December 10, 2010

Occupational Prestige and Adjunct Faculty

new janis As he made his way across a crowded room, eyes trained on me, the stranger approached with purpose. He ignored my husband standing next to me and said, “I want to meet the professor!”

I completed my doctorate in sociology more than ten years ago and have been on the faculty of various universities for about as long. However, after a long hiatus from teaching during which I have held full-time research (faculty) positions, I have started teaching again. My recent move to teaching at the university level has given me great personal satisfaction and even joy. But as much as I am surprised by the depth of pleasure I am experiencing in this work, I am often surprised by others’ responses to my new job.

The encounter I describe above is typical of the excitement and reverence people exhibit upon learning what I do. I’ve been surprised by this reaction in general and particularly surprised when friends also express a new level of reverence.

That friends and strangers show deference to me because I’m teaching is noteworthy for a few reasons. Amusingly, just about no one ever reacted in the same way when I told them I was full-time research faculty. I think that in large part—although few admitted this and even fewer could find the words to ask the questions that would help them understand—people outside of academia have no idea what that means. Stating that I was research faculty was a conversation-ender! By contrast, everyone knows what a professor is and professors enjoy immense occupational prestige.

People outside of academia (for the most part) do not make distinctions among university professors. This is in great contrast to those within the field, where those distinctions are the source of much angst. Usually, university teaching faculty are promoted as follows: from assistant professor to associate professor, and ultimately to (full) professor. Promotions are based on effectiveness in teaching, productivity in research and publications, and participation in service and advising; these are also the factors considered in granting tenure. Outside of this career path, however is the hidden ”sweatshop” of university teaching: adjunct faculty. I currently work as an adjunct faculty member.

Typically, adjunct faculty are part-timers (independent contractors), receive no benefits, and are ineligible for promotion or tenure.

(See this video for a sardonic look at how adjunct faculty are viewed in academia.)

Why do universities employ adjuncts? Adjuncts are cheap labor! As various businesses implemented more and more cost cutting measures, universities have done the same. As you can imagine, faculty salaries are a major item on university budgets so many universities began hiring contract workers to teach a portion of classes. It’s a no-brainer to see the economic savings universities attain by hiring adjuncts: on average, full professors earn just over $100,000 a year and assistant professors earn around $70,000 at universities offering doctoral degrees, whereas adjuncts are paid about $1,200-$5,500 per course. In hiring adjuncts, universities save on health benefits, salaries, retirement plans and even on office space. (In many cases, adjuncts huddle in one small space instead of individual offices.) Whereas full-time faculty have a say in what classes they clip_image002will teach, adjuncts are usually given the left-over classes that their tenure track counterparts abhor—usually the large general education courses. On the other hand, adjuncts do not usually have research, publishing, and administrative duties.

clip_image004Did you know about these distinctions among university faculty? Are you aware that most professors have one major career goal—that is, to become tenured (full) professors? For those familiar with the tenure process, the case of the professor who killed three and injured another three colleagues after being denied tenure (twice) is a tragic symbol of the pressures and pain felt when faculty fail in their bid for this holy-grail of academic rewards.

But outside of the profession, people make few, if any, distinctions among college professors. Therefore, people don’t even think to ask what kind of teaching position I have before becoming excited about my work. (Given that my major role is to teach, it’s an open question about whether the prestige of the profession is tied solely to full-time status). I’m now referred to as “Doctor” and “Professor” by people who did not previously address me that way, even when they knew I was on the research faculty of a large university.

As a researcher, I was moderately advanced in the field, had been promoted, enjoyed a large corner office with floor to ceiling windows, and was earning a decent salary. Many people did not understand my job, though, and to those who did, that occupation did not seem as prestigious as being a college professor. Conversely, the occupational prestige of university professor is such that although I am currently at the bottom of the academic totem pole, people outside of academia regard my work highly. What other contradictions exist within careers that carry high levels of prestige?


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Adjunct or tenure...
A teacher deserves better treatment..
Tenured ones bank on these adjuncts..
Universities not only save a substantial amount..but
earns a lot of prestige for having 'employed' so many teachers..
...Universities must cease to be Exploitation Centers..
I have full sympathy with those adjuncts..
Some of them are better equipped than many tenured
ones in sense of commitment and at times in terms of excellence too...
I would like to be FB friend to those adjuncts
Some adjuncts at least..
I am from India..
I know what Indian Universities do....!!!

The gap between prestige inside an institution and prestige outside the institution is found in lots of places. (Ask a lawyer vs. a non-lawyer about what makes one lawyer more prestigious than another, for instance.)

In academia, there's even a difference among those who do have tenure (or are tenure-track). Those outside higher education would look at things like press quotes, appointment to government advisory roles, public lecturing, popular-press books, and textbook authorship. Academics value publications, but generally only ones in a handful of journals, and even then only those in those top journals that end up being highly cited.

I found this very interesting, mostly because i didn't even know of the existance of adjunct professors. It seems as though Universities are continuing to put the importance of money over the importance of educational quality, which is concerning for myself because I am about to start my first semester. The title of "professor" always seem to come off as a title with a certain heir about it, but I suppose it doesn't always mean what it seems.

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