American Interest

In Defense of Adjuncts

How older part-time professors, seasoned by real-world experience, are helping to revitalize American universities

Former Senior Fellow

Technology will ultimately upend higher education, many people believe, since it seems to be upending everything else—whether for better or worse, or some of both is, as always, a matter of opinion. The massive open online course (MOOC) craze that began in 2012 furnishes a case in point. Kevin Carey predicted in The End of College that most brick-and-mortar colleges would close as free global online courses eliminated the need for classrooms and most professors. Many others agreed about the trend line but thought the phenomenon disastrous to genuine education.

Five years later it is clear that, either way, it didn’t happen and isn’t going to happen. MOOCs have not been able to replace traditional class instruction because learning involves more than just sitting in front of a computer screen. The champions of online courseware got something very fundamental wrong: Human beings are not passive receptors of external stimulus, but social animals who, by engaging together, construct the ideational realities in which they dwell. Online education remains a useful adjunct to the traditional class format, particularly for certain subjects involving rote application of mathematical procedures or scientific knowledge—subjects Karl Popper famously described as “clocks” as opposed to “clouds.” It also lets older students already in the workforce enhance their skillset or continue their education. But technology has embellished the methods of traditional higher education more than it has transformed them.

Still, a revolution in higher education is proceeding, albeit in the dullest of places: not in technology but in personnel. Trends in hiring for adjunct professors, combined with larger sociological trends in student attitudes and workforce participation, have brought and will bring significant changes in the nature of the American university. But before examining these changes and exploring whether we ought to be encouraging them, we must understand the unease among undergraduates, graduate students, professors, and administrators that is already driving them. There are four basic concerns.

First, most undergraduate students worry about getting a job after college. Ninety percent of students claim that they are going to college to get a job. Chances are good they will get one, if predictions of a shortfall of five million workers with postsecondary education by 2020 turn out to be more or less accurate. Yet students must struggle to get the job they want. Many try to build a network to gain an edge, but doing so is hard, especially for students from low-income families who must work while attending college, or minority students who self-segregate. Students also try to develop skills they think employers value, but these include intangible skills such as leadership, decision-making aptitude, and analytical power. The logical place to learn such skills is in the liberal arts, but many students discover that the liberal arts are taught in ways that only academic specialists find interesting. College accreditation bodies ask professors to complete a form stating whether they teach these and other skills, but such forms are useless without sufficient resources to follow up with in-class observation.

Second, many young graduate students invest precious time and money training for jobs in academia that do not exist. This is especially true in the humanities and social sciences, where nine years of post-baccalaureate training, plus debt, are the norm. Forty percent of graduate students have no job lined up at graduation. Even STEM graduates face a glut, especially in life sciences such as biology, where the chance of getting a full-time academic job is the equivalent of a coin toss. Understandably, many graduate students are nervous.

Third, some full-time professors are disheartened by their work. They know many students take their classes only to fulfill a requirement, and that many come to college unprepared because of a poor K-12 education. Indeed, one reason that so many jobs of the future require postsecondary education is because applicants must learn skills in college they should have learned earlier. This dulls down the teaching experience. And then there are the more commonplace causes of boredom: As one professor explained to me, “I’ve been teaching Chaucer for thirty years. I’m tired of it.”

Fourth, college administrators worry about how to keep the cost of college down. Since the 1970s, tuition has increased at four times the rate of inflation. Administrative costs account for much of the increase, sometimes for unnecessary luxuries such as athletic centers but also because the responsibility to manage certain societal problems has been thrust onto colleges—for example, campus counseling or psychiatric centers to care for the large numbers of students with mental health issues. Administrators in many universities have tried to “export the contradictions” by enticing full-tuition foreign students, but that financial strategy has its limits. Worse, colleges have spent the past three decades antagonizing Republicans, who now hold power at the Federal level and often even greater power at the state level, and who feel no compunction about taxing college endowments or graduate tuition waivers and fellowships.

All this unease in the university cries out for resolution. And aid is coming from a most unlikely quarter: adjuncts.
“Adjunct professor” is an umbrella term for a variety of part-time faculty positions, including lecturers, course-per-contract instructors, assistantships, and half-time non-tenured professors. Adjacent to the adjunct is a full-time category of equally contingent faculty that includes professors with time-limited contracts and professors of practice (professionals with work experience in a particular field but without an academic background). Today, more than half of all faculty appointments are adjunct or part-time. When adding in full-time non-tenure-track faculty the number rises to 70 percent. Compare this with 1969, when tenured or tenure-track faculty made up almost 80 percent of American college faculty, while non-tenure-track positions accounted for a little more than 20 percent. In many colleges today adjunct professors teach two-thirds of all classes. The rise of adjunct faculty is the most significant trend in faculty hiring during the past forty years.

