Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Why we need to retire the Old Adjunct: What I Learned at an International Conference about Organizing Contingent Labor

The simple classroom could have been located in any of the four countries represented in the room, if not for the New York skyline in the backdrop.  The dry erase board in the front of the room was cluttered with social justice terminology.  Half of the 25 people in the room had their arm extended indicating their desire to speak.  This was not a room of eager students but contingent educators brainstorming about the media.

The conversation started with input from an editor of an education news agency.  The presenter proclaimed that daily newspapers do not care about social justice and doing education right.  Instead, the media wants to discuss higher education as a “consumer issue.”  Simply stated, the guest journalist communicated that most media is not interested in the plight of college teachers.

It is difficult to explain labor issues to a public that largely is unaware of the existence of part-time professors.  The claim from our expert was clear: when talking to the media teacher victimization is not a popular pitch.  After decades of fighting for job security it is time to retire the adage of the “poor adjunct.”

As the conversation shifted the audience came alive.  The room was a flutter with ideas of how to illuminate the research, artwork, and teaching accolades of adjuncts. 

Then, a millennial peered her head from behind her MacBook and asked the audience to consider her generation.  She shared that she was “not interested in her teachers’ scholarly research” but instead just wanted a “good teacher.”  A room filled with brilliant educators now had to shift gears to not only change the way they tell their stories to media and also, consider a younger audience.

In a few days I will turn 33 and I have spent the last nine years as an adjunct lecturer.  One of the best parts of being at an international labor conference was gaining insight and context from other adjuncts, some which have been teaching longer than I have been alive.  The title of this blog post was not intended to be ageist towards these trailblazing leaders but hopefully get you to read its content on this important issue.  We need to keep our history alive and retire the old messages that work against us.


  1. What exactly is the "old" message that no longer resonates? What should be the "new" message? (If you can specify, without, you know, outing the oldsters.)

    1. Adjuncts are exploited through our workload, low pay, lack of benefits. This exploitation is not a message something the media wants to cover. Instead we need to find a way to talk about adjunct issues without only talking about ourselves. The AAUP phrase "faculty working conditions are student learning conditions" is an example of a strong message. There are other national campaigns like Adjunct Actions phrase "The Wall Street Skim" or the idea of the NFM or the "New Faculty Majority." These ideas resonate more with millennial and media than press releases about our position on bargaining. A adjunct union in Canada is using a great branding "Adjuncts are the Pillars of the University." At COCAL we created a brainstorming list of other story pitches that avoid the pitfall of the "poor adjunct."

  2. To put it even more bluntly, what media want is traffic. That means reader appeal comes first. If that reminds you of grade inflation for the sake of evals, take some cold comfort in this being now the norm for most journalism. Not upsetting advertisers comes in either neck and neck or a photo finish second.

    This is why blogging and social media networks are so important: these are our voices. I enjoyed your #COCALXI tweets, am thrilled you have a blog and will add it my "precarity bloggers" blogroll.

    Vanessa Vaile dba @PrecariousFac and blogging from the precarious faculty blog