Adjunct Walkout Day: What are you doing?


Adjuncts sometimes say they make up higher education’s invisible class. So an idea pitched on social media a few months ago struck a chord: What would happen if adjuncts across the country turned that invisibility on its head by all walking out on the same day? National Adjunct Walkout Day, proposed for Feb. 25, immediately gained support, and adjuncts continue to use social media and other means of communication to plan what the protest will look like on their campuses. (IHE)

A week from tomorrow, February 25th, is National Adjunct Walkout Day. The event is aimed at drawing attention to both the high number of adjunct instructors employed at institutions of higher education, as well as the low pay, lack of benefits, and job insecurity they face. The above-quoted article in Inside Higher Ed, an article in The Atlantic, and a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education detail some of the challenges the Walkout faces. These include concerns about retribution, the difficulties of organizing events like this anonymously, the fact that the population of adjuncts is frequently changing, unresponsive unions dominated by tenure-track and tenured faculty, and state laws about public employees striking.

There is more information and helpful links on the Walkout’s Facebook page. I would be interested in hearing what, if anything, permanent faculty will be doing to support adjuncts during the Walkout, and it would be especially worthwhile hearing from adjuncts about what they think their tenured and tenure-track faculty should be doing that day.

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Robert Segal
Robert Segal
6 years ago

I’d refuse to rehire any who cancel classes to participate in a walkout.Report

grad
grad
6 years ago

Robert,

Can you explain why?Report

John Protevi
John Protevi
6 years ago

I will devote 15 minutes of my class that day to a teach-in on financial issues in public HE in the States, emphasizing that “the working conditions of teachers are the learning conditions of students.”Report

Jeremy Pierce
6 years ago

There’s a difference between striking when you’re not under contract, as many unions do, and breaching a contract that you’ve signed and is in operation. This, since it’s during the semester, is certainly the latter kind of case. I may not like all the conditions under which I teach, but I take the contracts I’m given because I prefer them to the alternatives available to me, and I can’t see how I could morally condone breaching those contracts by refusing to do what I’ve agreed to do, at least not without being released from that contract to do it.Report

ejrd
ejrd
6 years ago

I’m in favor of this but fear that the Robert Segals of the world will magnify the problem for adjuncts. I’m not sure that anything can be done about that though. Strikes and walkouts are about making invisible injustices visible but they also make invisible prejudices visible. A national adjunct union (or something as close to this as possible) should be the grand goal of all of these activities.Report

ejrd
ejrd
6 years ago

Jeremy, can you, in good conscience, say this about any and all contracts? If not, I think you should consider the possibility that most adjunct contracts are deeply immoral and that breaking them (for one day!) comes at little cost to students but stands to do much in terms of making injustice visible to those who have turned a blind eye toward it. Most forms of non-violent resistance are technically breaches of some aspect of the social contract but that, by itself, doesn’t make them wrong.Report

Jeremy Pierce
Reply to  ejrd
6 years ago

I could condone breaking a contract (or a law for that matter) that required someone to do something immoral. But nothing in my adjunct contracts has ever required me to do something wrong. The things it requires me to do are usually things I should do anyway if I’m going to have this job, and working in the job is not immoral. I would apply this to laws as well, which is why I don’t agree with people like MLK about when it’s all right to break the law. If the law in the U.S. doesn’t allow me to speak up about injustice, then it’s in violation of rights the U.S. Constitution gives me, and thus it’s illegitimate, so I could break that. But protesting a law never requires breaking the law unless the law requires immorality. There’s nothing immoral about showing up and teaching in keeping with your contract on a day that other adjuncts are violating their contracts to make a point that they could make without violating their contracts (and indeed have been doing so with much greater visibility without breaking any contracts). My institution knows full well and has some regret for the plight of adjuncts. This sort of stunt isn’t going to inform them of adjuncts’ views or drive anything home to them any more than it already is. They still have financial realities, and that’s the obstacle. For institutions that haven’t shown that sort of spirit, demonstrating an unwillingness to do your job isn’t going to help your cause. It’s just going to turn administrations against it. They will more likely see it as childish than to be sympathetic for the concerns that are driving it. So I don’t see how this is making anything visible to those who have turned a blind eye to it. I’m not a consequentialist to begin with, but I don’t see how the premise of your consequentialist argument is even true.Report

