Have a consciousness raising, satirical, ironic, laughing, not crying, carnivalesque Campus Equity Week!
87% adjuncts at San Diego Mesa College and growing…
Here is the text of the speech I gave to kick off a week of Campus Equity Week 2017 events at San Diego Mesa College.
Adjunctification and Corporatization: How Students Became Consumers and Professors Became Precarious
“The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself.”
In 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson gave a speech, “The American Scholar,” in which he made this comment. His words represent a resistance to the idea that education should be utilitarian, a notion rooted in anti-intellectualism. Emerson saw the mind as a creative force in the universe that could aspire to ideals such as the ones enshrined in the Constitution: Justice, Peace, and Compassion, for instance. Emerson saw the pursuit of these lofty aims as the appropriate aims of the American Scholar. The scholar, in seeking to know himself and his world, elevates the entire community. Emerson’s words speak to us today as we face the corporatization of higher education.
What is adjunctification? It is an ungainly and disquieting word, a neologism that is necessary to name a process that would otherwise be seen, and, regrettably, increasingly is seen, as business as usual in higher education. I use this idiom, “business as usual,” to heighten the connection between adjunctification and the paradigmatic ideology that higher education is a business, or, more precisely, a corporation, which brings me to the other unwieldy word in the title: “corporatization.”
These words, adjunctification and corporatization, together name the decades long process that has institutionalized in higher education the ideological assumptions that the student is a customer, education is a commodity, and the aim of higher education institutions is to maximize profit and minimize cost while delivering an easily consumable product: to achieve, in corporate rhetoric, “efficiency.” This is the opposite of what the aim of higher education should be and the implications of this failure of imagination for democracy, the failure to aim high, to aspire beyond the wrongheaded notion that a student is a customer, are dire.
Corporatism is the ideology that all social relations are explainable through market relations. One of the conclusions which follows from this ideology is that market value, the “bottom line,” is ultimate. The corporatization of higher education has been the applying of the idea by legislators and administrators that public higher education should be run like a business. This is a problem because higher education as a public good is not and cannot be a business. The two are mutually exclusive, except within the faulty logic of corporatization ideology. A business sells a product and needs to balance the cost of production with profit, or the business will fail. Higher education is the public institution which, and this is the brief version, is entrusted with old knowledge, new knowledge, and with ways of making knowledge, of leading students to transform information into knowledge through critical thinking. It offers students not only knowledge of the world and the world of ideas, but also an opportunity to grow as individuals and mature into the best possible versions of themselves as free-thinking citizens, ready to participate in fulfilling the promise of democracy in America as well as fulfilling the promise of their lives. Higher education is a public good, not because it prepares students for the workforce, although it does this, but because college students, by reaching deep within to meet the challenge of learning, discover talents and skills they may not have otherwise known they have, which they then bring to the democratic community. If higher education fails, community fails. And when community fails, we have injustice and hate.
Economist Guy Standing, in his groundbreaking 2010 book, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, explains that the term “precariat,” a combination of “precarious” and the Marxist term “proletariat,” also known as the “working class,” is a new word necessary to describe contemporary labor conditions. Today, according to Standing, the proletariat has been replaced by the precariat. The proletariat had unions and job security; the precariat is an “independent contractor” and has job insecurity. To achieve maximum “efficiency,” it is necessary to have maximum “flexibility” of labor. What is the most flexible labor? One that is temporary, disposable, and exploitable. Sounds like an adjunct. The aim of corporate ideology is to make the laborer precarious, insecure and fearful, and easy to manage.
What is an adjunct professor? A member of the precariat of higher education. An adjunct is, by definition, non-essential and disposable to the mission of higher education. Roughly 75% of community college professors nationwide are adjunct: part-time, temporary. Yet, this description is a lie. Typically, adjunct faculty are rehired over and over, for many years. Why? Because they are, obviously, essential to the mission of the college. To describe them as temporary and non-essential is absurd. At Mesa College, 85% of faculty are adjunct. That means only 15% of faculty are full-time. If you are a student looking for your professor, chances are she will not have her own office, or even be on the same campus.
