And You Can Call Me Professor

David Alms is also an adjunct at CUNY, and the way he tells it, he has nothing to complain about. (Except, he admits, unreliable health insurance, low pay that requires him to work other jobs, and a lack of job security.) BUT: He doesn’t have to worry about tenure!

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28 Comments / Post A Comment

Logan – You’ve merely cherry picked a few details out of a 1,000-word blog post to make me appear self-contradictory. I admit that there are times that I’d like greater security, but I also say that I relish my other work. I *get* to do other jobs – I’m not forced into doing other jobs. There are a lot of presumptions about adjuncts that have unfortunately become accepted as universal fact, so much so that even intelligent people who are trained to read and think critically often fail to see central points in an argument (or piece of writing) if they don’t corroborate with those preconceived notions. For example: You looked only for those bits in my post that supported your view and failed to see the rest of my point, which is far more nuanced.

@David G Alm@facebook That’s an interesting quibble you have there about cherry picking and accuracy, because your post implies that the “rant” is solely a statement by Karen Gregory and not representative of other adjuncts. When in fact it was a statement jointly written by a number of CUNY adjuncts as part of an actual, organized movement. Clues in the text include the use of second-person plural and the phrase “an ongoing movement.” It may not represent you specifically, but it is disingenuous to imply that Gregory is a lone outlier speaking only for herself.

In fact, my understanding is that adjunct professorships were created specifically for situations like yours, which is fine. The problem is that adjuncts are also increasingly being used to fill roles that traditionally would have gone to tenure-track professors.

@stuffisthings *first person plural, is of course what I meant.

@stuffisthings One point I have to make or it will continue to annoy me — While I failed to notice that Gregory’s syllabus was penned by a group, and not just her, I did not misrepresent the substance of her comments. That’s very different from my complaint over how my own blog post was represented. The two instances of “cherry picking” are totally different. Mine was the omission of a detail that did not affect anyone’s understanding of the author’s point, while Logan’s was an omission of central pieces of my argument and, therefore, a misrepresentation.

@David G Alm@facebook The bulk of the comment, and 2/3 of its text, relates to the “adjunctification” of CUNY, but you don’t address the substance of that argument and instead argue that her claims are “mostly false” because some adjuncts have “Professor” in the title and because some of your students have gotten into competitive programs with your letter of recommendation as part of their application. You then go on to confirm the substance of her and the other adjuncts’ complaints, which is that you make 1/3 the salary of a tenured professor for the same teaching load; have little job security and few benefits; and are expected to (or feel obligated to) work hours which you are not compensated for. And your failure to initially acknowledge that Gregory wrote as part of a group is more than a minor failure, it also repudiates the headline and conclusion of your piece.

As for your beef with Logan, I find it difficult to understand — I am still unclear on which key element of your argument she left out. But I guess I’m more confused about why a busy guy who has to cobble together multiple jobs to survive would spend so much time defending one of his employers, which he acknowledges pays him less money for the same job done by others.

Fair enough – I admit that I learned after writing my post that the comments in Gregory’s syllabus were penned by a group and included in other syllabi as well.
But I take offense at the fact that Logan reprinted vast sections of Karen Gregory’s syllabus while, yes, cherry picking only a few points from my post. It appears that Logan has an agenda to advance, and that Gregory’s syllabus is far more in line with that agenda than my rebuttal. This is anyone’s right, of course, but if I think that if you want to actually advance an argument, you should actually understand both sides of the argument and represent them accordingly. Otherwise you just look lazy, and that will only undermine whatever argument you’re trying to make.
As a final point, Logan (I’m not using pronouns because I don’t know if Logan is a man or a woman – I’ve known Logans of both genders) snarkily quips that I “don’t have to worry about tenure.” This is a perfect example of choosing snark over accuracy. What I wrote was “I don’t have to worry about NOT getting tenure.” You could say it’s semantic, but it’s not. Read the entire paragraph from which that comment was taken and you’ll see my point in its entirety, which Logan conveniently left out.

craygirl (#63)

@David G Alm@facebook

As a frequent Billfold reader, I actually think this may be more of a stylistic misunderstanding than anything? The tone of this post, to me, didn’t seem snarky, but more like Logan trying to provide a counterpoint to the previous article.

I could be entirely wrong, and I obviously just speak for myself and not Logan/the Billfold! But I don’t think she was trying to advance any agenda by posting a link to your essay here.

