How Many Professors Does it Take to Sink this Ship?

Union Solidarity Slow as Molasses

I have to preface the very good argument below on the Humanities (scroll down-down-down) with a few things tied to higher education. First, the crisis in higher education leads to Humanities, and to other fields, like sociology, history, political science, almost anything that has nothing to do with business crime, drone warfare, learning how to administrate us into hell, High Tech/Low Ethics, anything to do with pushing the greed to the top and subjugating us, the 80 percent. There is a crisis in the humanities because America wants Breaking Sons of Anarchy Bad Reality TV Cop-land-Nerd-land Jon Leibowitz Crap-olah as a basis of culture, thought, culture. Even my field — English, as in writing, composition, research writing skills — even that is being cut-cut-cut. There is a program coming soon that will replicate functionally illiterate folk’s mumbling into a smart computer that will turn out grand Google-NSA-Facebook-Admin Class-approved works of art, or anything. Just plug in the app, “I want it to read, sound, feel like a Rand Paul essay.”

Yep, the digital blips have been gnats on the video display for, well, for three decades. On my screen, at least. So, why this preface? You can see below in the lengthy bio-sketch that I was organizing adjunct faculty in the state of Washington for a pretty bad union, SEIU. The Seattle Branch of SEIU, Local 925, well, it’s prissy, warped, and, my checks were cut on Bank of America blood stock. The point is that I was seeing through years of work, decades, really, a need for a BIG push fast. All stops pulled out. A statewide clearing house for thousands of exploited adjuncts, both in the private sector and public sector, higher ed, or not, and for companies like language schools, any outfit that employs instructors. A big push, big presence in the media, big-big-big.

I see one of my leads that would have never been presented to SEIU without me because I WAS the only ADJUNCT in the outfit, well, that is Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma. They have filed for collective bargaining. Much of the work has been by full-timers. The NLRB and the college are at loggerheads. In any case, that case SHOULD be a rallying cry in this state.

Instead, the SEIU is having another closed session of adjunct faculty yammering in DC. This conference, they call it, “Action on the Academy: Integrated Strategies, Imaginative Agitation, and Creative Solutions to the Crisis in Higher Education,” is free, open to the public (sic) in Washington, DC (another East Coast wrap-up).

Can you imagine how much it is to get to DC, Nov. 15-17? Try $500 to $1000 RT just for air robbery fair.?Then, a crappy hotel in that rotten city? How much? $120 or more a night? Then, the very idea that an adjunct can just head on out on a Friday, with classes, the burden of a two-tiered caste system scrutinizing us. This is also the last month before finals, with the absurd National Day of Mourning holiday adding another lost week for rot-gut turkeys and rapist football games on TeeVee.

Believe me, the list of talks, the yammer session, same old, same old. These people ARE not revolutionary, and they can cite “prudent times in a politically tough era is why we go slow-slow” all they want. They are not there to discuss sea change, to put the feet of SEIU and NEA and AFT and other unionizing outfits  like AAUP into the fire. We are dying on many fronts, not just on the front lawn as a French teacher at Duquesne:

The funeral Mass for Margaret Mary, a devout Catholic, was held at Epiphany Church, only a few blocks from Duquesne. The priest who said Mass was from the University of Dayton, another Catholic university and my alma mater. Margaret Mary was laid out in a simple, cardboard casket devoid of any handles for pallbearers — a sad sight, but an honest symbol of what she had been reduced to by her ostensibly Catholic employer.

The world of education, PK12, higher ed, even in the professions and workplace, it’s all going the way of joy-stick stupidity, on-line, completely tied to technology, software and zombie thinking. The unions are not capable of moving when they COMPETE with each other. They are dragged down by slow thinking, incremental thought patterns and fear of strikes.

I’ll give SEIU 500 a shot here, at Labor Reporter: 

Today low-paid, contingent instructors do most of the teaching at America’s institutions of higher education. According to the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW), ”75.5 percent of (higher education) instructional staff members (are) employed in contingent positions either as part-time or adjunct faculty members, full-time non-tenure-track faculty members, or graduate student teaching assistants.”

For the most part, institutions of higher education devote few resources to supporting these faculty members.

In 2009 at American University in Washington DC, about 50 percent of the instructional faculty were adjunct instructors, but only 4 percent of the university’s instructional budget was devoted to these faculty members. Adjunct instructors, subsequently voted in 2011 to unionize and joined SEIU Local 500.

