Seeing the Invisible Adjunct: Thoughts on the New Faculty Majority Summit

I am the last of the Social Media Team from the New Faculty Majority Summit on Contingent Labor in Higher Education to get up my blog post about the event in DC this past weekend.  This first post is in a descriptive vein.  My second, on Thursday, will be more meditative, as I think about the NTT issue against the backdrop of my former tenured status and career.

Josh Boldt, Lee Skallerup Bessette, John. A. Casey, Jr., Eliana Osborne, and Brian Croxall have all posted thoughtful discussions on their respective blogs of the Summit’s inspirations, provocations, and possible limitations.  I urge you to click on these links and read their work.  There is also the summary of the event posted in the Chronicle.

[Michael Berube, President of the MLA, added his column on 2/1/2012 in Inside Higher Ed.  A must-read.]

For myself, I was impressed and energized by the Summit. I don’t recall a conference in which every speaker was so passionate, eloquent, entertaining, and on-point. There was urgency here, and the outpouring of decades of rage, grief, impatience, and outrage.

The Summit itself was dedicated to Doug Wright, a long-time, beloved university teacher in Salt Lake City.  As NFM President Maria Maisto told us, Doug taught steadily and mostly full-time for some 20 years, not on the tenure track, at several institutions in Salt Lake City. Although beloved by his students and colleagues, he lost his job in a restructuring, and lost his health insurance.  Shortly afterward, Doug contracted cancer, and bankrupted himself trying to pay his medical bills before he died.  His story is told here.

Such human costs of the adjunct economy are mostly invisible.  For me, one of the primary achievements of the Summit was to demand their public visibility.  The small and large humiliations and desperations that accompany the adjunct experience, and the impact that this labor insecurity has on the learning conditions on campuses, are at the very heart of our contemporary university environment.

I want to share the insights into the “hidden costs” of a reliance on adjunct labor as they emerged throughout the day, as reflected in my Twitter stream, and amplified where appropriate.

Educational Costs

Leadership doesn’t see any connection between faculty status and student learning. The university is a black box.   Learning happens, nobody knows how….  There is an incredible lack of awareness, particularly among higher administrators.   On campus after campus I’ve been told, “we have no adjunct faculty  here.”  Adrianna Kezar, Associate Director, Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis  (KK: does anyone else hear eerie echoes of, ‘we have no gays in our country’?  More on that Thursday.)

Liberal education is at stake. Not a “just in time” educational experience of rushed, expedient classes that will fit into an over-crowded schedule between part time jobs, but education in fundamental thinking skills. Carol Schneider, President, Association of American Colleges and Universities

Interventions in student success and retention fall on the shoulders of contingent faculty. But those faculty are not heard from. There is no recognition of the problems for NTTs working with the most vulnerable students–last minute hiring, lack of resources/office space, no continuity, no email. The students who need the most resources are getting the least.  Heather Wathington, Assistant Professor of Higher Education, University of Virginia

We have to think about recovering the soul of higher education and correct the bloody-minded imbalance between ever-escalating research expectations and teaching. We will never return to the former conditions of higher ed employment. The Sputnik era of expansion is over…. It is naïve to think that NTT and TT faculty have common interests.  They don’t, and will diverge more over time.  They don’t care about you!  Heck, they don’t care about their own students! A few semesters ago at Princeton no tenured faculty member  in the Economics department was teaching an undergrad class.  Stanley Katz, Director, Princeton University Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies

The turn to contingent instructors is a core pillar of the privatization of education. Having our colleges staffed by contingent faculty undermines our ability to have a quality education.  They’re not available after hours,  we can’t get them on the phone, there is no continuity from one semester to the next.   It’s a culture of transactions instead of transformations! It’s ridiculous. Change must come.  Victor Sanchez, President,U.S.Student Association

Political Costs

Tenure is the guarantee of academic freedom.  The majority of faculty now work without academic freedom. Without the space of academic freedom, what is the purpose of the university? Claire Goldstene, Professorial Lecturer, American University

