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Let me give you a statistic here, the kind of statistic that sums up everything that bothers me about the time I’m living in.

In 1950, Lionel Trilling, an English professor at  Columbia University and one of the leading literary critics of his era, published a book called The Liberal Imagination.  This was a book of essays, and not political essays either, although one of the ones included did touch on the necessity of literature to engage the social, moral and, yes, political questions of its time. 

By and large, though, this was a book of literary essays, including one on Henry James’s The Princess Cassamassima, and many years later I would read that essay and hear about the James novel for the first time.  But the statistic that counts here is this:  in its first year of publication, The Liberal Imagination sold 70,000 copies in hardcover.  The next year, the paperback edition sold another 100,000 copies.

Let’s not beat around the bush here.  If you have a book published by a major New York publisher and sell 70,000 copies in hardcover today, you’ll be a hero, and your next contract will threaten to look like the operating budget of a small African country.   It’s virtually impossible to sell that many copies of anything today, and books like Trilling’s sell more in the range of 4,000 to 8,000 copies.  Even “popular” novels usually sell not much more than that.   The closest thing we have to Trilling–emeritus Professor Harold  Bloom of Yale–does sell better than that, but even he can’t touch  Trilling’s numbers, and although Trilling was a distinguished man, he was not a celebrity.

Now let me give you another statistic:  fully seventy percent of the people teaching in America’s colleges and universities today are adjuncts.

In case you don’t know what an adjunct is, the common definition is usually a “part timer.”  But the definition doesn’t do the problem justice.  There are a lot of people working part time in colleges and universities that don’t have to put up with the conditions that adjuncts do.  There are even other kinds of part time teachers, who get paid by the hour, say, or by a percentage formula on salary.

Adjuncts get paid a flat rate by the course.   This can range from the meager (the highest rate for English adjuncts where I am is $4100 per course if the adjunct has been teaching at least five years) to the ludicrous (the lowest rate for the same English adjuncts is $1900 a course, and the lowest where a friend of mine teaches is only $1000).

The universities that pay these rates couldn’t get away with them under any other system, because in many cases they’re significantly below minimum wage for the amount of work required.  For that relatively generous $4100, for instance–and for the less generous amounts as well–an adjunct is required to put in at least three hours in the classroom every week for sixteen weeks, plus another hour for office hours.  She’s expected to write her own course–there are no standard curricula where I am, although there are requirements for inclusion–to manage a  Blackboard site that includes all her assignments in detail, tracks student grades on an assignment by assignment basis, and provides supplementary material and opportunities for remedial work as needed, and to show up for a two hour final exam period even if she doesn’t give one.  And that doesn’t count correcting twenty-six essays a week, in detail.

I’ve done this sort of thing, and I’ve taught these sorts of courses, and I can tell you that to run one well requires at least twenty hours a week in the term, and sometimes more.  But the situation is even worse than that, because adjuncts are almost always given the lowest level courses, which means the least prepared students, which means the most work teaching anything at all. 

And not just the most work.   I’ve had everything from research papers to chairs thrown at my head.  I’ve been followed around a parking lot by a student several inches taller than  I am while she threatened me with everything from a law suit to a punch in the nose.   Other people I know have had a lot more trouble of a lot more serious kind. 

But there’s even more here:  any adjunct has to have at least a master’s degree in her field, and I know plenty of adjuncts who have their doctorates.  In other words, in order to get one of these jobs, an applicant must register in the upper ten percent of academic achievement.

What happens in this situation is twofold.  First, there are some good adjuncts.   These tend to be people who actually do something else for a living and teach only because they love it or they want to get out of the house, or people still working on doctorates who hope to be able to get a full time position somewhere when they finish. 

Second, there are a lot of really, really bad adjuncts, including some people who could not get work doing anything else if they tried.   Where I am, there is one adjunct who simply doesn’t show up to her classes until a third of the way into them, and then cancels another third of those classes because…well, because.  There have been three cases of adjunct instructions simply disappearing in the middle of the term and not showing up at all.  I know dozens who never actually correct any papers, and dozens more who make “teaching” a matter of showing a series of “educational films.”  This has included the Ben Affleck Pearl Harbor and Citizen Kane–in a course on American history.

I could bemoan the lot of adjuncts, and I should–in the best paying system where I am, the good news of higher wages is destroyed by the fact that adjuncts are not allowed to teach more than two courses system wide, so that any one of them who needs to make a living is forced to take lower paying courses at other universities in the area.  This rule has been instituted by the union that represents both the adjuncts and the full time teachers, which all adjuncts are required to belong to and pay for, and which doesn’t really think that anybody but the full timers matter at all.

I could bemoan the lot of adjuncts, but I won’t, because I’ve got bigger game in mind at the moment.  In at least some of the places in this area, the full time faculty and administration know that their adjunct system is producing bad courses with bad teachers–and they don’t care.  In one of these places, there is a single full time professor in the entire English Department, and her only job is to make sure she has somebody signed up to teach everything.   Since working conditions are what they are, and the pay is so bad, that means any warm body off the street and pretend like you didn’t notice that nothing is actually being taught in those classrooms.

They don’t care.  If there is a single symptom of what I find so objectionable about our present approach to higher learning, it’s just that–the Humanities are considered, by the public at large and by the administrations of colleges and universities–as so negligible, that it doesn’t matter if they’re taught badly or at all, that the people who know the fields are not worth keeping in the fields or attracting as teachers. 

Good adjuncts leave for greener pastures, eventually.  They go into publishing and advertising, or to law school, or somewhere.  The bad adjuncts stay for decades.

Maybe it’s not so surprising that students don’t read well or write well or think well.   Our colleges and universities give them concrete examples, every day, of what a waste of time that is.  Not only won’t it get them a “good job,” it won’t even get them a job with health insurance.

Lionel Trilling sold 70. 000 copies in hardcover because lots of ordinary men and women, not academics or intellectuals or PhDs, thought literature was important enough to want to read the work of somebody who had spent his life making it his focus. 

I’d be happy if I could get 70,000 people, not academics or intellectuals or  PhDs, to understand what literature is and read it.

Written by janeh

December 24th, 2008 at 7:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Adjuncts'

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  1. I’ve heard a bit about the problems of sessional instructors, as we call them here – poorly paid, rarely if ever considered for full-time work. I don’t think our situation is quite so dire. Yet.

    Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and Happy Holidays to all.


    24 Dec 08 at 9:32 am

  2. Its Christmas Day and I’m responding to a blog entry. :( I guess that comes with being single and having no family in Australia.

    If I remember correctly, most of my first and second year math and history and German courses were taught by grad students. The Physics Department always used faculty for lectures but grad students for lab assistants. That was 1955 – 59.


    24 Dec 08 at 11:56 pm

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