Joined-to or Joined-with the Education Complex?

An update of a post I made two years ago before I decided to go all in and get my MA and PhD:

Lunch time and my thoughts turn to all of my friends who are independent scholars. Many of them are working as adjuncts. A few have a longer term contract as instructors, lecturers, etc. They are joined to, an appendix in, our post-industrial education complex.

All of them are working like folks in any other job in the USA: with no long term security.

To be fair, even in the corporate world, very few people have any kind of security. A salesperson who hawks diverse computer analysis programs to track financial trends or supply chain needs and makes $200k a year with bonuses has no more real job security than somebody who works at McDonalds. The difference is that in return for not having any security, that corporate functionary gets paid very well.

The neo-liberal state of the Market under the aegis of global corporate capitalism rewards risks very well. But some places are not known for taking the big risks. I suppose this is a way of describing academia. In order to protect those who do take risks (called academic freedom), a few protections are put in place. One of these is tenure.

The fact that society at large figures ALL academics have some kind of tenure says how much most folks don’t really understand the structure of higher education.

Tenure means that you cannot be fired but for the most extreme circumstances. Those granted this sinecure are called “full faculty”, they are conjuncts rather than adjuncts; they are joined with the post-industrial education complex.

Having this job security aspect in place makes for a quite stark disparity between those who have tenure and those who have none.

To help a few people catch up, I post here links to a few pieces. The first is from the perspective of an anthropology student about to get her PhD:

In most professions, salaries below the poverty line would be cause for alarm. In academia, they are treated as a source of gratitude. Volunteerism is par for the course – literally. Teaching is touted as a “calling”, with compensation an afterthought. One American research university offers its PhD students a salary of $1000 per semester for the “opportunity” to design and teach a course for undergraduates, who are each paying about $50,000 in tuition. The university calls this position “Senior Teaching Assistant” because paying an instructor so far below minimum wage is probably illegal.

In addition to teaching, academics conduct research and publish, but they are not paid for this work either. Instead, all proceeds go to for-profit academic publishers, who block academic articles from the public through exorbitant download and subscription fees…

It may be hard to summon sympathy for people who walk willingly into such working conditions. “Bart, don’t make fun of grad students,” Marge told her son on an oft-quoted episode of The Simpsons. “They just made a terrible life choice.”

Read the whole article at The Closing of American Academia

This short blog entry wonders why folks might continue down a road that appears so unrewarding and harsh. The comments are interesting:

Path dependence and sunk costs must be powerful forces.  Why?  Because I cannot imagine why people would continue to teaching as adjuncts, making, on average, $2700 per course.  This means that to make a meager wage of $30k per year, one has to teach eleven classes.

Read the blog and comments at The Adjuncting Mystery

The last is from the WorkPlaceBlog:

With roughly 40 percent of academic positions eliminated since the 2008 crash, most adjuncts will not find a tenure-track job. Their path dependence and sunk costs will likely lead to greater path dependence and sunk costs – and the costs of the academic job market are prohibitive. Many job candidates must shell out thousands of dollars for a chance to interview at their discipline’s annual meeting, usually held in one of the most expensive cities in the world. In some fields, candidates must pay to even see the job listings.

Given the need for personal wealth as a means to entry, one would assume that adjuncts would be even more outraged about their plight. After all, their paltry salaries and lack of departmental funding make their job hunt a far greater sacrifice than for those with means. But this is not the case. While efforts at labour organisation are emerging, the adjunct rate continues to soar – from 68 percent in 2008, the year of the economic crash, to 76 percent just five years later.

Read the full article at Academia’s Indentured Servants

Now I guess I will go finish my lunch hour and ponder this a bit more. Welcome any thoughts from my brothers & sisters throughout the Ether.


  1. Do you think MOOC’s like Udemy will help people sustain a living outside of academia? Or will it undermine the university system (Coursera), and make it increasingly difficult for people to earn a living wage within the academy?

    I thought this letter to Michael Sandel from the Philosophy department of San Jose was compelling:

    I’m curious how one survives as someone “joined to” the educational complex. How do your friends do it? What are the independent research institutions out there that provide sustaining support for researchers outside the academy? And why aren’t there more institutions doing this?

    Thank you for a very informative blog post!

    1. My hope is that connectivist thinking will continue driving certain MOOCs collaborations. Being within Academia, I can already tell that the xMOOCs are positioning themselves as THE answer to increasing costs. I am pretty sure that it will undermine that system as it has come to be. Of course, the system as it is now is actually only about 100 years old.

