Adjunct pay

And finally … on to the “adjunct pay issue”. I’ve read up voluminously on this topic on the internet and jolly boring it was too, I have to say, so after a while I gave up and thus may have missed significant factual information. If I’ve got anything wrong, please tell me and I will first attempt to explain it away by pretending it’s a difference between the UK and US systems, and failing that, become nasty.

The adjunct pay issue is one of a perceived oversupply of humanities PhDs relative to the number of jobs for them in academia. Because of this oversupply, lots of well-educated people with qualifications in English, History and similar are scraping by from hand to mouth on what they call “adjunct” jobs, which are poorly paid short term contract teaching posts, which are created in order to allow the existing club of “full professors” to avoid the onerous duty of teaching undergraduates and free up their time for writing long papers for academic journals. I shall follow general usage by euphemistically calling this latter activity of writing papers for academic journals “research”, without wanting to commit myself on the question of whether it is actually research or not.

As a way of organising part of the labour market, it’s got more or less nothing to recommend it. The adjuncts are doing a crap job for crap wages, with the result that they never have time to carry out the “research” that they need to do in order to publish things in journals to get a “tenure track”1 job within the charmed circle. Meanwhile, the poor buggers on the tenure track have to spend their time managing the adjuncts and writing completely dull and pointless papers, not for any scholarly reasons but in order to get them published in order to maintain an impressive enough list of publications to keep up their own status and keep their jobs. The only people who the system seems to benefit are a small crew of academic stars (most of whom appear to be stars on the basis of having published popular works anyway, and thus don’t even need academic jobs), plus the university administrators who manage to run something that looks to the outsider to be pretty similar to a univesity, except that the teaching is worse and it’s a fuck sight easier to administer because you are dealing with casualised labour rather than unionised academics.

A side issue to the debate is that the adjuncts don’t want to form a union, partly because they appear to be a bit snobby about the concept of themselves as working class, and partly because they (probably correctly) think that getting a reputation as trouble-making union organisers will mean that they have once and for always pissed on their chips with respect to getting a “proper” academic job as opposed to the burger-flipping, undergraduate teaching one they have now. And partly, of course, because they are arts graduates and therefore are temperamentally prone to think of things in incredibly impractical terms and waffle on about “higher values” and “the sacred guild of scholars” whenever the suggestion is raised that they might want to complain about their wages. Or at least, their employers tend to feed them this line of bullshit and they don’t laugh it off anything like as often or as hard as they ought to.

So anyway, that’s the adjunct crisis, my version of, and on to the analysis.

First up, I think it’s very unhelpful indeed to analyse this as a question of an “oversupply of PhDs”. Too many PhDs for what? I am reminded of the old libertarian line when faced with the suggestion that London (or New York, or Monte Carlo or wherever) “has no affordable housing” – what are all those people doing living there then? In general, the complaints about the “oversupply of PhDs” come from people who actually have a job in academia, performing the functions of a university professor. So in other words, there appears to me to be a prima facie case that there is, in fact, a decent balance between the number of people we are training to be competent to teach humanities subjects to undergraduates, versus the number of undergraduates who want to be taught humanities subjects. I’ve had a fair old look around, and have turned up surprisingly few stories of people with humanities PhDs actually flipping burgers. I’ve seen lots of stories about people with humanities degrees doing middle-class jobs (like being accountants and such like) that they could probably have got with just an undergraduate degree, but this hardly seems to be a problem to me. There are any number of reasons someone might be entering the non-university labour market at age 26 rather than 21, and I don’t see any particular reason to believe that people who make this choice do so for any other reason that they’ve decided that they want to.

So in other words, I don’t believe that there is an oversupply of PhDs relative to the vacancies. The problem appears to be in the quality of the jobs on offer; they’re crap. The problem (and I do not wish in any way to dismiss the very real human suffering I’ve read over the last week or two; most of the people who have written on the subject appear to me intelligent enough to take a bit of good-natured mockery. When I say that there is no adjunct crisis, I mean it in the same way as one talks about an “acceptable rate of unemployment” ie acceptable to those who have jobs) appears to be that there are people who hate their current lifestyles, but don’t want to make the choice to find a different one. Because I’m not a neoclassical economist, I take this problem seriously.

[continued below …]


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