I sat out National Adjunct Walkout Day (NAWD) with my annual respiratory infection, but my colleagues in our union’s adjunct caucus made some great plans: a scorecard for each department, based on adjunct surveys of their working conditions and publicized in the school newspaper; an “office hours” booth in the student union modeled on Lucy’s “the Doctor is in” booth from “Peanuts,” stocked with a petition for paid office hours for adjuncts, informational leaflets from New Faculty Majority (NFM), and “graded by underpaid labor” buttons and stamps; teach-ins all over campus with free curriculum and materials posted to the caucus Facebook page. Sadly, only the last of these actually came to fruition. Only three of us are active in the caucus, and one didn’t get a class this semester. In short, the spirit was willing, but the organization was weak.
I suspect this was a problem at many other campuses where there was no or minimal participation in NAWD. When the suggestion for a walkout was first posed in October 2014, many of us already active in the adjunct equity movement expressed skepticism that anything would happen, including me. There was no organization, resources, or plan; there was just the name and the date, an anonymous Facebook page and a Twitter hashtag. We’d seen the crowd-sourced Occupy movement bring a number of issues about inequity into the public conversation and then splinter into continuing local movements that still get less press than they deserve, so we were mildly hopeful.
As social media buzz for NAWD accelerated, a group of activists decided to get behind the effort too, working our union and media contacts to help push the movement into the limelight. We badgered writers at Al Jazeera, USA Today, Huffington Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, PBS, NPR, Alternet and elsewhere about the movement, offering information and interviews. We tweeted and posted and promoted at every opportunity to unions like SEIU and the Steelworkers, who are active in adjunct organizing, and supportive academic organizations like New Faculty Majority (NFM), AAUP and the MLA. Since there wasn’t any information forthcoming, we made it up as we went along. And the movement grew, not because of any one group, but because there was a coordinated effort and a media campaign. Now that NAWD is over, we are doing the same with #afterNAWD, helping to gather stories and experiences to learn from for the next effort. [Editor’s note: University of Venus co-hosted an #afterNAWD discussion during the last #femlead chat on March 6.]
Social justice movements don’t just happen. Often, it appears that way: there is a catalyzing event—Rosa Parks’ civil disobedience, the shootings at Kent State, the Stonewall riots—that makes it seem as though people’s hearts have spontaneously combusted into action. The truth is always more complicated. Before that event happened, there have probably been months, if not years, of planning, organizations already in place, media and political contacts already cultivated. Sometimes, as in the case of Rosa Parks, the apparently spontaneous event itself is anything but; the ideas are already in the zeitgeist and plans are already taking shape.
This is certainly the case with NAWD, for which NFM’s Campus Equity Week was a clear precursor. Three years ago, I started collecting media stories about contingent faculty as a research resource. In the first eighteen months of collecting, there were no more than two or three articles a week popping up in my Google alerts. The archive now has more than 700 articles, and I can no longer keep up with the output. More and more people are being enlightened about contingent faculty conditions, thanks to NFM’s publicity campaign and the efforts of a number of organized, brave, and vocal activists.
To capitalize on the international turnout for NAWD, the movement needs to build on the existing contacts among unions, media, and academic societies to counter the current narrative of market forces and “just get another job” trolls. We need to make allies of parents, students, K-12 educators, and our own tenured and tenure-track colleagues. By building contacts and relationships with media—writing op-eds and articles, participating in interviews, organizing campus teach-ins and panels at academic conferences, lobbying for legislative change—we not only fulfill our duty as public intellectuals, but we control the narrative.
We need to own the rhetoric, define the argument, build the machinery of protest and change. We need to organize. Our future, and the future of higher education, is too important to leave to chance.
Lee Kottner, New Jersey City University