The origins of the casualization of academic labor

Jonathan Rees draws our attention to comments by Thomas Frank in a recent issue of Harper’s (sorry–no link) about why he left academia to pursue a career as an independent writer and journalist:

“Although it scarcely seems believable today, I originally came to journalism as a practical, responsible career move. It was the mid-1990s, I had just finished a Ph.D. in history, and I was toiling away as a lecturer at a college in Chicago. Thanks to an overproduction of historians and the increasing use of adjunct labor by universities, the market had become hopelessly glutted. Friends of mine all told the same stories of low-wage toil, of lecturing and handing out A’s while going themselves without health insurance or enough money for necessities. Our tenured elders, meanwhile, could only rarely be moved to care. What was a predicament to us was a liberation to them-a glorious lifting of their burden to teach. For the university, which was then just then discovering the wonders of profit-making, it was something even more fabulous: a way to keep labor costs down.”

I argued over there that his “tenured elders” weren’t the authors of this system–at least, not unless they were the Deans and Provosts who decided to use adjuncts instead of permitting departments to run tenure-track searches.  No tenured faculty in any department I’ve ever been a member of has cackled with glee at the prospect of seeing our ranks depleted and populated instead with adjuncts.  In fact, the faculty I’m on is always up in arms about the erosion in our ranks.  The chairs of my department, and the chairs of all other departments I know of in my college, have made the hiring of tenure-track colleagues their number-one request for the last several years.

Frank has created a straw-man argument here that describes no department I know of.  No academic department or tenured faculty member I know of has the budgetary authority either to authorize or deny a tenure-track line.  Here’s how the adjunctification of a department happens:  when my senior colleagues retire or a colleague resigns to take another job, we lose not only the tenure line but we also lose the money.  The Dean’s and Provost’s office–or some other entity farther up–hoovers up the salary savings, and my department gets nothing, except more service work spread around among the remaining tenured or tenure-track faculty.

My father is not a philosophical man, but he has left me with a very wise observation about human nature:  people find the time and the money for the things that are important to them.  Tenured and tenure-track faculty, in my experience, don’t make arguments about how they can do more with less, nor are they the people who have been cutting the instructional budget at their universities.  Administrators are the authors of this shift from tenured to casual labor, and they’re the ones who benefit from it directly.  At least, that’s my perspective.  I’d love to hear what the rest of you think about this:  who’s to blame?

0 thoughts on “The origins of the casualization of academic labor

  1. I think what you think, H. And also, I find the sentence that you put in bold bizarre in the extreme. Reality: adjuncts don’t lighten teaching loads of tenure track/tenured faculty. Adjuncts allow for increases in enrollment and the increase of courses offered that are necessary because of it without hiring more tenure-track faculty. My department is *hugely* dependent on adjunct labor. I teach 4 courses a semester. My load is not lightened because of our huge dependence on adjuncts, and I’d argue that my experience is reflective of people in nearly all English departments, even those with lighter teaching loads. Because when faculty teach fewer courses it’s because they are responsible for directing more theses and dissertations, invisible teaching work. And guess who can’t do that invisible teaching work? That’s right: adjuncts.


  2. “Thanks to an overproduction of historians and the increasing use of adjunct labor by universities, the market had become hopelessly glutted.”

    Really, then why do we need all these adjuncts for? Enough with the “there are no jobs” meme. There are jobs, they have been precarized and casualized.

    George Ritzer was writing about the McDonaldization of academia long before anyone suddenly realized all this.

    Also, with all these adjuncts, how come tuitions are still going up? After all, replacing all these damn unionized, tenured academics with temps was supposed to lower costs right?

    The real glut is at the administrative levels and coaching. Highly paid with limited productivity.


  3. I wonder if that idea comes from a mis-understanding between the differences between t/a’s and adjuncts- and also a lack of realisation of how things changed over time.

    In the UK system, I could see that the argument could be made that what we call ‘tutors’ removed some of the burdens of teaching from our equivalent of tenure folk. This is because on the big ‘team taught’ courses (usually first or second year level) where there are hundreds of students, grad students and unemployed early-career folk are paid at an hourly rate to take on a lot of the work that used to be done by lecturers. What usually happens is that lecturers (usually several) give the lectures to large audiences of hundreds of students. But tutorials- small group teaching where what happens in lectures is discussed- are run by hourly-paid tutors- usually grad students and the unemployed. Tutors also do all first-marking for the course- and at this level only a random sample (and all fails) go to second-marking (done by lecturers). The theory is that the grad students took the burden of teaching large numbers from the lecturers. I think this might be similar to T/A’s in the US.

