I sit (in a state whose governor is determined to see the Affordable Care Act fail, or at least wreak as much havoc on as many lives as he can possibly wring out of it through state-level regulations), I'm also thinking that these are unintended consequences of an otherwise-worthy law, which I hope will eventually work out in practice.

    My other thought (from the admittedly-privileged perspective of someone who currently has a full-time teaching job, and wouldn't go back to adjuncting if she didn't -- well, no more than one section, for the library privileges) is that anything that forces adjuncts to look for other options, especially as the economy seems to be improving, and/or that makes it harder for universities to find enough adjuncts to fill their open seats, though it will be very painful in the short run for the wrong people (adjuncts, students, department-level administrators who never wanted to overuse adjuncts in the first place), may be a good thing in the longer term.

    Somehow the system needs to change, and I can see only two possible pressure points: (1)students and parents demanding that their tuition dollars go to paying full-time, decently-compensated faculty for classes at all levels, and choosing institutions of higher learning that employ such a system over those that don't, and/or (2)faculty refusing to work for adjunct wages. Only #2 is fully under faculty control -- and, in fact, is only under the control of adjunct faculty themselves; departmental-level administrators aren't really in a position, in most cases, to say that they won't hire adjuncts, but they can tell higher-level administrators that they simply can't find enough qualified adjuncts willing to work under the conditions being offered -- if that is in fact the case. The danger, of course, is that higher-level administrators will then pressure them to use less-qualified instructors, perhaps in the context of larger classes that leverage the qualifications of a single Ph.D. instructor-of-record for accreditation purposes, but that is the sort of thing that department-level tenure-track faculty are, or at least should be, in a position to resist, at least as long as they're willing to resist any carrots -- more research time! grad classes to teach! -- that upper-level administrators may dangle.

    1. CC excellent points! I know that when I get a full-time job I am going to be done adjuncting. I am applying furiously to industry and teaching positions. I feel like the hiring of adjuncts is a disservice to the students and the money they/their parents spend. That said I am grateful for the opportunity to learn how to be fully responsible for a class, but this is not a long term job for anyone (or it should not be).


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