At first glance, the idea that adjuncts might revolutionize the university seems dubious, as adjuncts live at the bottom of the academic food chain. They also have their own troubles, well captured in the following experience: At a funeral for an adjunct professor, I overheard a dean whisper to another dean, “Why are adjuncts so unhappy? Look at what a nice service we’re giving this man.” Several people listening in on the conversation rolled their eyes: Adjuncts are paid low wages, have little to no job security, are rarely given office space, and many tenured professors and college administrators view them with contempt, but they do get a nice perk in the form of a funeral service, although they have to die to get it.

Yet there are two more or less distinct populations of adjuncts that need be distinguished from one another. According to the 2010 National Survey of Part-time/Adjunct Faculty, more than a third of adjunct professors teaching in the United States are over 55. Most adjuncts teach because they enjoy it, and actually prefer to teach part-time; younger adjuncts worry more about compensation and usually crave full-time work. The older adjuncts get less publicity because they complain less; younger adjuncts often feel frustration for having been denied full-time teaching posts, sometimes because they are under-credentialed within the guild to qualify for full-time positions in major institutions. Older adjuncts typically have good jobs (and therefore livelihoods) outside of the university, or had such jobs and so are more or less comfortably retired. Some are former professors, but many others enjoyed non-teaching careers.

Because of their career experience, older adjuncts often have valuable contacts in the economy that undergraduates can tap into—more than many tenured professors have. For example, an adjunct may sit on a recruitment committee or a hiring panel; he or she may run a company; but, most important, he or she will know lots of people in the working world. Even a student without a network can gain much just by going to an adjunct’s office hours. I have steered students to jobs or internships in both the medical and non-medical world by virtue of my double career as a doctor and a writer. An informal but highly valuable career guidance system run by contingent faculty is emerging inside many universities.

Older adjuncts also bring life experience into their pedagogy, sprinkling their lectures with personal experiences and anecdotes to make classroom subjects more relevant to everyday life. In journalism, law, medicine, and business schools, adjuncts and professors of practice have been providing this service for many decades. For example, most of the vital information about patient care I learned as an anesthesia resident, and that I later relied on in practice to stay out of trouble, came not from academic professors but from clinical professors and part-time adjuncts. Older adjuncts are now transmitting practical experience of many kinds to undergraduates.

Traditional professors without much (or any) practical experience have little choice but to teach systems of thought. Yet people do not always behave in the real world the way the textbooks say they will. Systems of thought fail to open the full meaning of the worlds they project. Older adjuncts provide a valuable corrective. An economics professor may teach the theory of free markets, but the businessperson-turned-adjunct also knows about employer-employee relationships from direct experience. An English professor may teach post-colonial theory, but a human resources manager-turned-adjunct will also pass along wisdom about people gleaned from novels that he or she applied to real-life work situations. A medical humanities professor may teach concepts such as autonomy, patient rights, and patient-centered care; my role as an adjunct is also to show how these concepts play out in actual medical practice. Older adjuncts supply undergraduates with vital unwritten knowledge across a range of disciplines that helps nurture decision-making capacities and hone analytical and leadership skills. They give undergraduates a feel for the real world before they enter it.

A century ago, young men embarking on a diplomatic career were encouraged to tour European countries to get a sense of the nations with which they would one day negotiate. This important experience could not be taught. Even as education grew more formalized, the diplomatic service found ways to screen for that experience. As late as the 1970s, for example, the questions on the U.S. Foreign Service exam were obviously biased toward candidates who had grown up in cosmopolitan areas and travelled widely. Just being smart was not enough to answer them. This practice went by the wayside, leaving only formal instruction. Yet undergraduates still need worldly experience, and not just to enter the diplomatic service. No matter what field they enter, students must understand how to work with people as they are, not as we think they ought to be. This bleeds into other essential but not easily taught qualities that students must learn, such as patience and discretion. Indeed, the phrase “worldly experience” sums up many of the intangible and unquantifiable skills that today’s employers often complain they find lacking among undergraduate job candidates who are otherwise quite smart.

Many students sense this deficiency in their education and want to fix it. While older adjuncts and professors of practice cannot substitute for real life experience, they do bring life experience into the classroom as a useful corrective, not by design but by virtue of their own life’s path into higher education.

