| Gabriel |
Over at OrgTheory, Brayden discusses the lack of a meaningful “plan B” for people whose academic career doesn’t pan out. I’m convinced that one very concrete way you see the repercussions of the lack of a plan B is that so many people are willing to work as lecturers for very little money and under unpleasant conditions (no job security, half your time on the freeway, very heavy teaching loads, little prestige, etc). These are talented people, they are after all PhDs, and it seems like they could have more stable and remunerative lives outside of academia. The fact that they don’t exercise this option reflects either a strong nonpecuniary attachment to academia or a more objective lack of salvage value to the highly asset specific human and social capital they developed in graduate school. That is, staying in academia under bad conditions reflects either emotional or practical barriers to a “plan B.”
The AAUP likes to think that we can solve this by organizing lecturers and demanding better contracts for them and/or a greater ratio of ladder:contingent faculty. This may be true on the margin, but the big picture is that academic labor has a right-shifted supply curve and this drives down the market clearing price. Politics and institutions can only take you so far away from the economic fundamentals, especially in a sector whose primary stakeholders (i.e., ladder faculty) would resist redistribution of compensation and privilege and whose other major stakeholders (i.e., state governments and tuition-paying students) are already straining under Baumol’s disease and wouldn’t welcome a further rise in total payroll implied by an adjunct labor contract. You see a similar set of dynamics with artists (also chapter 4 of Creative Industries).
The dirty secret of academia is that we elite research faculty get to have large graduate programs, low teaching loads, and cheap course-buyouts because there is a large pool of people who are so attached to academia that rather than pursue “plan B” they willingly form a spot market for teaching at about $7000 total compensation per class (or less than half the cost of having a ladder assistant professor teach the class). Giving our graduate students the emotional and practical resources to take plan B seriously would undermine our power as people who depend on a flexible labor force and our self-esteem as people whose self-image is based on training a new generation of scholars, but would be an act of humanity to the people who spend five to ten years being trained by us but nonetheless find it doesn’t work out as planned.