Adjuncts and the Future of the Academy

(Warning: in what follows I reach certain economics-inspired conclusions.  I am not an economist and (sadly) have never taken an economics course.  I wish I had; it’s a fascinating worldview, and probably indispensable, it’s on my bucket list, etc. etc.)

I’ve heard that the university tenure system evolved in order to protect the freedom of scholars to pursue scholarly inquiry.  Like the monks and monasteries from which the Academy is descended, the scholar would take essentially a vow of “poverty” (or relative poverty) in exchange for purity of pursuing knowledge.

Well, it’s had some unintended consequences.  Like any rationed market, rationing the labor market for teachers and scholars has produced a black market  (well, probably really a gray market), which, for teaching at least, is us adjuncts.

Gray markets have lots of problems.  One of them is that you really can’t have much in the way of brands in a gray market: they are not transparent.  You might think you’re getting Pompous University’s brand, but if you’re taking the course from Adjunct Dan, is he a good guy or a shmo?  Is your course going to be worth your while or is it going to be a waste of time?  Knowing that Pompous hired Dan as an adjunct really doesn’t tell you much.

Yes, there are evaluations, but they don’t work very well.

  1. They’re self-selecting.  Students are inspired to give an evaluation if they thought the teacher was terrific, and if they thought the teacher was subhuman.  There’s no middle ground.  And therefore there’s no statistical reliability to evaluations.
  2. They’re inflated or deflated.  For the same reason as above.

When my friends try to figure out how to interpret Yelp evaluations, they go for a combination of:

  1. Large numbers of reviews
  2. Many credible positive reviews
  3. Few credible negative reviews.

You can’t easily get data like that for course evaluations.  You can’t easily figure out what you’re getting when you sign up with Adjunct Dan.

Another problem with gray markets is that, even if you’re lucky, you only get exactly what you wanted.

Years ago I bought electronics components from a Lumber Liquidator-type outfit called Poly Paks.  I couldn’t afford to set up an account with “real” electronics distributors, and I had way more time than money.

Poly Paks had a slogan: “buy ’em by the bag”.  And you could buy a bag, say, of diodes.  You could get 500 diodes or the like for $2.00.

Poly Paks didn’t BS you: they said that not all the diodes in the bag were good (they in fact said that they pulled the diodes off old circuit boards, which meant they, too, probably had more time than money, but we digress…)

And they gave you exactly what you ordered: a bag of diodes maybe 10-15% of which were good.

You still came out ahead, but it was a slog.

Same with adjuncts.  You are (hopefully!) getting someone with familiarity with the material and experience in teaching it.  But are you getting someone who is a world-class scholar in the discipline, someone who can tell you the best way these questions or problems have been posed and the best way they’ve answered over the millenia?  Not likely.

Some of us adjuncts have great practical experience.  And the Academy is sluggishly moving to promote a new kind of scholarship based on practical experience, which is sometimes called a “Clinical Professorship”.  But there’s no systematic way to know about a teacher’s background and to tap it for your education.

If you’re lucky, you’re getting a good teacher.  But you’re not getting the “more” that the Academy should offer.

Your thoughts?

The World of the Adjunct

I do a lot of adjunct teaching now, and so does my daughter’s friend.  There the similarity ends.

However many years I may have left, adjunct teaching for me comes at the end of my working life, and has more in common with snacking or hors d’oeuvres.  It can be pretty stressful at times, but it’s all extra.  It doesn’t come at the expense of my life.  I do one class at a time; maybe, once in a while, two.  It’s lagniappe, as they say in New Orleans.

For my daughter’s friend Sean — not his real name — adjunct teaching is more like not getting enough to eat.  He depends on his teaching gigs to keep bread on the table.  He chases six (I think!) adjunct jobs at once.  The enjoyment of the students is there, too, for him, , but the ratio of good-stuff-to-tsuris is way out of whack.  He’s caught in Adjunct Hell and he wants to get out.

What we have in common is that we have intellectual wares to sell and the official market for intellectual wares, deformed by the tenure system, is too small to manage what we’ve got.  There are still students who want to “buy” what we’re “selling”, but they can only do so in the black-market-for-labor I call the “World of the Adjunct.”

What interests me about this topic is two things:

  1. The academy is tipping from “mostly tenured professors” to “mostly adjunct professors”, for a variety of reasons, which matters if, as I do, you think the academy matters
  2. There are lots of working situations that are tipping from honorable careers to “markets for Mechanical Turk labor packs”

Second one first.

I assume many readers of this blog are familiar with Mechanical Turk.  Briefly, it’s an Amazon service where workers can sign up and employers can sign up.  The employers give the workers whatever tasks they want — a typical one might be “sort through images and name the brand products found in the image” — and the workers take on whichever tasks they want.

I signed up for Mechanical Turk both as an employer and a worker, and have tried being a worker on some tasks.

It’s horrible.  Factory work — which I’ve also done — had the same dreadful but mind-numbing stress to it, but there at least there were fellow workers to commune with, and solidarity.  In Mechanical Turk world, you’re alone in front of your computer, struggling to get enough images recognized to at least make a pittance that day.

A lot of work is becoming Mechanical-Turk-ized, whether it’s the TPS reports of “Office Space” fame or modern medicine, which is a series of 15-minute encounters with patients optimized for misery on both sides.

Adjunct teaching in Sean’s world is a lot like Mechanical Turk.

There’s another pole to work emerging as well, which I call “Do-Good-ism”.  This is work with meaning for the worker, often work that helps somebody else in the outside world, work that counts.

For me, because I don’t have to do it at Sean’s pace, because I don’t have to support myself from it, adjunct teaching is Do-Good-ism.  I relish the interactions with the students (at least the good ones, the ardent learners; the troublemakers and whiners and grade-grubbers are awful for both Sean and me, although we do commune over how awful they can be when we talk adjunct teaching).

It’s all because my need to work and my self-esteem don’t come from the teaching; it’s extra.

More on the second point — what adjunct teaching is doing to the Academy — in another post perhaps.

Your thoughts?

“Themes” for December

I’m trying to be a bit more deliberate about what I read and what I write about and why.  Most of my life I’ve just wallowed in learning with the result that I think I know a “little” about a “lot”.  While that’s probably better than knowing a “lot” about a “little” (the stance of the typical academic scholar, who seems poorly-served by his or her narrowness IMHO), it might be better to focus on things that were useful, difficult, mind-stretching, or all three.

So for December, I want to work on three things:

  1. Presence and Deep Work.  Josh Waitzkin says, in his book on learning: “We cannot expect to touch excellence if ‘going through the motions’ is the norm of our lives.”  It smote me, that sentence.  It really did.
  2. Ways to reach entrepreneurs with information that may be of use to them but they may not be aware of.  I’m working on a project to turn academic research on entrepreneurship into useful information products for real sweating bleeding entrepreneurs out in what Teddy Roosevelt called “the arena.”
  3. The World of the Adjunct.  I’m doing a fair amount of adjunct teaching these days, and it raises many questions: the Mechanical Turk-ization of work, the death of the academy, the problem of normalizing adjunct talents and strengths, etc.  I want to read and talk and write about these topics.

That’s it.  Hope you’re interested.  Always welcome your thoughts.