It seems like everyone’s ignoring the main issue driving experiences like Helga’s: there are just too goddamn many Ph.Ds (and masters) degrees out there. People like Helga take pay that would be insulting to the guys who work at the gas station because she knows damn well that there’s a line of other adjuncts who would gladly take the assignment if she refused. Supply and demand, baby. If there are too many fourth-tier universities are pumping out people who have no job skills besides teaching Philosophy courses, the pay for Philosophy adjuncts will go down.
What’s the solution? Maybe it’s reducing the number of graduate programs out there. I suspect that many bottom tier Ph.D. and masters programs exist not to turn out capable scholars and teachers, but because they allow the university to take advantage of the only kind of labor that is even cheaper than adjuncts: graduate teaching assistants. Graduate students at these programs start out as exploited graduate TAs and graduate a half-step up the food chain to become exploited adjunct professors. I’m sure that such programs have produced the occasional excellent scholar and teacher who beats the odds and gets tenure. But it’s dishonest and immoral for these programs to tell potential students that they will be trained to be scholars. They are recruited to have the life wrung out of them as graduate students and then passed on to other institutions to have the life wrung out of them as adjuncts.
At the very least, undergrad advisors owe any student who wants to apply to such a program a good hard dose of reality. If a student asks you for a letter of recommendation for the History Ph.D. program at North-North-Eastern Dinky State School, sit them down. Tell them about people like Helga. Ask them to think really hard about their commitment to the discipline. At the very least ask them to look at the program’s placement record (and if the school isn’t forthcoming with that information, ask them to take this as a sign). I have no doubt that a lot of people make a good life out of adjuncting, because they love teaching or because they love the subject so much that they can’t imagine a career that doesn’t involve it or because they love pretending they are Jeff Gordon racing around from job to job. But I suspect that a lot of other people wake up at the age of 30 with a degree that over- or under- qualifies them for everything except adjuncting. That stinks, both for them and for the other adjuncts whose wages are lowered to subsistence level by the flooded market.