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.