Tim O'Keefe
6 years ago

This blog post is the first I’ve ever heard of it. Has anybody else heard of it? Adjuncts? I might be atypical, as I’m not big into social media (although I spend too much time on blogs), but unless this is well-organized and there is a critical mass of adjuncts participating, I think that having scattered walkouts here and there by adjuncts will do zero good.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

Grad, I suspect that the short answer to your question is that tenured faculty members, among others, are the beneficiaries of the relative exploitation of adjunctive labor – i.e. their relatively higher salaries derive partly from surplus-value extraction from adjunct faculty. This is why, ejrd, one may suggest on Lockean grounds – as Marx did in the case of factory labor – that adjunct labor contracts are immoral. They expropriate from creators the creation that rightfully belong to them under the appearance of exchanging equals for equals.

Of course, many tenured faculty members also support the organizing efforts of adjunctive faculty members, and those who do not would be enlightened by contemplating academic social structures behind a veil of ignorance.Report

Mark Lance
Mark Lance
6 years ago

This is news to me. If adjuncts at GU are participating, I’ll support them any way they suggest, and will find out, though I doubt they are. I’ll also follow Protevi’s lead and raise issues of exploitation and this sort of work stoppage in my class that day – luckily I teach a course on nonviolent social movements, so it is directly on point.
As for Jeremy’s denunciations of the action, it just seems to me that this entire line of argument ignores the existence of exploitation, structural coercion, etc. Contracts are not sacred – they are one means of establishing specific economic arrangements that exist within a complex array of other social arrangements. The question isn’t whether the contract calls on you to do something immoral. Contracts of indentured servitude, singed under conditions of abject poverty, were not wrong because they required the servant to do something immoral. In many cases they likely did not. Well, adjuncts are not as badly off as indentured servants, to be sure, but there are also quite obviously serious questions of structural oppression, of economic exploitation, and more broadly of attacks on the university system. These all call out for active organized response. (Of course one might deny that adjuncts are exploited, that there is an element of structural coercion in the “contracts,” that this exploitation harms universities, or lots of other things. I have neither time nor patience today to argue these matters. (Yes, I do think they are obvious if you are paying attention, but I’m sincere. I really haven’t the time.) But it is perfectly clear that to say that it is a contract and one is not being asked to do something immoral misses the point.

As for EJRD’s worry – that’s why we need solidarity. If lots of tenured folks support this, the Segals of the world will not be able to make things worse.
I do, however, share Tim’s worry. Labor actions are only effective if reasonably widely supported. The fact that i’ve not heard of this is some indication that it could end up just a few scattered walkouts and that isn’t likely to help. I hope that I’ve just been out of an otherwise wide loop on this.Report

Joshua Miller
6 years ago

A teach-in makes sense. A walkout doesn’t. For one thing, I’m teaching in a prison on the 25th, and many other adjuncts will not be teaching at all that day. Perhaps next time it should be a week-long event, or rethought from scratch.

At one of my jobs, I have a union. And at all of them I have a piece of aper that purports to be a contract, though if you don’t have a union it’s quite likely your “contract” is not legally binding. (All of the non-Union contracts I’ve ever signed to adjunct have given the administration the power to treat adjuncts as at-will employees, which is precisely not aN employment contract. They’re pieces of paper that make conscientious people feel responsible, not legally binding promises.)Report

Here is a Name
Here is a Name
6 years ago

Prediction: A few adjuncts here and there will follow through on this but the vast majority will not. Some of those that do follow through will not be rehired for the next semester/year. The situation will continue along as it does unless and until fewer PhDs are pumped out of graduate schools. That will not happen for a long time. Consequently, the situation will be with us for a long time.

Right now schools can easily hire capable teachers for very little money and no security simply because there is a glut of such teachers willing to do this work. Talk about justice is all good and well, but the underlying conditions that make this situation possible are very clear and the only thing that can remedy the situation is eliminating those conditions.Report

Anonymous Undergrad
Anonymous Undergrad
6 years ago

I think John Protevi has the right idea. The problem is one of awareness, which I think both the walkout and tenured/tenure-track professors dedicating class time to discussing the issue will help address.

