Taxonomy of Adjuncts

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Since I’m working on a new project, you’ll get to see it develop periodically in this blog, a sort of inside view of where a book comes from. I won’t always be convinced of everything I write here… but I’ll test it out on you.

One of the things we don’t know about the adjunct army is why they do it. The faculty unionists point to the underemployed PhD who can’t find permanent position; the senior administrators point to the professional who teaches a class in her specialty area as a way of giving back and helping students see real-world application.

Who are these people, really? And in what proportion?

A recent white paper by the McKinsey Global Institute gives us some ways of thinking about it. It’s called Independent Work: Choice, Necessity, and the Gig Economy (October 2016), and you can get it online. They’re examining the nature of the independent workforce in the US and Europe, and they’ve isolated two variables they use to create a sort of taxonomy.

  • Is the gig your primary income, or a supplemental income?
  • Is the gig your preferred choice, or a necessary choice?

The research team developed code names for each of the four resulting groups.

  1. Free Agents: primary income by choice
  2. Casual Earners: supplemental income by choice
  3. Reluctants: primary income by necessity
  4. Financially Strapped: supplemental income by necessity.

So the casual earners represent the architect who teaches a computer-modeling course once a week, the accountant who teaches one class every so often on tax accounting. That’s the body of adjuncts that colleges like to show off.

The reluctants are the “road warriors,” the people who scrape together whatever kind of living they can at two or three grand per course, driving from one school to another and teaching way too much for way too little. That’s the body of adjuncts that the MLA and AAUP moan about and do so little to support.

The less visible classes are the free agents and the financially strapped. Does anyone really choose adjunct teaching as their preferred way of making their primary living? Not for long, if they aspire to things like paying their rent. I have to imagine that the quadrant of free agency represents a tiny proportion of the adjunct community.

I did discover a surprising number of financially strapped, though, a community that isn’t often discussed. For instance, a significant number of part-time faculty at a nearby college are actually non-academic employees who pick up courses as a sort of preferred community; they’re known quantities, and the school already has them in the payroll system, so it’s an easy choice.

The football coach teaches sometimes, as does the reference librarian and the marching band director and the director of digital marketing. Twenty three in total, out of a non-academic staff of a couple hundred. None of them have doctorates, or a research background… but at this school, that may not matter so much. They’re deemed to have enough background to teach athletic training or first-year writing to non-elite undergrads.

This is a college that doesn’t pay its staff enormously well anyway. Picking up an extra $2500 a semester is the difference between going to your niece’s high school graduation or not, tightening your belt at Christmas or not, making up the slack from your husband’s layoff (or his non-payment of child support). It’s a perk of employment that isn’t in the HR handbook, but makes a meaningful contribution to comfort.