Organizing Adjuncts and Wikipedia

This is a guest post by Victoria Scott, an art historian with considerable experience as an adjunct faculty member.


Dimidium facti qui coepit habet: sapere aude, incipe.

(Half done, she who hath begun: Dare to be wise, begin.)

Horace, First Book of Epistles


The two biggest obstacles to organizing scholars—graduate students, adjuncts, and tenured professors are: 1) lack of statistics, and 2) lack of institutional transparency. We just do not know how many people there are out there, and universities do not make it easy for people who want to organize scholars to find out. If we want to turn the situation around we need to begin collecting those statistics (to count everyone!), and also, insisting that colleges and universities be more transparent. Wikipedia and Wikidata could help us achieve these related goals.

The lack of statistics about part time faculty is not an accident. The government purposefully stopped collecting statistics about part-time professors in 2003.[1] Collecting statistics should not be left to administrations or governments, however, as they obviously have their own agendas. Collecting statistics should also be the domain of unions, associations, and professional organizations that represent students, teachers, and professors. As citizens we should be vigilant about keeping and updated those numbers, and making sure they are available to the general public.

It is exactly the working conditions of adjuncts and other part-time faculty that make them hard to organize. Exactly because they often have no offices, exactly because they are not always listed on the website, exactly because they commute long distances to teach at three of four colleges and universities, exactly because their presence and work is erased from campuses everywhere, exactly because they hardly have time to breath, let alone complain about how bad their working conditions are, that they are hard, indeed impossible to organize. And even if one were able to organize them, what union would they join, as different colleges and universities are represented by different unions. If they teach at three different universities, does that mean they would have to pay dues at three different unions?[2] These are serious problems and if we want to change the current situation we need to address them creatively and aggressively. Unbelievably, sometimes departments themselves do know how many adjuncts they have hired. We need to develop a way to make adjuncts visible, to makes their work visible, in a way that is not in the control of the departments or the institutions that they work for. We need to put the power back in the hands of adjuncts themselves.

My proposal is that we create Wikipedia articles and/or pages for every department and every scholar in every college in the US (I would like to make it a global effort eventually, but we can start with the US). And these articles would be updated by the adjuncts and departments—all the departments—they work for. Each adjunct would also have their own page, where their contracts, papers, books, courses taught, and presentations etc. could be listed. That would not just provide them with visibility that they control, but the pages could also be connected to Wikidata. That way we could collect statistics from every department about, for example, the number of grad students they employ, the number of adjuncts, the number of tenure track, and also tenured professors, cross-listed also by race, gender, and nationality. It would be in the interests of all parties concerned to keep the information accurate and updated.

Think how useful this kind of information would be for students and families choosing schools, and also for students deciding on a major. One of the things I like most about this idea is that it recognizes the status of adjuncts as scholars, and gives them real presence, and second it puts the power back in their hands. It would also increase the transparency of colleges and universities enormously, and it would enable adjuncts to find out who their colleagues are, which could make it easier to organize locally.

Before I explain further, I must emphasize that Wikipedia is not as nice as everyone thinks. Wikipedia is not neutral grounds by any stretch of the imagination. Not only do paid hacks regularly contribute to or interfere with the production of content, 90% of Wikipedia editors are male. Moreover, Wikipedia is actually suing the NSA now for mass surveillance of its users’ data.[3] So, when it is all said and done, in many ways, Wikipedia is a hostile environment for this kind of project. The thing is, Wikipedia gets a lot of traffic, and that alone would make it worth the fight.

Last summer I created a list on Wikipedia—just a list—of art historians who happened to be women. There is an online list of art historians, The Dictionary of Art Historians, which includes 2475 names. I pulled the names of the 200 women listed there, put it on Wikipedia, and then asked colleagues to add names. At one point we got it up to 300. The list was promptly nominated for deletion on the grounds that it was not a notable subject. 40 pages of debate (which you can read here), ensued, the result of which was a final vote to keep it. Though they removed every name that did not have a Wikipedia article attached to it, which left us with only 80 entries (it has since been upped back to 200).

I can foresee that the “noteworthiness” of graduate students and adjuncts might also be a sticking point for the fine group of men that edit Wikipedia. It is not properly appreciated by scholars, nor by the general public just how unique and rare PhDs actually are. Only 1% of the world has a PhD. Merely getting to the stage of ABD should be cause for significant celebration. As far as I am concerned, every PhD is noteworthy and deserves entry in Wikipedia. The original model for this project was the seasonally updated statistics Wikipedia pages for American football teams. For example, 2009 San Diego Chargers season. Every football team in America has a page for every season, with the statistics for every player, notable and non-notable. It is crazy I know but I happen to think that scholars are more important to football players, and that each scholar in America should also have their own page, updated seasonally. Every adjunct, everyone who is an instructor at an American college or University should have their own Wikipedia page.

