That Which We Call an Adjunct…

Words are my life.

As a writing professor, I recognize perhaps more than most the power of language. I often dwell on my word choices for long enough to make most people crazy, but I do it because I know how powerful words can be. The perfect word can manipulate connotation so much so that it shifts the tone of an entire piece.

This power of language has been bouncing around the contingent labor blogs lately and it’s caught my attention. The basic argument is that we non-tenure track faculty members have historically allowed our names to be chosen for us. We have relinquished our agency and surrendered our power to choose our own name. As a result, we’ve ended up with titles like “adjunct,” “contingent,” “casual,” or one my personal favorites, “precarios.” It doesn’t take a linguist to recognize that all those names are titles of inferiority. By accepting those titles, we are internalizing the oppression and perpetuating the perception that we are, in fact, less important than our full-time colleagues. Therefore, I propose (as others have) that we reappropriate our faculty status by renaming ourselves in a way that distinguishes us from full-time faculty, but yet does not relegate us to some kind of inferior status by connotation.

I have to admit I’m actually a little bit obsessive about selecting names. I think it might come from my five years of experience in retail management during which I was charged with designing marketing and merchandising strategies that perfectly targeted the consumer mind. Beyond that, a chapter of my master’s thesis was devoted to postmodern branding and the role of the “brand” in the construction of the postwar American conscious. Anyway, the point is branding and advertising happen to be personal projects of mine, so naturally I’ve become really interested in the latest wave of discussion that is seeking to “re-brand” the persona of adjunct faculty.

The new name must be one that, first and foremost, lifts the inferior label from the adjunct profession. We are no longer “a thing added to something else as a supplementary rather than an essential part.” We are the majority now and it’s time we have a name that reflects it. So no more precarious job titles. As long as we are referred to in this manner, we will continue to be thought of as such.

Second, I think we do still need a name that distinguishes us from full-time faculty. “Non-tenure track” is too broad and doesn’t really explain the levels inherent even within that classification. The name needs to be entirely different and new, and it needs to be reserved for us alone.

Finally, we need a name that is forward-thinking and suggests the future of our profession. It needs to be a name that sticks and it needs to redefine our role on college campuses. I want it to push administration and others to see us in a new light, one that carries a little more permanence than we currently have.

After much thought, the name I’ve come up with is: Annual Professor.

This title satisfies all three of the requirements I outlined above. It lifts the connotation of inferiority. It distinguishes us from full-time faculty. It carries a degree of permanence adjuncts have never before had. It implies a position that is renewed each year, rather than each semester. Because of this, it puts users of the word in the mindset that this job is much more sustainable and enduring than that of the semesterly adjunct. In fact, I believe it will push administrators towards the idea that adjuncts should be given annual contracts, which would, of course, be a big step in the right direction. Annuals should have contracts that last the entire school year. Makes sense, right?

Some other things I like about this new title are:

  • easy transition from adjunct—both begin with “A” and both have six letters.
  • shortened usage: Annuals
  • highly-tweetable

Like I said, I have given this serious thought—way more than I should have probably. I’m really liking this title, but I want to hear what my colleagues think. What do you say? Has anyone thought about this? Other suggestions? The bottom line is we have got to stop internalizing this aura of inferiority. Changing our name is a good place to start.

The Project And I Make Our Radio Debut

The Adjunct Project rolls on.

I was on the phone for an hour this afternoon with Robin Young, host of the popular radio show Here & Now  that airs on NPR. The show is actually distributed by Public Radio International, but many NPR stations carry it. As far as I can tell, the interview will air soon (maybe as early as Friday). They are going to let me know once the show is edited, but I just wanted to give you a heads up so you can be on the lookout.

Much of the discussion centered on The Adjunct Project and the increasingly publicized data regarding the trend toward contingent labor on college campuses. Young addressed the recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education and she gave me an opportunity to respond to some of the comments that article generated.

To be honest with you, I was a little nervous and I don’t recall much of what I said. Eesh. Hopefully everything went well. I remember discussing the need for transparency, and specifically mentioning the fact that the usual cry of budgetary issues as a justification for low adjunct pay was a smokescreen and that I don’t buy it. I suggested instead that administration needs to re-prioritize how those budget dollars are allocated.

I think it went well, but that was my first major radio interview, so keep that in mind as you listen.  I’ll edit this post when I find out the air date. In the meantime, check out which of your local stations carries the program. Here is a station locator. It should also be available as a podcast.

