Adjunctification: Living in the Margins of Academe

Tiffany Timperman I Education I Commentary I November 27th, 2013

Unfair labor practices are commonplace in American higher education, public and private. Hardly anyone denies the problem of adjunctificaton and contingency, and, more epidemic, laborers on the fringe in any trade or profession recognize this deficit; yet we continue to work for less, essentially exploiting our worth, thus the possibility of a solution is vexed. And the issue is not unique to adjuncts, but many other university laborers, including students who are uniformly paid minimum wage for providing essential services. But how can a problem so transparent and pervasive fail to generate actionable change? Why can't I get equal pay for equal labor? And why is silence the norm? These are self-posed questions that warrant wider consideration.

Multiple labor hierarchies exist campus-wide, all arguably fundamental to the operation of the university, and the adjunct problem begs reformation right now. I do not believe all adjuncts are qualified for tenure, and some tenured professors likely don't deserve it either. But many adjuncts who are every bit as qualified as those with tenure don't get equal pay for equal labor because we are powerless in a system that is indifferent to faculty working conditions. This was certainly the case for Margaret Mary Vojtko. Let's stop to remember Vojtko through Elie Wiesel's statement: "I believe that a person who is indifferent to the suffering of others is complicit in the crime." And this means, of course, that in our silence we are equally complicit in this problem.

Nigh 75% of us are complicit in this problem, so why blame the complicit elite, the other 25%? Because the majority of them are content and quiet? I believe we are stronger together, as one faculty, than pitted against one another. So let's question the hierarchy of the institution instead. Let's reevaluate tenure, as "tenure has hamstrung colleges' ability to fulfill their two fundamental missions of advancing knowledge and disseminating it" ( James C. Wetherbe). Let's also demand transparency and redistribute the top-down wealth, starting with the president of the university.

A realistic approach would embrace reorganization that values mutual interest in pay equity and job security alongside innovative teaching, research and publication, and continuing education. Though levels of teaching and/or research focus differ among universities and colleges, the stereotypical system holds ranked professors accountable for research and publication, but marginalizes the significance of teaching or vice versa. We need to find a new balance that values both teaching and research equally and imagine something other than the disparity of tiered faculty, a hybrid plane where both/and rather than either/or are equally valued and compensated. We should at least look to other models that manage to balance teaching and research pathways and roles more equitably.

Dan Kovalik , senior associate general counsel of the United Steelworkers, says the two-tiered faculty model is "destroying the academy," and that our CEO-like presidents and administrators are not all to blame. Yet, even though the failure of our system is apparent to outsiders, we remain paralyzed. So why do we contribute to a fatally flawed and oppressive system when so many of us, like Vojtko, will die sick and penniless after years of service to our students and university? Why, when we are ripe for reorganization, do adjuncts fail to organize? For my own part, I am stuck in a spiraling cycle, afraid to lose what little seniority I have as an affiliate adjunct, and I am stretched thin juggling heavy course loads, which makes it hard to look for work elsewhere or dig my way out of this hole through publishing. As is, I know a tenure committee would not look at my file because I have been an adjunct for a decade plus now: I am branded. This stigma needs to change.

I can't say I've ever met a complacent adjunct, but I have met several who, like me, have both front and back burners on high. Sometimes I wonder how long I can sustain the workload without burning out or boiling over. Even after a decade of extreme adjuncting, what I find most oppressive is not the workload itself, but the cyclical fear of unemployment without benefits. And sometimes, though it seems a past life away now, I remember that I was a privileged housewife, married to an affluent periodontist with a house in Kings Heights. And I left that life to pursue academia, to contribute to society, to be something more socially and economically valued than a mother and a wife. Of course, devalued and un(der)compensated domestic laborers of all sorts have more in common with adjuncts than I anticipated. Reflecting on that privileged life now, knowing I left because he told me he could make more money in one hour pulling teeth than I could in one year teaching English (and he was about right), I don't regret my decision. And even though I found out the hard way that society does not value teachers either, I am proud to own both identities: mother and teacher.

So where do we start to reform and reorganize? I would like to see revised promotion and tenure guidelines, though this is an unlikely scenario unless the national academic consciousness revalues the teacher's role in education and its administration. The natural place to start this revaluation is with students. The classroom is not the place to politicize faculty working conditions, but asking students what they value in an education, administrative bloat or innovative teaching, technology, and facilities is an ethical way to approach the topic. Education should be mindfully pursued and questioned. Kovalik believes that once students and parents are savvy to the system's failures and abuses that they will begin to more thoughtfully question the value of a university education. If he is right, then we are sinking our own ship, and even those who feel most insulated in the upper echelons of academe will eventually drown.

I've lived in the margins of academe for so long that I am conditioned to inhabit the space without too much adverse reaction. When I do stop to reflect on my experience, it's maddening. But I don't want to become embittered by years of unfair labor conditions and compensation. I want to keep doing what I love: teaching. So far, I've maintained buoyancy because I've adopted an attitude of submission and survival (denial), but in doing so I've compromised professional integrity and quality of life. And sharing my thoughts openly and publicly may put me at risk for reprisal, but what is the alternative? Going quietly into that good night? No, all of us need to stop doing what adjuncts do all too well: glossing over the problem, remaining anonymous, waiting silently for last minute appointments and course cancellations, and pretending we're free agents of our universities when in reality we are all bait on a hook.

Like Vojtko, I keep waiting for the guillotine, knowing full well that my life could shatter any minute if I get ill or lose affiliate status. In many ways, I am the model puppet flitting between jobs habitually and efficiently, only pausing occasionally to imagine myself a full professor in an office with windows, working on my book or waiting for the soft knock of a shy student with paper in hand for conferencing. But then I remember I have multiple courses at multiple colleges to juggle for the 3rd consecutive academic quarter for years ongoing. I am a well-oiled work addict.

The reason I am sharing my adjunct narrative is simple: I want to help break the silence of contingency and complicity. I want equal opportunity to research, publish, and teach with job security and fair pay. I am sick of living in the margins of academe. And this is not a white-collar problem; my woes are real and widespread.

I wonder how much my voice matters, but I fear cowardice more. I trust sharing my story here because I trust Hybrid Pedagogy's unwavering and un-egotistical ethos. They have created a safe place to share openly and honestly, wherein I feel insulated and empowered to talk. I value their moxy and willingness to tip the elephant in the room, and if enough of us join the conversation, here and elsewhere, our chances are greater.

Fortunately, there is a growing body of academic colleagues advocating for change and pinning their names on the unpopular Problem of Contingency in Higher Education, including Joshua Boldt,William Pannapacker,Jennifer Ruth, Karen Kelsky, the editors here at Hybrid Pedagogy, and more. We can no longer justify silence, denial, or complicity in the problem of contingency; rather, we have to work together toward an equitable solution.

It's not too ironic that I turn to bell hooks, who reminds us that "marginality [is] much more than a site of deprivation; in fact […] it is also the site of radical possibility, a space of resistance […] It offers to one the possibility of radical perspective from which to see and create, to imagine alternatives, new worlds." The new world I imagine is not radical but just; it is closer to the romantic ideal that I thought existed back when I was an undergraduate, before I realized that the corporatization of higher education has fundamentally flawed the idea of the university.

This article was originally published at Hybrid Pedagogy: A Digital Journal of Learning, Teaching, and Technology .