Perhaps institutions are reluctant to improve the conditions for adjuncts because they (stubbornly) do not perceive the conditions for adjuncts as constituting a problem. It is the reasoning that some business owners use to argue against paying employees more: if one employee leaves, there is a myriad of other people whom will be more than happy to work for the same pay (and possibly even less pay) than the employee that left. The willingness of people to take on the position, with all of its accompanying conditions, allows for the institution or business to have the false, face-value assumption that people are happy to take on such positions.

When one actually looks at the particularities of the situation though, a much more gloomy truth is illuminated: there is a great number of people willing to take on adjunct positions not because they are satisfied with the accompanying conditions, but out of desperation to secure some position in academia in hopes that it will serve as a stepping-stone to a tenure-track position. The walkout, as well as discussions lead by more permanent faculty, serve to dispel the former assumption (that is so ready-made for adoption by Western capitalist society) and bring attention to the fact that, for adjuncts all across the nation, the struggle is real (pardon the terrible pun, I couldn’t help myself).

As far as the case goes for reprimanding those adjuncts who take part in the walkout under the guise of a breach of contract, let’s call it what it is: an attempt to stifle freedom of speech. The contracts signed are pervasive by virtue of their very nature (the exploitative conditions offered and the capitalizing on the academic job market and correlative desperation of those applying for adjunct positions that enable the exploitative conditions offered to be widely accepted by applicants) and using the work expectations agreed upon to stifle a single-day act of protest I think only makes the contracts even more pervasive. An adjunct can miss one class for various other reasons and it is acceptable, but when they miss one class in the name of protesting their exploitation, it is grounds to not rehire them.

One might say that there are other avenues for adjuncts to be heard but, quite frankly, their concerns have already been voiced in the past and nobody with the power to change anything seemed to give a shit. I think the walkout is a wonderful way to let the adjuncts’ lack of a voice be heard and bring due attention to the issue.Report

Neal Hebert
Neal Hebert
6 years ago

Here’s my Adjuncting story. It’s not unique. It’s far better than some of the stories I’ve heard from other Adjuncts, actually, but it’s mine and I’ll share it with this sympathetic audience before launching into a substantive reply to this post and other comments.

This semester, I was informed that my performance as an instructor, unpaid recruiting efforts on behalf of my employing Department/s, student evaluations, and willingness to “help out” the Department/s throughout my tenure as underpaid labor throughout the past four years made literally no difference in the decision-making heuristics that result in me getting offered classes. In point of fact, the only way for me to ever transition from part-time labor to full-time labor at my Department would be for one of the lucky instructors who already work for my Department to decide to leave (which they will never do, nor should they be expected to, since if I had a permanent teaching gig I would neither leave it nor fault Adjuncts for wanting that gig, unless I could get a similarly good deal elsewhere). The hope by my Department/s, of course, is that I’ll end up with a full-time position elsewhere – a not-unreasonable hope, since I’m about to complete my dissertation in a related field, and the labor system/job market in my field (theatre history) is less objectively awful than the market PhDs in philosophy face after graduation – but hope doesn’t pay the bills.

But let’s be real: this wasn’t my only Adjunct gig. Unlike many other Adjuncts, all my Adjuncting gigs are in the same city, and my Department/s coordinated my schedule such that I’d still have time to continue to publish and finish my diss. People in my Department/s go out of their way to get me office space, and thank me for recruiting majors for them. There are tons of Adjuncts making less money than me, working far worse hours than me, with families and children to support; I just have two cats to take care of. As demoralizing and depressing as the above is for me, others have it far, far worse than I do. I haven’t had to stop publishing to balance my current teaching against future TT employment in my own field, so at least it’s reasonable to hope that I can transition into the professoriat on a full time basis; I can imagine an ABD who cratered out after beginning to Adjunct 10 years ago who never finished because of needing to pay bills and support a family and think “There but for the Grace of God (and generous graduate faculty) go I.”

