Why Adjunct Professors Don’t Just Find Other Jobs

Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 19 2013 9:01 AM

Why Adjunct Professors Don’t Just Find Other Jobs

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For adjuncts, abandoning students partway through the semester is taboo.

Photo by TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images

One question that comes up a lot in discussions about higher education’s overreliance on adjunct professors is why adjuncts don’t just find other jobs. As I wrote in my profile of Margaret Mary Vojtko, adjuncts typically make a couple thousand dollars per course, receive no retirement or health benefits, and can lose their job at the end of any semester for any reason. With working conditions that bad, why does anyone stick around?

Let’s leave aside the fact that this question deflects responsibility for exploitative working conditions onto the people who are exploited, rather than the people doing the exploiting. Let’s also set aside the fact that many adjuncts, like Vojtko, love teaching college-level courses and find great personal fulfillment in their work. Finally, let’s ignore unemployment rates and the fact that, whether or not you’re an academic, it’s currently quite difficult to find a job. As members of Duquesne’s adjunct union explained to me when I was reporting my article, there are systemic reasons that it’s harder for adjuncts to find new employment—within academia, or outside of it—than your average worker.

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Many adjuncts stay in the academy in the hopes of one day getting a tenure-track position. But there are significant obstacles in between adjuncts and positions that hold the promise of tenure. Since adjuncts must often teach five or more classes (sometimes on multiple campuses) each semester to make ends meet, they don’t have much time to conduct their own research or publish articles. This puts them at a disadvantage for tenure-track jobs (compared to postdoctoral fellows, for instance). The Byzantine way that universities interview candidates for tenure-track jobs also presents a challenge for adjuncts. Typically, a university will conduct its first round of job interviews for a tenure-track job at an academic conference. Whereas universities will pay for tenured professors and even grad students to attend academic conferences, they don’t typically pay for adjuncts’ travel costs. So an adjunct who wishes to interview for a tenure-track position must pay hundreds of dollars (or more) out of pocket for his or her own registration fees, flight, and hotel room. When you’re making less than $30,000 a year, these costs aren’t trivial.

What about adjuncts who want to find a job outside of academia? The academic hiring cycle makes this difficult. Adjuncts find out their course assignments a few weeks before the start of each semester, and once they accept they’re locked in for the semester. Matthew Ussia, a full-time, non-tenure-track English professor at Duquesne (who, until recently, cobbled together a living as a part-time adjunct), explained in an email:

This means that people who want to get out can look in the summer and for two weeks around Xmas to change careers, but other than that they're stuck. I was talking to a colleague last week who told me that she saw the most perfect non-academic job for her in Boston the week before, but since we were already 3 weeks into the semester, she couldn't imagine ditching her students mid-semester. There's a real sense of duty that comes with the job.  

Ussia added that abandoning a class mid-semester is “a serious professional taboo” for adjuncts. Like Vojtko, many adjuncts see teaching as “a devotion.” Their sense of professional duty is what, ironically, prevents them from finding a job in which they’re treated like professionals.

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

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