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.
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
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
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.