Malcolm Getz, an economist who studies education, gave a talk in our department on Thursday. In passing he mentioned a student who transferred to Vanderbilt from Middle Tennessee State University and found he had some of the same adjuncts teaching his classes. (This doesn't mean the material or difficulty of the course was the same at both institutions, of course.)
One area my advisor and I work on is studying professions. Classically, the three professions are law, medicine, and theology. Other jobs have aspired to be considered professions, and so a body of work has built up to describe what exactly a profession is. The resulting list generally goes something like:
- A profession has a body of knowledge that requires training of practitioners.
- A profession produces outcomes that cannot be readily evaluated by the layperson.
- Members of professions control entry into their field.
- Members of professions have a relatively high degree of autonomy.
College professors are one of the most widely agreed-upon professions outside of the traditional three. Body of knowledge? The doctorate, which has only grown as a requirement in recent years. Outcomes that are hard to evaluate? Yup. Control of entry? Faculty train PhDs, so they must. Autonomy? That's tenure. Adjuncting, on the other hand, is not a profession, most specifically because adjuncts possess no autonomy at all.
Adjuncts, however, are an alternative to faculty for some of the work faculty do - the teaching component of research, teaching, and service. Some adjuncts are full-time professionals who simply teach one course for whatever reason, but when articles like the NYT's talk about adjuncts, they generally refer to folks who piece together a full work load from teaching courses at several schools. Many of these folks do have PhDs or are working on them.
So go back to the "controlling entry into a field" requirement for a moment. College faculty aren't doing that. They're producing more PhDs than there are faculty jobs. This reserve force of would-be faculty, then, is desperate for work and willing to take adjunct work. The sheer number of them allows institutions to further reduce the number of tenured positions, because the adjuncts aren't scarce enough to hold out for better. (Or organized enough.) You might blame administrators eager to increase their school's prestige by granting PhDs, but this can only be done with faculty complicity.
In fields like education, this isn't a big deal, as there is a demand for PhDs in administration, and this is true of a lot of practice-oriented fields and the sciences. But in the humanities and many social sciences, PhDs are being overproduced. You sometimes see blame placed on students going into them, who "ought to know" better. Ideally, sure, we would all conduct extensive research on our career choices. It's more fair to point to their undergrad profs who encourage them and the graduate schools that accept them. This is something the profession has some control over, and if it wants to remain a profession, it has to use that control.