My friends from school and I talk alot about the job market and how crappy it is right now. The fact of the matter is, though, that fewer and fewer universities use tenure-track faculty with Ph.D.s, opting instead for adjuncts and visiting professors. Bear in mind, these positions are not permanent, with no secured funding from year-to-year, so adjuncts have no idea, sometimes semester to semester, if they have jobs or not and they often carry sometimes markedly higher teaching loads than full-time faculty, decreasing time spent on research and, ideally, hopes for a permanent gig. The biggest blow, however, is that many departments employ adjuncts and visiting profs that have the same education level as their tenured and tenure-track faculty. One friend of mine confronted a search committee head at a conference last November about their search for an adjunct with a Ph.D. Good for him- it’s insulting.
Unfortunately, my disciplinary peers and I are just beginning to experience what our cohorts in the humanities know all too well: it may take years of adjuncting and temporary teaching jobs before landing on the tenure-track, and its promised security. It’s extremely frustrating to know that our intellectual, emotional and financial investments, sometimes a decade in the works, are so poorly regarded that we can’t even be sure of landing a permanent gig after it’s all over. While universities compile and brag about their graduate student graduation rates, we have to worry about getting pushed through our programs before we can feasibly work a job lucrative enough to pay back all those thousands and thousands of dollars of loans.
This morning, as I was thinking about this issue, I thought, well, departments should limit the number of students they accept into their graduate programs if they know those students’ chances of getting a job afterwards are so slim. Then I remembered that, whether parents like it or not, graduate students comprise a sizable component of the teachers who actually have instructional contact with undergraduates; we grad students are, indeed, an essential, cheap labor force at most universities. This is why we organize into unions.
A college education is still a privilege (although those of us at public universities see how many students think higher education is something owed to them), but it is also a commodity to be sold. To make a commodity, laborers must be there to produce it and because no university is going to limit this commodity, droves of poor souls like myself and my comrades in the humanities will still sign up for the gauntlet that is graduate school. I don’t dare compare my working conditions to those in the factories churning out the cheap goods from any given multinational, but the neoliberal philosophy fueling the exploitation of the labor in those sweatshops hold to academia anymore. We like to think we’re in school as graduate students to learn something, but even though what we produce is knowledge, it is still at the mercy of the labor market. And like those behind most commodity production these days, the forces driving our particular market is still remarkably good at hiding the means, and the human costs, of production.