Haber points out one of the problems I have noticed when it comes to the discussion of labor issues in academia: academics (particularly in the humanities) love to talk about language. I have personally witnessed several conversations – on a variety of topics – get derailed because academics wanted to focus on the language being used: Was that an appropriate metaphor? Have you considered the implications attached to the etymology of a word you used? Are you aware of the privilege inherent in the discourse being employed? Have you read [Important Work] that discusses this very topic?* I have sat through far too many meetings where the discussion of an issue was side-tracked by redirecting our focus on the language being used.
This is understandable, and sometimes even laudable. Academics in the humanities are taught early on that the language we use is important, that language is power, that language properly used can change the world. These are positions I believe wholeheartedly, and teach in all of my classes. I’ll make this clear: language is powerful.
But I also want to make this clear: language is not a substitute for action. And sometimes, when you get lost in the minutiae of the language being used, you lose sight of the big picture.
Some years ago, when I was working for UPS, I went on strike. Admittedly, I was torn about this strike, but when the union voted to strike, we all banded together and went on strike. This meant that we marched a picket line. We got up every morning and put our bodies between the warehouses and the roads, in an effort to force change through action. And the lesson I learned is that, for all the power of language, sometimes you have to become involved. Sometimes, you have to put away the thesaurus, close the book, and do something.
Haber makes a dire prediction, which I will quote in full: “And while we’re having all these wonderful thinky discussions that simultaneously provide a forum for our erudition, higher ed administrators are gutting liberal arts and hunting around for other teachers to fire until every last American institution of higher education is an engineering school taught by MOOCs. Until it costs half a million to put a kid through a college from which, after six or seven years, he or she will emerge barely able to write a sentence in English.” He’s certainly not the first to predict such a grim future for academia. And I suspect he will be far from the last. And I doubt I could find an academic who is not to some degree concerned about the future of universities. And of the problems – one of the ways that the liberal arts are being gutted – is by replacing tenure-track faculty with an army of over-worked, under-paid adjuncts who do not enjoy the same degree of academic freedom and participation in governance as their tenure-track peers. (To give but one local example, the interim president at SUNY Potsdam has asked for the creation of new academic programs, but will not create any new tenure-track lines to staff those programs. All new programs are to be run on “existing resources,” which means that new programs – which include new courses, as well as new administrative needs – will not be funded. “Existing resources” is code for “hire as many adjuncts as you need, because you won’t be getting any tenure-track faculty.” So those faculty on whose backs these new programs will be built will not enjoy the same support and opportunities as their colleagues.)
So what do we do?
In an earlier post, I asked for advice on how we – and by “we” I mean all academics, but in particular those of us who enjoy the security of tenure and seniority, as well as those in positions of power at their respective universities – can act to address labor inequities in the academic workforce. And since then, I have been contacted by a variety of academic professionals – from administrators to teaching faculty, current teachers as well as retired teachers, and concerned students** – who have offered advice and support. The advice given below is distilled from those many conversations.
David Perry recently wrote an article on “How to Talk to Adjuncts (in you’re tenured),” a follow-up piece to an earlier article for men about how to talk like a feminist. There’s an important lesson to be learned from both of them: how we talk to and about our colleagues is important. That said, talking is simply not enough. When I was an adjunct, I appreciated that some of my tenure-track colleagues included me in the conversation, spoke to me in the halls, and generally acknowledged that I existed in their world. However, none of that mattered when my classes were canceled at the last minute, when my sections were swapped (also at the last minute), or when it was suggested that students were not learning how to write because the adjuncts were terrible teachers.***
Perry’s advice is useful. But at some point, you come to the realization that – as one of my mentors liked to note during graduate student orientations – “don’t be a dick.” Honestly, it’s not hard to talk to adjuncts – or anyone else, for that matter – when you realize that they are people. How should you talk to other people? How much respect will you give to other people in any conversational setting? Regardless of profession, contract status, etc., just don’t be a dick to other people. You’ll be surprised how far that gets you.