Older adjuncts also provide benefits to full-time tenure-track professors. At the very least, adjuncts are paid less so full-time professors can earn more. Younger adjuncts often resent this, but many older adjuncts don’t care. For example, I became an adjunct after I had already been an anesthesiologist for twenty years, with my bank account being larger than my department’s annual budget by several orders of magnitude. Older adjuncts content with their low pay ease the consciences of full-time faculty, who often feel vulnerable to accusations that they are exploiting adjunct labor.

Older adjuncts are also eager to teach subjects that some full-time professors have grown bored with, thereby bringing vital energy back into the classroom. After having spent decades in non-academic work—for example, in solving a company’s problems or managing production quotas—many older adjuncts welcome with enthusiasm, as if living a dream, the chance to re-enter the world of ideas and talk on subjects that to them seem as fresh as ever. One older adjunct described it to me “as a privilege.”

This is important in ways often hard to measure. If a college may be thought of metaphorically as an army, where supplies are crucial, then a classroom is a guerilla unit where “morale” is crucial. Teachers in classrooms must be more than just dispensers of information. They must be more combat leader than quartermaster; they must inspire students and stir enthusiasm. This is one reason why MOOCs have failed to replace the traditional classroom. MOOC proponents saw the classroom as a small army unit to be redrawn to larger scale using technology. But the classroom is not an army of any size; it is fundamentally a different type of organization. When older adjuncts bring freshness, excitement, and zest to teaching they often accomplish more with their small platoons of students than bored tenured professors do when teaching thousands of students online.

Older adjuncts also solve problems for college administrators. First, they come cheap. Second, they usually don’t complain. Over the past four years, 35 colleges have seen their adjuncts unionize. Unions often make life difficult for administrators, as they reduce a college’s flexibility in meeting curricular and manpower needs. Angry young adjuncts are the ones who usually push for unionization; throwing older adjuncts into the mix dials down the anger. Third, older people attending graduate school often have jobs at the same time, so they can pay tuition. This brings money into the university.

Finally, older adjuncts ease the plight of miserable young graduate students by draining the swamp that creates them in the first place. University departments create a moral hazard when they accept young students into graduate programs knowing all too well that many of them will never get teaching jobs. Science and engineering programs are less blameworthy, as they also prepare their graduates for jobs in industry. But many humanities departments teach graduate students to teach, and nothing more, so that many of these students are left helpless after graduation. True, young graduate students enter the academy of their own free will. Like gamblers, they think they will beat the odds and win the education lottery; like gamblers, too, most of them suffer for their delusion.

Tenured professors say they have no choice. A credible university department must teach graduate students, they insist, and that requires a critical mass of graduate students. Yet tenured professors have self-interest mixed up in all this. Some of them are bored with teaching, especially entry-level classes; some of them want to spend more time doing research. The proportion of full-time faculty spending nine or more hours a week teaching has dropped from 64 percent twenty years ago to 44 percent today. These professors exploit graduate students to teach for them. It is therefore not very surprising that resentful graduate students have started to unionize.

A department that includes adjuncts, especially older adjuncts, means fewer graduate students are needed to carry out this ugly scheme. The change is already happening. In 1975, adjuncts taught 24 percent of all classes; graduate students taught 21 percent. In 2015, adjuncts taught 40 percent of all classes, while graduate students taught only 14 percent. True, many adjuncts today are young graduates who failed to get full-time academic jobs. But as older people enter graduate school in larger numbers and become adjuncts, the need to tempt young people into graduate programs and possibly ruin their lives will disappear.
It is unclear how many graduate students become older adjuncts. For example, more than 60 percent of part-time graduate students attending private universities are over 30 years old, while 30 percent are over 40. The numbers are similar for public universities. Yet the numbers fail to tell us what the actual life course of any individual graduate student will be.

That said, larger societal trends make the rise of older adjuncts inevitable. In the coming decade, people over 65 years old will likely be the fastest-growing segment in the labor force. Currently, among all workers age 65 and older, 40 percent work-part time—the sweet spot for older adjuncts. Some of these older workers work for the sheer pleasure of it. Even among those who need the money, 90 percent of them say they “want to stay active and involved,” while 82 percent say they simply enjoy working. Toss in a love of books and ideas, and one has the typical mentality of the older adjunct.

Tenured faculty benefit from the presence of adjuncts, yet they also fear adjuncts in large numbers. Some of this is self-interest. More adjuncts mean more work for tenured professors advising students, setting curriculum, and serving on college-wide committees. At the very least, the tenured faculty’s argument that adjuncts hurt academic freedom, because their job insecurity keeps them from expressing genuine views, does not apply to older adjuncts. The actual truth is that many tenured professors self-censor today out of fear they may lose their tenure, and their jobs, if they stray outside the bounds of political correctness. This has already happened in some cases. With a source of income outside the university, and therefore less concern about being fired, older adjuncts are probably the freest and most frank people on American campuses today.

