Via Timothy Burke comes a thoroughly depressing story from Inside Higher Ed on adjunct pay in the Tennessee state college and university system. Adjuncts there have been unable to get the system to to raise their maximum pay to $20,000 a year for a 5/5 teaching load, with no benefits. As Tim says:
Indeed. Really, I can't complain that much about my own year of adjuncting after I finished my Ph.D; I made a living (though not what one would call generous) wage, and I taught a 3/2 load. I had health insurance. I was part of a large and active union, as I'd been when I was a grad student. I can't even imagine what it must be like to earn $15,000 a year, with no benefits, for teaching five courses a semester.
A lot of the commenters on the Inside Higher Ed story can't understand why the adjuncts would let themselves be exploited so thoroughly and ruthlessly. But I can remember that headspace very clearly. It was a weird state of learned helplessness, based on a set of assumptions that everyone took for granted—many of which were part of our socialization into academic culture:
- The job market in the humanities is notoriously arbitrary and capricious. Getting a job is, to a large extent, beyond one's control.
- There are no worthy, interesting, or rewarding careers outside of academia. You either have a faculty job, or you have to become a corporate drone (or else consign yourself to a life of flipping burgers).
- If you don't get an academic job, you'll not only be a failure, you'll have wasted your youth getting the Ph.D. [A.K.A. the sunk costs fallacy.]
- Being an intellectual (and having an academic job) is more important than anything else. If you put a higher value on choosing where to live, or having a life outside of work, or earning enough money to raise a family, or not spending your weekends grading papers, well, maybe you're not serious enough for an academic career. Maybe you don't deserve a faculty position. Maybe you're just not smart enough.
- Not being smart enough is a fate worse than death.
- Unhappiness is a normal part of the scholarly life. What are you complaining about? Smart people are naturally melancholics, alcoholics, tortured geniuses, and/or brilliant depressives.
- Academics are completely impractical people anyway. They don't value money, and they'd be hopeless at any other kind of career. So why bother?
When you spend years working to become part of a culture where all of those assumptions go without saying, it's hard not to wind up immobilized. Pulling myself out of that mindset was like trying to escape from the La Brea Tar Pits.* I still don't quite know how I managed it. Unfortunately, short of starting a deprogramming service for adjuncts, I don't know how one would even begin to persuade people not to work under such conditions.
Not for the first time, I miss the Invisible Adjunct. (And I hope she's doing well, wherever she is.)
* My mother and I lived in Santa Monica for a year when I was 13. One day we went to visit the La Brea Tar Pits museum, where you can see the fossilized skeletons of all kinds of extinct animals—and one human, an apparent murder victim—that were found in the tar. There was also an exhibit where you could see what it was like to get stuck in the pits; it consisted of a vat of hot tar with levers protruding from it, and when you pulled up on one of the levers, you could feel the immense weight of the tar dragging it back down again. I've never forgotten the sensation.