OK, so I promised some advice. Here it is:
Since none of us can solve the problems single-handedly, we have to work together. All of us. Faculty, administration, students. All of us. The vast majority of people I have spoken to have noted that this has to be a group effort. It means putting aside petty disputes, old arguments, and the like. It means reaching out to people. It means being willing to do the leg work, to put your other plans on hold, and even to (potentially) make enemies.^ But most importantly, it means not losing sight of the big picture. And if that means you have to swallow it when someone uses the wrong metaphor, or misspeaks, or isn’t up to speed with the relevant scholarship, then you swallow it.
Similarly, because none of us can solve the problems in the system with any one action, it means we have to work to clean up our own houses. We might not be able to make top-down changes, so that leaves us with bottom-up action. One thing you can do is to look to your own department, and ask the following questions: Are the adjuncts encouraged (or even allowed^^) to attend department meetings? Are the adjuncts allowed to participate in department governance (serving on committees, voting on all department matters)? Are the adjuncts given the same freedoms as tenure-track faculty when it comes to course design and issues of academic freedom? Are adjuncts included in department social functions, professional development opportunities (including available funding), and other such opportunities that are regularly provided to tenure-track faculty? If the answer to any of these questions is no, what are you doing to change that? Also, what are the working conditions for adjuncts? How are resources distributed? How is office space assigned? (When I was an adjunct at Eastern Connecticut State University, adjuncts in the English Department did not have office space; we were permitted to use one of the university’s lounge areas in another building, but we all had to share that space, an open space with few desks, no storage, and one computer. In my current department, some adjuncts share office space, but the department chair has two offices.)
The same questions apply to the faculty senate. Are adjuncts allowed/encouraged to participate fully on university committees? Vote on faculty senate actions? Serve in the same governance capacities as tenure-track faculty? When faculty are asked to serve on administrative search committees, which faculty are allowed to serve? Which faculty are encouraged to participate?
There is also a point that came up more than once: some adjuncts faculty are happy with their situation. Some faculty only want to work part-time, for a variety of reasons. One very important point that came up is that not all adjuncts face the same problems, require the same solutions, or have the same needs. In the SUNY system, for instance, there are several kinds of non-tenure-track contracts, each of which presents it’s own problems, and requires it’s own solutions. Many of the adjuncts I have spoken with reminded me that we cannot solve all of these problems with the same solution.^^^
This brings us back to David Perry, and a suggestion I have for his list: shut up and listen. Talk with adjuncts. Talk with everyone involved. And when you do, fight the urge to speak. Listen. Hear them.
And then act.
We can do better. And if we really believe in the academic mission, we are going to have to.
*Academics in the humanities simply love giving each other homework.
**I should post about this later on, but yes, I want us to consider students as academic professionals. I won’t bore you with the details of my reasoning here, but let’s start thinking about how students and faculty are allies, and in many ways are engaged in the same pursuits with the same goals. That one group pays tuition and the other group collects a paycheck is not really relevant, in the long run.
***The first happened more often than I care to count. The second happened twice. The third only happened once. The first two forced me to make on-the-spot changes to my budget. The third made me realize that, for all the friendly hallway conversations, there would always be the belief that contract status is a marker of professional effectiveness and value. Always.
^Yes, that might happen. But that’s another post for another day.
^^Yes, there are some departments, at some universities, that prohibit adjuncts from attending meetings. Others subtly suggest to adjuncts that they don’t belong (maybe adjuncts are scheduled classes during meeting times, to free up the tenure-track faculty; or maybe they are told they don’t have to attend, because they are not contractually obligated to do so; or maybe they are told that tenure-track faculty are protecting them).
^^^That said, I know very few adjuncts who are over-paid and under-worked. A living wage and reasonable working conditions should be the baseline for all working professionals.