We're Exploited, Not Unqualified
The Chronicle of Higher Education
Monday, June 23, 2003
By Jill Carroll
Three months ago, a colleague wrote to me and suggested that the real travesty in academe
today was not merely the exploitation of adjuncts on a mass scale, but that students were getting
ripped off because of the increased use of adjuncts to teach all manner of basic undergraduate
Students and their parents, he argued, were paying exorbitant tuition costs to universities to cover
the salaries of expensive Nobel Prize winners and other star scholars, thinking that these very
scholars would be the ones teaching most of the courses. What students find out when they show
up on campus, however, is that these stars don't teach very much at all, and when they do, they
certainly don't teach freshmen or even that many undergraduates. Instead, he said, courses are
taught by adjuncts and teaching assistants who are professionally underdeveloped and scholarly
weak. Students and parents should rise up, he said, and protest this educational fraud and
demand that professorial positions be held only by those truly qualified for them.
I would have brushed off these comments as idiotic and rude if not for the fact that I've heard and
read echoes of this sentiment several times in the last year from others in academe. So, I offer a
suggestion to adjuncts regarding this so-called travesty: Don't buy a word of it.
Yes, it is true that universities sell themselves to prospective students and their parents by
emphasizing the star researchers and scholars on their payrolls. And it is true that often these
stars don't come within shouting distance of a classroom for months on end. And, yes, the
universities are practicing a deception of some form in not being forthcoming about this in their
recruitment materials. And, finally, yes, something should be done about it.
But, to jump from these facts to the assertion that students are getting a dismal education
because adjuncts teach up to half the classes today is a huge leap. Making this leap doesn't take
into account the changes that have taken place in the adjunct corps, nor does it distinguish
between faculty members and graduate students.
Graduate students and adjuncts are increasingly lumped together, mostly because of collective
bargaining and unionization efforts. Graduate-student teaching assistants and adjuncts have
joined ranks in many states and at many institutions as a way to increase their numbers in the
struggle for better salaries and benefits. Successful collective bargaining requires, well, a
collective – the bigger the better. So, joining these two sectors of the academic work force has
produced results, but it has also blurred the real and important distinctions between the two.
Adjuncts are responsible for teaching and creating entire courses. Some teaching assistants have
that opportunity, but most work for a full-time faculty member who designs the course and
delivers the lectures, while the teaching assistants handle the discussions sessions and other
duties. Adjuncts have to go through application procedures and interviews to land a teaching gig.
Most T.A.'s, however, are slotted into whatever work that the department needs done that the
students are qualified to handle.
Teaching assistants are learning as they work -- how to be good teachers, how to lecture and
lead discussions, how to write fair tests, how to give decent assignments, how to deal with
students who are confused or upset, and so on. The TA job does not require experience or a
certain skill set. Instead, it is designed to provide experience and a certain skill set.
Now before you rush off to write me hate mail, let me just say that I worked my fanny off as a TA
in both my master's- and doctoral-degree programs. I know what you have to put up with, and I'm
not suggesting that you don't deserve better pay and working conditions, so don't write to me
All I'm saying is that adjuncts and teaching assistants are different animals. Most of today's
adjuncts – especially those teaching in applied programs like business and technology -- have
years of experience both inside and out of academe, and they bring all that experience into the
class with them. Indeed, that is why they are hired in many instances. Moreover, the adjunct
ranks are full of Ph.D.'s looking for their first tenure-track job. So even those adjuncts who don't
bring years of experience to their teaching have at least completed their graduate degrees, unlike
most teaching assistants. Finally, many adjuncts, like me, are veteran teachers and scholars
who've been in this business for years, and we've got the CV's to prove it.
To say that education is compromised by the overuse of teaching assistants is one thing. That
may or may not be true. But even if it is, that still says nothing about the use of adjuncts. Many
people who disparage the qualifications of adjuncts are operating under an assumption that may
or may not have been true years ago, but certainly is not true today. The assumption was that the
only people in academe who ended up as adjuncts were those who weren't good enough to land
full-time jobs. You didn't publish enough, or what you published wasn't any good, or you weren't a
good teacher, or whatever, so you ended up as one of academe's bottom feeders, teaching basic
courses to entry-level students whom you would have no trouble staying ahead of in class.
That's not the case today. The economic realities of the marketplace have dramatically changed,
so that the modern university's bottom line doesn't really survive without adjuncts. Full-time
positions have been liquidated in favor of temporary ones because the latter are cheaper. Many,
if not most, adjuncts today have scholarly qualifications that are the equivalent of those who
landed full-time, tenure-track jobs two decades ago. It's just that their timing was better. If some
of us don't have as many published articles or books as our full-time colleagues, it's because we
teach three times as many courses and receive no research support of any kind from our
Economic shifts as well as the proliferation of graduate programs churning out Ph.D.'s without
regard for market and work-force realities have created the adjunct nation we have today. There's
no excuse anymore for being oblivious to these facts.
Sure, some adjuncts are weak teachers, bad writers, and ineffective advisers, but so are some
full-time faculty members. And unlike our tenured colleagues, we adjuncts have a hard cash
incentive to perform well, at least in the classroom, because if we don't, we get fired at the end of
If higher education is suffering in quality in this country, it's not because of the poor quality of
service provided by the increasing numbers of adjuncts. That's one burden we're not willing to
Jill Carroll, an adjunct lecturer in Texas, writes a monthly column for Career Network on adjunct
life and work. She is author of a self-published book, How to Survive as an Adjunct Lecturer: An
Entrepreneurial Strategy Manual. Her Web site is http://www.adjunctsolutions.com and her e-mail
address is firstname.lastname@example.org