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Those pesky “whining adjuncts”

Two days ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a letter to the editor by one Catherine Stukel, who teaches at a community college in Cicero, Illinois.

The point of Stukel’s letter was simple: She thinks that adjuncts whine too much about low wages, insecure employment, and not being able to find full-time jobs. In her view, all adjuncts are essentially entitled children who need to grow up and find other lines of work, and that they are only adjuncts because they probably aren’t very good at their jobs or liked by their colleagues.

Her letter begins: “I cannot comprehend why any adjunct professor complains with such entitlement about their inability to get a full-time teaching position; but then again, we do live in a new world where every child is special, everyone gets a trophy, and everyone thinks they are privileged.”

It gets worse. She criticizes Margaret Mary Vojkto, the 83-year-old adjunct from Pennsylvania who died in abject poverty last fall after 25 years of service to Duquesne University, going so far as to ask, “Is that the kind of person we want teaching our young?” Do we want the person who was not able to be self-sufficient, pay their electric bill, or put food on their table?”

As if that wasn’t enough, she added this condescending quip: “Time to put on your big-girl panties!”

I commented that she appears to not have any idea what she’s talking about, and that as an academic, she should know that it’s a good idea to do one’s research before entering a public debate.

I explained a number of things that I have never had to explain to any other academic in my 10+ years of teaching: that we are often lauded for our teaching abilities (by students as well as colleagues in our departments), that many of us have excellent credentials (including terminal degrees (MFAs, PhDs, etc) from top programs and universities and/or extensive professional experience), and that we are not usually strangers to a solid work ethic: we frequently have other jobs, including manual labor, restaurant work, and just about anything else you can imagine to help pay the rent.

I’ve never had to explain these things before because anyone working in higher education today already knows all this — or so I thought. Apparently Stukel doesn’t follow the news about her own industry.

I also wrote that if she believes we don’t have full-time positions because we’re not very good at teaching or because we’re not liked by our colleagues, she should consider the facts: More than half the teachers now working in higher education are adjunct, and roughly 3/4 are non-tenure-track faculty. This is NOT because they aren’t good or likable; it’s because the entire industry has been turned on its head in the past 20 years and schools have figured out that they can save a whole lot of money by relying on “contingency” faculty, i.e. adjuncts.

A friend of mine read Stukel’s letter and suggested that the Chronicle’s editors published it because they knew it would go viral, and I suspect he’s right — after all, clicks are paramount to survival, even for a publication as esteemed as The Chronicle of Higher Education. Nevertheless, I encourage you to read Stukel’s letter and to comment directly on the Chronicle’s page — here’s the link again. Let her know exactly how wrong she is.

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