Just You Wait Henry Higgins!

by P.D. Lesko

Eliza Doolittle sputters in response to yet another petty humiliation: “Just you wait, Henry Higgins!”

As the saying goes, revenge is a dish best served cold. To whit, I have heard faculty off the tenure-track pinpoint the exact day when that meal will be served. It’s the day when students, parents, voters, politicians etc… realize that 70 percent of college faculty are getting the short end of, well, everything. When that happens, look out! Just you wait, Henry Higgins!

Sadly however, I think Americans are as unaware of the plight of part-time faculty today as they were in 1990. So why aren’t part-timers able to spin their own message? Why can’t they seem to whip up a tsunami of attention and support? After all, they’re highly-educated people; they teach public relations, marketing, labor relations, and writing. Wouldn’t you think people with such skills could get Americans to focus on the “adjunct problem?” Yet here we sit, no closer to the reckoning today than we were decades ago—hundreds of thousands of Eliza Doolittles waiting to throw slippers at the Henry Higgins that is higher education.

The answer isn’t pretty. To begin, according to a recent job satisfaction study conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago, out of 500 job categories, teaching scored among the most highly-rated jobs in terms of overall job satisfaction. Thus, while studies document an adjunct faculty job satisfaction “gap,” compared to the job satisfaction ratings of those at the bottom of the job satisfaction list, part-time faculty job satisfaction levels are stellar.

Next, higher education has dropped off our mainstream media’s journalistic radar. The number of mainstream newspapers with weekly coverage of higher education has been reduced to a few usual suspects. In the EU, higher education gets daily coverage in scores of national newspapers. So, as higher education is reduced to a supplement in the daily diet of Americans, the plight of part-time faculty becomes even less likely to make the cut when editors decide what is news.

The final reason that faculty off the tenure track haven’t managed to capture the spotlight and shine it onto their issues has to do with the fact that since the early 90s, tenure-line faculty have spoken out on behalf of their non-tenured colleagues. For example, SUNY’s Dr. Peter D.G. Brown, has taken on both the union and the institution on behalf of the college’s 8,000 part timers. Dr. Eileen Schell, Associate Professor of Writing and Writing Program Director at Syracuse University, has focused her research and writing on labor issues that impact faculty off the tenure-track for over a decade. Dr. Cary Nelson stepped into the spotlight on behalf of adjunct faculty when he published Manifesto of a Tenured Radical in 1997. This reliance on the tenured consiglieri has been a double-edged sword.

Why? When tenured faculty frame the national discussion of what it is faculty off the tenure-track want and need, part-time faculty end up disempowered. Then, what happens when adjunct activists disagree with the advice of their tenured consiglieri? Adjunct activists have been attacked in print and online by their tenured friends for suggesting faculty off the tenure-track need to chart a course different than that suggested by some of the current tenured consiglieri.

The last reason is somewhat obvious, but tenured faculty in the humanities (the discipline from which many of these tenured consiglieri have sprung) shouldn’t be relied upon to explain part-time faculty woes to America. Yearly, tenured and tenure-line faculty in the humanities cram MLA panel discussions aimed at developing strategies to better communicate to the rest of America the need for humanities research and teaching. Yet, we regularly read pieces such as the one published in February 2009 in The New York Times: “In Tough Times the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth” (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/25/books/25human.html?_r=1). Sigh.

So who’s going to make sure that the day of reckoning comes—that Henry Higgins gets what’s coming to him and Eliza Doolittle gets her due? I don’t know. Of one thing I am certain, however. Faculty off the tenure-track must star in their own higher education drama. Until they speak for themselves and shape the research and national discourse surrounding their own exploitation, it will be impossible to whip up the tsunami of attention and support necessary to make any truly substantive changes in how temporary faculty are hired, evaluated, valued, rewarded and compensated.

To quote Henry Higgins: Damn! Damn! Damn! DAMN!

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  1. If I may add my own two cents to the broader context of the adjunct plight, I think that adjuncts are not “at the forefront of their own liberation movement” because they haven’t been given a fair (or accurate) conceptual map to get there.

    It always breaks my heart as an adjunct to get the random pat on the back and seemingly empty words of encouragement from Department chairs to “keep up the good work,” or “try to find some ways to get your foot in the door,” especially when it’s followed by the same person running off to do other things and never taking time to finish the conversation. So maybe the better question is this, are these tenured and tenure-track faculty who are championing adjuncts, taking time to mentor them?

    My non-scientific observation suggests….no.

    What IS happening is that adjuncts are often left out in the cold regarding discussions of curriculum design, academic advising, committee work, etc. Instead, they are told to “Keep at it, and maybe a full time job will come up,” or the ever popular confession that adjuncts work so hard, yet receive such little pay. Yet no real action takes place beyond. Further, we need to begin questioning whether or not institutions have being upfront and honest with adjuncts about the job market? Are adjuncts aware that their M.A. or M.S. doesn’t cut it anymore? Are they aware that the current economy (aka “These tough economic times” for all of our administrative friends out there), has created a context where Ph.D.s are competing for entry-level instructor positions? Do they know that teaching 5 sections is not impressive, rather debilitating to their pedagogical quality (even though they desperately need the income)? Have they been told that adjuncts are the new, sexy “cost-cutting measure”? I seriously doubt we would have adjuncts if that were the case.

    We have to accept the fact that a “New Adjunct” has arrived. The days of full-time professionals stopping by the local community college or liberal arts university to teach a night class are giving way to a group of fresh-faced, out-of-graduate-school instructors who are trying to work their way up the ladder and need more than “keep doing what you’re doing, and something will open up.” If higher education truly espouses this group, then they need to be included as more than just people referenced as “staff” in the course catalog before they’re hired to teach an abundance of 100 level classes.

  2. First, the idiom is “to wit.” Second, although it’s true that the two-tiered system inevitably does tend to pit tenured/full-time faculty against part-, those of the former group who speak out for contingents tend to be among the few who to some extent at least have overcome the prejudices that usually accompany that dichotomy; more part-time faculty aren’t at the forefront of their own liberation movement for all the well-known reasons: their busy lives and dearth of time, their vulnerability, etc. The deep entrenchment and the complexity of the two-tiered system make disagreements about how to fix it inevitable. What’s the point of attacking those who’ve at least made strides toward the first broad goal identified here, focusing attention on the problem? Your most convincing comment here is “I don’t know.” That’s because the solutions aren’t as easy as finding fault and laying blame.

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