The award-winning 2016 Hollywood film Hidden Figures addresses the biases faced by African American women working for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s space program in the 1960s. At one point early in the movie, Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer) is told that NASA has no immediate plans to hire a replacement for the former supervisor of her department. Spencer’s character, who has stepped into the supervisory role on a de facto basis, will be expected to continue those endeavors indefinitely without official recognition. She laments to the movie audience the unfairness of her being expected to do the work of this position without being given either the corresponding title or the salary.
While those of us who work as adjuncts in higher education have certainly not had to deal with the terrible systemic racism that Vaughan and other African American women had to endure, our situation has some similarities with Vaughan's professional plight. We may possess comparable academic degrees to those of our full-time colleagues; we frequently teach more courses per semester than they do; we often conduct our own research, as well, and volunteer or are volunteered for campus service tasks such as assessment. Yet we are given neither the titles nor the remuneration that our tenured or tenure-track counterparts earn.
A careful analysis of the movie Hidden Figures shows that the women portrayed in it face bias on a number of levels. Most significant, they are living and working in 1960s America south of the Mason-Dixon Line and, therefore, exist within a milieu of pervasive societal and institutional bias. They also encounter the individual personal biases of various other characters on a regular basis. Albeit to a much lesser degree, as adjunct faculty, we, too, confront bias: the individual biases of students, colleagues and administrators, as well as the stress of attempting to forge a career within an academic institutional system that seems to be inherently positioned against us.
Bias is both subtle and unconscious; it can be difficult to definitively identify it in most interactions even when it feels like it is there. It may even be that my fellow adjuncts and I are at times too sensitive and too ready to misinterpret the looks or remarks that are directed toward us in a professional context. Nevertheless, every faculty member, both adjunct and tenured, whom I’ve spoken with recently about the topic agreed immediately that bias against adjuncts is endemic on academic campuses. Mostly, they cited the concept of a biased institutional system in which adjuncts are an exploited labor class. But they agreed that personal biases are at play on an individual level, as well.
In this piece, I will examine how bias toward adjuncts seems to play out among different groups: students, other faculty and administrators, in that order.
Students. They do not often seem to hold much bias against adjunct faculty. In general, students’ biases are more likely to be directed at the age, gender or race of their instructors rather than their academic rank, of which they are mostly unaware.
I always explain my part-time status to my students as part of the course orientation, letting them know that I will only be available on the campus on certain days of the week because, on the remaining days, I teach at a nearby institution. To the extent that they pay attention to this information at all, most students seem sympathetic to my work situation.
I did, however, receive one very negative course evaluation several years ago from a first-year student who interpreted my part-time status as an indication of my lack of caring about students on her campus. She also criticized my clothing, remarking that for the salary (she assumes) I am paid, I should be able to afford to dress more professionally. Clearly, it is possible for students to form biases against adjuncts based on our lack of availability and our shabbier clothing compared to those of our full-time counterparts, but in my experience, that is rare.
It is far more common for me to have to remind students of my low rank at times such as when they request recommendation letters or seek advisement. Knowing that an awards or graduate school admissions committee may set a low value on an adjunct’s recommendation, I advise many of my students to improve their chances of success by seeking recommendations from faculty with higher status.
I have also noticed a disturbing trend in regard to my students’ dreams of future employment that shows how little they understand about adjunct positioning. An alarming number of my undergraduate and graduate students alike have begun to tell me that their career aspiration is to be an adjunct professor. They believe that teaching English in a college setting, even just part-time and with a master’s degree, is a better prospect than teaching in a high school, where the current emphasis on testing and assessment means that they will have little control over the curriculum in their classrooms or their approach to it. I have managed to discourage some of them only by candidly revealing my yearly salary.
Faculty members. Bias against adjuncts from tenure-track faculty members is usually more subtle than that coming from students but also far more common. Faculty members often view adjuncts as complainers, always whining about some problem or other. As I have earlier suggested, adjuncts may, in fact, have many genuine grievances, and, what’s more, years of part-time employment frequently cause anger and frustration to build up. Thus, it should be no surprise that many adjuncts are not the happiest or pleasantest of colleagues. Faculty members who serve on the department’s scheduling committee, for example, report that some of the most difficult and demanding requests made each semester come from adjuncts, and not just requests about time constraints, which are understandable, given our hectic schedules.
