I was an adjunct. But I can no longer call myself such. I have not taught since this summer, chance classes I picked up. I hope that for education, for us —the precariat, the adjunct, the contingent, the casual, the occasional worker, whatever we want to call ourselves— we have a new year filled with promise, hope, action, change. I may no longer work in Higher Ed, yet I still have hope. Though I was “fired” over a year ago now, and though I tried to fight this action as unjust, the administration could not let me “infect” others and wanted to rid itself of my influence. Therefore, they let me go in the hopes that my invisibility would erase all traces of what is being done to contingent faculty everywhere. With the continued activism of my colleagues and me, however, I am hoping that our tenuous existence will no longer be that invisible barrier that bars us from the great light against darkness this year, 2014.1
On August 28th, 2012, two days into the fall semester of my 4th year at Tarrant County College District (TCCD) in Fort Worth, Texas, my college essentially dismissed me, although they said they were “rearranging my classes.” They were not happy with my indentured servitude. With a PhD, ABD in Comparative Literature from New York University, I was paid $1800 per semester course, no healthcare. When I looked at my education, then I checked out my income tax return, I realized I did not even make $15,000 per year to contribute to my livelihood. This was a sad state of affairs. But the sadder truth is that I am not unique. There are 1.5 million faculty members in Higher Ed today. Only 25% of this number is tenured. Thus, I am a one in 1 million, and of this number, over 50% average $2700 per semester, no healthcare, and another 25% have no tenure and are hired on limited contracts. This means that their job security is just as precarious as ours, and though some instructors may then have healthcare, their pay is still not much better, and their insecurity is such that they struggle everyday with the conditions of their palpable precarity: is this all worthwhile? Over 75% of the professors in Higher Education today are in this predicament then. We ask ourselves daily: should we really stick it out in education?
I had begun a petition for adjunct justice almost two years ago now —so adjuncts could unite to be heard as one voice— to speak about the indignities we suffer as the voiceless, invisible educators of the many students in Higher Ed. Please note that not one instructor in my college signed it, as they did not know about it (at least they did not learn about it from me). The fact that I went about my days for four years and knew not one other faculty member well speaks volumes; the administration tried to keep us separate, isolated, and distinct. I did speak to one adjunct who told me he would sign the petition, but he was afraid. He must have felt vindicated not signing when I lost my job only months after we had spoken. The other adjunct I talked to, on a chance encounter, said it was a waste of time to organize any such activism. What does it say about us when we ourselves are complicit in our own plight?
My college wanted me to bow down to their every whim, and I would not. Administrators knew they could easily replace me with other adjuncts who were more complacent or fearful; they did not care with whom they replaced me, as long as they were not questioned. ‘Silence and obedience’ was the golden rule. And that’s what colleges and universities count on when they make their decisions, or when they make us question our own integrity. They want us to be afraid. The year before the college dismissed me, they took two of my classes away each semester, hoping that would quiet me into submission. The following calendar year, then, they gave me my full course load back, thinking I would “behave” now that I had suffered the year before with half a load. But they were wrong. Fear and intimidation cannot quiet truth. Thus, when they realized that had not worked, they threw me out completely, without notice.
What happened to me happens time and time again to those who dare question the status quo. This is why the adjunctification of Higher Ed has been a secret for so long; colleges rid themselves of rabble-rousers like me. While two of my Writing Composition classes, which are writing intensive courses, had 35 students each, how many students did fulltime instructors teach? Students in such large classes cannot get the individualized care they need under such circumstances. Why is it that both adjuncts and their students must suffer? I could not do the job I was hired to do conscionably with that many students. Yet how could the fulltime instructor who taught that same exact class —at the same exact time— have so many less students and be paid three times as much? Students did not register individually, so they were not choosing me — “Professor Staff”— over her. How many fulltime faculty who say they feel badly for adjuncts turn a blind eye when they realize such disparities exist? My own colleagues stayed silent. Moreover, I had to sign a draconian contract semester in, semester out, checking registration to see if the classes would make, to see if I might actually have an income each term. So many faceless adjuncts suffer this indignity every semester.
How many of us find ourselves at a loss the last few days before the start of a semester, desperately trying to figure out how to make ends meet because our classes have just been cancelled? And how many of us work on our syllabi weeks before only to find out that we have no classes to teach? Or how many of us are hired two weeks, or a week, or even two days before the start of class? I am sure the adjunct who was hired to replace me when classes had already begun found himself in just such a quandary. How many administrators do you think care what adjuncts know or even how we teach? We are just bodies to them, filling up their desired quotas— cheap labor to meet their needs.
