That UIUC job ad doesn’t say what people think it says; in some ways, it’s much worse

That UIUC job ad doesn’t say what people think it says; in some ways, it’s much worse

There’s outrage all over social media today in response to a University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign job ad* that is being widely derided for asking academic adjuncts to teach courses for free. If that is what the ad were asking for, it would deserve the most acidic vitriol flung by the strongest hands, the most strident criticism shouted to the rooftops.

The thing is, that is not what the ad is asking for.

And what the ad is asking for is both more insidious and getting almost no attention at all because everyone is so fired-up about about the admittedly horrifying notion of asking people with advanced degrees to teach semester-long three-credit courses to paying college students for no remuneration whatsoever.

The ad calls for applicants with a master’s degree in social work and “prior relevant teaching experience at the college level” to “teach courses in the areas of social work practice, policy, research, Human Behavior and Social Environment (HBSE), and in other related areas.”

The list of Duties and Responsibilities makes clear that these are full-semester courses taught by adjunct faculty that we are talking about here:

The outrage comes in response to the final paragraph, which people are reading as promising a salary of $0 for teaching a course the first time through, with the mere possibility of future pay if the trial semester has proven the adjunct worthy enough to be assigned a future course. Here is what the final paragraph actually says:

In admin-speak, a “0% FTE” position is a position that occupies 0% of a full-time work week. In other words, as HR sees it, they have clearly indicated that there is not a course to be assigned here yet. The position is “unpaid,” because the ad is not actually a hiring ad; it is an ad that is making a call to collect a pool of qualified applicants for potential future courses that may become available.

This paragraph, the third in the ad itself, makes this clear. Or, at least, the writers of the ad think this paragraph makes this clear:

This call, as well as the misplaced outrage, points to what is really so fundamentally broken about higher ed’s reliance on adjunct labor:

  • that it is reasonable for a big, research institution to assume that there are so many available people with advanced degrees, college-level teaching experience, and no or under-employment, that they would form an entire “pool of potential adjunct instructors/lecturers”;
  • that these people have so little hope of employment that they would be content merely to pass the first round of screening for “consideration for adjunct teaching opportunities,” with no actual timeline or sense of when/whether these “opportunities” might become realities;
  • that the labor of teaching in higher education is so under-valued that it is by necessity an add-on rather than a permanent job–for surely anyone whose application sits in such a pool is actively seeking full-time employment elsewhere;
  • that this complete disrespect for teaching by extension indicates an utter lack of concern about the disadvantages for students who take courses taught by woefully under-resourced, temporary faculty.

All of the above speak to the disaster of exploitive labor conditions that is the landscape of higher education in the US today. It is worth saying out loud, slowly, with feeling, that although most people’s outrage at this ad has been misplaced, the knee-jerk response of reposting the one-sentence condemnation that a place is trying to hire adjuncts for free is still telling: the adjunctification of higher education has created situations so dire, across the board, that it seemed impossible to precisely no one that some enterprising college somewhere might stoop to the low of offering a “trial” class without pay for one semester as the necessary gateway to paid adjunct employment in subsequent semesters.

This, then, is where we are. Higher education is so notorious for devaluing its educators that we are not surprised enough to go close read the ad when we are told that there is a place brazenly asking people to apply to be faculty for free.

I cannot think of a more dismal yet apt metaphor for the effects of the shift over the last two decades to a predominantly precariously-employed academic workforce. The collective cynicism and outrage of social media reactions to this ad makes clear how deeply, rightfully resentful people are that institutions assume potential hires will be grateful for any crumbs they are thrown, up to and including being put into a pool of “potential adjuncts.” The ad itself betrays the absolute tone-deafness of institutions that operate in terms of balance sheets without any willingness to consider the living wages of those they employ, the compromises such exploitation necessitate in terms of the student experience, or what it means to be ostensibly delivering an “education” when the actual educators are the least valued piece of the institution.

I wish our collective outrage were more laser-focused on that last point. Rather than screaming at UIUC for attempting to hire people for free (which it could rightfully say it is not actually trying to do), I would love a collective calling out of the callous assumptions that underpin its ad.