Since this has never been done before it is hard to say what the best way to organize and or structure the pages would be. We need to brainstorm about what would be included, and how the individual pages would be linked to the departmental pages. And in turn, how the departmental pages would be linked to the college and university pages. And we have to be ready to make lots of big mistakes. If you want to achieve something significant, you have to be prepared to make significant mistakes. Experimentation, at least at the beginning, until we settle on the winning template, will be key, but I think it can only happen if we just dive right in and begin. Controlling content will also be key. Departments will certainly attempt to control what is available on the page. As colleges and universities do now for their Wikipedia pages, which are regularly policed by public relations offices. However, adjuncts, and other, concerned citizens even, will be able to pushback, anonymously if necessary.

There are people on Wikipedia who present themselves as being against vandalism, and who even have official status as administrators, who are actually vandals (no matter what they claim on their home page). JamesBWatson gave me a very hard time about my university art museum and gallery pages that I created with my students—for example—and then erased a whole table I had created in my own private space (with a different anonymous account interestingly enough) that contained statistical information about art history departments in Canada. Luckily I had saved it first, but this kind of aggressive behavior can happen. So whenever I use Wikipedia I back up the information on my computer, or on another platform. Perhaps, as the project develops, there should be a point person involved, ideally an adjunct, appointed to watch the page and/or pages and backup information on a regular basis. We should also have a separate site with a Blog to keep track of the development of the project, where people could edit and save information.

Each Wikipedia editor, which is anyone who writes an entry, gets their own homepage which they can do what they want with. And you can have as many accounts as you want. You do not have to use just one handle. I have seen some scholars use their real name, and link back to their departmental page. I think it is also possible to email people using their handles. I guess that would be the key organizing tool, right there. The adjuncts could list themselves anonymously, and then email each other using the editorial handles, to begin organizing. Anti-union activists will try to interfere, potentially by posing as adjuncts online. Some system of double, even triply checking people’s identity, possibly at face to face meetings, would need to be put in place. If people opened accounts with the suffix AWP (for adjunct Wikipedia project), that would be one way to signal that they are part of the project and are interested in organizing (so my account name might be: vhfsAWP for example). There will be political inference. We should spend some time thinking about ways to stem it.

I think it would be a good idea to get started right away—to begin experimenting with format and structure. I anticipate that there with be more error than trial at the beginning, and also pushback from anti-intellectual, anti-union forces—but I think once colleagues and universities see the obvious benefits of the initiative they will also put their backs into it. Of course, the nice thing is that, as previously mentioned, unlike university websites these pages are not controlled by the administration. Institutions will certainly try, but if it is just a numbers game, adjuncts will win and be able to impose their vision. Since they are responsible for the majority of teaching that takes place at institutions of higher education in the US, it is only fair.

[1] Rob Townsend (@rbthisted) “@vhfscott unfortunately, @usedgov ended the only viable source for that data:” 14 March 2014, 11:49 a.m. Tweet.

[2] Thanks to Martin Kich for pointing this out to me.

[3] David Ingram, “NSA sued by Wikimedia, rights groups over mass surveillance,” Reuters. Tuesday, Mar 10, 2015.


2 thoughts on “Organizing Adjuncts and Wikipedia

  1. This intrigues me for a number of reasons, including the idea of getting more attention to adjuncts and more information.that can be easily assessed. But what I find most fascinating is the challenge to “noteworthiness.” Like all encyclopedias before it, Wikipedia is conservative and backward-looking. It relies on what others have already said publicly about a person or anything else covered. It is risk-averse, never arguing that something or someone just might be important tomorrow, always looking, essentially, to yesterday. What you are suggesting is a new paradigm replacing an old methodology. What you are saying, at least tacitly, is that these adjuncts and graduate students are going to be noteworthy in the future so it can be both useful and important to start tracking them now. I like it.

  2. This is a good idea and I support it. Your comments about Wikipedia are, unfortunately, mostly true in key experience too. One of their few staffers was my neighbor for a while in Berkeley and I discussed some of these problems with her. she was sympathetic but basically said that the volunteer editors are the ones who really run the show overall, not the staff. I am not sure how totally accurate that is, but it was interesting.

    One other point. In my experience and research, lack of data is not the main difficulty in organizing adjuncts (or other higher ed workers), though data, especially for contingents is woefully inaccurate and insufficient. (In fact I have a lot of detailed criticism of this in footnotes to my book, “Reclaiming the Ivory Tower: organizing adjuncts to change higher education”). I think by far the biggest obstacle to organizing adjuncts is the same as for organizing most other workers, FEAR and its sibling fatalism.

    Anyway, that’s for the useful work you have done and thanks for letting us all know about it.

    Joe Berry, New Faculty Majority Board and COCAL International Advisory Committee

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