    Now, it was probably true for about week when it first happened that lecturers had more free time, but very quickly the time freed up was filled by other types of work- more higher level courses, service etc. Because most uni’s have this system where they give every task a weighting to determine if you are pulling your weight- and once grad students were added to the equation, they just changed the weighting of how much time it took to teach the big group courses as a lecturer. I should add that this system does rely on grad students to do the grunt work- and there are instances of courses where lecturers have to go back to doing it as they have a shortage- but in this modern market that is more and more unlikely.


  4. Every retirement and resignation moves tenured faculty to tears or near enough. Why? Because we’ll fight and likely fail to get those positions again. It’s as if we’re standing on an island that’s slowly being inundated. Soon we’ll all be underwater!


  5. SocProf: you’re entirely right. We’re not experiencing a “job crisis.” It’s a job QUALITY crisis. But, do we all see how Frank’s rhetorical move manages to make everything the fault of fatcat tenured faculty? First, we’re responsible for the overproduction of Ph.D.s because of our selfish desire for grad students and their cheap labor, then we’re ALSO at fault for the casualization of academic labor. No administrators bear any responsibility for the decision-making, somehow.

    If only I were so powerful!

    Dr. Crazy, I like your expression “invisible teaching.” You’re right that it’s not JUST service that devolves onto ever-fewer numbers of us.

    Janice, your reaction is so familiar. I too cry when my tenured (or tenure-track) colleagues leave. My department is now down 6 or 7 lines, and in exactly none of these cases is it because the rest of the tenured or tenure-track faculty said it wasn’t a priority to replace them.


  6. I agree with you and the others. The problem isn’t the supposedly greedy and implicitly lazy tenured faculty. Rather it is an administrative model that has come to define the value of universities by the number of students they can churn out with the least amount of expense. I have not been anywhere where tenured faculty “don’t care” about the increase in under-employed, uninsured adjuncts.

    And, once again, if we had a real national health care system, then the lack of employer-provided care would not be an issue.


  7. Our situation is a lot like yours, Historiann. We lost two tenure-stream faculty members, and haven’t been able to replace them. In the meantime, we’ve hired two VAPs, and one Lecturer. Hiring tenure-stream faculty is budget item #1 each and every year. I know because I write the budget request!

    We’ve had serious cuts from our state, and that is largely to blame – though administrative will is also a factor. The money for VAPs comes out of what is called un-budgeted tuition revenue, and isn’t a recurring expense, as far as the suits think. Whereas tenure-stream faculty members are a permanent addition.

    We’re putting up buildings like mad here, but that money comes from the state and from private donors.

    Our next budget cut from the state will force us to: 1. defund graduate education, or reduce the number of funding packages; 2. fundamentally alter retirement benefits; 3. or reorganize the university. Plans for #3 are already circulating. Plans for #1 include incentives for “healthy” faculty.

    No one is talking about hiring tenure stream faculty – except for the faculty!


  8. Sorry – I meant that plans for fundamentally altering health benefits include offering incentives for healthy faculty. This includes taking a BMI reading, etc., and developing a plan for improvement, etc.

    Good times.


  9. I don’t know Tom Frank, but back in the mid-1990s we had a friend in common. This person mentioned to me, IIRC, that Frank thought his mentors and diss. committee members at the U of C were unconcerned about his welfare and job prospects. So I gather Frank inferred that they were lazy or malevolent, and from there he generalized about tenured faculty across the country.


  10. Interesting, LadyProf. I suppose we all like to see trends to help explain our own decisions. Frank was probably correct that his advisors were “unconcerned about his welfare and job prospects.” Who among us of that generation can say that we had concerned advisors and mentors? (What would their concern have done for me, anyway? Can I eat concern?)

    The job market for tenure-track jobs in the mid-1990s was indeed tough, but everyone from my graduate uni who finished their Ph.D.s eventually found tenure-track employment. (That is, if they applied for jobs nationally, and if they took whatever they were offered. Those who didn’t get jobs are those who turned down tenure-track offers because of family/personal reasons, or they limited their job searches geographically in the first place.) But folks who stuck it out lucked out eventually, and even have moved into better jobs since then.

    I think it’s harder now to find a TT job, for all of the reasons we’re talking about here. GayProf puts it nicely–this is what I’ve been gesturing towards all week long, it seems: an administrative model that has come to define the value of universities by the number of students they can churn out with the least amount of expense.