The real problem here is not money but power. Power means the courage to speak truth in class. Most faculty can’t speak truth today because they lack the protection and power of tenure.  Any NTT who says they teach in exactly the same way as a T-T colleague is delusional, or too clueless to be trusted with a class!  Joe Berry, Labor Historian and Author, Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: Organizing Adjuncts to Change Higher Education

What are the reasons people don’t respond to the contingent issue? For one, because they say, “welcome to real life; all American workers are contingent.”  Instead of commonality there is competition for a piece of the pie.  Breakout Session

Human Costs

The irony is that poverty-level wages are paid to faculty at colleges, which continue to be touted as path to middle-class status. Gary Rhoads, Professor of Higher Education,University of Arizona and Director, Center for the Future of Higher Education

What happens with the academic ponzi scheme when the margin call is made?  What happens when the students realize college education actually means lifelong debt, and its promise of upward mobility is fraud?  Rich Moser,  Senior Staff Representative, Rutgers AAUP-AFT

As an adjunct, my experience was closer to barista than to a professor.  And baristas don’t need to re-apply for jobs every 15 weeks….  We need to use art to get these stories out to people who wouldn’t read the Chronicle or a snarky blog by a disaffected adjunct. I know adjuncts on food stamps, homeless, living in van, dying without insurance. I know adjuncts who committed suicide.  The visual images of an adjunct facing his empty fridge, her car held together with tape, his shoe with holes in the sole…make a powerful intervention. Debra Leigh Scott, Adjunct and Independent Artist/Filmmaker.

My full-time colleagues often will not greet me or meet my eyes in the hallway. I am introduced by my department head not as colleague, but as ‘friend.’  I do not socialize with this man! Commenter


Some have complained that few concrete action points emerged from the Summit.  I think that’s thinking too narrowly about what constitutes action.

First, I think we gained insight.  It is utterly ineffective to make a moral argument to administrators about the inequities of adjunct labor qua labor, but what emerged in the discussion is the insight that if we can make a clear connection between the dependence on NTT labor and problems of student learning and retention, administrators are far more likely to both listen and take steps to change practices.

This means raising the dreaded spectre of “quality.”  As several speakers were at pains to say, adjunct teaching, due to its “just in time” and inconsistent nature, and its lack of protections, is not the equivalent in quality to tenure-track teaching. This is not because adjuncts are less talented, but because they are given far, far fewer resources and far more chaotic conditions in which to work.

It also emerged that accreditation can possibly be used to shame campuses into dealing with NTT faculty. This is not at all simple or consistent, but if NTT faculty are given access to accreditors, and the real costs of over-dependence on contingent labor is made visible, it is possible that the accreditation status of the institution will be affected.

And last, adjuncts have been invisible in the way that all marginal and subordinate groups are invisible to the powerful, privileged and mainstream. The tenure line faculty have no reason to “see” adjuncts (and indeed a constant refrain concerned the refusal of the tenure-track to actually make eye contact with the non-tenure-track, echoing one of the primary practices of everyday racism), and the undergraduate students don’t have the ability to grasp which of their professors are adjunct and which are not.  And as with all marginal and subordinate groups, visibility and identification is the first step to challenge, resistance, and change.

As Debra Leigh Scott suggested, the real-life stories of adjuncts, the true poverty-level wages that so many of them labor under, need to be shared.  Tuition-paying parents, and students themselves, need to be made aware of the compromised nature of the education for which they are paying six figures a year.

Scott is at work with partner Chris LaBree on a documentary about adjuncts called ‘Junct: The Trashing of Higher Ed. In America, telling the stories of adjuncts who live in their cars, rely on foodstamps, and face the threat of homelessness.  Unfortunately, many adjuncts have been too afraid to come forward to be featured in the film.  They fear for their continued access to employment.

It strikes me that an ethnography of the contingent –immediate, on the ground, but preserving anonymity–could be a powerful tool for making the needs and conditions of this workforce visible.  I’d like to urge any anthropologists reading this to consider it.