Social media outrage can sometimes be activism, when it lands collective criticism at the feet of companies or institutions that might make policy changes. What could we do to force UIUC to confront its willingness to perpetuate a casual disregard for the precarious conditions of actual adjuncts, who cannot afford to apply for “opportunities” that may never materialize? I am not entirely sure, given the deaf ears that institutions largely turn to even the most eloquent critiques of this labor catastrophe.

But I do know that faculty, and students, deserve much much better than a job ad so poorly constructed that it seems to be merely the logical extension of our most cynical fears about academia.

*Here is a link to the ad itself.

6 thoughts on “That UIUC job ad doesn’t say what people think it says; in some ways, it’s much worse

    1. Not that I know of — which doesn’t mean they haven’t, just that I haven’t heard about it. It is an important point that union contracts might help push back against things like this; however, I do think that even while having a union is better than not having one, the mere fact that we need unions to protect adjunct labor speaks to how widespread the problem of precarious working conditions really is.

  1. UIUC adjuncts are not unionized. Only full time (51% or more appointment) non-tenure track faculty are represented by a union.

  2. I don’t disagree with the premise that higher ed hires too many adjuncts– hard to disagree with that one– and the way the ad is worded is clearly badly worded. But I’m not so sure it’s as evil as you are saying to have an ad to create a pool of potential part-timers.

    I’m not involved as directly with the first year writing program right now so I am not sure what the situation I with staffing and part-time faculty, but we used to have an ad that invited people to apply for being in the pool for part-time instruction. This process was endorsed by the part-timer union too because the alternative was much MUCH more unfair. For first year writing, we often would have as many as 5 sections scheduled for the fall term without an instructor as classes were about to begin. This happened because we had to create new sections, whoever was scheduled to teach it suddenly couldn’t, etc. Before there was a pool to draw from, the common practice was just to call someone the WPA or the department head knew– no process to apply, no screening, nothing. So that qualified person who had moved to SE Michigan but who had no connections to EMU had no chance of getting that job.

    What the pool did– or at least what it was trying to do– was to create equal opportunity. We first hired back part-timers who wanted the work and who did it well– so once you were in, you were in. But we put out an ad with Academic HR asking for applications, always making it clear this was just for the pool and not guaranteed employment, we screened people, and we built a ranked list. That way when it came time to sections of WRTG 121 at the last minute, we had a more fair way to do it.

    For better or worse, our department seems to be moving way from that practice because our enrollments are falling sharply. So instead of hiring part-timers to pick up extra sections, tenure-track faculty are increasingly teaching first year writing as a part of the regular teaching load.

    1. The situation you describe does seem better than the UIUC one in several ways, the most important of which being that there were many sections of intro writing taught every semester and a regular need to staff at least some sections that would have to be added at the last minute. It also sounds like there was careful thought into the process by the hiring committee, none of which this ad evinces, as it seems to be for a disparate range of courses at every level, with no sense of how often they are taught, and no clear indication of any kind of cycle of need. It also sounds, more simply, like the ad you describe was better written, so that people would clearly understand that they were being placed into a pool.

      None of that, however, alleviates the larger point that the last twenty years have seen a massive shift of institutions to rely on cheap adjunct labor as administrations allow faculty to retire without replacing them and refuse to allocate full-time TT lines to full-time needs. This particular adjunct pool may have better intentions behind it than the ad expresses, and the pool you describe may have been better managed than this one portends to be, but neither of those facts addresses the real problem: institutions are assuming it is just fine to have their educational missions predominantly delivered by people with no job security and no benefits, who are grossly underpaid and under-resourced, hired at the last minute, and must obviously be splitting their time between this job and several others, since no one can live for four months on the salary from one adjunct course. Although this particular ad/hiring committee could be handling this better, the larger situation is not the fault of the committee–yours or the one in this School of Social Work–it is the fault of institutions and the structure of higher ed right now.

  3. At the same time higher education is bringing on as much part time faculty as they possibly can, college costs are still outpacing inflation considerably. Despite the fact that the administration is by definition the support group for the faculty who perform the mission of the school are diverting money to their own pockets that should be going to the faculty. How can we expect to have a world class educational system to compete internationally under these circumstances?

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