A national survey whose results were released last year by CAW found that in 2010 median pay per three-hour course taught by adjunct instructors was $2,700 and ranged from $2,235 at two-year colleges to a high of $3,400 at four-year doctoral or research universities.

The survey also found that while adjuncts are often considered temporary workers and are thus denied the full benefits of permanent employees, most consider themselves long-term employees who are committed to the teaching profession. Of those surveyed, 80 percent had taught for three years or more; half had taught for six or more years. More than three-quarters said that they would accept a tenure track position if available.

Those attending the symposium discussed these and other problems facing adjunct faculty. They also agreed that collective action and unionization are key to overcoming these problems.

Adjunct Action is part of a new organizing model aimed at adjunct faculty that SEIU refers to as its metropolitan organizing strategy. The idea is to get community groups involved in the organizing effort and to make the organizing campaign a region-wide effort rather trying to organize one campus at a time.

“We need an approach that is bigger than any one institution,” said Wayne Langley, director of SEIU Local 615?s higher education division to the Chronicle of Higher Education. “If we continue to fight institution by institution, we will not win.”

Unfortunately, I do not see one fellow on board the weekend conference who is, again, way too pugnacious for SEIU:

November 12, 2013

 Invitation to a Dialogue: An Academic Divide 

To the Editor:

 A recent study of Northwestern University indicating that non-tenure-track faculty are better teachers than tenure-track faculty (“Study Sees Benefit in Courses With Nontenured Instructors”) has been met with disbelief and derision — by tenure-track faculty and the American Association of University Professors.

It calls into question the myth that the two-track system in academe is an equal opportunity merit system. It is not; it is in fact a caste system with the tenured faculty occupying the upper caste and the off-track faculty serving as the “untouchables.”

This is not the first study to indicate that adjuncts and other “contingent faculty” are the best teachers. In the book “Off-Track Profs: Nontenured Teachers in Higher Education,” John G. Cross and Edie N. Goldenberg studied student evaluations at 10 elite research universities, including Northwestern, from 1989 to 2001.

They concluded that non-tenure-track instructors “usually (but not always) obtain higher scores than other types of instructors.” They added, “This is not surprising since non-tenure-track faculty are hired as teachers and are evaluated with teaching performance in mind.”

Following the adage “publish or perish,” tenured faculty, by contrast, may view teaching as an ancillary function to their research. I would add that the scarcity of tenure-track positions has led to the hiring of adjuncts with excellent credentials, who, lacking any job security, must stay at the top of their game.

While the tenure-track faculty have comparatively high wages, great benefits and lifetime job security in the form of tenure, one million contingent professors have none of these things, often teaching for decades for poverty-level wages, and wondering whether they will even have a job next quarter. Last year The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article called “The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps.”

KEITH HOELLER, Seattle, Nov. 11, 2013

The writer is the editor of the forthcoming book “Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System.”

Editors’ Note: We invite readers to respond briefly by Thursday for the Sunday Dialogue. We plan to publish responses and a rejoinder in the Sunday Review. Email:moc.semitynnull@srettel


So, we have BIG union problems, BIG problems of people yammering to themselves, a BIG problem of really low wages, low respect and a highway toward replacing all teachers with TECHNOLOGY. These are the rules of the game now, that unions have not codified as a struggle — technological unemployment, permanent precarious employment, and the death of agency through Google and Facebook and Corporate America.

Here’s the conference details if you make it to DC. Good luck with that:

Action on the Academy: Integrated Strategies, Imaginative Agitation, and Creative Solutions to the Crisis in Higher Education

  • Friday, November 15 to Sunday November 17, 2013
  • SEIU headquarters, 1800 Mass Ave NW, Washington, DC (Dupont circle metro)

There is a serious crisis in our system of higher education characterized by over-reliance on adjunct and contingent faculty who are treated as second-tier, contractual faculty, and a massive shift of resources away from instruction and scholarship into bloated administrations funded by soaring tuition, with resulting unmanageable levels of student, and adjunct, debt. Our democracy is based in the idea of an educated citizenry, but the American Dream of a high quality, college education for all is slipping away from working families and the middle class, while the higher education teaching profession becomes increasingly marginalized and casualized.  Part-time and contingent faculty have been joining with students, full-time faculty, other campus workers and allies to address this crisis: to create equity in academic labor and campus employment practices, to fight against student and adjunct debt, to fund public education and to restore the ideal of access to affordable quality education for all. From unionization to alt-labor, from student activism to media outreach, from protest to art and performance a movement has been building that is demanding change in higher education. We have named and analyzed the problem, and now we are taking action on the academy!

