Academic work as a Moral Tale: An agony in a mere six fits [Part 1]

By | November 30, 2014

On our Reed College Facebook page, there has been a debate on academic reimbursement, starting with an innocuous discussion on the posting of a position for a new event planner for the College and leading up to my threatening them with my own analysis of academic job markets – a threat now begun here.


Despite the neverending best efforts of our group to feel bad for our beloved college, it seems clear that Reed’s employment practices are very far from the current academic standard; in fact, they must be seen as considerably in excess of “decent”. That’s a bit short of “perfect”, but as Robert Sheckley points out in “The Language of Love“, that can be pretty good.

For what it’s worth, here’s my own take on why today’s academic job market is behaving as it is, structured into six convenient fits:

Fit the First

Let’s begin with now. Tenured and especially tenure-track faculty positions are in serious decline. Almost all faculty positions in the liberal arts and behavioral sciences, and a significant and rising proportion in the hard sciences, are now for adjunct faculty. Daily the proportion of student contact hours taught by adjuncts (currently 70%) is rising, even in small colleges; see the recent discussion in the Chronicle of Higher Education on Bowdoin College’s addition of an adjunct-based course in accounting. The current rate for most adjunct teaching is significantly south of $20/hour (in my own recent experience it came to exactly $13.80/hour), with no benefits, inability to work more than 30 hours/week (to avoid being classified under ACA as employees who have to be covered by health insurance), no benefits of any kind (maybe a reduced rate for the employee parking lot), and absolutely no job security of any kind.

Those are both the median and the modal conditions, although the mean ones may be stretched a bit by a few highly visible and valuable ones at the end of the long tail. And we haven’t even touched on things like academic freedom; opportunities to do research; and to design and teach courses that reflect one’s own understanding of the subject, rather than courses put together by “instructional designers” with staff appointments (and salaries). The term “industrial proletariat” seems to hang in the air. A large proportion of adjuncts would probably kill, or at least maim significantly, for the amount paid to a Reed assistant professor usually some $65,000/year), not to mention the intellectual rewards.

Well, you say, that’s just higher education feeling the pressures of that old marketplace, and high time too. Pay ‘em what they’re worth. If they don’t want to work for that, let ‘em find work doing something worthwhile. There’s a lot more clamoring at the gates for a chance for those jobs; the market sets salaries, not the colleges and universities. After all, isn’t that why a top corporate executive is paid 774 times the salary of a baseline worker?

There are several things wrong with this situation and this analysis of it (apart from the assumptions in that last statement, which I don’t have time to get into here.) But to understand these intellectual and social pathologies, we have to see how we created them. Here, it took a major socio-techtonic© shift in the “social contract” brought about, as such shifts often are, by the very well-meaning in cooperation with those of ill-meaning, for the presumed benefit of everyone else.

Fit the Second:

Contrary to today’s “idea in good currency”, the job market has always paid “real market rates”. Real markets for much of anything other than turnips (not that I have anything against turnips) aren’t pure. They are characterized by collusion, some corruption, a profession of fairness often marred by vague or nonexistent standards for its assessment, accidents of demography leading to large variations by time, place, and person, and thus barely a shadow of the “efficiencies” that are attributed to them in the deracinated version popular among neoliberal economists.

Academic jobs have always been extremely varied, from the football coach all the way down through the president of the university to the Western Civ instructor and the freshman English TA. They have always gone primarily to the well-connected, often to the docile, occasionally to the wild-eyed tokens, and finally to the merely competent. Many prove good enough at what they were hired for that they achieve essentially lifetime status; some bounce around between and within institutions like rabid billiard balls; some do badly enough that they leave or are replaced.

Neither this kind of market nor its relatives in other domains suited neoliberal economists. They presumed that the piercing air of the open market would drive out inefficiencies and bring in norms of rationality and rational decision making, under benign guidance by philosopher-economists. The problem was that all those elements of irrationality were the domain of politics (international, national, sector, organizational, family, and individual) – and politics was the only instrument that neoliberals could find to instantiate their vision of the Just Society. Their favorite tool was deregulation – get out of the business of government reinforcing or allowing economic inefficiency, they reasoned, and the long-sought Better World would be within sight – that is, “Let ‘em find work doing something worthwhile”. But only government could overrule and reverse government.

Stay tuned for four more exciting fits! The decision garbage can to be explored; problems to be explicated; solutions to be critiqued.