“What is education?” Ruth Wangerin asks me, when I Skype the sociology professor at her home in New York. “Is education a good for its own sake? Is it a process of weeding people out? Or is the student a customer paying for certification and the adjunct is there to train them?”
It’s a good question.
Wangerin is an adjunct at the City University of New York or CUNY. Although she completed a PhD in the 1970s, the energetic 70-year-old spent her career outside of education, returning to teaching after filling in for a friend on sabbatical.
“I’m not sure how exciting academia is,” she tells me, “It used to be exciting when I was a grad student. We were always talking about the latest theories.” She looks uncharacteristically forlorn for a moment, before adding, “That being said, there were probably always hacks.”
As an adjunct, Wangerin is employed on a casual basis and earns somewhere between half and one-third of what a tenure-track professor would make for teaching the same courses. That is significant, because non-tenure track teaching staff – commonly referred to as adjuncts and contingent faculty – now make up approximately 70%  of all teaching staff in American higher education. This means that roughly three out of every four courses a student takes are taught by someone without job security who is working on minimal pay.