Adjunct Pay and Anger

August 27, 2014

Editing a column like this is different when the contributors are good friends and former colleagues.

Because Katie and Shonda are friends and colleagues, their pairing took on a life of its own. I originally put them together not only because they knew each other but also because they’re very aware of the many issues facing adjunct faculty. I knew they’d work out a focus for the column, so I essentially told them to just do their thing. I spent 15+ years working and teaching at their university — one becoming increasingly known for rampant pay disparity between senior administrators and others — so I have an insider’s knowledge of some issues they allude to or discuss, such as adjunct working conditions. All in all, I’m thrilled with the smart, engaging work they did here with issues of labor, activist rhetoric, and maintaining their multifaceted professional roles.

Shonda Goward has the unique position of being staff, faculty, and student at George Washington University. In her advising role she has a traditional caseload of students, and also serves a pre-professional advisrr serving students interested in graduate education. She teaches part-time in the university writing program with courses focused on the representation of women and reading hip hop as poetry. Finally, she is a doctoral student in higher education administration with research interests including intersectional analysis of working-class students and faculty and their experiences on campus.

Katherine Anderson Howell is an adjunct instructor of writing at George Washington. Her poetry has been published in On The Issues magazine and the Riveter Review, and is forthcoming in Gargoyle Magazine. Her work on fan writing and pedagogy will soon be published in Pennsylvania English.


Why do you teach at this particular university?

SG: I started out teaching in community colleges, and I still miss that work greatly. However, the very real adjunct issues of commuting to campus after working a full day, and only being able to hold office hours after class — at 9:00pm — took their toll. I received the opportunity to teach where I work full-time, and it was a way to solve the space and place issue. I am on campus 40 hours per week, which allows me to better get to know students and give them the same type of attention they would receive if I were full-time faculty. The bonus is that both departments in which I work value the contribution I am able to give to each of them.

I understand that my position is a bit uncommon, and dealing with students as a professor and adviser has been valuable to me because I can link the challenges outside the classroom to what happens inside and can provide insight into both. Often academics are so focused on what goes on in the classroom, and some do not think it their duty to participate in the developmental aspect of the college experience. Conversely, the administrative side of the house has challenges finding ways to help students overcome their personal challenges so that they can succeed in the classroom. I like to think that I am able to facilitate the conversation between the two.

KAH: I ended up at GW because I could get sections. I had a friend who put me in touch with the director at the time, and adjunct magic-luck happened. When I got the contract, the benefits made staying easier, especially as a mom, and my family can afford for me to work in just one place because my husband makes a good salary. In many ways, I’m the “good adjunct.” It’s important to point out that most people in my position are not in similar situations — they don’t have union jobs, and they may not have enough income to make part-time teaching a sustainable choice.

I continue teaching partially as a default reaction; in D.C., your job can be your capital and your identity, and I internalized the notion of teaching as a “higher calling,” thus falling into the “I have no other skills” trap. This idea ignores the variety of skills I need to do my job and imagines that I’ve never done anything else. I’m pushing back against both of these concepts; they box me into a place where I’m invested in a job that won’t offer me any forward movement.

How do we situate the adjunct problem within the framework of the larger university community who may also be underpaid?

SG: The current adjunct debate is frustrating for me in a few ways. First, it is not intersectional. I am not saying that the issues — such as payment for labor — are not real, but that the conversation around these issues is not nuanced. When I read about a desire to return to the “good old days” I wonder if that includes me as a black woman who grew up working-class, or not, since hiring for minoritized scholars and women has never been quite equal, and the poor have difficulty moving up the academic rungs.

The other concern is that the debate is singular, and, as yet, does not include others who are underpaid on campus. The professoriate is not the only aspect of the academy that has become adjunctified. Facilities and food services have long been privatized on many campuses, with the result being lower wages. In addition, lower levels of administration are on their way to adjunctification as well. Plenty of professional positions, such as advising, are now part-time, which means that students have less of an opportunity to meet with one person consistently to help them track their degrees.

For example, at my former community college, students are not able to see a full-time employee for drop-in hours, and thus the advising they receive can be different depending on who they meet with. Anecdotally, students would complain all the time that the part-time advisers did not know the programs at the college well, and could not help them plan to transfer, which is a large function of the community college experience! However, none of these groups have been included in the discussion of what it means to be a university employee and what it means to deserve a living wage. For me to feel comfortable discussing higher education reform it has to include everyone from the janitor to the adjunct, and be aware of the implications of race, class, and gender.

