Category Archives: Mechanical Turk

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?