And to conclude, a critique of my own.   During the day a query came in over Twitter from @Literarychica:  “How many adjuncts are women?  Lots of potential for analysis there.”  We agreed that impressionistically, women do seem to predominate among adjuncts.  @Literarychica remarked, “if that’s the case then gender (as well as race/ethnicity) should be part of the conversation.”

Indeed they should.  This was quite a remarkable absence in the program.  Certainly the adjunct experience is profoundly gendered since so many women end up adjuncting as the trailing spouses of tenure-track men (not that the opposite doesn’t occur—it does, but less often), or as arose in my Twitter feed, choosing to adjunct in order to have the flexibility to stay primarily at home with young children.

Now that the Contingent/Adjunct/NTT/New Faculty Majority movement has an edifice and some momentum, it’s important to remember the lessons from other rights movements—there is no one “adjunct” identity, and we need most of all to see and hear from the many different kinds of people that have become the unacknowledged, hidden-in-the-open majority of our university teachers.

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Seeing the Invisible Adjunct: Thoughts on the New Faculty Majority Summit — 22 Comments

  1. Nice ~ the well organized overview is a good summary, useful to me in organizing my own thoughts as well as for anyone (possibly legion) not quite willing to read through all the posts, so many good ones too ~ plus a twofer to boot.

    I too was struck by @literaryxchica’s tweet. I remember a piece in Workplace, Issue #18, that seemed relevant, hunted it down and sent her the link. There have also been a number studies, articles, etc about feminization of composition, mostly in the 80s, I think. The figures should extrapolate to support I remember seeing a piece in the 90s – California based and published – about adjunct % by race and gender but don’t recall specifics.

    Naturally, the adjunctiverse is the domain (or holding pen) of the marginalized but still useful. That is globalization: surpluses at the bottom of the power structure are disposable and take the hit (sometimes ultimate), whether adjuncts or unwanted horses headed to slaughters in Mexico. The mechanism is the same.

    • thanks, Vanessa. I would guess there is data out there about the feminization of adjuncting, although probably not at any macro-level.

  2. Thanks for the recap, Karen — looking forward to your reflection on Thursday.

    Ironic (to me) that the feminization of contingency was perceived as absent in the program, since it’s been at the heart of how I became an activist on this issue. It was prominent in the epigraph in the summit program sent out to participants prior to the event but didn’t make it into the final program — my error since I did the final (too quick) review and didn’t notice it wasn’t there. Here’s what should have been there:

    Thank you for making the time to attend this unprecedented national summit meeting focusing on the ways in which the working conditions of the majority of the faculty in higher education affect the learning conditions of students, the future of the profession, and the communities in which we all live.

    This program is meant to be interactive and action-oriented. We encourage discussion during the plenary presentations and of course during the breakout sessions, and we hope that participants will emerge from the meeting energized to work locally and nationally, individually and collaboratively, to bring about long overdue change.

    [quote]Confronting contingency is not an impossible task, though it is a formidable one. As [AAC&U Senior Vice President] Caryn McTighe Musil (2009) has pointed out, it is “radical”—but only because it is so necessary: “Of course, treating the contingent faculty like ‘real’ faculty, especially women and women with children, is a radical act. It requires considerable shifts in attitude, in economic remuneration, and in job security. It means incorporating these faculty members as equal partners in departments, welcoming them as academic colleagues, and nurturing their professional growth.” As daunting as this task is, however, Musil reminds us that we can do it—because we’ve done it before. “The academy figured out how to rethink entire fields when DNA was discovered and mapped, when technology changed everything about our lives and work, and when women’s studies and ethnic studies forever altered the foundations of knowledge. The academy should be able to make this other change too.”
    -From “Confronting Contingency: Faculty Equity and the Goals of Academic Democracy
    by Maria Maisto and Steve Street in Liberal Education Vol. 97 No. 1, Winter 2011

    A reference to the feminization of contingency was also originally part of my introduction, which I cut short in my worry over staying on schedule (and we started a few minutes late as it was.) Whenever I speak I almost always say that I am an activist for adjunct faculty because I am a woman and a parent. I will have to ponder the troubling implications of that unconscious self-censoring on my part. Just when you think you’ve overcome… Anyway, you’re absolutely right that we should have foregrounded it more prominently. Do you think it was communicated implicitly through the number of women contingent faculty present? Not enough hours in the day for everything that needed to be said!

