The Adjunct's Moment of Truth

Like most of us who work in higher education, I really don’t have the time, or the courage, to be an activist for adjunct faculty rights. But I’m making the time and I’m summoning the courage because I’m not only an adjunct; I’m a parent and a citizen who is concerned — indeed, afraid — for the future of higher education.

September 10, 2009

Like most of us who work in higher education, I really don’t have the time, or the courage, to be an activist for adjunct faculty rights. But I’m making the time and I’m summoning the courage because I’m not only an adjunct; I’m a parent and a citizen who is concerned — indeed, afraid — for the future of higher education.

I don’t have time to be an adjunct activist because, for one thing, I teach English composition — one of the most labor-intensive teaching assignments out there. This semester I’ll have to respond to 85 students on two different campuses and almost 2,000 pages of writing, and I want to give them all my very best effort as a teacher. At home I’ve got three kids under the age of 12 — one with Asperger’s Syndrome, one a toddler — and a spouse who has to look for a new job in the worst economy in decades.

For those reasons I’m also just a little bit afraid to be an adjunct activist. If you’ve been reading the news, you know that contingent faculty members are among the most vulnerable workers in higher education, and each story I read about them losing their jobs to budget cuts or possible political retaliation sends a chill up my spine. Not surprisingly, many people have suggested that for the sake of my family I could — or should — be using my time to get a “real” job that actually pays a living wage — with benefits.

Yet here I am, improbably, helping to lead a new national organization that has been formed to advocate for such basic and unfathomably overdue rights for contingent faculty as equal pay for equal work; decent health and retirement benefits; job security; unemployment insurance; and professional working conditions, including academic freedom. In recognition of the fact that faculty off the tenure track, according to the Department of Education, now constitute nearly 70 percent of the higher ed teaching population — some 800,000 professionals — we’ve called ourselves New Faculty Majority: The National Coalition for Adjunct and Contingent Equity.

Our organizing committee met on the adj-l listserv and decided to bring to fruition an idea that had been raised at the Coalition on Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL) VIII Conference in 2008. Since February 2009, NFM has created its mission statement, incorporated, and begun the long process of applying for nonprofit status. We have a growing Board of Directors and Board of Advisors, and, most significantly, a powerful new Web site that will help us with membership, education, and advocacy. Even without significant resources yet, we’ve begun those advocacy efforts by publicly supporting brave faculty members like Ebon Fisher and Gerald Davey, who have had their livelihoods practically destroyed after daring to draw attention to gross inequities in the treatment of contingent faculty. Our goal is to have a national staff and engaged membership working year-round for the transformation of the current exploitative academic labor system into an ethical structure that treats all faculty members with justice, fairness and dignity.

When I became an adjunct four years ago, it didn’t take me long to realize just how bad it can be, even though I had spent years, as a grad student and working in higher ed associations, largely ignorant of the daily reality of contingent faculty working conditions. The tenured professor who hired me apologized for having to offer such low wages, and my colleagues tried to orient me to the program and the campus in the middle of their own hectic schedules, since the university has no orientation program for adjunct faculty. At Thanksgiving, as I dove into my stack of papers after dinner, a relative asked why the university could not assign a graduate student to grade my papers for me. I looked at him incredulously.

One of my NFM colleagues, Anne Wiegard, recently reminded those of us on the organizing committee of the essay “The Housewife’s Moment of Truth” by Jane O’Reilly, from the December 20, 1971 issue of New York Magazine — the issue that introduced Ms. Magazine to the world. It’s part manifesto and all poetry; you don’t have to be a woman or even to have known one alive during that time to be moved by it. It describes the little and big moments in which the lowest points of humiliation and demoralization are transformed into the courage that builds social movements. Another NFM colleague, Vanessa Crary Vaile, was a charter subscriber to that upstart new publication. “Adjuncts of any gender are the housewives and handmaidens of academia,” she says. “The click of recognition, not the exclusive domain of any group, is universal for awareness and consciousness-raising — that point of no return past which you can never return to a previous frame of mind.”

The click of recognition. My Thanksgiving moment was the first of several. The ones that followed? When I faced the prospect of having to support my family on my adjunct’s salary alone ($20K over a year to teach the same number of courses as most full-time faculty members, and not even that when I don’t get summer work). When a colleague who -- like me -- was denied unemployment insurance over the summer because she supposedly has “reasonable assurance of employment” without a contract, at the same time couldn’t get a loan because she couldn’t show adequate proof of employment without a contract. When I heard about an actual single-parent adjunct who had to sell her plasma to buy groceries. When a friend who has taught “part time” for decades at one institution was turned down for a “full time” position at twice the salary plus benefits — to teach exactly the same courses and do all of the extra work that she had always done voluntarily — at that same institution.

