CONTINGENT EDUCATION? Excerpted from the book HIGHER EDUCATION?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids--And What We Can Do About It by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, published in August by Times Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright (c) 2010 by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus. All rights reserved. Image: Henry Holt and Co.
Some years ago, at a college where Claudia was teaching a nonfiction writing course, she found herself working without an assigned office space. All college teachers require a dedicated corner where they can confer with their students. And Claudia's specialty—journalism training—is particularly dependent on professor-student interactions. Claudia’s students bring her their tentative first attempts at reporting. She must show them where they’ve gone right or wrong and gently steer them onto a successful path. Given the vulnerability of young writers, all of this is best done delicately, and in private. “I have no office space for meeting my students—what can we do about this?” Claudia inquired of the administrator who ran her department.
“There’s no space left this term,” the administrator declared dismissively, annoyed. “The regular faculty have taken everything.”
“I understand,” Claudia persisted, “but what are my students to do? This is part of their training.”
“Couldn’t you meet them in the cafeteria? Or the hallway? There are a couple of lounge chairs by the ladies’ room.”
That stunned her. Was this person actually suggesting that Claudia confer with her students south of a toilet?
This administrator, an individual who herself enjoyed a large, airy office far from the scent of the lavatory, grew increasingly irritated with Claudia’s insistence that her students deserved better. After ten minutes of back and forth, came this: “Listen here, Ms. Dreifus, you’re an adjunct! Do you get that? We’ve got a hundred adjuncts here. I’m busy.”
Ah, the pecking order of the university! Claudia—who’d previously spent much of her life as a professional journalist—didn’t yet understand her lowly place in this new environment.
Adjuncts belong to a diverse group of teachers called contingents, who are hired to take on chores regular faculty members don’t want to do. Their numbers and ratios increase with the size of a university, but since most students now attend larger schools, this raises their chances of getting a contingent education.
As we noted earlier, contingent faculty fall in several tiers.
Instructors and Lecturers. These positions have some security, but are low on status. They receive modest salaries and benefits, and many have multiyear contracts. It is generally understood that they will not move to the tenure track. By and large, they do jobs the higher tiers don’t want, like compositions sections or freshman mathematics. Many are faculty spouses.
Visiting Faculty. Here we are not referring to academic or kindred celebrities, who come to grace a campus for outlandish salaries. Rather, they are more likely to be young doctorate holders who cannot find a regular appointment. They fill in for professors on sabbatical or maternity leave. Many have had a succession of such appointments, but they are never asked to stay. They receive health and other benefits, but only for the period they are in residence.
Adjuncts. There are so many it’s impossible to get a reliable count. The range runs from respected professionals like lawyers and film producers who teach one evening course (largely because they enjoy it) to gypsy scholars who commute among as many as four campuses in a single week. As we’ve noted, pay rates are shamefully low. The American Federation of Teachers found the average is about $3,000 per course, which means many get less.
Teaching Assistants. In colleges that have master’s and doctoral programs, graduate students are regularly used as cheap teaching labor. Most typically, they run discussion sections in large lecture classes, freeing the professors from personal contact with undergraduates and chores they feel are beneath them. An American Association of University Professors survey of 280 research universities found that together they employed 181,481 teaching assistants, ranging from 5,376 at Berkeley to 202 at the University of Chicago. It’s difficult to track down information on what all graduate assistants are paid. Still, we can report that the stipend at Yale, as a school with more resources than most, is about $20,000 for the nine teaching months, plus another $3,500 to survive over the summer. Even for a single person, this is essentially a poverty wage.