Sunday, March 8, 2009

Power Adjuncting

The Chronicle published a piece this week by Douglas W. Texter, "No Tenure? No Problem." Part-timers, it goes, can now make a pile of money (in the neighborhood of $100k annually) by stacking teaching gigs at a couple of different institutions. Texter offers ten principles useful for adjusting one's thinking while taking the plunge into the pot of gold that is "entrepreneurial adjuncting." Among the guiding tenets: care, assume a mercenary attitude, change what you read, change the company you keep, watch Risky Business, and so on.

I learned about the column not because I pay all that much attention to CHE but because it drifted across WPA-L, a listserv I am subscribed to, albeit in digest mode. Texter's column stirred a fair amount of discussion, something like 32 list messages on the day it appeared. And without pointing too directly at any of the comments or naming names, the responses included variations of:

  • CHE is link-baiting (flashing a glimpse of the shocking and grotesque, tabloid-style);
  • it can't be done: no multi-part-timers are making $100,000;
  • skepticism followed by mathematical improbabilities (viz., it would take 98 bowls of Captain Crunch to get the nutritional value in one bowl of Total);
  • $100,000 isn't all that much money, especially considering benefits are nowhere a part of the picture;
  • Texter's column is satire (or the obverse: no it's not);
  • What could possibly be CHE's motive in publishing this?;
  • irrelevant;
  • inside word has it that D. W. Texter is seeking a tenure-track position now that he has made his great fortune.

Sure, I'm having a little bit of fun with these characterizations, but I mean to capture the spirit of the dialogue more in the interest of marking it for a future return rather than summing it perfectly for those who didn't watch as it unfolded. Clearly there is a lot of interest in the proposition that part-timers, especially online part-timers, can make a load of dough simply by teaching several moderate loads. The perennial problem of mileage is, in the 100K part-part-part-timer model, solved by an internet connection. And I don't mean "solved" with respect to professional-ethical considerations; I mean "solved" in the sense that online, a body can be linked in with many different institutional scenes as there are tabs open in Firefox. So, this happens, and yet we don't understand it all that well because it is only partially visible from any single institutional perspective (i.e., it doesn't happen at any one place).

For the past couple of years, I've had a hand in mentoring new online instructors at another university, checking in every week or so by email or phone with those who are teaching an online course for the first time. While in this role, I've had the chance to meet a couple of entrepreneurial types who are doing a heckuva lot of teaching online for multiple institutions (note: many are teaching in fields other than Composition or even English Studies). Are some making 100k? I imagine so. Okay, maybe 90k. And collecting income by working at, say, three institutions without ever leaving their in-home offices. Once I called a new instructor I'd talked to a couple of times before and heard, "Now which university are you with?" And more recently, a part-timer told me about teaching experiences with Axia, Heald, and Baker before mentioning that the most s.he'd ever taught was 18 sections in one semester--all FYC at four different institutions (none of this was online, btw). We didn't talk gross income. But that's less my point. Instead, I've been thinking about how this sort of load passes unnoticed because it is distributed, decentralized. There is no large-scale accounting system in place that would give anyone insights into just how prevalent a practice this is, although it wouldn't surprise me at all to see institutions and accrediting bodies coordinate some means of calling these practices into check, perhaps by creating some sort of regional clearinghouse or something. I'm not all that well versed in how accrediting bodies address contingent labor in higher ed (or, for that matter, how those involved in accreditation audits come and go, how they become familiar with the interests they serve, and so on), but I continue to have an interest in the growing tension between part-time labor as it is typically conceived and how these new work categories that fall outside prevalent mythologies. I'm curious whether and to what degree these new work categories will change the shape of ongoing conversations about part-time labor, for better or worse, in the next five or ten or fifty years.

Bookmark and Share Posted by at March 8, 2009 9:20 PM to Academe

This might be crass and wrong and such, but these kind of stories strike me as a sort of "revenge tale:" basically, the adjunct/part-timer who is unable to get a tenure-track position for whatever reason but who likes/is able to teach online ends up getting well-paid. I mean, making the kind of salary that an associate or even full prof makes (albeit with no benefits) with no other responsibilities and the opportunity to live anywhere with an internet connection? I don't know; on some days, that seems like a pretty good gig to me.

Posted by: Steven D. Krause at March 11, 2009 6:40 AM

I can see how power-adjuncting accounts might be read as revenge narratives, as really sticking it to the system, in some respects. Texter's account certainly comes off that way. There is a thread of "getting over" in his CHE column. I do think more and more people are finding that it is a good gig, that it allows a fair amount of flexibility otherwise unavailable, and that the old constraints (e.g., travel) don't apply in quite the same way. Many of the online part-timers I've talked with say they work for more than one institution. It makes sense that there would be more and more "free agent" approaches as programs push offerings online while caring very little for where the labor comes from provided it is credentialed labor.

I continue to wonder about the stability of such a system, or, to put it another way, about the sustainability of the 100k-adjunct lifestyle. I mean, I would like to meet someone who has earned 100k annually for, say, 10 consecutive years. If such a person exists, I'd even buy their quintuple espresso just to have a conversation.

Posted by: Derek at March 11, 2009 8:50 AM