Most adjuncts are career academics who have devoted their lives to the public good of higher education. Without them, higher education would disintegrate. Most adjuncts always intended to be academics, to teach, or research, or perform as experts in their field of expertise. Chances are these are people whose passion is teaching. They are professionals dedicated to teaching, to making the world a better place. These dedicated professionals devote most of their lives to gaining, maintaining, and teaching their subject matter. This is what they do; it is who they are. It is a calling.
This is bad for students. Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions. The precarious nature of being adjunct oppresses the adjunct and her students. It makes her education precarious. For instance, students do not have equal access to adjunct professors who have no official, long-term relationship with the institution, in whom the institution has not fully invested. Nevertheless, enduring the unequal working conditions, adjuncts, most of whom would prefer a full-time position, most of whom would be full-time except for the dominant corporate ideology, do most of the teaching in higher education, and do it well. Their qualifications are equal, their labor is equal, their commitment is equal. But the conditions in which they labor to maintain the quality of higher education for students are unequal. Most have more than one job, but earn half what they would make if they had one full-time job. This is unjust. How is this situation equal access for students? You can’t say that it is.
The idea that the ultimate value of labor is determined by market “forces” dictates that the cost of labor should be as low as possible. Adjunctification is the making of academic labor cost as low as possible. The result for faculty is financial insecurity and the powerlessness that goes with precarity. The business model shortchanges both faculty and students. Students are not only shortchanged because they are denied access to full-time faculty; the business model also requires that students focus their study on a vocational plan. The purpose of a commodified education becomes training students to be good corporate workers as opposed to students seeking knowledge, who study in the liberal arts, which tends to liberate. Most of the traditional subjects of a liberal arts education, including math, science, and the humanities, seem to have no practical value in this paradigm. Of course, if value is cast as utilitarian, then the liberal arts doesn’t. Science perhaps, but only if it is connected to a technological development that leads to profit. But if the value of higher education is cast as what makes students able to fulfill the potential of their lives, then the deep, reflective thinking that is required to master language, math, and science, to think philosophically, to know the diverse nature of American culture, and global culture, is what higher education should be about, that is, fostering the growth of minds. In contrast, the commodification of higher education turns the mind into readily consumable fast food.
The question that remains is what do we do about this? First, we must begin by seeing that the student is not a consumer and that faculty, most of whom are precariat, need to be empowered to provide students with the learning opportunities they need to aspire to fulfill their potential. Empowering faculty will require a radical idea, one which now does not exist as a political goal, except in name. We want to fund more full-time positions. But in the current model, there will never be enough money allocated to accomplish this goal of 75% of courses taught by full-time faculty. To accomplish this will require a radical paradigm shift.
Higher education operating under the limits of a business model offers a one-dimensional paradigm. Humans, like students and faculty, are multi-dimensional beings. When market values replace public values, education is cast as a commodity, and self-interest is held as the highest good in a super-competitive, economically defined world, individual and societal potential is diminished. Faculty are underpaid because ideas are undervalued. We need a paradigm shift. We need liberation from the business model. We need to aim higher.
UCSD students made this video for a sociology course. This is the kind of work students can do to resist the adjunctification and corporatization of higher education. Students and faculty must unite in resistance.
I am one of the adjuncts interviewed.
The following “adjunct moment” is the record of an adjunct dealing with the extra bullshit that adjunct professors deal with on a day to day basis in the service of the public good. It’s not me, but it could happen to any freeway-flying adjunct, anytime, anywhere. I will point out that full-time professors do not face this bullshit, not to accuse them of anything, but to bring attention to the disparity in working conditions, which are student learning conditions. This disparity cannot be emphasized enough, in my opinion. It’s worth noting that no pedagogical changes are very likely to improve student “success” until we make radical changes in the way we hire college faculty, especially at the community college level. Community colleges are the most adjunctified corner of higher education. Until we have a new system of hiring, one that acknowledges the moral obligation of colleges to their adjunct faculty, especially the ones who have been hired multiple times, by hiring them full-time, students will face the same challenges that their adjunct professors (straight up 75% at community colleges) face. Short of hiring them full-time, which is the only moral solution, they might settle for equal pay.