So yeah, I’m an Adjunct, and I won’t be walking out. On the one hand, I fully support the rights of others who Adjunct to do this; on the other hand, I’m precarious labor and not doing my job seems to be the only thing I could do that would rob me of money I’m paid to live and finish my PhD by July.

I’m glad some Adjuncts are sufficiently confident in their positions such that they can participate in a walk out. That being said, their activism might make a difference: unfortunately, I don’t think teach-ins are the kind of activism that can help me, Tenure-Track allies. They don’t help me or many other Adjuncts primarily because students aren’t making the decisions that prevent me from being able to reliably purchase health insurance, plan my monthly budget, or anything like that. If they did then I wouldn’t be Adjuncting any more, because of my empirical track record recruiting majors and minors into my employing Department/s and how much pride I take in my teaching being entertaining and effective. As best as I can tell, there’s literally no one at my University who values my labor MORE than my students.

Currently, I’d say TT allies need to raise awareness of TT non-allies and overworked Departmental administrators who are expected to do Departmental service while publishing and conference-going and doing their own teaching on top of mentoring undergraduate and graduate students. These are the people who directly cause many of the sorts of things Adjuncts go through; perhaps encouraging people in these positions to rethink the heuristics of course-assignment (or to standardize them in some way) to be more equitable for those whose labor is contingent upon these decisions could make things a lot better in the short-term.

So yeah, Tenure-Track allies. Change ^, speak out against ^ to people that matter in your own Department, and figure out a way that what happens to me AND TONS OF OTHER PEOPLE LIKE ME, ONLY WORSE won’t happen in YOUR Department. There will be people who suggest that TT allies need to think of short-term, medium term, and long-term solutions. This is true. But all too frequently, this commitment to medium-term and long-term response is deployed in such a way that short term solutions are stigmatized and the problems of me and people like me are rendered invisible because we’re “symptoms of the problem” rather than the people who suffer the second most from this problem (our students suffer the most, of course, because our working conditions are their learning conditions). I absolutely want TT allies to come up with a long-term solution to this – but I’d also like you to do something such that me and people like me can be certain we can pay my rent come August using our not-inconsiderable skills as a teacher within higher ed. I know this is almost certainly impossible, but hey, feeling like our allies are doing something to help us (even if ineffectual in the short term) would be kind of nice.Report

Anon Grad
Anon Grad
6 years ago

Whenever I hear tenured professors asking “What can I do?” it seems to me there is an obvious measure that no one discusses: admit adjuncts (and grad student instructors for that matter) into your union.

If you really want to support them, support their right to unionize, and support them at the bargaining table. These aren’t easy tasks and they require getting involved in the union and dealing with administration—neither of which are things I’d count as “fun”.

But really, until this happens, it seems like all you’re really giving are kind words. Kind words are nice, symbolic showings of support reassure, but I’m skeptical they will make any changes here. If, however, faculty unions lobbied for things like increased pay and better (read: any) health insurance for adjuncts then, I would think, changes could be had.

Are there any reasons not to do this?Report

Grad student
Grad student
6 years ago

Are there any reasons not to do this?

Yes. The adjuncts would almost certainly be better off in the TT union if the alternative is no adjunct union at all. The case is not so clear if the alternative is having a union of their own. The interests of tenured and tenure track faculty do not always align with the interests of adjuncts. Sometimes the interests conflict, and sometimes the interests of one group aren’t interests of the other. As a practical matter, this can mean adjunct issues are set aside or overridden by the more powerful tenured and tenure-track. There may be enough benefit to having one big bargaining unit rather than two smaller ones to outweigh the risks, but it’s not obviously a winning proposition for the adjuncts.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
6 years ago

I want to highlight an important point from Neal Herbert’s story: when you’re an adjunct your performance as a teacher either doesn’t matter at all or only matters in a negative way. Even if you’re lucky enough to work somewhere where your tenured/TT colleagues treat you with respect, that respect can’t translate into better job prospects if the institution is going to continue to rely on part-timers to fill its teaching needs. It’s not just that after years of working hard for low pay while earning our PhDs we graduate into working even harder for low pay. It’s that when push comes to shove the work we do isn’t valued and isn’t leading anywhere.