When I discovered that buying into the university’s insurance plan for my family might cost more than my monthly paycheck. When an administrator on my campus actually acknowledged —publicly — that Walmart treats its part-time employees better than colleges and universities treat adjuncts and that we constitute a “highly educated working poor.” When 17 adjunct colleagues and I wrote a letter to the editor of our local newspaper drawing attention to contingent faculty working conditions and only one tenured professor from our department would join the two officers from our campus AAUP chapter I had invited to sign it. When I realized that my children are likely to have college instructors who are either overworked, distracted tenure-stream professors or undersupported, freeway-flying contingents — in either case, effectively being prevented by colleges and universities from being given the highest quality education possible, and of particular concern given the diverse needs of so many student populations — Aspies like my child, parenting students, and veterans, to name a few. When I saw the confusion in a bright young student’s face as I told him I couldn’t, in conscience, recommend that he pursue a graduate degree in English and a career in college teaching if he also intended to support himself, much less a family.

“Those clicks are coming faster and faster,” O’Reilly wrote of the life of a housewife in 1971. They are in 2009, too, for adjuncts. They were put in motion by the adjunct activists who have been speaking out since I was in college 20 years ago. But to speak of generations of adjuncts is, necessarily, to acknowledge that the “second wave” of adjunct activism, as my NFM colleague Rich Moser calls it, has arrived. And of course, the clicks that have heralded its coming are not just clicks of recognition but also the ubiquitous clicks that define our Internet-driven era, the clicks that have helped to produce the highest level of political participation among our citizenry in recent memory. For one of the things that makes NFM different from every laudable organizing effort that has gone before is that we are unabashedly harnessing the communicative power of the internet. Earlier attempts to capitalize on the power of the Web, including the adj-l listserv, have been lifelines to many contingent faculty members nationwide, and we are building on those efforts. But we recognize that for the movement to succeed, we have to inspire clicks of recognition and resolve not just on campus but in the larger community.

To that end, we have been inspired by the success of organizations like, which was instrumental in getting the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act passed this year through relentless electronic education and advocacy, much of it carried out by tens of thousands of harried, overworked parents whose couldn’t always go out into the streets to demonstrate but could easily click on a link to send an email to Congress. We see organizations like MomsRising and United Professionals and others as potential allies that will help us to reach as many people outside of academe as possible.

Of course, technology alone will not accomplish our goals. While our Web presence will be critical, another factor essential to our success is, still, time. It takes time to raise money, to educate the public, to engage with our colleagues on the tenure track and in administration, to lobby legislatures, to take unscrupulous institutions to court. We need all the people who lament the current situation – and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t, at least publicly — to commit their time, energy, and talent to changing it, even if it will take time — and courage —that they think they don’t have.

So in this effort, I don’t have time for union bashing or union fundamentalism; I have plenty of time for principled advocacy. I don’t have time for partisan politics; I have plenty of time to cooperate, as a Democrat, with my Republican adjunct colleague and NFM’s vice president, Matt Williams. I know that the principled but pragmatic approach we are espousing at NFM will not sit well with everyone; however, I really don’t have time to worry about that or to be afraid of the barbs that will come our way. As Paul Begala recently observed in a thoughtful reflection — born of experience — about health care reform: “[P]rogressive politics is ... a movement, not a monument.”

I’ve made time for NFM because I believe it will use my time wisely, and working with colleagues committed to social justice and educational quality has given me courage and inspiration. I’m not interested in wasting time demonizing administrators, ridiculing tenure, scapegoating adjuncts, or quarreling with other adjunct advocates; I am interested in investing time in thoughtful, honest discussion and collaboration for the purpose of fixing a system that is broken. But — I also don’t have time for a lot of talk that doesn’t lead to action. Why? Because college students don’t have time to wait for all of us involved in higher education — contingent faculty, tenure-track faculty, staff, administrators, trustees and legislators — to find some courage. Because we don’t have much time before my kids and countless others are ready to start college. And because neither my family nor my students have time for me to find a “real” job when I already have one; if teaching isn’t a real job, then what is?



Maria Maisto is a contingent faculty member in Ohio and president of the Board of Directors of New Faculty Majority: The National Coalition for Adjunct and Contingent Equity.


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