The Disposable Professor

This one is gonna sting a little. The new career track for university faculty is that of the Disposable Professor. As we rely more and more on adjunct labor, we are slowly surrendering our power on college campuses. Contingent faculty are, by definition, powerless. Completely replaceable. No tenure, no bargaining rights, no contract, no voice. If the administration has no use for an adjunct, she is unemployed. No appeal, no second chance. The adjunct has no value beyond that which is exploitable by the university. He is a disposable professor.

We have all heard of the “corporatization of the university.” We know that story. And we think we know who is to blame. The evil administration, of course. And believe me, they deserve a lot of the blame for sure. But recognize also that we are allowing it to happen, which is worse in some ways. We are not taking responsibility for the fact that we are permitting the creation of the disposable professor by our quiet acquiescence. The administration’s job is to run the business side of the campus. They have budgets and they have to meet them. They cut wherever they can get away with it. It’s in their nature.

It’s the job of the faculty, on the other hand, to ensure those budget cuts don’t dramatically impact the intellectual environment of the campus. It is our duty to push back when the academic integrity of the university is being undermined in favor of making money. And we are failing badly at this responsibility. We’re allowing the business side of the university to cannibalize the intellectual side. Consequently, we are complicit in the university’s corporatization.

Sadly, as evidenced by the data in the Adjunct Project, English departments are the worst offenders. An overwhelming number of adjuncts who have collaborated on the Adjunct Project teach in first-year writing programs. In fact, most first-year composition departments are staffed predominately by non-tenure track contingent faculty—instructors who are unconscionably remunerated and have no job security from semester to semester. We are standing by while the administration tells us how best to run our departments. In the eyes of the business-minded administrators, the best way to run the English department is the cheapest way. Why are we allowing them to make decisions for us that we know are killing the intellectual environment of our schools?

Paying our colleagues dirt, providing no benefits or job security, standing idly by while administration gradually picks away at academic freedom and strips faculty of tenure. They are running a business. They will never just decide to favor the intellectual side of the university unless they are forced to. Unless the business side is jeopardized by the actions of the intellectual side. If we want the American university to continue to be a place of academic freedom and intellectual integrity, we are going to have to fight for it. Otherwise, it will gradually slip away.

Fighting the Disposable Professor

The single most important thing to remember here is that WE HAVE THE POWER. It might not seem that way, but we do. We are the ones who actually make the university operate. Without the faculty, the doors can’t even open. Not only that, but we are the MAJORITY. We have the power. We just need to claim it. This will never happen if we act as individuals. All faculty need to unite to save our colleges.

Although my project is focused on the working conditions of adjuncts, the problem is not confined to adjuncts alone. Nor is this is an adjunct vs. tenure track issue. Not even in the least. We are all on the same team. We all want to keep our universities the cultural meccas they have traditionally been. This problem of the disposable professor is one that threatens every single one of us. If not us directly, then the generation that comes immediately after ours. We need to work together to fight the perpetuation of the disposable professor. Our power is in our solidarity.

With the invention of the disposable professor, comes departments that are increasingly commodified (especially adjunct-heavy departments like English and Mathematics). We are allowing a dollar value to be placed on intellectual thought. I don’t think I need to tell you how dangerous this is. The university economy is shifting towards the hyper-efficient and away from the aesthetic, and we are allowing it to happen. It’s time for the intellectual side to push back on the business side and re-balance this equation.

See Also: Crowdsourcing a Compilation of Adjunct Working Conditions

First-Year Commodity: The Adjunct Professor Labor Crisis in Composition Departments

The Adjunct Project

So I’ve taken to calling this thing “The Adjunct Project.” As Lee Skallerup Bessette pointed out, the Adjunct Project has gone about “as viral as you can go in academic circles.” It has been a wild couple of days, to say the least. I’ve had my eyes on the Google Doc about 14-18 hours a day every day. Pretty much any time I’m not standing in a classroom full of freshman or sleeping. I’m constantly backing up the data, and fixing the exuberant (and undoubtedly well-intentioned) “edits.” But hey, that’s part of it with collaboration. Totally worth it. I’m sure you’re wondering, so let me throw some numbers at you:
As of Thursday at 5PM→

  • the Google doc has been viewed just under 12,000 times (in 3 days!)
  • 529 schools have been added
  • at any given time, between 30 and 60 people are actively collaborating on the doc
  • traffic referrals: 6000 from Facebook, 800 from Twitter, 700 from Tumblr, 300 from Crooked Timber, 300 from The Chronicle, 100 from Inside HigherEd, and hundreds of other sources
  • gained international attention (I have personally been contacted by professors in Canada, Australia, Spain, and England.)