ETA: I think it’s also a tonal thing – to me, “BUT: He doesn’t have to worry about tenure!” seemed like she was trying to highlight your point about worrying about not getting tenure while on tenure-track.

@craygirl The “snark” factor comes across, to me anyway, in the structure of Logan’s post: I “don’t have anything to complain about” immediately followed by a parenthetical list of complaints. And as a rejoinder to those complaints, “BUT: I don’t have to worry about tenure!” (What’s with the exclamation point? Is this Gawker?)

That’s the extent of Logan’s post – a shallow, inaccurate misrepresentation of my 1,000+ word blog post.

To me that seems pretty snarky – never mind the fact that Logan failed to grasp the points I was actually making in my post, or if he (or she) did grasp them, he (or she) decided to ignore them.

chic noir (#713)

@David G Alm@facebook relax dude, Logan just gifted you tones of traffic to your blog post at the very least. Now be grateful and say thank you.

shannowhamo (#845)

@chic noir Yeah, I mean, I get it. If I was mentioned on a site I never read and feel like I was misrepresented I might be tempted to comment. But I might consider reading the site first and getting an idea of the tone and style of the site. And I probably wouldn’t comment in such a condesending, obnoxious way.

chic noir (#713)

@shannowhamo -exactly

WhyHelloThere (#1,398)

I think that part of what’s going on here is that we’re talking about two different kinds of adjuncts. Universities have always hired part-time adjuncts like Mr. Alm to teach vocationally-focused classes. You’d rather learn to be a journalist from a working journalist than from someone with a PhD in media studies. I think that colleges should guard against becoming too vocationally focused, but it’s appropriate to have some classes taught by adjuncts who work in a given field.

That’s different from what the original poster was talking about, which is replacing full-time, tenure-track faculty with part-time adjuncts. Students don’t benefit from being taught by this kind of adjunct. Mr. Alm can teach journalism because he works as a journalist. The equivalent to that would be that a tenure-track sociologist would be better able to teach sociology because she is paid to produce scholarship in the field. But adjuncts don’t get paid for their research, the way full-time faculty do. They spend their time cobbling together part-time jobs, rather than producing scholarship, and they’re poorer teachers because of it.

@WhyHelloThere This is all very true, and I agree with you about the two different kinds of adjuncts. But just so there’s no mistake here: I have taught English, film history, film analysis, interdisciplinary humanities courses, and journalism. I don’t strictly teach the craft of journalism, either – I’ve taught analytic courses in the field as well. I mention this only to clarify that I’m well aware of fields — both in academia and outside it. (I also do not have a degree in journalism, but an M.A. in the humanities, in which I focused on English and cinema studies).

I built my journalism career from scratch and through hard work. I have full-time colleagues who teach the same courses I do, including the practical courses, even if they have not written for publication in years. They have PhDs in English – what makes them more qualified to teach journalism than me? Nothing. The point is, I am not ignorant of the “injustices” of academia, or the frustrations that adjuncts may encounter.

Also, if you’ve followed the journalism profession at all, you know that it’s about as insecure as being an adjunct. I waited tables for seven years while balancing my work as a journalist and teaching load. There were countless days that I’d have to rush from school to my restaurant job just in time for an evening shift, often having spent the morning working on an article for one publication or another. It’s exhausting.

I say all this merely to point out that I am not delusional about the hardships that part-timers face. As an adjunct professor and freelance journalist, I know hardship very well. I’m 37 and my sense of security comes from just two things: my work ethic and a history of things working out one way or another.

But is this really any different than most other professions? In most jobs, if you don’t work hard and perform well, you get fired. I don’t think it’s such a bad thing to have to maintain the same degree of dedication as an academic, whether part-time or tenure-track. After all, the latter group is notorious for slacking off once earning that prized distinction.

WhyHelloThere (#1,398)

@David G Alm@facebook I’ll admit that I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that college courses ought to be taught by experts, who have proven their expertise by receiving a PhD in their field. Your varied work experience and M.A. in humanities may be lovely, but they don’t qualify you to teach English or film analysis at the college level. To be blunt, students deserve better than you. The problem with the adjunct system is not just that it produces bad working conditions for adjuncts. It’s also that it’s unfair to students, who are subjected to overworked and sometimes unqualified instructors.

