January 27, 2014

Adjunct Narratives

Filed under: writing — jrice @ 3:51 pm

First person narratives about the adjunct experience in academia are being published – it seems – daily. Today, I came across a link from a Facebook friend about a Fairbanks, Alaska adjunct on food stamps.  A link to a story about motherhood and adjuncting was also shared with me today. The Chronicle of Higher Education has become the mouthpiece for such narratives, all of which are anti-tenure track faculty and all of which believe in the great injustice that has been done within higher education. I read this narratives almost every day. I’m interested in the rhetoric of narrative, so whatever I feel about the adjunct experience, I am interested in how adjuncts are telling their story.

Why now? Why the sudden proliferation of adjunct narratives, a frenzy of pieces that rival the popularity of online essays regarding MOOCs a year ago. During that period, one couldn’t avoid either a hyperbolic praising of MOOCs or a dismissal of MOOCs in any given business or education online outlet. That frenzy is now a trickle of updates. It has died down.

Why are news outlets giving so much room to the adjunct narrative all of a sudden? The adjunct problem has long been with us. Exploitation of teaching in the university is hardly new. Have publications merely woken up to this sleeping audience of readers, as Slate seems to have done with some hyperbolic and uniformed pieces? And what are these narratives trying to achieve as they tell their stories of failed expectation, financial struggle, food stamp dependence, and feelings of disenfranchisement?

  • Sympathy. A readership, it seems, will sympathize with the adjunct plight once the readership understands or learns about how awful things really are. I’m not really sure, though, that the strategy works. Within academia, adjunct exploitation is not a new problem. Within the general public, the issue doesn’t seem to raise much thought or action. Few people vote for their state representatives (who control university allocations) based on education issues.  Have any pieces swayed a popular uprising against how students are being taught? I’ve always felt, as well, that this strategy can backfire. If the general public sees (as if they don’t know ) that their children are being taught by underpaid instructors with – at times – minimal degree qualifications, will the public demand higher salaries and benefits for those instructors, or will the public demand that their tuition dollars go instead to having their children study with the tenured faculty, who the public, the narrative claims, think their students study with in the first place?
  • Discredit. When a narrative is published that says: I have an MFA in Creative Writing or an MA in Literature or a PhD in Literature and the only job I got was $2,000 a course with no benefits, doesn’t this merely confirm a belief that the graduate degree in question has no value? The more these narratives are promoted, aren’t they discrediting the various departments – often in the humanities – already under fire for a graduate degree often deemed unneeded? Again, it seems the strategy backfires. What this strategy seems to say is: The degree is worthless. If I ran an English department, for instance, I’d be very upset over this part of the narrative.
  • Attack. Administration bloat is often the focus of the attack; a well circulated narrative is something along the lines of “Between 1993 and 2007, the number of full-time administrators per 100 students at America’s leading universities grew by 39 percent, while the number of employees engaged in teaching, research or service only grew by 18 percent.” Or this statistic: “between 1985 and 2005 administrative spending increased by 85%, while administrative support staff increased by a dramatic 240%. Meanwhile spending on faculty increased by only around 50%.” All likely true. But what does all that administration do? Does any of it have value? What if it were all removed? What would be the result? I don’t know. But neither do the critics since they haven’t pushed the attack into a real argument yet by citing specific positions and their value/lack of value to a given university or college. Tenure line faculty are also the other side of the attack. This part of the narrative says that we are all subsidized by adjunct labor or that we purposely keep adjunct labor in its place. I’m not aware of any of this being true, and I doubt any of us object to adjuncts moving out of the exploitive realm. We don’t set salaries or lines, after all.
  • Everyone is equal. The basis of all the narratives seems to ride on this vital point. Person x without a tenure line position is equal to person Y who has one. There is no shortage of qualified people who could, in many universities/colleges, be hired on the tenure line. Why such people are not, though, is based on all kinds of variables, from the well circulated trope of “unfair” to the less understandable reality of “fit.” But the reality to this narrative is that all academics in a given field are not equal. The MFA in Literature or Creative Writing is not necessarily equal to whoever is on faculty in that given department. It’s difficult to know, of course, because that means fleshing out details, fleshing out how such details work in a given local situation, saying things about another’s career that may not be pleasant to say nor hear (i.e., you do indeed have a published book or some publications, but we don’t find that topic of interest to the work we do in this department). Even among tenure line faculty, however, we are not equal.
  • Money. The overall narrative is that there is plenty of money. There is money in many cases. Often, even in a financial crisis, money is found for all kinds of projects. The suggestion, it seems, is that provosts and deans have the money to pay everyone at a certain level, but for greedy reasons don’t. This suggestion confuses me greatly. What is in it for a dean or provost to not pay if he/she can? Where is all this money when every year state allocations are reduced? We just found out about a 2.5% cut to UK’s budget. That doesn’t mean more money. That means less. The issue may not be money as much as priority. As long as we structure General Education in a certain way or “core” courses such as first year writing as massive undertakings that could never be taught by only tenure line faculty, we are looking at a situation where there is not enough money to pay all instructors fairly. But if we cut something, we are destroying higher education. And if we did such cuts, most of the adjunct positions would vanish, and be replaced with nothing.

So what do these narratives accomplish? These are some tropes I pick out and respond to. I don’t respond because I’m against adjuncts or don’t understand the situation. I very much understand the situation. But that is not my purpose here. My interest is in how the story is framed, and why this way as opposed to some other strategy? Most of the stories, after all, are similar and repetitive. Repetition can be highly effective. Is it in this case? I don’t think so.

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