Like Neal, I won’t be walking out, but I support those who choose to do so. My reasons are slightly different – given the way my classes are scheduled (and all the snow days we’ve had), walking out would just make it harder to do my job to my own satisfaction. And I don’t think I’m likely to do much good for myself or others by walking out. But that calculation may be different for people at different institutions, or for people who will benefit psychologically from walking out as an expression of their own importance and/or dissatisfaction.

To those who are opposed to walking out (or proposing to penalize those who do) on contract grounds: Would you be similarly scrupulous (or penalizing) if the reason for cancelling class was to present at a conference or attend a job interview? To attend a lecture on campus? To attend an out of town wedding?Report

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
6 years ago

Just a question: how much good would it do if all tenured faculty retired at 65, as they used to be required to do? That would create more entry-level TT jobs, because professorial turnover would be faster and also because average professorial salaries would be lower — professors’ highest salaries usually come in their last years. Or if a specified age like 65 is unfair to those who start their careers late, how about after 35 years of teaching? Not quite on the walkout topic, but relevant to the dearth of TT or other permanent jobs that leaves so many in adjunct positions.Report

Mark Lance
Mark Lance
6 years ago

Anon Grad: You do realize that at many universities, it is only the non-tenure track who can legally be unionized as the rest of us have been declared “management” by the NLRB or the relevant state in the case of state universities. So many of us don’t have a union to let people in. At GU, the only union is adjuncts. (Personally, I think we should form a non-legal union anyway. But that’s probably a longer debate.)
Neal: I am very sympathetic to your general account here, but I think students are more important than you make them out to be. In particular, they often have substantially more power than tenured professors to set policy. It varies with the economics of the university, but remember that we often have no role at all in decisions about hiring conditions – and given the realities of the market, can pretty easily be replaced. Students, however, pay the bills, or a substantial portion of them. Because of this and the general need to compete for students – again things vary school to school – an organized student movement often worries administrators more than an organized faculty one. My students have won on lots of issues that cost substantial money to Georgetown. Over the last 20 years: a unionization movement for food service workers, an anti-sweatshop policy for licensed apparel, a living wage standard for all employees including out-sourced on campus, a women’s studies major, an anthropology department, a justice and peace major, an african american studies major, etc. I don’t think any of that could have happened without organized, committed, widespread student support.
So I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the utility of a properly run teach-in on this issue.Report

ejrd
ejrd
6 years ago

Hi Tom,

I think the biggest assumption in your question is that the jobs held by tenured faculty would all be replaced with tenure-track jobs once they are vacated. This has not traditionally been the case in some of the places I have worked. Retirement sometimes just means that the department loses the line.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
6 years ago

Universities don’t rely on adjuncts because tenured faculty don’t retire early enough. If an institution is consistently hiring multiple part-tmers to fill their teaching load for the core curriculum, the problem is not that there’s no room for new teachers. It’s that they’re unwilling to pay for those teachers. And I’ve seen no evidence to suggest that the universities that engage in such practices are working with sufficient foresight to be incentivized by cost savings three decades down the road.Report

E
E
6 years ago

I walked away from the adjunct life a few years ago to teach high school. I make a pretty good living, with pretty solid benefits, and it’s nice not having to worry about having my courses cut at the last minute or scrambling between campuses. I support my brethren living the adjunct life, but I also think that you can be happy, and financially stable, out of “academia”. Oh, and I still get to teach some philosophy to my high school students.Report

Mike
Mike
6 years ago

To add on to what ejrd said, the problem is not that there are too many TT faculty, but that administrators and presidents have decided to shrink the number of TT lines to save money, and instead rely on adjuncts to fill in the gaps. That this is also a time when tuition is rising well beyond what inflation would call for, public and private university presidents are making salaries commensurate with corporate executives, administrative bloat is out of hand, and schools insist on building amenities like stadiums and gyms to compete for students tells you all you need to know about how education is understood in the modern university.Report

Mark Lance
Mark Lance
6 years ago

Yeah, I saw that. It is hopeful, and might change things, but as I understand it, it hasn’t yet. And it certainly hasn’t yet led to the existence of more unions among Tenure/TT faculty.Report

John Protevi
John Protevi
6 years ago

A news item on an NLRB victory for Duquesne’s adjunct union drive: http://triblive.com/news/adminpage/7796765-74/adjunct-duquesne-faculty#axzz3S3PDnCYiReport

Gary Bartlett
6 years ago

I’m curious about John Protevi’s comment: “I will devote 15 minutes of my class that day to a teach-in on financial issues in public HE in the States, emphasizing that “the working conditions of teachers are the learning conditions of students.””