    For those who are interested, on the Summit resource page there is a link to AAC&U’s newsletter for On Campus With Women — the issue from which I quoted Caryn was devoted exclusively to the issue of contingency and women. Also, my essay in IHE introducing NFM in 2009, “The Adjunct’s Moment of Truth,” drew a direct link to the feminist movement.
    It should be noted that venerable institutions like AAUW have paid no attention to contingency; neither has the blog “Mama, PhD” on Inside Higher Ed — it is on our “to do” list to take them both to task for this.

    • Thanks for this meaty response, Maria! I am first off glad to know about the AACU newsletter special issue. Do you have a date for that?

      I thought that your 2009 IHE essay linking the adjunct “moment of truth” with the Ms Magazine piece from 1971 was truly genius, and so, so apt. Especially when you consider the degree of self-serving justifications around adjunct labor (and the self-delusions, I’m sorry to say, of so many adjuncts who feel they’re sacrificing for some greater good) that parallel the justifications, back in the day, for keeping women “in the home.” I want people to read that; here is the link:

      I know that recently I encountered a long comment stream from a couples years back on the Historiann blog in which the prevalence of women among the precariat was debated, with many predictably weighing in that “you can’t generalize” and Historiann insisting, “yeah, you really can. Sure some men adjunct, but women do more often, precisely because the gendered division of labor in marriages/relationships is that women follow men, but men don’t often follow women.” And in fact, in my business I’ve been really, truly struck by how many male clients calmly tell me that “my wife is willing to move anywhere I have a job,” and how no woman I’ve worked with has ever said the equivalent about her husband in such a calm and relaxed, expectant way–on the contrary, “what to do about the husband” generally emerges as a spoken or unspoken (often both simultaneously) strain or tension point. Sometimes accompanied by anxious glances off camera when we’re talking by skype.

      Another reason that I’d love to see some serious ethnographic inquiry into this population—the gendered divergences will be telling indeed.

      • My husband will follow me anywhere I get a job. He followed me for grad school, and last year he started his own company so that he can be flexible about following me to my faculty post! I had no idea it was so rare. It makes me wonder just how we ended up this way, and whether there’s something generalizable about our experience that can help other women find equally supportive partners.

        Also, now you have at least one female client who has said it!!

        • Excellent!

          I may have other women clients for whom it’s also true, of course—I don’t usually demand an answer to that question when we’re working together!

  3. I noticed the lack of discussion on gender, race, and ethnicity during the summit as well. Not sure what to make of it. Of course, as many other commentors have noted, this summit was a much needed first step in a longer journey.

    Your focus here on the wide variety of “costs” associated with Adjunct labor really appeals to me. Within the Unions I belong to, the argument too often has focused on the “moral” or human cost without adequately addressing the educational or political.

    The only thing I would question is the association of “quality” discourse with “rights” discourse. Somehow the two don’t seem to mesh well. Quality of service and the rights of education are uneasy partners at best and at worst incompatible. That said, one must use the tools that offer the greatest results. TQM (Total Quality Management) is god in Higher Ed. I guess we need to morph it into TQT (Total Quality Teaching). Where to begin…..

    • John, I agree that quality and rights dno’t work together. I think that what emerged from the Summit was actually (for me at least) a sense that rights discourse should give way to a quality discourse focused on expediency and effectiveness. And being me, I am a fan of expediency. If threatening accreditation and/or raising the spectre of declining student retention rates because teaching quality can be shown to be compromised due to the inadequate resources and consistency attending adjunct labor is what works with administrators, then I say, go for it.

      And I am always a fan of truth over idealism, and to me, it’s idealistic bs to say that adjuncts can teach as well as t-t faculty when they are living and working in conditions of poverty, insecurity, anxiety, maybe even hunger… What I appreciated from the Summit was how speakers from several different political locations said this as well–Victor Sanchez, speaking for students, for example, said, “this is about quality. We’re not getting a quality education when our teachers don’t have phones and offices!” And Moser said, “any NTT who says they teach identically to a TT is delusional [because they do not have the same protections to say the same kinds of things in the classrooms…].”

