Adjuncts, Class, and Fear

The biggest obstacle to organizing adjunct (part-time and full-time non-tenure-track) professors, who now comprise 75% of the faculty in higher education, with part-timers working for $2700 per course on average  — is fear.  Most people assume that adjuncts fear retribution for boat-rocking of any kind.  That worry is not unfounded, since examples of such retaliation abound.

However, many adjuncts feel paralyzed by a deeper, unspoken fear, one that is primarily internal and fraught with complexities that Working-Class Studies can help illuminate and overcome.  This fear stems from the tension, well-documented and long-discussed, between adjuncts’ nominal professional status and the actual workplace conditions that place us in the category of the working class.

The intense debate surrounding Duquesne adjunct French professor Margaret Mary Vojtko’s life and death has placed this tension in an unusually prominent light. For many adjuncts, as for members of other professions, talk of organizing instills fear not so much of retaliation but of being associated with the “kind of person” who joins a union.  With titles and work that give the public perception of professional status but without the corresponding income, hanging on to that status becomes critical to maintaining one’s identity.

Professor Vojtko does not appear to have been afflicted with this kind of fear.  Contrary to what the Duquesne administration would have the public believe, she sought out and strongly supported the new union.  Her colleagues and her family, who knew her best, believe that she would have approved of the attention finally being directed at the injustices she and so many other contingent faculty have experienced for decades. Yet a disturbingly high number of the responses to Vojtko’s story reveal that many adjuncts have experienced — or are expected by others to experience — deep shame.   As a result, many adjuncts personalize and privatize the structural and systemic nature of the inequities in higher education.  Naive belief in an illusory meritocracy often obstructs the ability to understand that the academic employment system is not immutable. “I had the privilege of an education and the pleasure of work I enjoy,” goes this script,  “so I should have ‘known better,’ and now deserve the conditions in which I live.”   Variations on this theme include internal and external rebukes for not accepting the economic status quo as supposedly natural rather than constructed.

How can we combat the paralyzing effects of the internally- and externally-imposed fears in order to mobilize adjuncts into organizing and action?

One answer, evidenced by the successful forays of non-academic unions of Votjko’s  Steelworkers  and SEIU into adjunct organizing, has been to “flip the classroom,” to appropriate the language of some of the corporate reform most in vogue. In this approach, faculty indignation that adjuncts are treated as “nothing more” than, for example, fast-food workers (statements that reinforce the class divide) is transformed from denunciation into inspiration — and aspiration.  We begin to see other workers’ material and psychological gains as achievable goals.  We begin to see them as colleagues who are confronting the structural reality we have fooled ourselves into denying.  We allow ourselves to be educated by, as well as to educate, the janitors and fast-food workers of America, who are often our students and sometimes our relatives. This can only be done, like most other organizing, with one-on-one discussions that build trust and relationships as they educate.

For me, the lessons have been quite personal.  Being the granddaughter of an immigrant steelworker from Braddock, PA, was not something to which I gave much thought until I became an adjunct.  Up until then, my experiences as an Asian American woman figured more prominently in my life.   My father had moved successfully from the working class to a solid middle class professional life, never forgetting or turning his back on his roots.  My grandfather, who never finished high school, and my father, who was the first in his immediate family to get a college degree and who worked his way through college without incurring any student loan debt, saw my desire to become a college professor as a logical outgrowth of the family journey.  It validated their faith that higher education was the key element in such a journey.

My grandfather did not live to see me go on to a PhD program.  Nor did he see me get derailed from finishing it and end up in contingent academic employment needing financial assistance from my family because my full-time “part-time” teaching could hardly support a 5-person family with a new baby, a child on the autism spectrum, and a spouse who had lost his own teaching job in the worst economy in the US in decades. I’m glad that my grandfather didn’t have to witness what has shocked my father: that higher education failed to live up to their experience and expectations.

But I am also sad that my grandfather did not live to see me become an activist and organizer for contingent faculty and for the integrity of higher education.  I wish I could ask him about his union organizing in the 1930s, or why he became disillusioned with his union in the 1960s and 70s, and I wonder what he would think about the state of the American labor movement today.  I am glad that I can talk to my father about his professional association and his uncomplicated recognition and appreciation of its function as a labor organization.  And I am very glad, now that I teach mostly working-class and immigrant students at a community college, that I can speak to my dad about what it was like being a working class, “ethnic” student at a college where he was decidedly in the minority. I’m glad that being an adjunct has made me better able to understand the social, political, and economic stresses of my students.

As I work to organize adjunct faculty in Ohio and nationally, my own biggest fear is that any successes we have will erase our collective memory of our adjunct experience and desensitize us to the reality of the least advantaged of our students.  If our efforts re-gild  instead of reclaim the ivory tower, then we will have failed our students and ourselves.