You’re certainly right that college teaching is not the only industry in which labor conditions are getting worse, but I’m not entirely sure what your point is. Lots of Americans are seeing their pay, benefits, and job security erode. That’s not a reason to give up and pretend that we’re lucky to be exploited. That’s a reason to work together to try to change the direction our economy is heading, as far as I’m concerned.

@WhyHelloThere I agree with everything in your last paragraph. However, I absolutely disagree with most of your first paragraph.

I did my MA at the University of Chicago, which puts PhD (and MA) students through the wringer. I had many classmates earning their PhDs who were brilliant academics – they could write and speak on arcane matters and quote obscure theorists from memory. I felt insecure around many of those people.

When I started teaching, I realized not only that I had sufficient knowledge to teach certain English and film courses to undergraduates, but that a lot of that arcane knowledge was actually rather useless in a college classroom. I was far more equipped to teach 18-21 year-olds about cinema than some of the PhD students I knew who had the social skills of a lichen-covered rock.

If you took some of those people and plopped them down in the school where I was teaching then (in Chicago’s South Loop), they’d have scared the shit out of their students and utterly failed to teach them anything. These kids struggled with literacy, to say nothing of Andre Bazin or subaltern identity theories.

I agree with you that a PhD is necessary in certain environments — certain schools, certain classes, etc. — but for you to tell me that my students “deserve better” than me is presumptuous and rude.

A PhD does not a teacher make.

@WhyHelloThere One more thing: Your comment that my “varied work experience and M.A. in the humanities may be lovely” is patronizing. I am not a dilettante, and you know nothing of my reasons for not continuing on for the PhD or what my “varied work experience” actually consists of. I could argue that I am more qualified to teach some college courses than a lot of people who have full-time tenure-track jobs who teach the same courses. The only difference between them and me is the PhD, which is only a credential because of academic politics.

Not too long ago, you could get a full-time job at a college or university without a PhD. I even had tenured professors at the University of Chicago who did not have PhDs – they’d simply been there for 30 or 40 years, and some of them have become world-renowned scholars and helped build the reputations of their respective departments at an indisputably world-class research university. I somehow doubt that you’d say their students “deserve better.”

Theda Baranowski (#2,989)

@David G Alm@facebook @David G Alm@facebook There used to be something called a terminal degree (Library Science, the masters I hold, is one of the examples I can think of) which allowed you to do just that. And certainly I’d agree that they don’t really teach you how to teach in graduate school; I had a practicum in information literacy and it was mostly figuring out how to teach mostly by myself.

Well, that and writing tutorials for Microsoft Office products.

KimO (#2,021)

@WhyHelloThere @David G Alm@facebook Hmm, just dropping in here to say it seems to me there’s been some misunderstanding on both sides. As a regular reader (and sometimes writer here and at The Awl), I agree with whoever said that David read too much into Logan’s tone. Her short summary rightfully draws attention to the ambivalence in David’s original post. But, you know, she also spelled his name wrong, and I can only imagine that set the tone for his reading of her “agenda” (which: pretty confident Logan would not intentionally misrepresent someone here, even if she had a dog in the fight).

Reading David’s perspective was interesting to me on several levels, partly because I disagree with most of it. I have several friends who are CUNY adjuncts whose experiences seem to align more with the Gregory side. I also have a lot of friends in academia who have suffered through non-CUNY adjunct and adjunct-ish gigs with terms that were far from fair. And my own very brief experience as an adjunct (which was right after I finished the same MA program as David, though I barely knew him) was pretty awful.

At the same time, I think David articulates something in his post–call it the original spirit of adjuncting–that I hadn’t really considered. Or maybe I had considered it, but I wasn’t sure it actually existed. And I think my understanding of the subject is richer for having considered his view–even the parts I don’t agree with.

Maybe it’s purely a function of this site’s mandate (talkin’ money, which is inherently more political than the other Awl sites), but sometimes I feel that the subjects explored here feel a little one-sided–not just in the posts, but also in the comments. Like anything that’s even remotely contrarian gets dismissed out of hand.

Speaking of which, @WhyHelloThere, there are plenty of experts without PhDs–David among them–who are perfectly qualified to teach college-level classes. If you think that a PhD in any way makes someone a teaching expert, you have a lot to learn about both higher education (particularly its crippling lack of emphasis on pedagogy) and, you know, THE WORLD. Christ.

