Why adjunct labor matters to all of us

Today is National Adjunct Walkout Day, and if National Anthropology Day (from my last post) is not going to become a statutory holiday, you can be doubly sure that this one won’t either.   It has come about in order to raise awareness of and provoke action against a serious problem: the working conditions of adjunct faculty in academia.  Along with organizations like the New Faculty Majority, the aim of NAWD is to highlight the low pay, lack of benefits, and insecure employment of most of the people who teach college students today.

I, along with a significant but declining number of faculty, am tenured, having recently completed my probationary six-year period as a tenure-track assistant professor.  We (the tenure-track and tenured) currently constitute about 30% of all faculty, and probably are what you think of when you think of a college professor.  The other 70% consist of a range of contingent or contractual faculty whose working conditions and pay vary enormously, but at the low end – the faculty labelled ‘adjunct instructor’ or ‘part-time faculty’ or ‘sessional lecturer’,  who teach courses on a per-term, no-benefits basis – those conditions are frequently deeply exploitative.  This ratio of tenure-stream to others is not an inevitable or eternal state of affairs, however: forty years ago it was basically reversed.   The present situation has arisen out of a variety of circumstances, including but not limited to decline in governmental funding for higher education, increased labor supply (production of PhD graduates), and changing expectations of the role of universities.

As a tenured faculty member at a public research institution, I’m extremely lucky and privileged.  I’m not nearly so naive as to suppose that my current conditions of employment were an inevitable product of my superior merit for the job I occupy.  I also believe that we (the tenured few) have a positive obligation to think and talk about the aspects of our profession that, by virtue of our protected status, we can safely address.  Between 2001 and 2008 I held a variety of positions as an instructor, none of which were tenure-stream: graduate student instructor, adjunct instructor, postdoctoral fellow, and visiting professor.  I was never unemployed but also never secure.   I haven’t forgotten – nor, as I am reminded every time I look at my disciplinary job listings virtually out of habit, have I fully recovered.

In the weeks to come, I have a couple of posts floating around in my head that talk about some of the issues that I think serve as obstacles to progress in this discourse, some of which I’ve been talking about privately with colleagues for years, others of which are incompletely formed.  But today I have just one real thought to impart.  You may think that it doesn’t much matter whether the person teaching your kids freshman composition is on food stamps, that it doesn’t matter whether your spouse’s chemistry instructor has health benefits, or whether your own favorite anthropology professor works at four different colleges to make ends meet.  You’d be wrong, but I get that you might think that, because to be honest, most of the adjuncts I’ve worked with as colleagues –  and most of the instructors I’ve been in the past – are good at their job, and they don’t sit around bemoaning their lives.    That they do their jobs well, paradoxically, renders them more invisible than would otherwise be the case.

That is exactly the problem that National Adjunct Walkout Day is meant to remedy. As part of NAWD, some adjuncts (and others) will engage in job action including but not limited to public protests, cancelling classes, or other forms of direct action, even though they know their employment is at risk.  But here’s the thing: their employment was already at risk, just by virtue of their status.  So if you happen to be on a college campus today, or if you see the hashtag #NAWD on Twitter, bear in mind that the ivory tower is built from a foundation of the labor of many whose absence would rapidly bring about its collapse.

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