I am publishing this for the adjunct professor who wrote it, who shall remain anonymous.
For your reading pleasure, a brief narrative in the spirit of the upcoming Campus Equity Week:
“The Word of the Day”
F***! is my word for the day. I just arrived at school and confirmed my worrying suspicion that I left my students’ essays in the adjunct faculty work room at Grossmont College. I searched for it in my car and my house, but I only found about 500 pages of the other 4 English Composition classes I teach. I am pissed that I left it in the office because to go get them is a REAL pain in the ass. If it were not for the integrity I have, I would tell the students that they will not have an opportunity to revise this essay that is to be submitted in a portfolio to the English department as a requisite to enter into transfer level college English. I also will have to tell them that as opposed to my declared plan for their preparation for the portfolio that I am contradicting myself and shortening their instruction (that they cannot trust me at my word).
I am sure many times this occurs and a teacher has no choice but to shorten the quality of their instruction. I am sure many of them have pangs of conscience when they relinquish under the fact that they are not prepared. I am fraught with stress and anxiety because I want to be good at what I profess. For me, teaching brings out my perfectionism, an ethical obligation to teach well. My word of the day is deeply felt in this moment!
I am sure you are thinking that I am being dramatic, that I should simply walk over to the workroom before class and retrieve the papers. I would say the same of any professor on campus, but here is the issue. Technically, while I do the very same thing a professor does for considerably less pay, I am not a full-timer not for lack of credentials or of trying. I am an adjunct, a position that does not garner an office and which is underpaid and restrictive in that each college limits the number of hours to part-time. So, to make a living professing English, composition, and the social merits of the humanistic endeavors of higher education, I teach at 3 institutions. So the word of my day is F***.
F***! I left my English 49 Essays from San Diego Mesa College in the work room at Grossmont College 20 minutes or 15 miles away by freeway.
Rather than shorting my students, I have decided to sacrifice my sanity. It is no question that I will be on the freeway for 40 minutes, plus 20 minutes of running from office to car and car to office. One hour of my day and 5 dollars of gas, to fetch papers. However, it in not merely the fetching that is causing such problems. I had planned to be grading during that hour, and I had arrived 2 hours early to grade those very essays before my 11:00AM English 205 Critical Thinking Class and to continue grading after my 205 class at 12:35 and before my 4:00pm 101 class, so I can deliver them to the 6:35pm English 49 class. In the bag was another class’s essays that I need to read by tomorrow.
All in all when I arrived to school today and realized that I was having an “adjunct moment,” I thought about the consequences of not having one office and one campus to work at. If I was full-time, none of this would have happened, and my classes would not suffer. But, having multiple campus workrooms creates opportunities for one to get mixed with the other. I have never lost any papers, but I have heard of other instructors losing some. I immediate can sympathize with them because of the way my car trunk looks with student papers. For the majority faculty, at least in English, our car trunks are the closest filing cabinet for our work.
F***! This little “adjunct moment,” really pisses me off because most who read this will not understand that the problem is endemic and that it hurts instructors and students regularly. Underpaid, restricted, disunited faculty working out of the trunks of their cars to turn Americans into citizens capable of participating effectively in the economy and politics is a laughable indignity, as Aristotle would classify this comedy that we call “Higher Education.”
Any ;adjuncts out there who have any experiences you want me to share and who want to remain anonymous, I’m very happy to oblige. It’s high time we get real.
One of several speakers at the Mesa College May Day rally 2017, on a beautiful day in San Diego, here I am speaking to about 100-150 faculty and students about “Adjuncts, Academic Freedom, and the Corporatization of Higher Education.” The video starts a few seconds late. My first words were “Happy May Day. Resist hate. Resist injustice” The text is in my previous post.
