Adjunct, Class, Fear

Following the death of Mary Vojtko — an ad­junct fac­ulty member — there has been an in­creasing focus on the role of non-​tenure track aca­demics in the US and the role of ‘zero-​hour’ con­tracts in UK uni­ver­sities. Here Maria Maisto de­velops some thoughts on ques­tions of uni­on­isa­tion and organisation.

adjunctdefinitionThe 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 is President of New Faculty Majority. Reposted from the US site Working Class Perspectives.

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