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?

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