Hmm . . . I think it’s safe to say we have people’s attention.

The question everyone keeps asking me is what now? What will we do with this data? Where do we go from here?
Well, to be honest with you, I’m working on answers to those questions at this very moment. New schools are still being added every hour. The data is really useful for studying one school, but as far as comparing multiple schools, it’s kind of a mess. Some of you have pointed out to me the importance of considering the cost of living when comparing schools. This is certainly true, and it’s something I will do my best to consider. Stacey Donohue of Central Oregon Community College also made a great point about the need to distinguish between community colleges and four-year universities. Very important that we keep these factors in mind as we cull the data.
Basically, there are a lot of exciting, but yet to be determined possibilities for The Adjunct Project. I’m sure we will find many more great uses, but here are a few things I can definitely tell you I’ll do:
  1. Publish the results publicly to a static webpage (and probably a dynamic one, as well).
  2. Continue collecting data.
  3. Work to create some kind of ranking system.
  4. Contact some of you for follow-up information.
  5. Work towards publishing the data somewhere. Any publishers want to throw some money at a book? 🙂

These are some of my plans. But ultimately, The Adjunct Project is for the adjuncts. We created this thing, and it is beautiful. Nothing like it has ever been done before. We stood up to the bullies. This is the beginning of a national movement by the people, for the people. Our collaborative effort has created one of the most useful documents ever written in our quest for adjunct justice. Keep this energy going. We are forcing ourselves into the spotlight. People have to listen because we are shouting. Don’t stop. This goes for both adjuncts and also for those sympathetic to the adjunct cause (there are many of you who support us, and we thank you).

Keep the Adjunct Project Energy Going:

  1. Compare your school with others. Do your best to match up with similar schools (size, cost of living, 2-year/4-year,etc.)
  2. Connect with other adjuncts in your area. Get contact info from the doc and unite. We’re all in this together. I promise you no one will think it’s weird if you send them an email or tweet.
  3. Continue to tell anyone and everyone. Try to get in the news. I’m working on a pitch to NPR as I type this.
  4. For you tweeters, use the new hashtag #AdjunctProject.
  5. I also just added a new tab at the bottom of the doc for “Adjunct Supporters” for those who aren’t adjuncts, but would like to show support.
  6. Contact me if you want to send more information. I will read it all. I don’t care how long the message is, or how trivial it might seem. I want to know your specific situation.

We did this. We have asserted our voices where we had none. And we did it with something that has almost completely disappeared from American culture: Real—no strings attached—sharing. Imagine that. Now keep sharing. Harness the power of community.

1. Inevitably, some of your entries have accidentally been altered. Be sure to check back and correct any accidents.
2. Special thank you to Michael Bérubé, Sara Hebel of The Chronicle, and Lee Skallerup Bessette for helping propel The Adjunct Project into the limelight.
*****3. As of 2/10 at 6PM EST, I have locked Page 1 of the sheet. I’ve become overwhelmed with fixing the (intentional?) scrambling of the data. It’s easy to fix by reviewing the revision history and resetting it, but I am having to reset it every 30 minutes or so, and it’s driving me crazy to be honest. Never fear, though, I added a second page. Continue adding schools on Page 2. I’ll eventually combine ’em all. If you need to make a correction to Page 1, just send me an email.

Crowdsourcing a Compilation of Adjunct Working Conditions

Google Doc – (update 5.24.12: Access the spreadsheet via the Adjunct Project website)

Yesterday, Michael Bérubé, president of the Modern Language Association and newfound hero of contingent faculty everywhere, published the essay “Among the Majority” on the MLA website. The piece is a reflection on the New Faculty Majority’s 2012 Summit he attended last weekend in Washington, DC, as well as a recap of some of the MLA’s recently-released recommendations for fair standards concerning non-tenure track faculty. In the essay, Bérubé specifically cites this beauty of a quote:

Following a review of best practices in various institutions, the MLA recommends minimum compensation for 2011–12 of $6,800 for a standard 3-credit-hour semester course or $4,530 for a standard 3-credit-hour quarter or trimester course. These recommendations are based on a full-time load of 3 courses per semester (6 per year) or 3 courses per quarter or trimester (9 per year); annual full-time equivalent thus falls in a range of $40,770 to $40,800.