A few months ago, thinking about our plight, I watched a documentary on poverty in America, and its migrant workers. I was impressed by the 1960 Harvest of Shame (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yJTVF_dya7E), which introduced people who were dirt poor; poverty was a sad but immediate presence. Anyone who saw that film then was well aware of these people’s needs. What is not so obvious —but because this is so, it is much more insidious— is the plight of adjuncts teaching across America today. We are these same poor depicted in the Harvest of Shame. We might wear different clothes, hide our paucity a bit more in the urban or suburban dwellings of today’s modern universities, but otherwise, there is not much difference between us. How can we survive on the compensation we are given by those who hold power in the Ivory Tower? Yet many of us need to. Worse, as professionals, how can we show or talk to our students about our abject poverty? How can we tell them truthfully it is worthwhile to learn, that it will get them somewhere, when we cannot even make ends meet at the end of the day, with our great education?
Although years ago, our adjunct positions were originally created to supplement our earnings, or to help students see a professional viewpoint —those who came in to teach what they did during the workday— this is no longer true. For many of us, what we teach is our sole source of income. And now, with the ambiguity of the Affordable Care Act, many universities are limiting courses in fear they will have to pay healthcare. So these institutions of Higher Education are in fact doubly crippling us. The Affordable Care Act, which was originally intended to help the poor among us, and which we championed as our chance to finally acquire healthcare, is now being used against us through a loophole by these same corporatized universities to escape responsibility. Schools’ cutting adjunct hours because of any possible ruling has grown like a virus. Universities are no longer in waiting mode either; they have decided things might not bode well, so they better cut hours while they still can.
Hence, many schools in Higher Ed have been placing adjunct course limits starting in 2014. Community college systems in Texas, such as my own Tarrant County College District, as well as the Dallas Community College District, Austin Community Colleges, Houston Community Colleges, Lone Star College System and others all over this state have limited faculty to teach 6 or 9 credit hours per semester, where adjunct faculty teach the majority of classes. This does not even factor in private or public 4-year institutions, such as St. Edwards College, where they are limiting adjunct instructors to 6 credit hours beginning in 2014, while adamantly repeating that changes have nothing to do with the Affordable Care Act. If I could not survive before on $14,400 working full time, how will I ever survive on less? How can any adjunct survive? Texas is not alone, either, in this miserable cutback. Many private, public, online, for-profit, not-for-profit colleges and universities all over the United States are playing this same game. When will it all end? Not only are adjuncts suffering, but also more so, students are suffering, as education quickly deteriorates. After all, if we do not teach students, who will? If universities are not willing to pay healthcare to adjuncts who average $2700 per semester course, do you think they will shell out more money for full faculty hires to replace the adjuncts who are already quitting in droves? Who will teach students then?
And yes, I have heard it mentioned that adjuncts are worth a dime a dozen. Where there is one, there are a thousand. How many of these so-called 1000 newfound last minute hires, these superfluous adjuncts, will be ready to teach at a last minute’s notice, again and again, though? How many will be capable and qualified? How many will be willing? Worse yet: How many will be able to teach effectively? Think about this logically. The adjunctification of Higher Ed affects all society, whatever role we might play in it: teacher, student, parent, administrator. Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions. Do we really want to be on the
losing side? On the side that is morally, ethically wrong?
Since neither Democrat nor Republican leaders want to answer this question on their own, they have decided to put their best face forward, in show at least. Party organizers have propagated different websites to hear adjunct stories, to gather information, to see what they can garner to help them decide on the adjunct question, specifically geared to the healthcare dilemma (Democrats: http://democrats.edworkforce.house.gov/eforum; Republicans: http://edworkforce.house.gov/yourstory/default.aspx. Please make sure you fill out both links fully, even if you are a non-believer). I guess they do not want to suffer through another such indignity as Margaret Mary Vojtko’s too public death (too bad they did not think about her circumstances when she was living, or about all adjuncts in need of a living wage). But will anything come of this latest development, or is this another stopgap measure to assuage us, to keep us like little sheep waiting for our endless Godot to arrive? Are these stories going to make a difference?
What is being done to education today is a complete travesty. To the overall university system, it seems that adjuncts are immaterial; we do not matter. We are worth less than nothing. It is unethical and immoral what my college — and with it, the world of Higher Education — is doing. Not only do they exploit all contingent faculty by denying us living wages and healthcare, but they also deny us any sustainable livelihood: we do not know from one day to the next if our paltry financial existence is safe. If we do not fight them, we are complicit in our own exploitation. Yet how can we fight them when we have no sustenance? The contingent labor force —or what most call us, adjuncts, “add-ons”— is now at least 75% and still growing. That makes us now the majority of the teaching labor force in higher education, the precarious faculty rising, the New Faculty Majority. Yet we are not in the front page news. We are not talked about. We are not anyone’s concern. We are the invisible. The classrooms keep filling up with students, their test grades keep faltering, and we keep teaching out of car trunks, managing two, three, sometimes four jobs to eke out a living.