In the same vein, the rhetoric around the adjunct movement, that frames adjuncting as slavery, is purposefully incendiary, and again marginalizing. I have been told that there is “no other way for us to be heard” and that sentiment makes it very clear to me who the “us” is and is not. No adjunct position is the equivalent of not having civil rights until just 50 years ago: meaning, in my family, I am of the first generation born with civil rights. No one is forcing one to remain an adjunct. There are other work opportunities where the doctorate may be useful and even desired. Not liking those choices does not make one a slave. Not liking that a dream job is no longer available does not make one a slave. In fact it does not even make one an indentured servant: no one will not go to jail for quitting an adjunct gig. I am amazed that scholars continue to make this problematic argument. Ph.D. Candidate Tressie McMillan Cottom says it best when she states in a blog post for the Adjunct Project:

There is no labor movement without black labor. And [she thinks] a black laborer would be hard-pressed to find solidarity in a movement that so thoroughly and casually erases the history that made them less likely to attain a graduate degree and less likely to procure a tenure track job should they do so when the visible movement philosophers and organizers double down on calling a labor problem a slave problem.

I also wonder what the writers who advance the enslavement argument say to students who may not be able to find employment in their desired fields. One may desire to be a full-time professor just as the undergraduates desire to be full-time actors, journalists, or another desirable profession, but not everyone who earns a degree in these fields will work in them. But that does not mean what they have learned is not valuable. It does not mean that the education they received is not valuable.

KAH: Part of the focus on professorial labor results from the growing pushback against the idea that our educational work should be its own reward. The language of labor resistance movements lets us resist the narrative of higher ed as “work of the mind.” We haven’t always seen our work as “labor,” using that language for the other, invisible work of the university — staff, facilities, food service, and so on.

Increasingly, we realize that our “work of the mind” doesn’t protect us from the same kinds of issues: low pay, no access to benefits, exclusion. So we focus on our labor, and the conditions thereof. I know how lucky I am; I have a retirement account through our employer, I could access health insurance if I needed to, and I have an office (shared) and a university-provided computer. I also have the respect of my colleagues. Most adjuncts do not have these benefits, and the conditions of their labor are considerably worse than mine. The labor focus opens doors across institutions; not focusing on capital means we do not open those doors intersectionally.

We say things like “The janitor/assistant/food worker gets paid more than I do,” devaluing their work, ignoring the different conditions under which they work, and suggesting that we are in competition with them for resources, which is just plain classism. Many people in this conversation want to use extreme metaphors, as Shonda mentioned, for the power they hold, forgetting that words like “slave” have real, concrete consequences. The exploitation of labor is enough to be angry about; we don’t need to claim all injustice under the umbrella of this one.

We should work to make all the work that creates the university more visible. Joe keeps repeating New Faculty Majority’s mantra that “faculty working conditions are student learning conditions.” This is true of every other kind of labor that makes the university function. This past winter, the safety of students has depended on facilities workers being able to clear sidewalks and keep the heat working. The people who keep the university in physical condition have an enormous impact on the learning conditions of students. How can we make the working conditions of these people visible to parents? How can we get them to ask, “Are your facilities workers unionized?” and “How many of my child’s classes are taught by adjuncts?”


The particular drum I keep beating is for adjuncts to share and take control of their stories as part of the ongoing, ever-growing narrative of contingency. Have a story you want to tell? Then tell it. Let me know if I can help you.

I agree with Katie and Shonda — as well as others who advance this argument — about adjuncting not being slavery or indentured servitude. This has been a flash point lately in the movement. Such rhetoric will alienate many more readers than it will sway. An adjunct is an employee — albeit an exploited and contingent one — not a slave, not an indentured servant.

In my evolving role as a post-academic editor, writer, and activist, I keep wondering about how best to reach parents. They, as well as their children, have a right to know how the modern university works to, as Katie observes above, increase financial disparities between those with power and those who do the real, day-to-day work. Parents and students should also know, as Shonda points out, how the downward movement of contingency has spread to advisers and other university administrators. How will having part-time, temporary professors and advisers affect students’ sense of connectedness and investment in their schools?

Shonda and Katie both advocate pluralizing the movement to include administrative staff and other underpaid and overworked university employees. How do we do it?



As always, I’m looking for participants for future columns. If you’re a contingent faculty member at any level of higher ed, contact me via email or Twitter. I’ll pair you with someone who’s had complementary experience as an adjunct, and you’ll be able to generate your own questions for each other.


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