WhyHelloThere (#1,398)

@KimO How do you know that David is an expert? You would know that someone with a PhD or who was ABD was an expert, because they would have taken and passed qualifying exams, demonstrating a comprehensive understanding of the scholarship and methodology of their field. Colleges are often comfortable having that person teach outside his or her narrow field, because a person who can master the literature in one field can presumably do the same for another. How did David demonstrate that ability?

It sounds to me like what you and David are really objecting to is the model of higher education in which students are taught by scholars. I absolutely agree that PhD programs should require more instruction in pedagogy, but that’s not what David is saying. He’s saying that he’s a better college instructor than someone with specialist training in a discipline, because he’s better able to talk to the dummies at CUNY than some egghead who’s actually a scholar in the field. And that’s bullshit. It’s elitist, because it says that students at CUNY aren’t worthy or capable of getting a real college education. It’s anti-intellectual: it contributes to the dumbing-down of American higher ed. And it’s just flat-out wrong, because there are in fact a number of University of Chicago PhDs who successfully teach at CUNY institutions.

But yeah, if that’s your agenda, then you absolutely should support the casualization of academic labor. I just don’t think that’s an agenda that the rest of us should get behind.

@WhyHelloThere I teach journalism, and I’ve been a journalist for the past 14 years. You don’t have to take qualifying exams or pass your orals to do that; you have to get out there and pitch articles to editors and learn how to write journalistically, which is a very different kind of writing than what you learn in academia. That is why I am “an expert” – this does not mean I’m the best teacher who ever lived, but simply that I have proved myself in a field that I now teach to others. Many of my students have gone on to get internships or jobs in that field, and they often keep in touch with me and tell me that I helped them with their craft.

As for everything else you claim that I said, you are reading into my comments. I never said my students are “dummies” or that I’m better at teaching them than someone with a PhD. I’m done discussing this with you. It’s a waste of time.

WhyHelloThere (#1,398)

@David G Alm@facebook Right, and as I said, you’re qualified to be the kind of adjunct who teaches vocational classes, based on your experience in the field. However, you said above that you also teach English and film studies classes, and as far as I can tell you’re not qualified to teach those. So basically, your defense of the adjunct system has merely served to highlight another one of its really profound flaws. It doesn’t just exploit the adjuncts. It also exploits the students, who are paying college prices for non-college-level instruction.

@WhyHelloThere I said I’d bow out, but I want to respond to this. If you had gone to college 50 years ago, even at a very selective college, you’d have had plenty of professors who did not have PhDs. Many of those professors would go on to build world-renowned careers and departments at their respective schools. Are you saying that their students were short changed too? The PhD is not the only gauge of expertise; it’s merely a credential that has become de rigeur because of academic politics.

Now, I did not say I currently teach English and film classes; I said I have taught them. And I was quite successful at it, overall. I taught film analysis and film history shortly after completing my MA program, in which I focused on cinema studies. I had spent that time studying film theory and film history intently, and I was perfectly capable of engaging a classroom of undergraduates (some of whom were extremely bright, by the way, especially once I got to Hunter). After all, most of them had never encountered any of the theorists or ideas we were addressing in class, so I had a leg up, so to speak, and was an effective teacher of those subjects. Was I a world-famous scholar like the ones I had in grad school? No. But that doesn’t mean I couldn’t facilitate a discussion about the French New Wave or experiments in “realism,” which are subjects I did teach. My focus has changed in recent years, and I have not engaged with those subjects in a long time, so I would not feel comfortable teaching them now. But that doesn’t mean I was incapable of teaching them seven or eight years ago.

Look: I do not have a journalism degree. I have a B.A. in English and art history, and an M.A. that focused on cinema, critical theory, and English. I built my journalism career outside of academia because I wanted to work in the “real world” and continue to engage with ideas, but in a way that would be more accessible to a general audience. I have written a great deal about film and contemporary for magazines, and I have ghostwritten two books about design and digital filmmaking. I’m not simply a “reporter.” Most of my students at Hunter are not trying to become film scholars, but filmmakers or documentarians or journalists. I am just as qualified to help those students achieve their goals as someone who wrote a dissertation that no one will ever read on some arcane subject.

I’m sorry if my background does not allow you to squeeze me into a convenient box — “Journalist” or “Academic,” and never the ‘tween shall meet — but my career has always been somewhat unconventional.