We are indeed an invisible lot. When I spoke to my congressman a few months ago, he barely knew about adjuncts, and he gave me lip service. Is education not important? What is more, the fear of retribution is palpable; it shrouds our invisibility further. People are afraid. They will not speak out. If we do, we are dismissed. I can understand that fear. But this is why it is so important for you and me to be frank about adjuncts, whenever we can and in whatever way we can, to make America know about this large and growing underclass of people —of knowledge workers, of us— who are the migrant workers of Academia, and who are being abused, who are subsisting on less and less each day. Education is crumbling, and it will be everyone’s loss in the end.
When good educators are dismissed from work without reason, when we are paid substandard wages, when we are left dangling until the last minute semester after semester, when we are given no healthcare —or have classes cut because they do not want to give us healthcare— when no one, including the media, is willing to do anything to help, and then with a final slap, the state turns a blind eye, what can we do? Higher Education as we know it seems doomed. Although now mainstream media seems to be awakening, it is still a far cry to public knowledge. I have been negotiating with someone from the public news media here in Texas for over a year now to publish a story on adjuncts —where hardly anyone outside Academia knows what an adjunct is— and though she tells me she is interested, so far there is nothing, as in much of the South or in other parts of the United States. Why is that? I cannot believe it is because people are not interested. People are not interested because they do not know. If people actually knew what adjuncts go through, they would be devastated. Students are faltering because their teachers cannot survive. Students are suffering because their educators suffer. And if people really knew all this, do you think they would sit silently by? How can we teach the students of tomorrow if teachers cannot survive today?
I am not giving up on Higher Education or on my petition, which now has close to 7000 signatures (too little still: please sign and share!). I have begun a page for Adjunct Justice too (https://www.facebook.com/AdjunctJustice), where I now have over 500 followers, though there is always room for more. I know the power of words, of solidarity, of our voice sharing with each other to get the word out, of our one million strong. I have given up my individual fight, but I have not given up our fight for justice. We teach today’s students, tomorrow’s world. How can we give up on that?
This is why I am writing now. Let’s fight on, let’s share on, let’s raise our voices. Take our cry to our senators and representatives, to our state officials, to our relatives, friends and enemies alike. To our churches and our schools. To our media. Let’s shout out. We need to unite with students, parents, educators —both tenured and contingent workers alike— because we are all one; we cannot let Higher Education Administrations get away with this blatant act against what is good and noble in our profession. We cannot let them win. Indeed, we have been shunned, turned down, forsaken. We have been abandoned. We are invisible. But we can say, See who we are. We will not give up. Come fight with us: join us. Be our David against Goliath. Support us against those who want to crumble our Ivory Walls of true learning.
A friend and colleague read this a few days ago, before it was published, and tears came to her eyes. She cried because it was her story. She is from Texas. She was an academic. She worked hard for that dream, and she saw that dream destroyed, as she slaved away for meager pay, hours and hours spent without gratitude or pay. Because, though her students were great and they loved her, she could not live on students’ praise alone. She could not live without security. And though it may be more solitary in Texas, it was hard everywhere, she decided. So she became angry. But she looked around and instead of saying, “I am leaving this crazy profession,” she said, “I am going to fight for it. This is worth the struggle.” And so she is fighting now.
My friend and colleague, Professor Tenacious Texan, joined the team of SEIU. She is beginning this struggle with Adjunct Action in New York, but this struggle is a national struggle. What is going to happen now in New York is happening in Boston, in LA, in Washington, in Seattle. And it can happen anywhere, if we decide to form a real “union”— a state of harmony or agreement. After all, what is a union, but an association formed by people with a common interest or purpose? So if I believe that people have a right for better compensation, benefits, support for research and scholarship, academic freedom, and so many other commodities we truly need, and Professor TT from Texas but now in New York believes that as well, and she can persuade others around her to join her with SEIU, and we can keep doing this in pockets everywhere, nationally, won’t we have a movement? And thus, won’t we make change happen?
Tufts University will begin to bargain for unionization starting in February. I just read that at Lesley University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Cambridge City Council voted to pass a resolution to unionize, in an effort to improve adjunct pay, benefits, and other working conditions. The surprising thing—or maybe not so—was that out of 9 votes, 8 were affirmative, and one person recused himself. In the west coast, things are hopping too at the University of LaVerne in the LA area; at the end of October, faculty there took the first step toward unionization. Moreover, Loyola Marymount is also about to file for the right to form its own union. There are public campaigns on the east coast, the northwest, the west, and now New York. It’s the domino effect: it becomes infectious in its beautiful cascade down across America. It may begin slowly, tortuously, but it can build up, especially if we nurture it. And we can all be a part of this beautiful initiative.
Let’s make it so.