  4. I finished my PhD this summer and I’m currently adjuncting two classes per semester (and one summer course) at one of the universities here in the Boston area. I am getting paid “decently” for adjuncting (near the top of the pay scale for adjuncts in this area), I love my teaching and my students, and thus far feel adequately supported by my program had. I am unlikely to try and go tenure track, partly because I think I’m temperamentally unsuited to that world, partly because my family is not willing/able to relocate, and partly because I am, as you suggested might be the case, hoping to gracefully merge part-time work as an adjunct with parenting. All of this is just background, really, for my real question which is this: what advice do you have for those of us who are adjuncting, will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, and want to be active in advocating for adjuncts? What can we do in our departments and universities to highlight the plight of adjuncts while also maintaining what little job security we have? What are good ways for us to get involved in the debate if we don’t have the money to fly to DC for forums like the one you described here?
    And while I’m here, thanks for all you do. I’ve been following your website and Twitter feed for a while now and am grateful to have a voice like yours in the world.

    • Carolyn, pardon me for utilizing you as an example, but “my family is not willing/able to relocate” would suggest the kind of gendered dynamic that leads to so many more women in the academic precariat than men (in addition to your aim to blend adjuncting and parenting). How many men would write “my family is not willing/able to relocate”? Some have, I’m sure, but I don’t know any personally or hear from them in my business.

      Well I take it back. About 20 years ago I knew a guy in Hawai’i teaching in an adjunct vein, who had left a tenure-track position because his wife simply refused to live in the previous location any longer. So….one example in twenty years.

      OK, so now moving from using your example as an illustration, to actually responding to your question. As Betsy Smith says, first off, join NFM. Read the many reports that they can provide online or on paper and educate yourself. Get involved in faculty unions at the institutions you are adjuncting at–some of them make space for adjuncts, and you can play an active role if you are at one of those. Publish about this issue on your own blog, your local newspaper, or university newsletter outlets. the tide is turning. I was really struck how the piece yesterday in the Chronicle about post-tenure depression inspired a comment stream primarily about the status of adjuncts. This would not have happened a few years ago. You can add your voice.

      • I’m fine with you using me, generally, as a test case to think about gender division of labor because it is absolutely true that I am in a long-term partnership in which my male partner makes significantly more money than I do and has significantly more job security.

        In terms of geography, the unwillingness to relocate comes from both of us–we have a community of friends and chosen family where we are that is precious to us and, on the level of intangible benefits, more valuable than the additional money I could command as a junior faculty member working my ass off to get tenure while being (probably) unhappy and isolated. My partner is not an academic and could get renew murder of work in many different parts of the country, so much of our decision is about quality of life issues. (And along the lines of your “separate and unequal” post, I want to note here that I absolutely recognize the privilege of being in a position where we can afford to make this decision. If my family’s economics were different, or if I were not in this partnership, I simply could not afford to adjunct. I have very mixed feelings about this, both in terms of the gender dynamics and in terms of the fact that I am thus, in many ways, actively participating in my own exploitation . )

        Thank you for your suggestions about how to become/stay involved, I will absolutely continue to be part of this important conversation.

  5. In my dept the vast majority of adjuncts are female and all of the full-time adjuncts are female – this does seem to be the norm and for female TT faculty I would suggest you need to flight for them for good, selfish reasons (as well as for moral/ethical/decency reasons). Here’s the situation I see developing – women are hired in both capacities – as NTT & TT – but these different roles and statuses within the dept influence each other and really undercut the positions of female-TT faculty. I can see very clearly in my dept that my chair and many of the senior faculty have begun to equate female=teacher and it’s been reflected in the resources I’ve been given and how my teaching is assigned. This is occurring despite the fact that I am TT and in fact highly productive in my scholarly output and despite the fact that the university’s expectations of me include that scholarly output. It’s always been true that some male faculty have trouble seeing their female and especially junior female colleagues as researchers and scholars but in this context of an increasingly feminized NTT workforce it reinforces those view points and reinforces the culture of male=scholar, female=teacher. I’m not sure if other women are seeing this – and I would be interested in stories on this topic.