    Lance’s story about health care benefits is awful. Is health screening in the name of cost-saving the new eugenics? (Why do healthy people need medical benefits anyway? Isn’t filing a claim prima fascie evidence that the healthy are no longer healthy and therefore are now undeserving of coverage?)


  11. I don’t blame particular individual administrators for this, although of course some can be better or worse at fostering or hindering this kind of shitte. Private institutions with decent endowment, tuition, and sponsored research income have not gone down the casualization road, while public institutions being starved by state legislatures have. Do you really think that the difference is that the administrators of public institutions are asshole douchebagges who hate faculty and enjoy punishing academics via casualization, while the administrators of private institutions are wonderful lovely angels who love faculty?

    Administrators are simply responding to the economic realities that are imposed upon them from above. Blaming the administrators for casualization is misguided.


  12. Some of them may be bad people–some may be good people coping in difficult circumstances. However, I can’t help but wonder why the instructional budget continues to be savaged when (at my uni, anyway), 1) enrollment is up, 2) tuition dollars are up, 3) my department makes more money for the uni than it costs with faculty salaries, and 4) the uni finds tons of dough to lose on farm clubs for the NBA and the NFL. (For example: the football team, which has a pretty dismal record, was flown to San Diego last weekend for a game. Apparently, austerity is just a rumor in the AD.)

    Why does the instructional budget always take the hit? Why not the AD? Why not find the money somewhere else? Last I checked, the mission of the uni was education, not entertainment.

    Fish rot from the head.


  13. Another aspect to the story…when the TT lines do not disappear, they are reallocated to other departments. At my uni when a faculty member in the Liberal Arts and Sciences retires or resigns, the line usually shifts to our professional programs. Administrators figure we can just raise the caps on our gen ed courses and we’ll teach fewer courses for our majors.


  14. Polisciprof–that shift of tenure lines works out well for the administrators, esp. since professional schools seem to teach on average larger classes with fewer faculty, as I learned this week.

    Notice who isn’t arguing with us here? Administrators! (And I know there are a number of them among my readers.)


  15. On the other hand, tenured faculty would have more leverage in resisting administrators’ push toward contingent labor if we were treated contingent faculty more equitably in the distribution of service courses. Even though faculty don’t control budgets, we do control course staffing, and in every department I’ve ever been a part of, tenured faculty enjoy whatever liberty they have to pick and choose their courses partly because there are adjuncts around to staff the courses no one else wants. I’ve never known a tenured chemistry professor to volunteer to be a lab coordinator when there are grad students or non-tenure-track instructors to do it, or a tenured English professor to volunteer to teach freshman composition more than is minimally required, or a tenured Spanish professor to volunteer to teach beginning Spanish if it means giving up his or her only chance to teach Spanish literature. Adjuncts may not lighten our loads, but they do very often enable us to preserve the curriculum we have without sacrificing the opportunity to teach, at least some of the time, the material we specialize in. Administrators may have forced a caste system upon us in economic terms, but I think we are at least partly responsible for letting that economic caste system become an intellectual/curricular one or sorts, too. And one good way for faculty to push back against the casualization of academic labor is to treat contingent and tenured faculty as equitably as possible within our departments. If administrators were to see their senior faculty (in some places, their ‘stars’) teaching busting-at-the-seams sections of intro. courses, they might be see that department’s need for another tenure line a little more clearly than when those intro. courses are taught be adjuncts whom the administrators have never met and never will meet.


  16. English Prof.: I think you’re right. But I think the examples you choose (not unreasonably), English and Chemistry and foreign languages, do not reflect the practices of other departments. Regular faculty in my department must teach a 100-level course every two years, and some volunteer to teach it annually. I don’t know if my department it just more democratic than others, or if other history departments follow this practice, but it’s only recently that the regular faculty have shifted to an every-other-year schedule instead of an annual requirement for a 100-level class. History departments tend to be rather proud about the importance of having experienced faculty teach our lower-division courses.

    My department regularly offers our adjuncts a mixture of service classes and upper-divison lecture courses (and even sometimes senior seminars.) It is true that they teach more service courses than the regular faculty, but I’d say that there’s some logic in that: only regular faculty, for example, teach graduate classes, and regular faculty have been recruited in national searches to teach specialized courses in their fields, whereas adjuncts and lecturers usually come from a local pool and aren’t necessarily hired because of their particular area of specialization (although frequently that’s of use to us as well, given the gaping holes left among our regular faculty.) And, in my department T.A. assistance is distributed equally–anyone teaching a 100-level class gets a T.A., period, regardless of tenure-track or adjunct status.

