If you are thinking about graduate school, think again
Published: Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, October 10, 2012 20:10
If I told you that one or more of your professors might qualify for foods stamps, would you be surprised?
There is a rising underclass in the academic world and it goes by the inoffensive name of “adjunct.” Adjunct, sometimes known as “visiting assistant,” professors are fully qualified scholars in every sense of the term – though the proper term might be “disposable.” They are not eligible for tenure and are regularly hired on limited one-year contracts that their college is not required to renew. They do not receive benefits and too often are not considered a regular part of the university faculty. UConn employs more than its fair share of them.
They also happen to be paid less – a lot less. These hardworking educators can be paid anywhere between $2,000 – $4,500 per class per semester, with lower pay all too common. Do the math – at a generous $3,000, and teaching the regular load for tenured faculty of 4-5 classes a year, that nets a dehumanizing $15,000 dollars a year, or slightly over the federal poverty before taxes.
The numbers of adjunct faculty at universities is also growing at an alarming rate. Spurred ever on by the desire to farm out for even cheaper labor, universities are accepting graduate students well out of proportion with the actual opportunities in any given field, and employing them as TA’s in large courses for free. When they graduate, there are so many newly minted Ph.D’s available that it is easy to get them to accept a job, any job, even if it is adjunct labor. This is the vicious cycle of modern academia that your advisors haven’t told you about.
Any sane person can see this is unsustainable, but there are few within college administrations, lured by their lower pay and often compelled by budget cutbacks. Presidents everywhere continue to hire temporary faculty at a rate drastically outpacing tenure-track hires. An estimated 67 percent of all professors at public universities are temporary workers. All the while, the howls of frustration from this exploited and invisible class are collected online, on websites like Adjunct Project and College Misery. Is it any wonder, then, that many are looking to college as the next big bubble about to burst?
But not everyone sees this as an entirely bad thing. I spoke with Roger Travis Jr., tenured professor of classics – and my advisor – about the issue. He sees the decline of the tenured professor as an opportunity for substantive change: “This system we’ve had for the past few hundred years is going away - and that’s good,” he said. Travis sees the shift towards part-time labor as an inevitable shift in how we think of universities and a college education.
He’s not alone. The New York Times reported recently on the rising trend of online classes and their potential to change the game. It is undeniable that online courses will change the way that faculty relate to the university, at least. There have also been serious and compelling proposals for a dramatic reformation of the university itself: these include the abolition of departments, tenure, and traditional degrees. These would be replaced with program and area concentrations, seven-year faculty contracts and new credentialing systems. All must be considered to make teaching at the post-secondary level an option once again.
But, to put it callously, this does nothing for me. Or for you, if you have always dreamed of an academic life. Still the ranks of adjuncts grow, and the adjuncts themselves grow more miserable. It is not clear what can be done for those already trapped in the system, though Travis suggests that any current grad students immediately check out the world of alt.ac, or Alternate Academia, where Ph.D’s who reject the gristmill work together to create new opportunities for the untenured and unappreciated. As for potential students?
“Realize that you’ve been in school all your life,” Travis carefully responds, “and that the misery you will put yourself through if you go to grad school is much more avoidable than you think it is.”
Some comfort. But perhaps it is time to adapt to this new reality or maybe to consider changing things ourselves. Our professors deserve better, and we can and should do something for those that come after us, too. If you think this doesn’t affect you, ask yourself whether or not you want your favorite professor to have to live this way.
I didn’t think so.