      The letter from San Jose was intriguing. At least the regular faculty are addressing the issue from the point of view of how it affects ALL those who are teaching in the academy. The ones who will be first affected are in fact those joined-to. They will either find places in government, private research at corporate labs, or leave behind research and do something else.

      Not really sure what folks will do. And all of this could change really quickly in another direction.

  2. Thanks for your reply! It’s easy to forget how temporary and fragile the contemporary University system is. In particular, I think a lot of more professional departments seem simply misplaced within the research or liberal arts university, and do not seem to belong. A lot of students, who are only interested in a business or professional career, come into schools like Columbia and McGill, and major in something not very rigorous – like business or finance (which is a joke at an undergraduate level, even at business schools like NYU Stern). They then leave complaining that they feel like nothing they learned is “applicable” to their working lives – well, that’s not what “higher education” was designed for!

    I feel strongly that certain professional training should be set aside as another type of trade school; that way, students who go into liberal arts and sciences universities aren’t misguided as to what the point of their education should be. The problem is, all undergraduates are generally required to go through the same 4-year program, even if what they’re studying: something like management or marketing, would be better learned in 1 year, with 3 years on the job. It’s just a strange way to waste people’s time, in order to give them a prestigious stamp, while they complain the whole way through, instead of engaging genuinely with material.

    Universities like Harvard and Yale used to be theological seminaries. Do you know something about the history and evolution of the research university? When and how did they become what they are today?

  3. Actually, because of the work done by my colleagues at UNT’s Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity, I have learned quite a bit about the evolution of the university system in America.

    You would want to look at Humboldt’s reform of the German university system; the founding of schools like Johns Hopkins and Stanford, as well as the land grant universities; the increased interaction between universities and the military as well as universities and industry/agriculture at the beginning of the 20th century; and finally the turn to government sponsored science research after World War II along with the expansion of college opportunity through the GI Bill. All of these play their own roles in what we know of as higher education today.

    There is a pivot around WWI: industrial leaders take an interest in universities and you can see the moment when higher education begins to produce business majors. From that point onward, the medieval notion of the liberal arts school or enlightenment idea of the science research school begin to wane. Yes, they continue to produce our political leaders and our degreed professionals. But after WWII, the pivot falls on the side of universities being where people go to get ahead in the world.

    It is only now in the neoliberal age that we are beginning to see clearly how much universities had become extensions of the need for national security and economic prosperity.

    For a while, because their advances made us the most powerful nation in the world militarily, we could justify huge amounts of spending on research “for the sake of research.” By 1998, accountability became an issue and Congress began wondering, what are we gettig–broader impacts–of all this research spending?”

    Humanities also got a pass because it was where folks learned enough not to be swayed by the propaganda of totalitarian regimes. But we defeated our last great “enemy” at the beginning of the 1990’s and do we really need so many humanities classes to teach folks that Radical Islam (or whatever the bugbear of the day happens to be) is a threat?

    What we will probably see in the near future (ten or so years) is a severe shrinkage of the university system. Majority of folks will get trained on line. A very few elite folks will get to go to liberal arts schools or to the few remaining research universities. Of course, in order to keep up the idea of meritocracy, there will be a few thousand youths from the lowest echelons who happen to be really smart and somehow, someway win the lottery to attend such schools.

    I hate to sound pessimistic. This is just speculation. And it need not mean that folks who don’t go to college will learn nothing. I think the internet, given only a few changes there, will provide people with plenty opportunities for self-directed learning. And places like Google and even Apple will probably recognize that anybody who can code or is certified in coding should be given a job–they don’t have to come from college.

  4. Thank you very much for this comprehensive response. I appreciate your funding-driven narrative of the history of the academy, which puts it in wider political context. I suppose it is somewhat archaic or idealistic in this day and age to keep insisting the main purpose of higher education should be the pure pursuit of knowledge for the elevation of the human spirit – yes, that sounds pretty cheesy when I spell it out right now.

    With the severe shrinkage of the university system, what will happen to all the graduate students who have been ducking the bad economy by pursuing Ph.D.’s, particularly in the humanities and social sciences?

  5. At this point, it would be good for everyone who is getting a graduate degree of some kind to take a two pronged approach: 1) I am grateful that I have expanded my knowledge and skills base since I don’t think this is going to lead to any kind of job although 2) I will keep looking for a job in the academy or the research world. No reason to give up, but it would be smart to gird the loins.

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