It finally appears that there is a growing awareness in American society of the crime of adjunct labor exploitation. Today Gawker did an extended piece (in a running series) about it. I remember a time when students in classes taught by adjuncts didn't even know what adjunct professors were.
It's May, which is when the so-called "secondary" academic job market is in full swing. In this job market positions are minimally advertised, if at all. In this market departments look at their ledger of courses marked "staff" in the system and are looking for someone to fill them. Whereas regular job searches can be painstaking, the secondary market can be quite haphazard. A lot of the folks on the secondary market are just about to get their PhDs, but have struck out in the tenure track search. I remember the May of 2006 vividly, because I was one of those people. I remember the pure, unrefined fear for my future that I was feeling, and I empathize greatly with those feeling it right now.
All of a sudden, I went from someone who was unwanted to having four job interviews for temporary gigs and three job offers, all for "visiting" positions. Not good enough to score a campus interview in the regular search, I was suddenly a hot commodity on the secondary market. (This was during a time when enrollments were shooting up and before the crash of 2008. After that even the secondary market got dicey.) It was then that I started to realize just how much of the academic labor system was kept afloat by temporary labor. (None of the institutions where I matriculated relied on it much, so I had been shielded.)
During my visiting gig I realized that I was relatively lucky. A friend of mine adjuncted, which meant he taught the same number of courses as me, but got paid a little more than half as much (without benefits), meaning that he supplemented his income with classes at another local university and a part time job. There was no reason for this disparity, other than the fact that the school I worked for wanted a ready stable of cheap, on the spot labor. (At least he got promoted to visitor the next year. Evidently some of the same folks who adjuncted are still there today, a decade later.) While there and at another institution I soon observed that adjuncts are paid as low as the market will bear, and can have classes taken away from them at the last moment, meaning their standard of living is always in doubt.
The Gawker article has all kinds of adjunct horror stories, and I've heard and witnessed my share myself, even if I never adjuncted. I've heard and seen enough to know that scholars leaving their grad school days behind need to hear this message: don't adjunct.
Of course this is not absolute. You gotta eat, after all. But you should only do it for as little time as possible. You should spend your time while adjuncting finding ways to get jobs that aren't adjuncting. This is not victim blaming, because it's no one's fault that they are an adjunct, it's the fault of a corrupt system that refuses to pay people a living wage for their labor. If you're at a school with a unionization movement, join up and fight, but if a union is not in your future, start planning your escape.
You can't pull any yahoo off of the street and ask them to teach a college course, but adjuncts are paid and treated like, well, yahoos who are just pulled off of the street. On an hourly basis you'd make more money doing practically anything else. I get sad when I hear stories of long-time adjuncts who die destitute, and then I get angry, but then I get frustrated. Don't do that to yourself. You are highly educated and the economy is growing again. There are paths out. I and a lot of people I know have found jobs outside of academia that involve better pay, more respect, and security. It's not easy to make this transition, but it's a helluva lot easier than being a "freeway flier." You might love the life of the mind, but trust me, you can pursue that in your free time, too. (That's what I do.) You might love being part of academia, but academia won't fix your broken tooth or pay for your retirement if you're an adjunct. It will put you on the street when it needs to. Academia has no loyalty to adjuncts, so it is absurd for temporary academic laborers to feel any sense of loyalty to academia.
When all is said and done, wretched adjuncting jobs will be around as long as there is a mass of people willing to take them. Once enough people refuse to spend their time being exploited like this, things will change. Until then, it'll just keep getting worse and worse. Adjuncting work not only keeps you poor and insecure, it helps maintain a system that keeps other people poor and insecure, too. Don't be a sucker or a cautionary tale. Don't adjunct.