Tenured and tenure-track faculty also have a tendency to regard adjuncts as deficient in some aspect of ability, ambition or work ethic. Some of those who have been through the tenure process have told me that the general mind-set of such faculty members is to be proud of earning their professional positions -- and in an ever more competitive market, achieving tenure is indeed a praiseworthy accomplishment.
The corollary to that attitude, however, is an assumption, whether conscious or otherwise, that adjunct faculty have failed to achieve permanent employment though some weakness or error on their part. We adjuncts, they believe, could have succeeded in the same way they did if only we had finished a degree, published more scholarship, handled ourselves better on the job market and so on. Very few people in academe seem willing to acknowledge the situation that is growing plainer every year: colleges and universities are offering fewer and fewer tenure-track lines, and more and more eminently qualified graduate students are left to attempt to survive in the adjunct positions that are the only ones available.
Instead, full-time faculty members often find it easier to direct implicit bias or blame toward the adjuncts themselves, who they assume must in some way deserve to be in the positions they occupy. One tenured professor boldly proclaimed to an adjunct colleague that she considers all adjunct faculty to be “scabs.” Apparently, her idea is that if we are willing to work under the low-wage, low-respect conditions the college offers, we are by definition complicit in our own exploitation. Another full professor once told my husband that my long-term employment as an adjunct is the logical consequence of my decision to marry a fellow academic and not have a commuter marriage. I should, it seems, have followed my head rather than my heart if I truly desired an academic career of my own.
Administrators. To administrators, adjunct faculty members are usually just figures on a balance sheet. I appreciate those few deans I have worked for over the years who know me by name and are aware of my work; most are unaware of either. A recent set of minutes of the oversight committee for first-year writing at one campus illustrates the standard administrative position. It celebrated the fact that, over the past few semesters, more full-time faculty had volunteered to teach first-year writing seminar courses, and therefore, fewer and fewer adjuncts were needed. While not having to hire additional people to teach the course clearly provides financial benefits, the document also reinforces an assumption that the quality of instruction given by full-time faculty is superior.
This assumption seems especially problematic given that the full-time faculty members in this case are almost entirely drawn from disciplines other than English, unlike the adjuncts they are replacing -- all of whom have some amount of training and experience in the teaching of college composition. The report goes on to explain the need for workshops to introduce these faculty members to composition pedagogy.
One of the most insidious effects of bias against adjuncts is that it serves as a barrier to professional advancement. As adjuncts, we are sometimes warned not to use that term on our curricula vitae. Hiring committees, it seems, often form significant biases against a candidate simply because the person is or has been an adjunct. One of my colleagues who is certified to teach at the high school level told me that even a secondary school to which she applied made the assumption that she must be incompetent because she is not employed full-time at her college.
Years ago, another adjunct and I both lost our positions at a college when the administration decided to convert our two part-time positions into one full-time. She and I, both at the time at the A.B.D. stage of our doctoral work, applied for the new position but were not interviewed. The job went to someone with a master’s degree who had not previously been employed as an adjunct.
As the number of tenure-track positions at most colleges and universities continues to dwindle, increasing numbers of well-qualified academics are forced to take the adjunct positions that are the only ones available. Once in that ghettoized space, most of us will find it impossible to escape. Yet a bias that suggests that adjuncts are inferior teachers or scholars who somehow deserve our lot makes less and less sense as time goes on. Increasing numbers of young scholars will come to know the frustration of movie character Dorothy Vaughan, performing the tasks required of a high-status job but receiving neither the title nor the pay that should be attached -- and facing the biases of the more privileged on a daily basis.
As a final note, I would like to point out that the film writers of Hidden Figures fashioned this incident for dramatic purposes. In real life, Dorothy Vaughan was ultimately, even in the pre-civil rights South, given the title and salary that her work demanded. Fifty years later, academe still has some catching up to do.