Join part-time faculty, union members and activists, contingent faculty advocates, full-time faculty, student groups, administration allies, members of The New Faculty Majority and the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, community allies and other stakeholders in higher education for an action oriented forum on the various and intersecting strategies for change in higher education.

Now for some real depressing NEWS — But well written, by Josh Boldt, who is also known for the Adjunct Project! Peruse that crowd sourcing spreadsheet to see our lowly pay!

Two Big Problems with Graduate Education in the Humanities

By Joshua Boldt 

Departing MLA President Michael Bérubé and I apparently agree on many things. ((Not to mention our sharing of the stage at the 2013 MLA Presidential Forum.)) Of course, he’s been in the academy a lot longer than I have, but you don’t have to be an industry veteran to recognize the precarity of graduate education in the humanities. Sure, humanities departments have been saying this for years. The “sky is falling” rhetoric blisters the landscape of critical humanities journals past. Graduate education in the humanities has always been hypersensitive to its marginal status in the American university, but this time, it’s for real.

In his February 18 ((Which happened to be my birthday, in case anyone was wondering.))  article “The Humanities, Unraveled” Bérubé develops a speech he gave at this year’s annual meeting of the Council of Graduate Schools, during which he discusses this prognostication of crisis for graduate education in the humanities. Like I said, we’ve all heard this too many times, but I like Bérubé because he suggests some real reasons why. Outlining reasons helps us discuss solutions to these self-inflicted problems of humanities departments.

In this article, I’ll share my Two Big Problems with graduate education in the humanities, and I’ll begin to formulate some possible solutions.

Problem 1: Too Many People Want to be Professors

The current structure of graduate education in the humanities is flooding the job market. Everyone wants to be a professor, but only a fraction of those who begin a graduate education will achieve that goal. It could be a game show hosted by Regis Philbin: Who Wants to be a Professor? The odds of getting a tenure track professorship these days approximates the odds that someone would win a million dollars on that ubiquitous nineties game show.

Not quite the same thing maybe, but the barrier to success is the same: too many people want to win. Not everyone can win. Not everyone can become a tenured professor. I wish that weren’t true, but it is. There are a limited number of jobs and an unlimited number of applicants. If we keep graduating far more humanities PhDs than we have jobs for, we will continue to exacerbate the problem. Duh. ((Since we’re doing the nineties thing and all.))

Bérubé points out that “of the 1.5 million people now employed in the profession of college teaching, more than one million are teaching off the tenure track, with no hope or expectation of ever winding up on the tenure track.” How do you like those odds? Not so much.

  • Problem: Graduate education in the humanities is overproducing, which floods the market with supply, thereby reducing demand and devaluing the “product.”
  • Solution: Stop accepting so many students into PhD programs. Or, at the very least, start preparing PhDs for jobs other than college professor.

Problem 2: Graduate Education Has Learned How to Exploit This Market Dynamic
Uh oh. Now we have a real quandary. The very people who are in a position to solve these problems actually benefit from perpetuating them. Oops. Somebody effed up.

Before returning to graduate school, I worked in middle management for a few years in the retail world. For about a year of this time, I had an operations director who was a complete ass. He was incredibly rude to everyone and he made asinine decisions on behalf of our store when he knew nothing about our day to day operations. Like the time he forced out about 10 times as much inventory as our store could hold because it would “increase sales.” The only thing it increased was waste when we had to toss all the perishables. But, I digress.

At some point during his year at the top, our HR manager left the company (probably due to the jerk OD), and this guy decides that he’s going to appoint himself director of HR while still maintaining his operations role. In other words, he was the source of our problems and also the “solution” to them. If we wanted to file a complaint about his abusive behavior, guess who we had to talk to. Yep.

Thank god this egomaniacal prick got canned not long after that when the president of the company and his VP’s got word of this injustice. ((Some middle manager sent them an email calling attention to it. Hmmm.))

