According to a recent article in Inside Higher Ed, as many as 70 percent of college professors are part-time. Adjuncts are often the focus of contract-to-contract work in higher ed, but this statistic includes postdocs, visiting professors, fellows, and a variety of other distinctions. This lack of job security and the scarcity of tenured positions doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it is part of larger trends in our labor market that value short-term contracts and freelance work.
The gig economy is often excused or valorized as something independent and ambitious millennials want. It’s seen as part of a new work culture that prioritizes new horizons and new experiences. What it offers is precarity.
Herb Childress talks about how the gig economy has impacted higher education in an April 16, 2019, interview in Inside Higher Ed. This interview follows the publication of his most recent book, The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission. “Higher ed is a component of a larger culture that accepts gig work as a norm,” he explained, “that protects consumers but not workers, that devalues work done by women, that faces fundamental demographic shifts and a 30-year population trough on the heels of a gigantic boom.”
Impermanent work — the kind that lacks professional development, job security, time to reflect on teaching, time to collaborate on meaningful research — produces worn out professors and uninspired students who aren’t learning. It undermines the purpose and mission of higher education.
I worked as an English adjunct at Bluefield State College for several years while working as a full-time journalist to support my “teaching habit.” Bluefield just beginning to offer classes in Beckley at the Erma Byrd Higher Education Center alongside two or three other universities. I was the first teacher in this new building. I had no support staff, administrative assistant, or secretary. My first semester there, I had no access to a printer and no one I could contact if I experienced technical difficulties. I felt completely alone and adrift on an open sea of academia. I carried dry erase markers in my purse. When students needed to meet with me I met them in the lobby and we wandered around until we found an unoccupied room where we could talk privately.
So, I felt unsupported, but I also felt like no one would care if I showed up or not. But I have conflicting feelings because I also found the work some of the most rewarding I’ve ever done. The students, many of whom were first-generation, valued education I was trusted with developing new and more challenging classes. I had complete domain over what classes I taught and when (which was very helpful because I had to schedule them around my other day job).
Despite the positive aspects, it just wasn’t sustainable for me. I worked a job that often required extra time and I could be called to the scene of a crime or a fire at any time, and I was grading papers for as many as 120 students in three classes. Having already done adjunct work, I know how exhausting it is. I know I can’t do gig work long term.
But my point is that this sickness isn’t unique to higher education. Higher education won’t change until we stop valuing gig labor over all else and begin seeing employees has having individual and intrinsic worth.
Childress perhaps says it best: “We have to think of higher ed as a community to which we belong and to which we welcome others. We need to stop treating any of our members as expendable — not the 25 percent of freshmen whom we expect will never become sophomores, not the graduate students teaching on the cheap and running labs, not the postdocs laboring unseen as fourth authors on papers, not the adjuncts teaching first-year and remedial students and transfer/general education courses while the tenured get the upper-division majors and grad students for themselves. We are not business products with an expected amount of process waste: we are whole, beloved, intelligent people invested with every possibility.”