Our success should instead be measured by the degree to which our movement breaks down the academic caste system and promotes respect for those of our students and colleagues who come from working-class backgrounds. It will be successful when organizing efforts, like adjuncts themselves, are no longer on the margins of political activity — or civic education.

Maria Maisto

Maria Maisto is President of New Faculty Majority.

This entry was posted in Class and Education, Contributors, Guest Bloggers, Issues, Labor and Community Activism and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Adjuncts, Class, and Fear

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  9. Amen, Maria. Well said.
    Chad, It’s true that most of the unions have gotten only crumbs for adjuncts, but CWA’s higher Ed. affiliates are smarter than that and some of the others are waking up. Even AAUP has come out publicly in its realization that the professorate has been gutted by the overuse of adjunct labor. Others are noticing, too. Check out CJR Audit by Ryan Chittum:


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  13. Chad Rosoce says:

    Hello… What about the fact most of the adjunct unions I belong or have belonged to ALSO represent the full-time faculty, so they are usually pulled in two directions because what the full-time faculty wants usually conflicts with what the part-timers need. And, when push comes to shove, they serve the full-timers because those folks are permanent members.
    So, there are unions, they’re just useless for us.
    AND, as long as the schools can just hire any old “just graduated from an MA program and have no experience but collaborated with a hiring committee member on a paper” personfor the very rare full-time slot instead of the dedicated adjunct with perfect reviews and 8 years at the institution, even with a union in place, what, I ask again, good are they? I think it’s ridiculous to posite that we don’t want to be seen as teamsters or “that kind of employee.” I’d be happy to be seen as a teamster or some other “uneducated” or “unprofessional” class if it meant any kind of seperate representation, and senority in hiring rights, but it doesn’t. Last semester I heard the a. dean tell a full-time faculty member who had just finshed teaching her second semester EVER IN HER LIFE (and had just earned her MA one year before) that her tenure was approved. That’s a great union. I mean, seriously, who wouldn’t be afraid to speak up? They can always just tell you they’re short on classes for a semester and you’re out, and the unions know and do NOTHING about it. It’s not fear of looking like we’re working class. We know we’re not even working class; we’re slave labor. No, it’s fear of losing the crappy jobs that we do have. My last college the union had put in place an adjunct sort of tenure. If you had taught a certain # of semesters in a row you were guarenteed an adjunct schedule if ANY adjunct classes were available. When it was time for me to work that final semester to make the tenure roll, low and behold, there were no classes for me. They just ran out, no explanation, even though there were adjunct classes, and I had just aced my review two months before. So, no adjunct tenure for me.
    Yeah, the unions, real helpful.


  14. Thanks for sharing that. Dewey himself left teaching for other pursuits. That says much, right there.


  15. Pingback: Adjuncts, Class, and Fear | The Adjunct Crisis

  16. Sandra Baringer says:

    No ntt professional should ever be too ashamed to apply for food stamps, Medicaid, or SSI (Supplemental Security Income). With the ACA deadlines approaching, we (ntt activists) should be foregrounding panels, workshops, and education on entitlements and how to apply for them.


  17. Alan Harrison says:

    As a British observer, who spent several years as a lecturer on a temporary contract, and as branch president of the Association of University Teachers, as it then was, I’m a bit mystified by this. Why isn’t the American union equivalent of the University and College Union, which I know to exist, recruiting and representing adjunct faculty?


  18. VanessaVaile says:

    Reblogged this on As the Adjunctiverse Turns and commented:
    Must read AND comment AND share post by Maria Maisto on class and fear as factors in organizing adjunct faculty


  19. unfortunately though organizing has to go beyond getting into a union–im an adjunct and im in a union. on average we only make a few hundred dollars more a semester. Basically, we, like many workers are the ignored 2nd tier majority…


  20. Patrick Finn says:

    This is a very good post on a topic that needs more attention: exploitation of workers in higher education.
    In the 90s I was on a listserve of working-class people in higher education. I am one of those people. I posted an email saying that adjuncts who were hoping to get tenure track positions at the places they worked by doing a really good job of teaching were kidding themselves. At the University at Buffalo where I worked, an adjunct would never be considered for a tenure track appointment. I arranged to have of my own doctoral students teach a course and realized that she thought that put her in line for a vacancy.
    I soon began to feel like a pariah on the list serve.
    BTW since I retired I have taught a course called “Organizing for Teachers” at Antioch University/Los Angeles several times as an adjunct.


  21. Patrick Finn says:

    In 1933 John Dewey published this short paper urging teachers to view themselves as aligned with workers and unions.
    Dewey, J. (1933). Education and our present social problems. Educational Method, XII (7), 385-390.
    Dewey had union card #1 in the NYC Teachers Union of his day.


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