October 24, 2011

Class Segregation in Academia

Janis_picBy Janis Prince Inniss

No matter the size of your college or university, you are likely to be taught by adjunct professors at some point.

What is an adjunct? You might think of an adjunct as the equivalent of a ”temp” or a part-time worker; an adjunct is the university version of such a position. Usually, this means that adjuncts receive no health, retirement, or other benefits, are poorly paid and do not have the holy grail of academic positions: tenure. In fact, adjuncts are a job classification that does not allow them to ever become tenured.

The role of the adjunct faculty member is to teach, especially the large introductory courses that many full-time faculty dislike teaching. As I discussed in this post, universities save a lot of money by hiring adjuncts as the pay difference between adjuncts and full-time faculty is tremendous. (For some first-person stories on being an adjunct, and a comparison of adjunct faculty to migrant workers look at the documentary Degrees of Shame.)

Social stratification refers to the hierarchical system in a society used to rank people. You are probably most familiar with social class as a method of stratification because it is common among capitalist countries. Social class groups people based on similar economic possessions, lifestyles, attitudes and behaviors. In many ways, distinctions among professor ranks are comparable to those of social class, with immense segregation among the ranks.
Here’s an example of how being an adjunct connotes lower status: I was looking forward to meeting another adjunct with whom I had been communicating by email; since we both planned to attend the same meeting, we promised to see each other there.

The meeting was the first of the semester and so new faculty were introduced. As is typical with academics, these introductions included information regarding the source of each person’s doctorate, their research interests, and last place of employment. I imagined that the full-time faculty would be introduced first to highlight their higher status but was surprised when the new adjunct faculty member was never introduced. I had to find the new adjunct by process of elimination. Why not introduce adjunct faculty? Would a cursory introduction—without a listing of that person’s credentials—have taken more than a minute ? (As with many other events, there were very few adjuncts in attendance at the meeting and only one new one anyway.)

clip_image004You may have noticed one of the major differences in the status of full-time faculty versus adjunct faculty when you tried to visit an adjunct instructor’s office. At some universities, adjuncts have no office space at all. Where do those professionals meet with their students, let alone have lunch, or make/receive a telephone call? At other institutions, adjuncts share offices.

The location of these offices can be in the least desirable areas of the school such as musty basements—even in places where basements are uncommon, and windowless or tiny offices. Given that adjuncts spend all of their time teaching, it is worth considering what message is conveyed to students when they meet their adjunct instructors in one of these crawl spaces that double as “offices.”

Most students have little or no understanding of this stratification system and many institutions tell adjuncts that they should expect the same respect from their students as all other faculty. Fine sentiment, but I wonder what message students pick up when they discover that their professor has such “low-rent” accommodations?

Many campuses are experiencing severe space crunches but a shared office presents privacy issues for a teacher and student. In many places, this stratification system is enforced so rigorously that even new tenure track faculty out-rank all non-tenure track faculty; a longstanding non-tenure track faculty would be required to give up an office with a window to new tenure-track faculty.

The segregation is evident with mailboxes too. In some universities, adjunct mail is segregated by color code, in addition to being in a different location. Sometimes the “Adjunct Mailboxes” are in the same bank of mailboxes, with the only differentiation being the label.

Why is this separation necessary? I imagine that the rationale behind this is that there is more turnover in adjunct employment than that of full-time faculty. And since most places put mailboxes in alphabetical order, any one deletion or addition makes for a “big” sliding up and down of the remaining ones. In most jobs, every few months, people deal with finding their mailbox in its newest position. Are tenured and tenure-track faculty above learning where their new mailbox is?

Perhaps this treatment of adjuncts underscores the long held notion that universities do not value teaching (based on the fact that tenure and promotion are often secured by publishing and research records, not by teaching effectively), so those who only teach are at the bottom of the stratification system. What are your thoughts about this system of segregation and class divisions?


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It would seem that an adjunct professor who is hired on the merits of their teaching ability, as opposed to their research records, would be a better instructor. Perhaps a talented adjunct professor may not seem as valuable to the university because their name does not enhance the reputation of the university, but it is probably just what the students need. Good instruction.

Janis, are there any places of higher education that put the students education as the top priority, rather than the good name of the university?

My mother is an adjunct professor and she has expressed many times to me that she is treated with way less respect that a "full time" empolyee. She is given terrible hours of classes, and spends probubly just as much time working as a full time empoyee, yet she is treated with way less respect. This segregation is not needed, and goes back all thje way to when black were segregated.

are they the same ones refered to as tutorial fellows

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