Exploitation in Humanities Departments

There’s an idea that college professors should be free to pursue whatever interests them, to go wherever their professional curiosity takes them without concern for the market, but that’s close to the fantasy of fan-fiction, stories written for the fun of it without an eye on their publication (even though that too is changing).

Adjunct professor Kevin Birmingham brings up this point among others in his talk on the native exploitation by college humanities and English departments. On the one hand, adjuncts aren’t paid well.

An annual report by the American Association of University Professors indicated that last year “the average part-time faculty member earned $16,718” from a single employer. Other studies have similar findings. Thirty-one percent of part-time faculty members live near or below the poverty line. Twenty-five percent receive public assistance, like Medicaid or food stamps.

These teachers are easily hired, easily dismissed. Funding for actual classroom instruction has been declining, but administrative roles are increasing. Apparently, teaching students is a declining priority for many of our universities, which makes news of another closure more tolerable.

On the other hand, graduate programs are milling out Ph.Ds at a rate that far exceeds the need. Universities, Birmingham explains, have the only job market for these graduates, but they produce roughly four times the number of candidates for the available jobs and availability is shrinking.

English departments do this because graduate students are the most important element of the academy’s polarized labor market. They confer departmental prestige. They justify the continuation of tenure lines, and they guarantee a labor surplus that provides the cheap, flexible labor that universities want.

Like a migrant worker system.

Many market principles could be learned here. One broad one would be morality cannot be based on market realities (or just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should). Colleges exist to teach, and qualified teachers should receive the honor and compensation they are due. When you have the money to pay them well, you should.

But another one may be that if some universities don’t care to teach, others should be able to pick up that slack and grow, keeping a focus on their students’ well-being in mind and not treating them like grist for the sake of the program.

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