Adjuncts, Academic Freedom, and the Corporatization of Higher Education
Corporatization is a feature of the ideology that all social relations are explainable through market relations. One of the conclusions which follows from this ideology is that market value, the “bottom line,” is ultimate. The corporatization of higher education has been the applying of the idea that public higher education should be run like a business. This is a problem because higher education is not and cannot be a business. The two are mutually exclusive, except within the faulty logic of corporatization. A business sells a product and needs to balance the cost of production with profit, or the business will fail. Higher education is the public institution which, and this is the brief version, is entrusted with old knowledge, new knowledge, and with ways of making knowledge. It offers students not only knowledge of the world and the world of ideas, but also an opportunity to grow as individuals and mature into the best possible versions of themselves as free-thinking citizens, ready to participate in fulfilling the promise of democracy as well as fulfilling the promise of their lives. Higher education is a public good, not because it prepares students for the workforce, although it does this, but because college students, by reaching deep within to meet the challenge of learning, discover talents and skills they may not have otherwise known they have, which they then bring to the democratic community. If higher education fails, community fails. And when community fails, we have injustice and hate.
Critiquing the corporatization of higher education is not a new thing; many have written about it at least since the ‘90s, but, given the current political climate, it never has been more important to talk about it. The first step in the implementation of a corporatization ideology is to make working conditions precarious, that is, to make workers insecure, easier to exploit, and to weaken or destroy workers’ unions. In higher education, this first step in the process has been adjunctification, a way to end tenure by not hiring professors for tenure-track positions, and to over-rely on part-time professors. The over-reliance on adjuncts has been increasing now for decades. Today, 75% of college faculty are part-time adjuncts, the reverse of what was once intended. I often describe adjunctification as tenure leaving by the back door. No one sees it going, and then it’s gone. Everyone wonders where it went. And with it goes academic freedom, because tenure is the only real protection for academic freedom. Today, only 25% of faculty have tenure and secure academic freedom. We are getting precariously close to not having tenure or full-time faculty.
Union protection of academic freedom depends largely on union protection of tenure. Adjunctification, to be clear, is the effective end of tenure. Adjuncts don’t have tenure and so lack academic freedom. Even when adjuncts belong to a union that is active in protecting academic freedom, like ours, adjuncts’ academic freedom is not equal to tenured academic freedom. Since adjuncts are hired only for one semester, and they must receive a new contract each semester; their academic freedom depends on the commitment to academic freedom of those who have the power to not rehire them. In other words, adjuncts don’t possess academic freedom, at least not full and secure academic freedom.
Faculty academic freedom is student academic freedom, just like faculty working conditions are student learning conditions. The oppressive nature of being adjunct oppresses the adjunct and her students. For instance, students do not have equal access to adjunct professors who have no official, long-term relationship with the institution, in whom the institution has not fully invested. Nevertheless, enduring the unequal working conditions, adjuncts, most of whom would prefer a full-time position, do most of the teaching in higher education, and do it well. But the conditions in which they labor to maintain the quality of higher education for students are oppressive. Most have more than one job, but make half what they would make if they had one full-time job. This is unjust. The idea that the market value is the ultimate value of labor dictates that the cost of labor should be as low as possible. This shortchanges both faculty and students.
In a few weeks, adjuncts, the 75% majority of faculty, will be unemployed, not on summer break like full-time faculty, but jobless. This is what precarious working conditions look like. We are obviously needed because we are hired again and again. Many people, when they understand the situation, ask, why don’t they just hire you full-time? Good question. No one has a good answer. But we could start with equal pay for equal work.
What would be best for students?
The answer is not Betsy DeVos, the new education secretary, who specifically took aim at adjuncts in comments she made to students attending the Conservative Political Action Conference: “The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think. They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community.” I don’t know any faculty who said exactly that. She exhorted the students to “fight against the education establishment.” She was calling, in other words, for an attack on academic freedom. Adjuncts, 75% of the higher education faculty, precarious, underpaid, serially unemployed, are named because she realizes that if the majority can be intimidated, the tenured minority, who have an empowered position within the institution, will be weakened. The new regime in Washington, with a corporatization-oriented cabinet, will seek to use this weak link to undermine academic freedom further and to make academic laborers even more precarious. We cannot let that happen. Faculty, adjuncts and tenured, need to stand together with students as community to resist the corporatization of higher education, to resist injustice, to resist hate.
