Why is it that we, the lucky ones, try so hard to divorce ourselves from those who have not had the same breaks? Why do we, the tenured ones, look away when we see adjuncts grading papers while sitting in a stairwell? Why do we, the lordly observers, think of ourselves as the master teachers when sitting in on the class of a part-timer who may be teaching at two other schools—and whose sense of our students is probably better than our own? Why do we, with our lovely PhDs, think of ourselves as having “earned” something those poor contingent hires could not—forgetting that our degrees are also a gift from those who financed our schooling and that quite a few of these others also have doctorates? Why do we forget what Phil Ochs tried to teach us so many years ago: “There but for fortune/Go you or I.”
When I decided to go to grad school back in the late 1970s, I thought long and hard. I had grown up in an academic household, my father something of an academic gypsy (he had taught at eight colleges by the time I graduated from high school). I knew that the likelihood of my ever finding a permanent academic job was small. But I wanted to read, and I was tired of reading on my own. Unlike most of my fellow students, I had no illusions: On defending my dissertation, I entered Peace Corps, where I spent two years teaching African farmers how to use oxen for plowing—developing skills every bit as useful to making a living back home as those of my graduate education.
But I was lucky. Chance led me back to academia over a decade later—as an adjunct—and an email from a British scholar led to my first publication since a chapter of my dissertation had appeared, years before. Then, I stumbled into a full-time contingent position, renewed once. Next, lo and behold!, I was on the tenure track somewhere else.
That ‘somewhere else’ was a school where I had taught part-time a few years earlier. When I was on campus for my interview with the president, I ran across an adjunct I had known. She asked why I was back. When I told her, she responded, “Why you?”
Contingent faculty are beginning to organize; it is up to the rest of us to support them, even to bring them into our own unions or make our unions work hand-in-glove with theirs. We need to support them not with the condescending attitudes many of us exhibit toward them, but as colleagues—as teachers as important as we are, as scholars whose output, when it doesn’t equal ours, only flags because we have institutional support and they do not.
Though we might like to imagine it otherwise, an adjunct is just as important to the university as the fullest of full professors—the adjunct simply has never been in a position to show it or to get the rewards and awards we tenured folk shower on each other.
A lot of this comes from the institutions but a part comes from how we permanent faculty treat the adjuncts and contingent hires in our own departments. And that is something we can change without cost to ourselves. See an adjunct grading on the stairs? Sit down with him or her for a moment—long enough, perhaps, for an administrator to see you there. If your department has an adjunct office, spend some time within and talk. Lobby for better office space for them, arguing that our students deserve teachers who don’t have to meet them in corners of the student union. See that your Chair sends an invitation to part-timers to join departmental meetings and committees, making a commitment that their voices will be heard (and pressure your dean to find a way for them to be paid for the work they will take on for the committees).
Treat them as colleagues and equals.
The movement for the rights of contingent hires will never succeed until permanent faculty stop seeing these “others” as others, as a class beneath them, as qualified only to teach introductory courses, as warm bodies only and not as contributors to the life of the mind that we so grandly imagine for ourselves.
Few of us tenured professors are the master teachers of our own imagination. There are adjuncts who do much better jobs in the classroom than any of us, and who are qualified to teach even our most advanced courses. Few of us tenured professors have had to struggle the way contingent hires do, yet there are, among them, people whose writing and research is the equal of any of ours—and that is done in nearly impossible situations. We have it easy; they have it tough.
What right does that give us to act as though we are better than they are?
The one real way to counter the increased reliance on adjuncts and other contingent hires is to help make their work situations livable and financially viable. once adjuncts are paid enough and given benefits enough, institutions will not be able to use the financial argument, that it is so much cheaper to rely on adjuncts. Then, we will be able to argue for more frequent conversion into permanent full-time lines. That will be good for everyone, for it will spread service responsibilities further, relieving the stress on permanent faculty at least to a degree. Helping contingent faculty is helping ourselves.
In addition, if we begin to treat the adjuncts in our institutions as our equals, we will begin to find a power in numbers that we now lack. Administrations have hacked away so at permanent positions that the faculty (in the old sense) has little power. By joining hands with our contingent colleagues, we can begin to regain that power.
Let’s do it.