    • Mac, thank you for this thoughtful and provocative comment. I think this is something that needs real amplification and discussion. Does the presence of predominantly female NTTs in a department impact the status of and expectations for female TT faculty? I would love to see others weigh in. I will also post on this in the hopes of generating more discussion.

      • My dept. relies heavily on full-time adjuncts, and there seem to be roughly equal numbers of men and women, both among those who are in it for the long haul, and recent grads of the department who are on the job market and hoping to be out of here soon.

        It is the case, though, that there is a rigid bifurcation between adjunct and TT faculty. Adjuncts never come to faculty meetings (except for the two elected to the advisory committee), and they’ve only recently started being included on committees that affect them (e.g., the curriculum committee.) Most TT faculty don’t appear to know any of the long-term adjuncts by name, and they generally avoid making eye contact. It goes without saying that there’s no collegiality or socializing.

        Mac’s comment makes me wonder if the invisible wall dividing my department represents the desire to avoid precisely those kinds of gendered associations-by-contact.

  6. I’m also currently doing the adjunct + parenting thing, although I have a TT position that I’ll be starting in the fall.

    It worked for me and my family. I am fortunate that my partner is willing to support us more and be with Kid while I’m working in the evening or the weekends.

    I also am adjuncting at a very big name school and being paid a lot. Being affiliated with them is good for my CV and has given me some teaching experience that I didn’t have fresh out of grad school.

    But it sucks when the department/chair/admin doesn’t have my back cuz I am a lowly adjunct. I have no pull.


  7. Pingback: Two Societies–Separate and Unequal: Thoughts on the TT-NTT Divide | The Professor Is In

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  9. I’m a little late to the discussion, but I actually didn’t know of your site/blog until I read the article on adjuncting and welfare in today’s New York Times. I am one of the adjuncts you speak of: married, a husband whose salary is far beyond what I could ever hope to make even in a TT job in the humanities, with two young (7 & 4) children. While jobs come up in my field (media/film studies), the vast majority are 1 year/fixed term positions which might make any eventual application for TT work more attractive, but which I cannot take in good conscience, knowing that it would require not only uprooting my family, but letting go of my husband’s good-paying job for what could ultimately result in unemployment for us both.

    In my case, adjuncting has been a mostly good thing; as you write, it allows me the freedom to be at home with my children while still putting me in the classroom. Moreover, as I am working at a community college just outside Washington DC, we have a student population that I enjoy serving. That said, I know that any benefits I derive from adjuncting come at the expense of contributing to a system that, at heart, is highly exploitative. In other words, I can benefit because I am not dependent on the salary, because I am supported financially by my spouse. I choose to ignore nagging questions of what would happen should my husband lose his job, become (more) disabled (he has cerebral palsy), or – God forbid – die, but they are there whether I acknowledge them or not. Sometimes, I feel like it would be smarter to try and find work outside of academia altogether, but it’s a leap I have yet to be able to make.

    (I also just wanted to say that your work in Women on the Verge was highly influential in my own research – just a bit of fangirly appreciation.)

    • Lori,

      thanks for writing in. And thanks for the kind words about my book! I have a friend in your general shoes, with a fulfilling and successful adjunct life in the humanities, and two kids, with a husband who earns the “real” money, who finally decided to go back to school to get a degree in nursing. Because, that way, she has financial security on her own, not just through the husband. I respect that immensely, although I know that it’s very difficult to make the leap outside of the cult of the academy.

  10. First off I would like to say terrific blog! I had a quick
    question that I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was curious to know how you center yourself and clear your head prior to writing. I have had difficulty clearing my mind in getting my ideas out there. I do enjoy writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are usually lost simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any recommendations or tips? Cheers!

    • One thing I do is make notes throughout the day on a special note file of things I want to write about or be sure to remember to say (including turns of phrases, words, etc.); then when I look at those notes they often instantly catapult me into writing.

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