When it comes to academic alienation, few examples loom larger than that of the contingent college professor who, though struggling to survive, racing from campus to campus, overburdened with grading and prep‐work and maxed out credit cards to supplement poverty wages, nonetheless manages to stuff all that chaos into their tattered briefcase before class begins, hidden (we think!) from the student’s view.
Countless contingent faculty (sometimes referred to as “adjuncts”) perform some version of this dance every semester: hiding our material realities from our students, thereby maintaining the professional and pedagogical illusion that there is nothing amiss…even as things may be on the verge of falling apart.
What if we stopped doing that?
What if instead let our students in on what’s really going on?
What if we unpacked and exposed the contents of our bursting adjunct briefcase?
Many contingent faculty undoubtedly tell ourselves that we are maintaining professorial appearances—keeping our ‘merely personal’ issues hidden—’for the sake of the students.’ But who or what is really being protected here? Is it really the students, whose learning conditions are undoubtedly still affected by our degraded working conditions—as low pay drives us to take on more courses than we can handle—however hard faculty work to hide them? The students, who, chances are, are already quite familiar with the impacts of job precarity and exploitation from their own lives?
Perhaps what is being protected is in part… our own wounded self‐image. Perhaps we dread admitting publicly what we already know deep down: that, notwithstanding our degrees or expertise, we are not at all in control of our working conditions or our careers. We have been denied the professorial positions for which we’ve worked so hard and so long.
In this context, focusing strictly on the assigned academic material at hand, aside from its educational value, offers exploited contingent faculty a way of escaping—if only for an hour at a time—the material realities of our situation. After all: aren’t there much ‘bigger’ issues in the world to discuss than our personal exploitation? How insignificant are our local struggles compared to such Enduring Issues as found on our Syllabi (all seven of them!)?
Many contingent faculty feel afraid to confide in students about our contingency, especially during scheduled class time. We may fear a negative political / ‘customer’ backlash if we ‘come out’ as exploited labor, especially on campuses where anonymous student course evaluations are cherry-picked and wielded like scythes by admin seeking to cut down dissidents.
To be sure, the problem is not just internalized shame, but very rational fears.
But such fear must be overcome if the transformation we need—faculty equity and fully funded public higher ed—is to be brought about.
If we contingent faculty are afraid to be open with our own students in our own classrooms, afraid to share the truth with those whom we are charged to help seek truth, well then…who will we ever be willing to tell? How can we ever speak publicly about our conditions, and the struggles to change them, without overcoming this classroom self‐censorship? (Won’t our students read about us in the newspapers eventually?)
It is difficult to envision anything like transformative improvement in contingent faculty power and equality so long as this sort of alienation and self‐censorship reigns. Not only because it indicates that adjunct faculty themselves may still be somewhat in denial or disavowal of our actual conditions—living a kind of schizophrenic life that tries to keep our material realities and psychological identities separate—but also because our students remain potentially a source of great power… if only we would allow them in.
To have a chance of unleashing the power of our students, we must remove the gags from our own mouths and let the stuffed contingent briefcase burst. (We can then sift its sundry and scandalous materials together.)
Students are great potential allies, but only when faculty are willing to take a page from the gay liberation movement and “come out” as we are, letting them in on the conditions and struggles we face, so that they can understand, and sympathize with our position.
There is of course always some risk—both psychological and institutional—involved in such self-exposure. Might some of our students lose respect for our authority if they knew we are ‘just an adjunct’? Might an ‘outed’ adjunct experience embarrassment or a loss of confidence at the lectern? Might the publicizing of our precarity increase the likelihood of a hostile student going behind our back to the dean? Such risks cannot be discounted.
But in my own experience, letting students know about the political‐economic conditions that shape the classroom we share has generally inspired curiosity, sympathy, and solidarity—often generating increased interest in the course overall, as students come to see the space & time we co‐habit as more and more part of the ‘real world’ rather than some mystifying bubble floating above it.
Here it helps to remember, as Joe Berry and Helena Worthen remind us in their recent book Power Despite Precarity: most of our students are fellow workers, who share vital concerns with us, something they can themselves recognize once we make our situation clear (178). In this context, the widespread faculty attachment to liberal advocacy (fighting “for others” rather than ourselves) becomes a liability when our sense of being ‘above’ our students cuts short conversation that could lead to solidarity.
Faculty like to think that we are ‘lucky’ and ‘privileged’ compared to others (including our students); meanwhile our hourly salaries may clock in below a living wage, especially once our student loan debt is deducted from our pay. “Establishing the legitimacy of fighting for ourselves is not easy,” Berry and Worthen write. “Many of us still see ourselves as members of a privileged elite, floating intellectuals temporarily and unjustly shunted into precarious low wage employment” (188). But the brute fact is that many of us are making less per hour than many of our students will be—or even than some of them are now—with take-home pay that amounts for less than 5% or 10% of the total tuition that students are paying for the classes we are teaching them. (And what student wouldn’t want to know that!)
