Home/Daniel Larison/Adjunctification and the Threat to Higher Education

Adjunctification and the Threat to Higher Education

Johnson Hall, Occidental College Jeffrey Beall/Flickr)

George Will doesn’t understand what is happening in higher education in this country:

In the Chronicle in March, the University of Washington’s Bessner said we are in a “crisis of capitalism,” by which he seemed to mean a shortage of jobs for people like him: left-wing academics. “Given that there are almost no tenure-track jobs, the majority of the next generation of intellectuals — like my own generation — will probably have to look outside the university for employment.” To him, “intellectuals” denotes left-wing aspiring academics. Again, note the absence of self-examination and the disregard of the possibility that there are fewer teaching jobs because fewer students are drawn to the study of literature, history and the rest of the humanities because of the way these subjects are taught.

Will wants to make this into a convenient culture war morality tale about how “left-wing academics” are driving students away from their disciplines and that this is why there are so few full-time, tenure-track positions in these subjects, but that’s really not what has been happening. He misunderstands the point that Bessner is making, and he demonstrates that he has no idea what has been happening to institutions of higher education over the past several decades. His general attitude suggests that he does not care to learn. The dearth of tenure-track jobs stems in part from the diversion of university resources to administrative bureaucracy, and it is reinforced by the exploitation of academic labor through an abusive system that piles a huge amount of work on poorly-treated, underpaid adjuncts. Bessner touches on this point in his response to the column today:

Will doesn’t grasp that there is still great demand for instructors in history, but the instructors are now paid a pittance for their work. If the demand were not so great, there wouldn’t be so many adjuncts teaching four or five courses every term. These adjuncts are often forced to find temporary positions at multiple schools to make enough to live on.

The move to rely on cheap labor and overuse adjuncts is in turn driven by the lack of funding for institutions:

As funding for higher education has declined, the costs have been passed on to students and their families, and that has meant that students seek degrees that they think will lead more directly to employment and the repayment of their debts. The problem is not that the subjects are being taught poorly, but that the people teaching them are being compensated so poorly for their labor.

Richard Moser addressed the dangers of overusing adjuncts in an excellent article five years ago:

The lessons are all too clear: Teaching and learning—the pursuit of the truth—are unworthy activities. We learn that it is acceptable to exploit someone if you can get away with it. We learn that it is acceptable to discriminate against someone based on the fact that they belong to a certain class of employees. We learn to pay lip service to art or science or history or literature, but that money is what really matters. Exploiting cheap labor to teach is teaching of the worst sort.

This is a systemic problem that affects the practices of colleges and universities throughout the country regardless of their curriculum or methods. It is a serious threat to the future of the teaching of history and many other subjects in our institutions of higher learning, and that threatens the possibility of obtaining a well-rounded liberal arts education. It deserves much more serious consideration than Will offers in his dismissive column, and remedying the situation will require a substantially greater investment in higher education that many of our state governments have not been willing to make for a long time.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

leave a comment

Latest Articles