Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Condition of the Working Class in Academia

Over the last 30 years, academia has become one of our more exploitative economic sectors, with egregious overwork and underpayment of graduate assistants and temporary faculty. This article in the Chronicle of Higher education describes how bad it has gotten since 2007: the number of people with master's and doctoral degrees on public assistance has tripled. Think about that: PhDs on food stamps. Isn’t that just absurd, and reflective of America’s deep-seated anti-intellectualism that it happens at all? 
None of this is to say that academia is the most exploitative sector in the world -- overseas factory workers and immigrant laborers are by far much worse off, as are many service-sector employees here in the US. But exploitation in higher education is deep and real, especially for a profession that is still imagined by most people outside of the academy to be performed by those with comfortable lifestyles. Scholars work 60-70 hours a week for the better part of a decade to earn a PhD, sacrificing family time and a more lucrative career in order to advance human knowledge. Anyone with the intelligence and dedication to earn a doctoral degree fairly, thereby certifying they are qualified to teach and do research in their field, deserves a comfortable, secure income. They have earned it. And I don't care if the doctorate is in electronics engineering or something supposedly “impractical” like medieval languages: the advance of knowledge has to proceed in all fields lest it become intellectually and morally unbalanced, and we never know where the next great discovery is going to come from. Not only are the conditions in academia a human tragedy, they are a waste of human capital and therefore bad for the wider economy -- something that all can be said about any form of unemployment.
Academia has been financially decimated, its ranks of intellectuals increasingly reduced from middle-class professionals to outright proletarians. The common image of the comfortably well-off professor pontificating from a tenured, recession-proof academic chair does not accurately describe academic laborers anymore:  70% of college professors are temporary faculty.  When I was an adjunct instructor a few years ago I was only able to make about $16,000 a year without health insurance, pension, or 401K. I know adjunct instructors who work a double course load -- meaning 80 hours a week -- just to make ends meet for their families. The Chronicle article notes that now many PhDs are getting paid less than custodial, administrative, and support staff -- which is not to say that those workers should have a lower status, but to put the lie to the idea that skill, education, and professionalization lead to financial rewards. Most older faculty have been able to protect their economic positions, but younger generations have faced increasing insecurity. Now that i think about it, it is the same as the Ryan plan to privatize Medicare by forcing everyone under 55 into a voucher system.  
That this is occurring in an era when business school hacks keep increasing their Wall Street bonuses only shows how nepotism, not merit, has become the route to success. The reason that we have impoverished professors is because our colleges and universities are trying to do higher education on the cheap, by exploiting low-paid temporary and graduate-student faculty. It is a failure by society to budget enough for intellectual work, not a failure or flaw on the part of the thousands of unemployed people with advanced degrees. Given continuing high demand for college education, there should be enough permanent professorships created to go around for all the people willing and qualified to teach. Institutions of higher learning, however, have undergone severe budget cuts and become ever-more dependent for funding on business foundations and other wealthy donors. All of which has made tenure less of a protection and funneled research efforts into narrower channels, when it should follow the lead of expert inquiry.
Business types have always had a great contempt for intellectuals, as exemplified by the statement "those who can't do, teach." America's anti-intellectualism is strong and deep, and now a cruel and exploitative system is in place to keep academic labor under the power and direction of the wealthy elite. Wisdom and knowledge are critical to good human living, and any functioning society listens to its most knowledgeable members. One wonders how a civilization can avoid sliding into barbarism when it instead oppresses its best and brightest.


  1. As an adjunct since 1986, I will place my skills against any other doctoral level instructor, in particular the overpaid, tenured, cosseted full-time faculty that I have dealt with. 80 hours a week? Maybe a medical resident. This Marxist claptrap belongs in another era. Then, my perspective is that of a licensed clinician that teaches "what he does", a retired military officer and someone who had never "indoctrinated" his students in lieu of teaching them scientific subject matter.

  2. I have also been an adjunct instructor (and am also a military veteran), and you're right that adjuncts and contract instructors can often be better teachers than their tenured counterparts. But that's where our agreement ends. From what you've said it sounds like you're in a pretty confomortable position: you're retired military and have been teaching as an adjunct for a long time, so for you it's a supplement other forms of income. That's what adjuncting was originally intended to do: give an experienced professional like you the ability to pass on knowledge to a younger generation. But it can be pretty easy for people in comfortable positions to ignore the exploitation and misery around them, as much as they don't like to hear that. My friend who works 80 hours a week, who you dismiss as a medical resident? Nope, you've drawn conclusions without knowing the facts. He teaches history and political science. He drives from community college to community college to teach enough classes to feed his kids and pay the mortgage, because once these colleges have an instructor on the adjunct hamster wheel they rarely offer a permanent contract -- his labor's already being gotten cheaply, why pay more?

    You don't seem to be aware of the negative developments in higher education over the last two decades: adjuncting has moved from the fringes to the mainstream, as *most* professors these days are adjuncts or on temporary contracts. This has occured purposefully, as university administrators have managed public budget cutbacks by squeezing labor costs through use of poorly paid academic laborers, people who have earned advanced degrees through hard work but don't even get the courtesy of basics like healthcare, retirement, or sometimes even office space. See this link for a good primer on the current state of affairs:

    To say that we should have good higher education taught by teachers who have a middle class living standard isn't Marxist -- it's Jeffersonian. And if it comes from a different age, it's the middle of the twentieth century, when higher education was cheaply available and helped build the solid middle class that led America to prosperity, land humans on the moon, create the home computer and the internet, and win the Cold War.