Let us celebrate May Day, and recognize the contributions of workers to the economy and to society. After all, we are the majority.
The neoliberal agenda is upon us. Of course, it arrived early in higher education. It looks like adjunctification, the “dirty little secret” that we are all complicit in hiding, which not only shortchanges students, but, most significantly, fragments faculty unity at perhaps the worst time in living memory. If, and many say when, fair share dues are lost, teacher union voices will be stifled.
This is not an accident. The neoliberal playbook calls for disempowering the worker in the name of efficiency, and this process begins with job insecurity. In higher education, this has happened by replacing tenure-track positions with adjunct positions. Community college faculty, especially, have been adjunctified. The overt corporate takeover of the nation, fast becoming normalized, what I refer to as administration #45, is poised to charge ahead with policies intended to end public higher education as a common good.
Resistance on May Day is a beginning. Now, more than ever, we need to prioritize resistance to adjunctification. It is the linchpin in the Neoliberal strategy to undercut union power and be free to privatize and pillage the institution, by producing citizens who think critically, that is most a threat to its agenda.
Here, in recognition of May Day actions everywhere, is a post I wrote for May Day in 2014.
NAWD at San Diego Mesa College this year had an expansive theme. The college president, a board member, and the president of the academic senate all spoke to adjunctification as well as the need to protect DACA students, and resist the hate emanating from the insane clown presidency. The intrepid Geoff Johnson kicked off the event, pointing out the ongoing human cost of the exploitation of adjunct faculty, emphasizing the cost to students, that 60% of adjuncts are women, and that many adjuncts live impoverished lives. Students were engaged and informed. The fight goes on.
A Cry for Help?!
Martyr me! Martyr me!
Put me on a cross!
Send me to the trailer park (The English Village*),
Put me in an abandoned chem lab!
I’ll work for free!
I’ll read papers ‘til my eyes bleed!
I’ll make the same comments on every paper!
Some will be positive!
I’ll turn papers into data and run them through the scantron machine!
I’ll teach comp online!
Martyr me! Martyr me!
Put me on a cross!
Put me on a cross!
For student learning outcomes,
*The “English Village” is the new name given to a collection of old trailer-classrooms formerly named the “T-buildings:” “T” for temporary. Unlike authentic English villages, like in England, this one does not have a pub.
On this campus, as on many other campuses, new buildings have been going up non-stop for over a decade. As state of the art LEED certified buildings, swank, sexy structures, with water-friendly landscaping, go up for all non-humanities disciplines, the English department gets trailers with faulty cooling systems that cool to a certain temperature, then heat to a certain temperature in a perpetual cycle that never ends. This, even with the best efforts of a hard working, sympathetic dean. In contrast, there’s a new math and science building that’s huge and domineering; there’s a social sciences building that’s real sexy; coming soon are a new student center and bookstore as well as (no kidding) an “Exercise Science” building (a state of the art gym). I’ve been informed, by one who knows, that these last two buildings do not have any classrooms.
It is true that the first new structure was the School of Humanities building; yet, it is also the one with the fewest classrooms that is supposed to house the English department (right, the biggest department on campus, with the greatest need for classrooms) as well as all the other languages and humanities’ disciplines. English classes largely are taught in the English Village trailers (to be fair, these have been made “smart”) as well as abandoned, slated-to-be-demolished chemistry buildings. And other random places. This, to me, signals the adjunctification of the humanities; perhaps especially English as a discipline that is about art rather than the language skills necessary for what novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson has called a “life of economic servitude.” English is the most adjunctified of all disciplines. Not only are most introductory and transfer level English courses taught by adjuncts, but they are taught in places that are relics of the 20th century. Or in borrowed spaces of the 21st century.
The abandoned chemistry labs in which we teach English are replete with gas hookups and emergency eye-wash stations; after all, one never knows what one might read in a freshman comp class. Eye wash stations could be useful.
The humanities have been adjunctified. The other day I overheard a tenured business professor (!) who was running quizzes through a scantron commenting to an adjunct working in a general workroom space (where else is she going to work?) that soon there would be a program to grade papers and so “they” would not even have to grade papers anymore. And, I suppose, students will no longer have to write them, as they hang out at the swanky student center, doing whatever it is they’ve been instructed to do (not writing).
