Thursday, December 20, 2012
The Informal Academic Job Market
This time of year gives me flashbacks to the six grueling winters I spent on the academic job market. Around about now those fortunate enough to have interviews at the AHA are getting ready for the inhuman pressure cooker that is the conference's jobs pit, where dreams and dignity go to die. Those less fortunate are rueing their fate, wondering if they will get a chance. If all they want is a job, they need not worry, because another, informal and less public job market will be opening up around May. You won't find many ads in the Chronicle of Higher Education for these jobs, but trust me, they're out there.
Here's the deal: at the end of the school year, department chairs have to scramble to fill all the slots in their introductory level classes in the Fall. Because of hiring freezes and tenure lines that go unfilled, with each year the gap between class sessions that need to be taught and the number of faculty on hand grows more severe. However, department chairs can safely rely upon the large reserve army of unemployed academics to take low paying adjunct work at the last minute. They never have to look far. Just as a contractor knows the corners where the day laborers wait and can be hired for low wages, department heads have a steady supply of newhomegrown MAs and PhDs who need work and are willing to teach classes for peanuts and without benefits.
The key to the informal job market is to be at the right place at the right time. Most department chairs want to put as little work as possible into finding the warm bodies necessary to fill in the classroom gaps. In the past I have witnessed patently incompetent people get jobs simply because of desperation on the part of department chairs. These incompetents then managed to retain their jobs because it was just too much bother to replace them with someone who knew what they were doing. The quality of education received by the students very rarely factors into the equation. Even worse, the naked exploitation of a captive labor force making poverty-line wages never, ever seems to make those doing the hiring lose any sleep.
As the formal job market gets worse with each passing year, the informal market will only get bigger. The math is pretty simple, actually: tenure track positions keep getting scarcer, but enrollments are still high. Until we shine a light on the informal market and force the same "accountability" on university administrators that's being forced on faculty, in no time at all the "formal" market will be a thing of the past.