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Getting (Un)Stuck in the Middle
April 25, 2013 - 9:13pm

Over the past several weeks, the academic online community and mainstream news outlets alike have been abuzz with commentary on the frightening state of job security in academia today, illuminated most clearly in the plight of the adjunct. In early April, the New York Times reported on the growing gap between permanent and contingent faculty, in number and in payment, and Slate published a piece outlining the dismal odds of ever getting a tenure track position from a first-person perspective. A piece in  The Atlantic reminded us that, despite the growing tuition fees, “Once, being a college professor was a career. Today it’s a gig.” Al Jazeera might have gone farthest, publishing a piece on the state of academia in the U.S. which refers to adjunct professors as “academia’s indentured servants.”  As someone working the adjunct professor “gig,” I feel compelled to speak out.

The liminal space from which I speak is not an easy one; in fact, as with workers in similarly-contingent roles, it can be dangerous to speak out.  Rebecca Schuman, whose Slate piece Thesis Hatement went viral on April 5, argued in the aftermath of her piece that many of us hesitate to write any serious (public) critique of the state of academia both because of the insecurity of our position and the hope that “someone, somewhere will let me be a professor someday” -- as statistically unwarranted as that hope may be.

And the facts are indeed grim: as the NY Times indicated, adjuncts are paid, on average, just $2,700 a class. Do the math on how many classes one needs to teach to make a living wage. (In case you’re bad at math: most people I know who do nothing else teach about 4-5 classes a semester, though I met a woman last semester who was doing 7. And many of us don’t get paid for time spent preparing classes, holding office hours, or budgets for our own research. Nor do we get administrative (or really any kind of institutional) support like our full-time colleagues receiving a salary do; and let’s not even mention lack of benefits like health insurance and paid sick leave for many such posts. Others may go from “one year lectureship” to “visiting professorship,” hopping around from university to university.  This not only applies to teaching positions, but fixed-term-contract research posts as well, which last only for the length of a particular research grant. Many contingent workers in academia do adjunct teaching work and fixed-term posts of -- and more -- taking a “patchwork” approach that often times results in working much more than full-time, yet still scraping to get a living wage. But, regardless of the approach, all of us are occupying a “middle space,” a precarious position that we hope will end when that full-time, permanent job is found.

Unfortunately this “middle space” is the opposite of the other “middles” in contemporary society. While the middle class shrinks, the middle space occupied by contingent workers grows and grows. And, in academia, those contingent positions rarely translate into permanent jobs. (Rebecca Schuman - author of the Slate piece cited above - recently quit her search after four years on the market.) In the U.K., The Guardian recently reported that “one-third of the academic workforce is now on temporary, fixed term contracts.” The latest report on the economic state of the profession by the American Association of University Professors found that tenure track professors make up less than a quarter of university teaching staff. The above-cited New York Times’ article cited data indicating that 76% of faculty in U.S. universities are contingent.  To repeat: seventy-six percent. This is not only an all-time high, but it also places those of us working in contingent positions in another category: the majority.

The fact that we are now the majority leads me to disagree with Sarah Kendzior’s dismal assessment, in Al Jazeera, that “contingency has become permanent, a rite of passage to nowhere.”  In fact, we are going somewhere. Unions supporting adjunct’s rights are popping up around the country, with adjuncts from over 20 universities and colleges in the Boston area the latest to announce plans to unionize.  Groups of “junior” scholars, like those from Columbia University who started the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research , are developing infrastructure that works alongside, yet distinct from, the traditional academic model. In 2009, a non-profit organization, the New Faculty Majority, was created with the aim of providing information and litigative and legislative support to adjunct faculty. The Adjunct Project, hosted by The Chronicle of Higher Education, collects data by and on employment conditions around the country.  And in January, the Delphi Project at the University of Southern California also published a report on the “New Ecology of Higher Education,” and continues to advocate for adjunct support and call on college leaders to admit that they treat adjuncts unethically. The coalition building represented by latter (as well as the increase in reporting on contingency related topics at The Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed) is especially important since tenured and permanent faculty and staff have, until recently, remained mostly silent on these issues.  Inside Higher Ed compiled a list of other recently-formed and ongoing adjunct related projects here.

I believe that the growth in these efforts indicate that we are on the cusp of a change in the way that academia works; that we are, in essence, getting ourselves unstuck. Of course we are facing an uphill battle, and there is still much work to do. Despite the difficult road ahead, I maintain that the networks that are being created by adjuncts and other contingent workers in academia, as well as by allies with permanent positions, are critical in that they not only acknowledge the importance of the  “circles of niceness” and emotional labor that sustain us in academia, but also because they represent the forces that will ultimately change the system.  I don’t know what this change will look like when it’s finished, or how exactly the system will need to grow in order to make the shift, but shift it must. To put it quite simply: there is no other choice.

Brooklyn, New York in the US.

Gwendolyn Beetham is an adjunct professor at Rutgers University. She also works as a gender consultant, edits the column The Academic Feminist at Feministing.com, and teaches yoga. Follow her on twitter @gwendolynb

 

 

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