Almost $7K per course! Most adjuncts have never seen anything close to that figure. I personally have taught at schools that pay right at or below $2000 maximum per course. Feel free to do the math on that one (Hint: a 5/5 pays $20,000 annually). You can be a terrible human being and still recognize that a full-time teacher should earn much more than that. Just in case you’re not familiar with the usual procedure, full-time professors generally teach much less than 10 courses per year. Some teach as few as three. The MLA’s recommendation is based on the assumption of a 3/3 teaching load, which sounds about perfect. I would venture to say most adjuncts would agree. Three courses per semester is ideal because it allows teaching to be the primary focus (as it should be), and it also permits some time for research and professional development. So, about $40,000 a year. That isn’t too much to ask I don’t think. Especially considering all adjuncts have advanced degrees in their fields.

Sadly, though, as I have mentioned, this level of compensation is very, very rare. Most adjuncts are paid far less. And somehow the university system continues to justify it. Which brings me to my next point.


I am so sick of hearing people say, “Well, let the market determine salaries. As long as people accept the pay, it must be okay.” This logic is completely asinine, and frankly I am surprised that anyone who thinks of himself or herself as an intelligent person accepts it. According to this argument, the exploitative post-Civil War sharecropping system, and the oppressive factory conditions of the Industrial Revolution must also be okay because “people chose to work there.” It’s pretty much universally accepted now that both of these systems were unfair to the workers due to the ultimate power held by the corporations in a time that the economic state of the nation left few options for the worker.

As adjunct professors, we are in a similar situation. Not quite the same—I admit that. But, similar. We teach because we love to teach. This is what we are trained to do, and it’s what we want to do. And the jobs exist. It’s not as though we are trying to force ourselves into a flooded market. Most of us are employed as professors. The need exists. The problem is there are few options for those of us who do it. If we want to be teachers, we are forced to do it for peanuts. Why can’t the adjunct positions we all hold come with a living wage? I don’t want to start on this all-too-familiar rant; the point is the market has no conscience. Everything is not up to it. At least, it shouldn’t be.

I also attended the New Faculty Majority summit and I wrote a post in which I discussed many of the same issues as Bérubé. I can’t even begin to describe how happy I am that he and the MLA (in addition to other groups like the AAUP and the AAC&U) have begun to take up this cause. It is a very real problem and it is threatening to endanger the future of higher education. The problem extends far beyond the adjunct professors alone. If the adjunct wages are not brought closer to that of tenured professors, there will be no economic incentive to continue hiring full-time professors. Why pay someone $70K when they can pay someone to do it for less than $10K? Obviously this doesn’t at all take into consideration the work done by professors outside of the classroom. It reduces everyone to a number. This is really a terrible way to describe any profession, but it is especially flagrant in the context of education.

I call attention to this flagrancy because ultimately, it comes down to the students. I have colleagues who go to work every day to teach young minds. To make them better writers, better thinkers, and better people. And then they go home and eat Ramen noodles for dinner, and worry about whether or not they have enough gas in the tank to coast to work the rest of the week. Ramen is no longer cool in your thirties. Trust me.

All I’m asking for is a very modest salary to do a job that I love, and for which there is a clear demand or else we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Apparently, Bérubé and the MLA agree.

In light of this new pay recommendation, I’ve decided to start collecting data about how many schools come close to this standard. By making this information public, we can recognize the schools that are doing a great job (like my school, the University of Georgia, for example). They deserve to be patted on the back for their good work. On the other hand, we will also be able expose those schools that have chosen to ignore the basic human rights of their employees and shortchange their students and their communities by devaluing the very education they pretend to celebrate.

In order to begin this process, I’ve created a Google Doc to crowdsource information from adjuncts about the adjunct working conditions at their respective universities. Things like course pay, benefits, retirement, and contracts. Let’s combine forces and establish which schools are doing good work, and which are doing bad. Fill in as much information as you feel comfortable doing, and be sure to tweet this document and share it via Facebook, email, listserv, or anywhere else you can think of.

At the summit, we discussed the idea of creating a “Hall of Fame” of the best universities to work for. I would like to see hundreds of schools get added to this list. Eventually, faculty treatment might even become a standard in the accreditation process. This is a good start. If you have current information on the compensation practices for a school, check out the document and add it to the list.

See Also:

The Disposable Professor

First-Year Commodity: The Adjunct Professor Labor Crisis in Composition Departments