Walking out of work: National Adjunct Walkout Day

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© Manuel Carmona – Fotolia.com

Adjunct teaching horror stories started circulating after the death of Margaret Mary Votjko in 2013. She died at age 83, alone, sick, penniless, almost homeless, after being let go from her 25-year job teaching French at Duquesne University. Daniel Kovalik’s moving column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette explained that for years, “Margaret Mary worked on a contract basis from semester to semester, with no job security, no benefits and with a salary of between $3,000 and just over $3,500 per three-credit course.”

Wednesday, February 25 is National Adjunct Walkout Day, a day organized to draw attention to adjunct professors and to efforts to unionize and gain better wages and working conditions. Equity for adjuncts is an urgent issue, for faculty and students alike. 

Votjko was an adjunct professor. The number of adjuncts at colleges varies from about a quarter of the faculty at research universities to more than two-thirds at community colleges. Across the country, adjuncts are organizing, demanding better pay and working conditions, and sometimes voting for union representation.

I currently teach as an adjunct at two schools, but my three teaching days do not fall on Wednesday. Since I’m not walking, let me tell you about the situation of adjuncts and, just as important, the situation of our students.

I’m one of the lucky ones. Both Metro State and Macalester pay far above the average per course compensation of $2700. I’m also one of the lucky ones because I have a spouse with a good income and health insurance that doesn’t depend on my employment.

Most adjuncts are not so lucky. University faculty fall into two classes: tenured and tenure-track faculty and adjunct faculty, also called contingent or non-tenure-track, who usually teach less than full-time on a per-course payment schedule. (About 18 percent of non-tenure-track faculty are full-time, but temporary.) Adrianna Kezar and Daniel Maxey report in the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities magazine that,

“full-time, non-tenure-track faculty typically make 26 percent less than tenured faculty, [and] part-time faculty members earn approximately 60 percent less than full-time, tenure-track faculty when their salaries are considered on an hourly basis.”

Maria Maisto, a professor interviewed by Al Jazeera, described how universities take advantage of the incredibly tight job market for academics by shifting more teaching responsibilities to adjuncts:

“They are looking for people that they can pay at a very low rate who are high quality and who they know will do the job well but are in a position not to be able to refuse the work.”

Pay is a big problem for adjunct faculty, but it’s not the only one. Kezar and Maxey also cite lack of job security, frequent last-minute decisions on hiring or on canceling courses, lack of evaluation, and lack of office space and clerical support. Unlike tenure-track faculty, adjuncts get no support for research and professional development.

Beyond all of this, adjuncts get little respect. We are not considered “real professors” or real colleagues, and are increasingly told that we are responsible for student failure. Kezar and Maxey explain some of the reasons:

“The result for students of being taught by adjunct faculty members with short contracts and sporadic tenures is to have fewer regular faculty members with whom they can interact. Their faculty instructors may not be able to write letters of recommendation or help advise students about careers. Their education also may suffer as adjuncts have less time to invest in retooling and updating courses.”

In an article in Guernica, adjunct Rachel Riederer says adjunct issues are student issues:

“The rise of adjunct labor in universities is also a student issue. Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. … Courses like composition—a universal requirement at most colleges, and given in small groups—are taught almost exclusively by adjuncts.”

Many of our students were shortchanged by the educational system long before they sat down in a class taught by a (probably highly-qualified) adjunct. They went to public schools where too-large classes gave teachers little time to offer individualized assistance to students with widely differing backgrounds and learning readiness, where impossibly high counselor-student ratios meant no help with personal or emotional problems, where testing requirements robbed teaching time.

Many students arrive in our community college and state university classrooms already handicapped by lack of college-level writing and math skills. Then, without access to adequate remedial classes or tutoring, they can turn only to a professor who arrives five minutes before class and has no office where s/he can meet with them, even if s/he does not have to leave to commute across town to another job.

So Wednesday is the National Adjunct Walkout Day. What will happen? Inside Higher Ed describes some of the barriers to organizing, and an outlandish campus response:

“Despite all the enthusiasm, that could prove difficulty on some campuses, given the decentralized nature of the protest and adjuncts’ precarious status. As one adjunct posted to the walkout day message board: ‘How do you know if anyone else at your campus is participating? Adjuncts are notoriously isolated. … it would be really difficult if I was the only one walking out and didn’t know it. Likewise, it would be really difficult if I was the only one NOT walking out on my campus.’

“‘Still, it appears some campuses are bracing for a big turnout. Campus Safety Magazine recently published ‘13 Steps Your Campus Should Take to Prepare for National Adjunct Faculty Walkout Day.’ Pointers include ‘remind officers they can be recorded,’ ‘prepare for traffic control issues,’ and ‘provide officers with flex-cuffs so they don’t lose their issued cuffs if detainees are taken to jail.’”

That would be funny, if it weren’t just sad.

** 2/25/2015 CORRECTION: In writing and rewriting, I inadvertently deleted the link to the Kezar and Maxey article. The article, The Changing Academic Workforce, was published in the May/June 2013 issue of the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities Trusteeship Magazine. 

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