As a tenured faculty member, I’m tempted to do this sort of thing myself. Students are most often clueless about the structure of the academic system, and it might help things a little if they knew more about the tenuous positions of some of the people who teach them.

However, I’m also worried by an opposing line of argument, which is this: By what right do I interrupt my teaching of (this quarter) Introductory Logic or Early Modern Philosophy for a 15-minute lecture on financial issues in higher ed? That is in no way part of the topic of the class, and it seems that a student in the class could quite rightly complain that I am shirking my duty to teach that topic. (Mark Lance almost touches on this worry when he comments that he’ll hold a teach-in too, when he adds that “luckily I teach a course on nonviolent social movements, so it is directly on point.” OK, good. But what about in a class where such a topic is entirely OFF-point?) Putting it bluntly, the students are not there in order to hear me talk about whatever random topic I feel deserves their attention that day.

I suppose any student who didn’t like it could just “tune out” for that 15 minutes, or leave class early. But then it seems like that student has just as much of a complaint against me as if I had simply decided to end class early on that day for no particular reason. (And presumably I would indeed be at fault if I did that.)Report

Mark Lance
Mark Lance
6 years ago

Gary, I’m not going to venture an opinion on whether it is appropriate to devote 15 minutes of a class to the political economy of the teaching they are getting – I can see arguments either way. But I will say that it is not hard to offer a teach-in on the topic at another time to all the students at your college if you decide not to do it during class.Report

Ammon Allred
6 years ago

I’m teaching a section of contemporary moral problems that day, and I’m planning on devoting the day to a discussion of precarity and employment, focusing on higher ed but also inviting them to reflect critically on their own experiences. I’m also considering offering to do the same in the class of any adjuncts in our department who are planning to participate in the walk out.Report

Ammon Allred
6 years ago

I’ll be devoting the bulk of my contemporary moral problems class that day to discussions of precarity and employment, focusing on the academy, but inviting students to critically reflect on their own experiences also. I also plan on making myself available to adjunct colleagues who are planning to walk out that day to lead discussions in their classes, if they feel that it would be helpful.Report

anonymous
anonymous
6 years ago

I think the power of students should not be underestimated — though I completely understand what Neal is saying, there’s a difference between students views about the value of your teaching, and students knowing enough about how your labor is undervalued in such a way (as well as being collectively organized enough) that they can act on it. I have seen multiple university administrations substantively change course in response to student concern. There are budgeting problems to be sure, and students do not have control over this, but we may have the power to influence how administrators prioritize budget items (both because we are increasingly treated as consumers, and thus, many administrators are increasingly concerned with customer service, and because student unhappiness with university direction can cause public relations problems which can in turn affect the budget), and we may have the power to influence fundraising efforts, etc.Report

5678
5678
6 years ago

On the question of when and whether to devote teaching time to the political economy of the academy. How about if tenured professors showed up at the classes that the adjuncts have walked out of, and asked if the students have any questions? It might be an uncomfortable few minutes, but it would make a difference if the students have someone there to explain what’s going on to them. It might even win a few student allies.Report

Joseph Dartez
6 years ago

Gary, activism of any brand gains its power from interrupting traffic. In the case of a teach-in the traffic interrupted is the normal content of the class. If students are glad for the interruption then they stand to become activists themselves; conversely, if they are annoyed about the interruption then their ire will help raise awareness. As they say, any publicity is good publicity.

While Mark Lance does indeed have the convenience of avoiding the interruption altogether, you can’t be an activist unless you’re willing to break some rules. It may well be that his course on non-violent social movements is not the only class of his that meets on the 25th, in which case he’s in the same boat as anyone else.Report