KimO (#2,021)

@WhyHelloThere Actually, I don’t have an agenda. I’m just a person giving this complex topic a few moments of serious consideration. You should try it!

Anyway, I guess you’re not familiar with the common practice of letting graduate students teach undergraduate courses, which undermines your whole half-baked argument.

WhyHelloThere (#1,398)

@KimO I am familiar with that practice. It’s part of the same problem that we’re discussing here: in order to save money, colleges and universities are both exploiting academic workers and shortchanging students. Until they’ve comped, grad students shouldn’t be teaching free-standing courses. On the other hand, it can be appropriate for them to serve as a teaching assistant under the supervision of a professor. Having both TAed and taught my own classes, I can tell you that those are very different beasts.

Leaving aside any question of snark or the like…

There are absolutely valid points from both sides (the Karen Gregory post yesterday, and this one today), and one of the problems when talking about this subject is the diversity of adjuncts. It is very difficult to generalize. A working journalist sharing his or her expertise as an adjunct is a very different beast from the freeway fliers cobbling together an existence by teaching intro classes and comp for $2,500 per semester who want full-time, tenured positions, and would be willing to move anywhere and teach at any college– large or small, research or teaching-focused– for the privilege.

So, I’ll limit myself to that point that adjuncting somehow offers more freedom. One of the fantastic benefits of tenured professorships is precisely that it comes with freedom: freedom to follow one’s own research agenda and often teach what one wants (at a major research university, one can pretty much teach within one’s narrow research focus; in a smaller department or community college, you might be teaching the broad range of your entire discipline). I’ve got friends who are tenured academics who write for major publications on their area of expertise, all the while secure that they’ve got health insurance, a regular salary, a travel & research budget, and an office. That is the absolute beauty: you’re following your passions and engaged in deep, intellectual labor that is possible because you’re not worrying about how you’re paying your rent or funding your retirement. Also, you’re not scrambling because you need to publish another article to pay the bills, but can actual really think about something and write because you have something to say.

It’s not a choice for many adjuncts: there just aren’t enough tenure-track jobs to go around. Those mass retirements of tenured profs still haven’t happened, and when people do retire, lines are either cut, not replaced by tenure-track line, or 3 empty spots are consolidated into just 2 (or even 1) replacement position.

And do you abandon the field you’ve spent the last decade pursuing? When do you say enough? There’s always the lure that next year will be your year: all those publications, all those years of teaching will finally land you the prize. So in places like NYC, there is a deep pool of people willing to adjunct.

And, yes, there’s plenty of deadwood floating around many academic departments, but in a lot of cases, that’s a previous generation who operated under a different set of expectations.

And, fine, one more thing: I wrote many letters of recommendation for students while I teaching. I wasn’t an adjunct, but even I told my students that they should have someone more established in the field (unless they were applying for internships to museums– I’m an art historian and know those people). If I was the best they could do, then the university was doing something wrong, probably because there were so few permanent staff members that students were left scrambling with random, new people like me.

And sorry for the double post, but I thought it was useful that the syllabus yesterday pointed out the issues surrounding faculty labor. Maybe today’s college students are wiser than I was, but when I was an undergraduate, I had little idea of what the difference between the various professorial ranks (aside, it seemed, from age) were. I went to a school that did not have adjuncts in the sense of teaching a single class for low pay, but there were probably visiting assistant professors on one-year contracts. That is also why I would explain to my students why I wasn’t the best choice for writing a grad school recommendation, since I assumed they had no clue about the inner workings or hierarchies of academia.

Incidentally, I’m a first-generation college student (and the first in my family to get a PhD). So, you know, there might be some class things happening, too.

@angry little raincloud And lest we forget: her syllabus was for an INTRO TO LABOR STUDIES CLASS.

One thing I really don’t understand about this guy: why is he so insistent on defending these unfair labor practices? In response to a comment on the blog from another Hunter adjunct who complains about the exploitation, Alm says, “It’s true that we’re not compensated as fairly as we could be, but this is not the fault of the Dept. of F&M, or even Hunter in general. It’s a bureaucratic system that denies adjuncts fair treatment. But we enter it willingly… When you’re hired as an adjunct, you know what you’re getting.” So he admits the compensation is unfair, and he doesn’t get benefits or have job security beyond one year, but because it’s what he signed up for that’s okay and it isn’t the college’s fault?

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