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.