The faculty mostly has been adjunctified and the humanities have been and are continuing to be diminished in importance. So why are we complicit in the adjunctification of higher education, the institution, the ideal for which we became deeply indebted to serve? It’s been happening for a generation or two; where will it end?
It seems like it will end one day, as has been prophesied by many now for years, as a thing different from what it has been. Rather than an institution that supports the development of knowledge and moral acumen, for most, it will be job training. In this scenario, there is no “higher” education, except, perhaps, for the wealthy elite. And, as much as we might wish it is not happening, we are indeed passively playing our role in the unfolding of the story of the adjunctification of faculty and the diminishment of the humanities.
The cult of martyrdom, the idea of self-sacrifice that seems to pervade the ranks of teachers from all levels of education, facilitates the adjuctification and corporatization, the transmogrification of colleges into corporate diploma mills. Our attitudes of martyrdom doom us to complicity with our undoing. One of the key ways that faculty have been adjunctified so that now roughly 75% are off the tenure-track is the exploitation of our willingness to sacrifice ourselves, to work for free. We feel noble (a psychological wage) that we are engaged in good work (and it is good work, perhaps even “right work” in the Buddhist sense). But this leads to the rationalization that we must sacrifice, that sacrifice is needed because the philistine legislators do not fund us, that sacrifice is needed because students need so much, that sacrifice makes us good people. Ironically, it gives us a sense of fulfillment. When called on to take action to save ourselves, our common rationalization is we don’t have time: “my focus is on my students.” We embrace our cult of martyrdom.
And college administrators exploit our martyr-hood. Adjuncts work without job security or decent pay. Tenure-track work to keep what they have. We all work because we want to do our best for our students and we see no end to the need for our work. We work u until we drop, whether we’re paid for it or not. Who does not grade all the essays in a timely fashion? The fact that we’re so busy staying up all night working to the point of martyrdom kept us and keeps us from resisting, for instance, the inexorable creep of adjunctification.
I’m not suggesting that we do less good work, that we fail to serve students justly. But unless we can come to the realization that our sense of martyrdom, especially the martyrdom of adjuncts, is leaving us open to exploitation by (b)adminsitration that wants to finish the story and corporatize higher education completely, we will become the future corporation of higher education, public or not. Adjuncts will be sacrificed, replaced by massive online courses taught by the few faculty (of some description) left. And students will not be served. Nor will democracy in an age of perpetual media white noise.
The martyr syndrome is not the only cultural narrative that accommodates the exploitation of faculty. The no money lie contributes. So does the tenure is a cushy job for life narrative. And freeway flyers are just plain busy, scrambling for the next meal, trying to survive the crisis. But the cult of the martyr is within us.
How do we exorcise this demon, the cult of the martyr, that is within us?
Update fall 2016:
This fall semester, I was assigned a room in an abandoned physics building (a decent room, relatively speaking), but, in a summertime room boondoggle involving a secretary and a lifeguard, the room was reassigned to the lifeguard instructor, who needed the room for the days when it rains in drought-ridden San Diego and his class can’t meet at the pool. Meanwhile, my class was moved to an adjacent, smaller, and pedagogically unsound room (for composition), without any consultation with the English department assistant chair, who is responsible for room assignment. He is not pleased. What will happen? I don’t know.
I’m posting the latest from mixinminao (Geoff Johnson) because he is having some technical difficulties with his computer. Here is the hardest working activist in America’s latest post:
Most of you reading this are serious adjunct/contingent activists who are all too aware of how damaging adjunct working conditions are to your life economically, physically, emotionally, psychically. . . and I could go on. You may also be aware of how it hurts students, the institution, and contract/full-time employees as well. You may also be aware that people have written about this at length and that in the face of it, movement on much of the issue has been, with but a few exceptions, glacial at best.