Besides the assistance they give to students, the major reason to encourage older adjuncts is their salutary effect on the liberal arts and on college more generally. That is because two ominous trends haunt the liberal arts.

The first of these concerns the intensification of the academic division of labor. A history professor today might specialize not in European history, or German history, or even early German history, but in early German religious history. The salami is getting sliced way too thin. For this reason only a few like-minded specialists will read another professor’s work. Some analysts have claimed that roughly half of all academic journal articles today are read only by the journal editor and the author. Worse, jargon-laden, narrow-minded specialists often lack the inclination or the capacity to teach undergraduates in the broad manner that excites young minds, or that offers wisdom about life relevant to a non-academic career.

I once asked a research specialist on Tolstoy what she worked on. She replied, “Trains.” She was interested in the symbolic meaning of trains in Tolstoy’s novels. This is not why average people read Tolstoy. This is not why accomplished people study Tolstoy later in life to become adjuncts. This is also not what attracts undergraduates to the liberal arts.

Older adjuncts resist this trend. Without the burden of having to earn tenure, they need not publish in obscure academic journals or write tomes for academic presses that only a few specialists will ever read. They are free to explore and teach on the liberal arts more generally. In this way they help to put the brakes on the disastrous effects of academic hyper-specialization.

The second ominous trend in the liberal arts involves the near opposite of over-specialization: an emphasis on multi-disciplinary work that requires adopting universal categories of thought and methodology rather than retaining distinctive categories of thought and using them synergistically. Subfields of the humanities now approach issues from a homogenized perspective, often with the same terminology, thus risking the loss of their distinctiveness. If historians are historians and literature professors are “cultural historians,” and if both classicists and philosophers study “race” and “gender,” then increasingly it makes sense to lump the subfields together into one big department called “the humanities,” thereby saving the college money. This is a threat to the liberal arts.

Again, because older adjuncts have the liberty to engage the subfields in traditional ways, they need not adopt the universal methodology of the current liberal arts “trade.” They can enjoy the unique qualities of each subfield that vaulted them to greatness in the first place and then pass that enjoyment on to their students. In the process they can help save the liberal arts, or at least retard their decay.

Older adjuncts also benefit the college more generally. That college is now more about getting a job than about the free exchange of ideas is concerning to many people and is sometimes even blamed for the lax attitude of today’s students toward free speech. Yet the American college was never a philosopher’s paradise. In 1908, the great Abraham Flexner described the American college as a kind of cafeteria where unserious students sampled various subjects in no particular order to pass the time. Already in 1918, Thorstein Veblen—inventor of the concept of the leisure class—complained that the American college was all public relations and football. During the same period, Edward Steiner wrote of a certain college president giving a campus tour: “With classic pride he stood upon the athletic field, looking as some Caesar must have looked when he showed visitors to Rome his arena.” For many students the American college has always been about having fun, sports, learning a few things, and getting a job. The difference, of course, is that college used to be mainly for the elite, and now it’s also for other kinds of people as well; the combination of sheer numbers of college-educated young people and persistent job insecurity in a shifting labor market pretty much accounts for the current anxious mood.

If anything, the effort to turn the American college into a philosopher’s paradise has had the perverse effect of turning some parts of college into an academy of medieval scholastics. Self-absorbed, and dwelling on the morbid currents within their own self-alienated personalities, some liberal arts professors today fuss over the most esoteric topics, using invented terms and convoluted language beyond the understanding of even well educated people. One gets the feeling this is often deliberate at one level or another; it allows self-styled geniuses to avoid being noticed too much by “ordinary” people.

Except for a handful of students, the American college should be about getting a job and doing well in that job. But doing so involves students learning the connections between theoretical thinking and active thinking, and between thought and praxis. To do this they need to make their mental model of the outside world as exact as possible. If the maps in their minds resemble fairly closely those of the outside world, if they represent with relative precision the world that they will one day work in, there is a better chance that the actions of students will fit well into the existing scheme of things, and students will not only succeed but also make a contribution. To create a map they need professors whose goal is not to dispense information, but to help students organize reality in a way that creates in their minds a living cognitive world in the image of the real world.

Many full-time professors do a fine job preparing their students for this necessary task, and we must give them their due. But as a group, older, seasoned, and experienced adjuncts who have spent years in the real world form the new vanguard of a revolution that will greatly help to make this happen.