When you think about it, though, this dynamic exists also in graduate education today. As the heading of this section informed you, departments (and administrators) have learned how to exploit this market dynamic which is overproducing PhDs. It’s called adjunct and graduate student labor. The very people who are creating the problem are the ones who benefit from it. So why change? Just keep talking about how bad it is, make it look like you care, and then sign acceptance letters with your other hand. Presto! You’ve got yourself your very own cheap labor force that will never be exhausted.

Bérubé references Marc Bousquet and William Pannapacker who, he argues, have both suggested that graduate education in the humanities is a “shell game.” Bérubé goes on to cite Bousquet’s “argument that the Ph.D. is actually the ‘waste product’ of a system designed to produce cheap teaching labor” and he himself writes that “the system has been redesigned in such a way as to call into question the function of the doctorate as a credential for employment in higher education.”

  • Problem: The same people who have the power to change things are also the ones who benefit from keeping things the same.
  • SolutionOption #1: Stop accepting so many students into PhD programs. Oh, have you heard that one before?
  • Option #2: Incentivize graduate programs to do a better job of supporting their graduates. Here’s a thought: Only allow programs to accept as many students as they successfully place each year. How about that for an incentive?
  • Option #3: Cross-disciplinary hiring and graduate admissions committees that include equal voting rights for graduate students and non-tenure-track faculty. There needs to be some kind of system of checks and balances that regulates the influx of exploitable labor.


Is graduate education in the humanities in crisis mode? What do you think? Unfortunately, we’ve kind of created a “boy who cried wolf” situation. It seems to me though that, due to the massive oversupply of labor and also the unprecedented defunding of higher education, coupled with the political attack on anything that isn’t STEM-related, the answer is a definite yes.

What’s your take on all this? What other problems do you see and what should we do to fix them?

Paul Haeder's been a teacher, social worker, newspaperman, environmental activist, and marginalized muckraker, union organizer. Paul's book, Reimagining Sanity: Voices Beyond the Echo Chamber (2016), looks at 10 years (now going on 17 years) of his writing at Dissident Voice. Read his musings at LA Progressive. Read (purchase) his short story collection, Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam now out, published by Cirque Journal. Here's his Amazon page with more published work Amazon. Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul's website.

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  1. H.E. Whitney, Jr. said on November 17th, 2013 at 11:44pm #

    Good piece on the crisis of graduate education in the humanities. I feel that I must add some commentary while not divulging too much about a forthcoming article I have coming out in Swans Commentary in a few weeks. The main crisis that I see in graduate education in the humanities is that faculty scholarship alone will not support humanities departments. However, graduate tuition and student loans incurred by graduate students help to support departments and the salaries of tenured professors and what is perhaps even more sinister is that faculty are under no obligation to help grad students finish their dissertations in a timely manner. But because the fact of the matter is that graduate departments in the humanities will continue to over-admit in order to enable the departments to support themselves financially. Think about it. Suppose twenty graduate students are admitted in one year but only two are given full funding. The eighteen students remaining, if they accept the offer of admission, can provide a substantial revenue stream for the department, especially if they are all out of state students and the school itself is a state school. Out of state students pay anywhere from double to triple the amount in state students are charged so students can make up for the revenue stream that has been severely strained by budget cuts and shortfalls in state funding.

    But perhaps even the notion that graduate students in the PhD phase must complete a four or five hundred page opus on some highly obscure topic that has little or no practical applications to society also speaks poorly about the humanities. Oh sure, a student can deconstruct the twerking of Miley Cyrus as the appropriation of the practices of subcultures (as long as the dissertation adviser and committee approves) but the primary question is simply this: how is society improved by this type of scholarship? We could perhaps have graduate students also take on “weightier” topics, such as the history of genius or the social history of truth, but again, what are the practical applications? What is “practical” does not necessarily have to be tied to monetary interests: it could be as simple as challenging the watered down, uninformed media accounts of, for example, US-Middle East relations or examining the validity of Western food production practices, so that people can make healthier choices in how and what they eat.

    Humanities scholarship is too bogged down in postmodern/deconstruction theory as well as historiographical arguments that lead down blind alleys. Also, there is a political/epistemological agenda at hand in humanities scholarship which seeks to delegitimize the sciences as purely subjective: whose truths have no more legitimacy than the truths of “less rigorous” disciplines, such as the humanities (whatever those truths may be). The humanities disciplines simply need therapy to get past their preoccupation with theories of truth in order to move forward as relevant, socially useful disciplines.