Nonetheless, getting to the point of opening up isn’t always going to be easy. Contingent faculty fear is real, and based in genuine dangers. We can’t just ‘tell’ people to ‘suck it up’ or ‘get over it.’
But using those dangers as an excuse for passivity is also not enough: The situation that holds us back must itself be transformed.
How can such fear be overcome? What structures, relationships, and understandings can we construct together to enable greater numbers of contingent faculty to overcome such fear and more fully speak truth, in our own classrooms and beyond?
What are the ways we can help faculty to realize this latent classroom power, and to mobilize it collectively and strategically?
What can we do, at various levels—from departments to unions to colleges to professional associations to community networks and pedagogical strategies—to make it more possible (less shameful, less frightening) for faculty to ‘come out’ to our students, and to bring the suppressed ‘background’ of our contingent academic lives into the educational ‘foreground’?
How can we help each other unleash the too‐often untapped power of our students, a formidable group once armed with the knowledge that contingent faculty might provide them?
These seems to me crucial questions for this moment.
As part of this larger process, I believe it would be a great thing if our unions, faculty organizations and associations—in alliance with student and community groups—could come together and issue regular Calls to Teach the University, giving support as well institutional protection for higher educators to devote, say, at a minimum, one full day (or one full week) each semester to critically discussing the state of higher ed, including the place of contingency within it. (The framework of “sustainability” which I discuss at the opening of the longer version of this article < https://newpol.org/25-truths-to-build-adjunct-power-despite-precarity/ > could provide a strategic umbrella with broader popular purchase: “Sustaining Higher Ed in the Face of Rising Contingency”.) Perhaps our major organizations could agree on a national “coming out” day for contingent faculty, stripping isolation from this difficult personal‐pedagogical leap.
There are no shortage of openings or tactics that could be pursued once the strategic goal is accepted.
*organize intramural events, art displays, film showings, and “field trips” to provoke discussion;
*arrange guest speakers and speakers series, both during class time, and outside of it;
*produce and disseminate educational handouts, slide shows, or short videos, for classroom use;
*organize roving campus ‘fly squads’ to deliver updates and kick off classroom discussions about how student, faculty (and staff!) conditions are linked, perhaps during a class time allotted for ‘community announcements.’ (Such fly squads can be assembled across ranks: including not only faculty or staff visitors, but students themselves, creating a peer‐to‐peer learning dynamic that can prove quite effective.26)
*coordinate campus‐ or system‐wide efforts to socialize the educational process, along the lines of ‘Campus Equity Week.’
*push public campus administrators to endorse state‐wide “Higher Ed Advocacy” days, thus giving cover for faculty to broach such matters in the classroom with students, and to take them on collective action field trips.
*encourage and empower faculty to teach their students about the basic class structure and economics of their very own classrooms (See for instance here: https://academeblog.org/2022/01/24/a-class-exercise-to-start-the-semester/ ).
I propose normalizing teaching about the underlying conditions of the college or university in every class—not just Labor Studies or ‘education‐related’ fields: all our fields are education-related. This can be justified in pedagogical terms—as well as political and moral ones—in most if not all fields of study. What academic discipline does not have a clear connection to the material state of the institutional fibers on which it depends? Certainly, ‘even’ a Math class could spend time breaking down the implications of university or state budget allocations? Certainly, a Psychology course could devote time to the mental effects of job precarity or overwork? Certainly, a Political Science class could spend some time power mapping the campus institution in which we all work and live? Certainly, an English Composition class could take time analyzing the rhetoric embedded in campus administration emails or faculty union petitions?
Even enlightened public campus administrators should be with us here: educating the public about the precarious state of public higher education ought to be seen as necessary institutional and disciplinary self defense—a crucial part of orienting students honestly towards the institutions they inhabit, and of sustaining the institutions, period. Even our ‘customer students should surely be interested in how their tuition dollars are (not) being spent. And working class students should find plenty to connect with in our stories. Who knows, hearing ours may inspire them to tell their stories as well.
A Prediction to close with:
The coming mass strike against faculty contingency—and for true comprehensive higher ed sustainability for the common good—the one that will shake our campuses to the core, will be the one where students and faculty (and staff) join together in the common recognition that, though the alienating institutions we inhabit often try to pit us against one another, our fundamental best interests and human needs are aligned. Our ‘strike’ to come then must be conceived as a massive teach‐in, a disruption of business as usual that is at once a repurposing of our educational power, a reshaping of the teacher‐student‐community relationship.
Where, I repeat, do we really have power at our fingertips if NOT in our own classrooms? And why can’t our classrooms include a focus on contingent realities?
As the reach of online education and digital administrative surveillance grows, we best utilize our classroom space and power while we still have it.
Read the full version of this article at New Politics.