Here on this blog, I’m probably preaching to the choir when I write that the working conditions and wages of a majority of adjunct faculty in higher education are truly shameful: they—we, for I am one, too—often work without offices, without access to office support or supplies, without safe and private places to meet students, without teaching materials, healthcare, benefits, and hope of ever achieving a even a secure, let alone tenured, position. Or maybe we have an overabundance of the latter.
I can think of only one other reason why so many of us have failed to speak in public about the conditions we’re forced to work under, how hard we work, and how little we work for: we fear losing what little we have in our precarity. And for many adjunct faculty, it’s also embarrassing to be so highly educated yet unable to support ourselves. It’s embarrassing to be reliant upon relatives for loans and handouts and “the kindness of strangers” in the form of food stamps, unemployment, and Medicaid—if we can get them. And so we remain silent. This shame seems entirely misplaced to me, as pernicious and self-defeating as being forced to hide one’s sexual identity. So I’m purposefully and respectfully borrowing the language of the outspoken LGBTQ community to urge my fellow adjuncts to end their silence and “come out” to their students, friends, relatives, to everyone, as adjunct faculty members and tell them exactly what that means.
On my first day of classes, I always do two things: I introduce myself by giving my students my educational background and I make sure to tell them that I am an adjunct professor/lecturer/instructor and explain what that means to them in terms of my availability—and in terms of salary. I also make sure they know that the majority of their professors are just like me. And I leave them with a question: what, exactly, is your tuition paying for, if it’s not our salaries? I do this because the makeup of the professoriate has, as we all know, changed drastically since I was an undergraduate in the late 1970s/early 1980s, but the assumptions students make about who is educating them and how they do it are the same ones I had then—though they no longer ring true.
As an undergraduate, I expected my professors to have office hours I could drop into to talk about a paper, about something I didn’t understand in class, about shaping my academic career, about going abroad, about, in short, being a student and everything that means. I had some wonderful, long conversations with my professors about books, travel, graduate school, poetry, and teaching, several of which were truly formative. They’re the same kinds of conversations I’d like to have with my students, and they expect that opportunity of me. But in at least one institution at which I’ve recently taught, I not only had no office, but I was still expected to “be available” (as my contract explicitly stated) in the hallway outside the classroom for a half-hour before and after each class. In another institution where I currently teach, I share a large office of 5 desks with 25 other adjuncts on a rotating basis, with not even a cubicle divider between us for an illusion of privacy. Who wants to talk to their professor under those kinds of conditions? Especially not to tell her some embarrassing story about how you had to move into a shelter over the weekend to get away from your boyfriend, and that’s why your paper is late (true story).
The reason I tell my mostly freshman students (and anyone else who will listen) about the existence of adjunct faculty and what it means for them is that I feel I owe them that much honesty, as an educator and as a member of two unions and officer in one local. Caprice Lawless asserts that, unless we speak up about how we are treated, we’re teaching our students that “they will never see their administrators either, and, should one appear, it is likely time to worry. We model for them not to expect too much, once you graduate, from anyone in leadership, for leadership is in a class of its own making and is self-serving.” What we don’t teach them by remaining silent is to be leaders themselves, to speak up against workplace exploitation or other wrongs, to—as Gandhi infamously did not say, but insinuated—be the change they want to see in the world. We may, in fact, even help blind them to the need for change. Worse, perhaps, is that we teach them to be afraid of change, afraid of the power of their own voices.
This inability to speak up has a number of consequences, not just for adjuncts who feel they themselves are powerless. If we ourselves cannot speak about personally experienced inequity, how can we honestly speak about wage inequity and injustice for other workers, from home healthcare aids to Walmart “sales associates” to fast food workers? Indeed, we have no right to ask our students to listen to those voices, when ours are silent. As Lawless asks, whenever we are silent in our students’ presence about our working conditions while teaching them “to recognize cries for justice in essays they study, do those cries fall on deaf ears? Are we are teaching them to be numb to human suffering?” If nothing else, we are teaching them a brand of hypocrisy, that one kind of suffering is worth listening to and speaking about, and another is not.
As an educator in English, part of my job description is to help my students develop critical thinking skills—to fine-tune their BS detectors, and teach them to distinguish not just fact from fiction but truth from advertising and propaganda, to ferret out and recognize biases, including their own. If we cannot act on our own admonitions to look beneath the surface of what is presented and critique our own working conditions, that too is hypocrisy. Whom are we serving by whitewashing the terms of our employment; by staying silent; by pretending one of those two new tenure-track jobs might be ours? Not ourselves, certainly, and not our students. And what, really, do we have to be ashamed of?
Speaking out openly and fearlessly is also something of its own protection. We are exercising our right to free speech and academic freedom to speak about our working conditions and the more publicly and loudly we speak, the harder it is for us to be punished for it without the punishers seeming both petty and guilty—and opening themselves to an increasing number of lawsuits against such retaliation. The more of us do it, the more impossible it is to fire us all.
So, taking a cue from my CUNY colleagues, I’ve made a boilerplate addition to my syllabi informing students that this class (whatever it is) is taught by an adjunct and including a short statement about what that means on the class blog or Facebook page I create for each section of each course, as required reading for their first day’s homework. The first few times I did this, students were surprised, confused, and then, as we discussed adjunct life in class, angry. Now, thanks to the work NFM has been doing (highlighted here soon) and the growing number of adjuncts who are speaking out, students are much better informed about the existence and role of adjuncts.
But they’re not nearly angry enough.
My experience in revealing the state of adjunct employment to my students has convinced me that this is not only the right thing to do, but a necessity. If we want to make allies among our students and their parents—and to save Higher Ed, I believe that’s essential—we have to incite enough anger for them to demand change with us. And that won’t happen if so many of us continue to indulge in the magical thinking that we are the special snowflake who will get the tenure-track job if only we keep our mouth shut.