Part of this is because every time we broach the issue on our campuses during activist events like Campus Equity Week or Adjunct Action Day, we spend more time having to tell students what an adjunct is, than being able to get students to actively work towards the reduction of adjunct instruction, and the betterment of adjunct working conditions.
At the beginning of every term, I ask the students in my classes on the first day how many of them know what an “adjunct” (what I choose to call myself) is. Because of the heightened activism on my local campuses, I will now be lucky if I can get three or more students out of a class of 30 who can tell me; and I, unlike 90% of my colleagues actually ask my students about the term. Most teachers, maybe think that to ask and answer such a question is “whining.” What this effectively means is that these adjunct instructors have decided that these work conditions, as injurious as they are to not only to the students, the institution, and society, are really about themselves. In other words, these adjuncts internalize their exploitation and put on the “brave face” to make their teaching appear “seamless” in quality comparison with the full-time instructor. It’s as if students shouldn’t know that, unlike the full-time instructor:
The fact of the matter is that it is and should be our job to inform students of these realities. Contrary to what many may believe, it’s not as if students are going to flee from your classes in droves. Many students are tied to your classes because of their own tight schedules, and because so many of us teach at peak times with classes that are already impacted. Many students have no choice but to take your classes, so do the right thing, tell them, prepare them. Make it clear that you will do your best to provide that student with a quality education, but that the institution creates barriers and limits generally unseen, but nonetheless there.
At the same time, there is another problem, and many instructors particularly at the community college level can attest to this: many of our students are themselves working effectively as adjunct or contingent labor. Even when students are informed about the adjunct situation, many of them will feel to a degree more resentful than sympathetic, and when one starts talking to students about this, it’s easy to understand why.
Few if any students have the stable, 40 hour-week-job (and if they’re students, it’s often better they don’t). The bigger problem though is that many work at jobs for which full-time or stable employment is not an option. In order to avoid having to provide insurance for their employees, or in some cases, to simply keep them “hungry for hours,” businesses will purposefully under-employ students who are also underpaid with respect to being able to cover basic needs. Further, these jobs will lack any kind of security. Even at better businesses which will provide an elite few workers full-time employment and benefits, there is a sort of two-tier-ification going on in which the vast majority will work the part-time, underpaid, no benefit job (sound familiar adjuncts?)
For some students, the jobs they work aren’t even jobs, but rather “gigs”. All hail the rise of the “independent contractor” who works for outfits like Uber and Lyft. These ‘contractors” are our students, and they quite often get paid worse than us and treated even more shabbily.
Now I can hear some adjuncts say, “…but they’re students,” and/or “these are transitional jobs.” To them I say, “You need to talk to your students.” Many of them have been doing this for years, and many may finish with degrees and still find themselves doing such work for a time. I would also say you need to look at the world beyond yourself. The term “starving students” used to be more of a figurative than literal statement. Recent reports show that up to 10% of students in the CSU or California State University system are homeless. This is the largest four-year system in the country, with over 300,000 students. We’re talking about 30,000 people with lives and aspirations and families in just one state school system. And I’m not including the one in five have food security issues.
And yes, there are homeless adjuncts in California, but 30,000? Do one in five California adjuncts have food security issues?
To reach these students, we need to ask for more than understanding. We need to show empathy, and we need to show that we care about their lives, not just as students in our classrooms, but as people, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, and the very future of our nation.
And this all ties back to labor contingency. A main contributor to the problems associated with the record income and wealth inequity in this country is that labor contingency which we all know too well in academia is exploding in the general workforce. In a recent report given on the NPR program Marketplace, it was stated that up to 35% of the nation’s workforce is contingent labor with it expected to rise to 65-70% in the coming decades if unabated. When people wonder why, in spite of falling employment wages have not risen, here’s one of their answers as to why.
In some respects, I would argue that labor contingency is potentially as serious and destabilizing a force as global warming. Funny, but if people actually thought of it in those terms, would we have to waste our time as activists telling students “what an adjunct is”?
In short you need to make your students SEE your situation, and you need to SEE theirs. To truly make any progress on the adjunct/contingent front, we need to do it from the beginning. See this task for what it is: a moral, social, and yes a PROFESSIONAL obligation.