Professors Behaving Badly

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Professors Behaving Badly

Gray Matter

By  NEIL GROSS SEPT. 30, 2017

 

 

 

Is there something about adjunct faculty members that makes them prone to outrageous political outbursts?

In August, Michael Isaacson, an adjunct instructor of economics at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, wrote on Twitter, “Some of y’all might think it sucks being an anti-fascist teaching at John Jay College but I think it’s a privilege to teach future dead cops.” Though he later said he was not wishing for his students’ deaths, but merely predicting some would die, his post was roundly condemned. He received death threats and was suspended from his job, ostensibly in the interest of campus safety.

 

There have been similar cases in recent weeks. A sociologist holding a temporary position at the University of Tampa was fired after tweeting that Hurricane Harvey was karmic payback for Republican-voting Texans. Officials at California State University, Fresno, dismissed a history lecturerfor tweeting that “Trump must hang.” And an adjunct instructor in gender studies — who had already been fired from Rutgers — lost his fall employment offer from Montclair State University after the revelation that he’d tweeted about his wish to see President Trump shot.

Conservative commentators have glossed these incidents as the latest evidence that college and university faculties have been taken over by left-wing radicals. But the incidents might be viewed as part of a different phenomenon: adjunct alienation.

 

In American academia there are two tiers of employment. The first consists of professors on the tenure track or already tenured. Once they’ve proved themselves as teachers and researchers, their jobs are secure. The second tier is everyone else: lecturers who might be hired full time for a semester, but with no promise of continued employment; graduate teaching assistants; post-docs who work in labs; and instructors brought on part time to teach a class or two.

 

The pay isn’t good. Although there’s considerable variation depending on the nature of the appointment, on average adjunct instructors receive only $1,000 for every course credit they teach. Most college courses are three or four credits, and full-time teaching loads pretty much max out at five classes a semester (at community colleges). You can do the math.

 

Adjunct teaching has been expanding for three reasons. First, it’s much cheaper for colleges and universities. Second, American graduate schools award an enormous number of Ph.D.s, even in disciplines where jobs are scarce. Graduates who can’t find tenure-track positions may take adjunct employment rather than give up on the academic dream. And third, for decades conservatives have railed against the institution of tenure, which they see as protecting ideologues. Their attacks have succeeded in weakening it.

 

But there’s reason to believe widespread reliance on adjunct faculty may encourage the very radicalism conservatives fear. Social scientists have found that when aspiring intellectuals face highly restricted employment opportunities, they often take refuge in extreme politics. In a 1996 study, the sociologist Jerome Karabel sought to identify the circumstances under which intellectuals, from would-be academics to writers and artists, embrace or rebel against the status quo. “Especially conducive to the growth of political radicalism,” he wrote, “are societies in which the higher levels of the educational system produce far more graduates than can be absorbed by the marketplace.”

Frustrated that their long investments in education and cultural cultivation haven’t paid off, intellectuals in such societies train their anger — and ideas — at the economic and political systems (and social groups) they hold responsible. Professor Karabel cited the example of Germany in the 1930s, when a slow-moving academic labor market increased the appeal of Nazism for a surprising number of underemployed intellectuals.

 

The same situation can breed support for radical movements of the left. Poor job prospects for American thinkers during the Depression helped draw many into socialism or communism. More recently, the sociologist Ruth Milkman found that well-educated millennials were overrepresented among Occupy Wall Street activists. These young people had spent their lives diligently preparing to enter the knowledge economy and became disillusioned when, after the financial crisis, it all seemed to be crashing down.

 

It’s not hard to understand why American adjuncts today would feel frustrated with their lot. Throw that into the mix alongside the heated politics of the Trump era and you’ve got a recipe for outrage.

 

Of course, most people in academia — a famously progressive occupation — are outraged these days, and activism and political engagement are up across the board, as the times demand. But those lucky enough to have landed coveted tenure-track or tenured posts generally recognize that they have too much to lose to become “antifa” rioters or rant uncontrollably on social media, even if they have stronger academic freedom protections than their adjunct colleagues. In a sense, the tenure system has tamed them, and much of their protest will remain merely academic.

The occasional shocking public statement from an adjunct instructor should serve as a reminder of the volatility that comes when — in higher education or outside it — we allow employment conditions to deteriorate to whatever the market will bear.

 

Neil Gross is a professor of sociology at Colby College.