    Early in my career I had some course releases and then a medical leave, so I was in the position of having to teach a 100-level class while the department Chair had to find a specialist in my field to teach some early American classes because of our previously inflexible rule that regular faculty had to teach one 100-level class per year. That was an unnecessary burden on the Chair, and a ridiculous waste of my expertise, in my view. That’s one reason we changed that rule.

    But I agree with you in principle that teaching should be more fairly distributed across the curriculum.


  17. In my department, nearly everyone in a tenure line teaches a nine-hour load. Of those three classes, two are 100-level general education courses. Among our adjuncts, all of whom are part-time, everyone who has a Ph.D. teaches a 400-level class, pretty much every semester. This distribution results from the university’s focus on credit-hour production per dollar of salary. Truly, if carried to the extreme, this would result in full-time faculty teaching nothing but large service courses and adjuncts being assigned the seminars and upper-level classes. My usual nine-hour load offerd seats to just over 200 students a semester, justifying my employment.

    This is not, I think, what Frank imagines is going on.


  18. Mamie, what you describe is the adjunctification of tenure-track jobs. Now, that’s equality for ya!

    I’d love to know where Frank was temping back in the mid-1990s. My bet that it wasn’t Chicago State or Northern Illinois, and that it was someplace like Chicago or Northwestern. (Although even at those unis I truly doubt his implication that somehow tenured faculty teaching loads were reduced as a direct result of the use of adjunct labor.) Like most critics of academe who never spent years on the job market and have never worked in a tenure-track job, he doesn’t get it that most of us end up at Chicago State or Northern Illinois, not Chicago or Northwestern.


  19. I confess that the gears of university budgets don’t make any sense to me at all. Like other people, I see a long-standing trend towards adjunctification, towards higher enrollments, and towards higher tuition, yet the financial health of the institution just seems to get worse and worse. I know that, at least in the case of my state school, we’ve seen severe drops in state aid owing to the budget crisis, and that explains a lot of the austerity measures we are facing now. But this crisis seems only to have accelerated already existing trends.

    I don’t think Frank really knows what he’s talking about. Tenured and tenured-track faculty are not the ones clamoring for more cheap labor. That’s something I’ve never come across, at all.


  20. Here’s a new game my administration is playing with full-time faculty in my department – stealth increases of teaching load. Things like: classes with under 15 students don’t count, so even though you need to keep teaching them (to serve our majors or grad students) we will still schedule you with a full load of 40-student-plus classes. A friend of mine showed up at the beginning of the semester to find that she had been scheduled for 5 classes instead of 4 (large classes, different preps). No extra money, no asking if she minds, just, whoops, here’s your teaching schedule and I guess you’ll have to teach it because there’s no one else who can. Unfortunately teaching load is not in our contract and we have no union. When we say no, we can’t do this, you’ll have to hire an adjunct, I really don’t want to be blamed for causing the problem of adjunctification.


  21. D.J.: this is exactly why I wrote this post. People who aren’t in tenure-track lines don’t always understand that departments aren’t in control of the budget. It’s not like we have a pile of money, and we can decide that we can either hire one tenure-track colleague or three adjunct instructors. Instead, we’re told by the Dean, who in turn was probably told by the Provost, “no, no hires this year–but you can have money to hire three adjunct instructors because we need X number of seats in history classes.”

    I’m sorry that the administration at your uni is taking advantage of your determination to serve your majors well.


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  23. I’d love to know where Frank was temping back in the mid-1990s. My bet that it wasn’t Chicago State or Northern Illinois, and that it was someplace like Chicago or Northwestern.

    Chicago (my alma mater) wouldn’t have had a lot of adjuncts teaching a subject like history; IME they were always reluctant even to let grad students teach, apart from foreign languages. It’s part of the pseudo-SLACky culture of The College. When I read “a college in Chicago” I figured it was Columbia College (I don’t know why; you just get certain pictures in your head of the happy mid-90s life of a history PhD running into his Columbia students at the Empty Bottle, apparently), and that he was using his friends’ anecdotes to authorize the leap to the general case about tenured faculty and adjuncts.

    I think people do often have these conversations, over drinks or whatever: consciousness-raising derailed by conspiracy theory. “OMG, we are all adjuncting, the tenure-stream faculty is against us, this is The New Normal, this is The Way It Works…” Turning it into a Harper’s article 15 years later, though… yeah, you want to do a little more research first. We could take up a collection and send him Marc Bousquet’s book.


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