What if there were many, many more aeronautical engineers than the aviation industry could absorb and companies like Boeing found they could get engineers to work for $15 or even $10 per hour without benefits? What would happen to the quality of airplane construction? In some cases, nothing. Some passionate people who just really, really love designing airplanes would still invest in those careers. They would live in a cardboard box and find a way to make it work. But over time, airplane design would erode – safety, efficiency, capacity and aesthetics would all stagnate or go into decline. Many of the most passionate, talented people would leave the profession when they found they couldn’t at least stay in the middle class. Those who stay would need a “real job” on the side and, to keep within the human limits of time and energy, begin looking for ways to cut corners in their aeronautical work. So even if the market could let them pay engineers minimum wage, the aeronautical companies would not go that route.
We face a scenario not unlike this. Especially in the humanities and social sciences, the market is flooded with PhDs who want to teach. If we don’t like the adjunct pay, we can leave. The school won’t bat an eye, since they can just hire someone else. The market will keep our wages down. Unless we figure out a way to all threaten to quit at once, we have zero market leverage. If we try to outrun market forces, we will lose. But we have another argument: quality will still suffer. The quality of teaching goes down if it is just a distraction, a side job, a transition during early career, a hobby for well-endowed retirees, charity work or a job pieced together out of several jobs, teaching eight or 10 classes per term. If teaching isn’t a profession, it won’t be professional, regardless of how qualified the teachers are.
That is not only intuitively or theoretically obvious. It is empirically observable. Adjuncts generally do not teach as well as tenure track instructors. As we get more of the former and fewer of the latter, overall quality drops. I see it in my own career. Low pay demoralizes me. Low pay forces me to forgo research – research which informs my teaching even at the 100 level – or even doing as much side reading as I should do. Most importantly, low pay forces me to teach beyond capacity to teach well. We all have our stories.
Now, in the aviation industry, it wouldn’t take long for the public to notice the problem. Accidents would make headlines. Investigations would uncover the root problem. We don’t have that advantage. Who notices when a generation of students get poorer history or literature education? There will be no horrific front-page photo and the headline, “Othello analogy overlooked, 34 killed.” How would any overall cultural decline be traceable to low-quality teaching by highly educated but overworked adjuncts? It is much more difficult. It will continue to creep up on us. Indeed, the problem feeds itself because we breed a generation of people who come to think of this as the norm. At one of the schools I taught for, more and more of the faculty themselves were coming out of degrees earned under the online adjunct wage system they now teach for. This is what higher education is to them. They think cookie-cutter classes taught by people who do other work on the side and don’t do research are the norm, even at the graduate level. The ethos of higher education and scholarship erodes. The contingent of people who identify with the system grows. If we tell all those grads their degrees aren’t as good as back in the day, they won’t be on our side.
Thus, we need to always remember to include overall quality high on our list of arguments about compensation. Until the day comes when you really can discuss King Lear intelligently with a CD ROM, we still have a case. Regardless of how many of us there are that will step into jobs at minimum wage, the logistics and biological constraints of human teaching at a quality level require pay above what the market allows.
Tags: Adjunct Professors