There's a persistent hope that if only college students knew how little their professors were paid, they’d storm the barricades on their instructors’ behalf, or at the very least be so moved by their instructors' plight as to somehow improve their lot. The latest example comes from Carmen Maria Machado, an adjunct instructor living in Philadelphia, who wrote an essay for the New Yorker about the poor working conditions in her field—not just the low pay, but adjuncts' lack of job stability, professional development, health and retirement benefits, and even an office to call their own.
If more [undergraduates] learned how many of their classes are taught by poorly paid, unsupported teachers, even as their tuition rises, how would they react? Would they question the value of their education? Call for reform? Or would they do what I suspect I would have done if I’d known Harvey, the most valuable teacher in my undergraduate career, was an adjunct: burned with embarrassment, and never reached out to him after the semester closed, because I’d already received too much?
The latter seems more likely than calls for reform. Undergrads, after all, have other concerns—their own studies, social lives, debts, and career plans. Even the more altruistic among them have the entire world’s worth of charitable causes to choose from. As Machado’s essay demonstrates, even undergrads who end up in academia will, during college, have other preoccupations. Which is as it should be. It's not students' responsibility to address this issue, and there are dangers in asking them to do so.
In a 2014 Guernica essay Machado cites, Rachel Riederer argues that students should care because they suffer when taught by adjuncts: “Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions.” But do students feel short-changed? Machado clearly did not. Adjunct advocates insist that adjuncts are at least as qualified as other professors and that, unlike full-time profs, they actually like to teach and wouldn’t rather be doing research or admiring the wood paneling in their palatial offices. And telling undergrads that adjuncts are the reason they have less homework and higher grades—two examples Riederer gives of how adjuncts, given their time and resource constraints, teach differently—is unlikely to sway them.
The question, then, is to whom adjuncts ought to appeal, if not students. One possibility is parents. After all, they’re often the ones paying tuition, and if they think they’re shelling out tens of thousands of dollars a year for their kids to be taught by professors, the truth might cause an outcry. It also might not; it really depends whether parents pay up because of the imagined quality of the education, or because they think sending their kid to the highest-ranked college possible means a better shot at financial independence for that kid after graduation. Given that the parents will be footing whichever boomerang-child bills may arise, it’s hard to blame them if they prioritize the latter and don’t dwell on who’s actually teaching the courses. It obviously matters much more to adjuncts that they don’t have better working conditions than it does to the parents of the students they’re teaching.
The bigger problem with addressing students or parents is that neither group has a direct role in deciding instructors’ pay or benefits. A piece Machado links to compares adjuncts with fast-food workers, but a better (if still imperfect) analogy is to tipped servers. Raising awareness in the general population of the pre-tip minimum wage might inspire greater tips, but the people who ought to be in charge of paying servers enough are their employers. Customers can’t be expected to become experts in the behind-the-scenes workings of restaurants. Nor can college students or their parents, when it comes to universities.
The adjunct crisis must be dealt with through the combined efforts of adjuncts and the universities that employ them. Unionization—efforts are underway—is certainly a start. Adjuncts’ current status explains why teachers of 18-year-old high school seniors have such a better quality of life than teachers of 18-year-old college freshmen. Unlike the more traditional starving-artist professions—people who express their creativity and just hope someone will pay them for their work—adjuncts are providing a much-needed but undercompensated service. Smaller graduate programs should lower the number of PhD students to be closer to the number of open tenure-track positions. In a job market known for hiring humanities PhDs into unpaid internships—in my experience, this does indeed happen—it's crucial that existing graduate students demand improved professional training and beyond-academia career advising, and that universities offering doctoral programs come through.
The idea that undergrads might hold the answer to the adjunct crisis is an appealing one. As someone who was frequently called “professor” as a graduate student adjunct—after all, I was the one teaching the course!—I empathize with the desire to set undergrads straight about the true pay and rank of the person they’re dealing with. All the more so if a student wishes to stay after class for an argument, and after-class time isn’t compensated. But undergrads aren’t in a position to change the system, and thus aren’t the ones to address.