The following is the second installment of a series on “The Contingent Campus”. The initial, introductory essay can be found here.
In 2007 when I was all-but-dissertation, I started adjuncting. I spent the next several years working on my dissertation and teaching. I accepted the low pay because I was coming from Harvard, a university where I was not exposed to the realities of the academic job market. There was also a brief period when I thought the adjunct position might be converted to a tenure-track position.
Since I was hired to fill an emergency vacancy, there was a chance at a tenure-track job. I tried not think too much about my situation, but I did notice was that I was being paid less as an adjunct than I was as a teaching fellow, and with no benefits. I thought I was just paying my dues.
As time went on, I realized how disastrous the job market was for academics in the humanities. Ultimately, I decided to become academia adjacent and focus on my own consultancy. I would teach as an adjunct, but in the earliest incarnation of the term, someone who did the work in addition to a career.
It took me some time to get to that point in my own thinking. My heart had to catch up with my head. I knew what I had to do, but was too invested in the idea of me as an academic to change my situation. I finally figured out that I was doing the adjunct life not to be an academic or a teacher, but to be an educator. My work as a consultant focuses on that aspect of who I am.
I have an expertise in the study of religion, and I want to educate about it and be educated about it. Academia is simply one vector of education. As I consider my role as an adjunct, I do want to change the structural issues that necessitate highly trained professionals living below the poverty line. Yet, I also have the luxury and flexibility to think about how adjuncting affects not just my peers, but my students.
I began reading about adjunct experiences and joined the Contingent Faculty Task Force of the American Academy of Religion, where I heard more stories. With these stories, combined with my own experiences, I am disturbed by how much damage is being done to students as a result of rise of adjuncts.
My goal is not to call out specific schools, but to point out the larger structural implications, which is why I am speaking in generalities based on material I have heard. As universities claim that they are pushed to a more business-like model, because of economic exigencies, and where students are treated as customers, the current adjunct system only provides a short-term boost to revenue, while ultimately devaluing the education “product” to such an extent that it will drive away the “customer base.”
We know that as adjuncts struggle to commute to multiple locations to teach, their availability to students becomes limited. Even with explicit mention to students that they need to leave campus to be able to afford to live, something which many of my colleagues are reluctant to do, students generally only understand the direct impact on themselves. Therefore, they internalize that a highly educated person is not compassionate, not empathetic, and not interested in her students.
As a result, education is linked, through conditioning, to negative emotional responses. Students experience education as a dehumanizing experience. Even if a student accepts the economic concerns of the adjunct, what they understand is that education is not valued in a neoliberal society, which indexes worth to price/salary.
On the question of salary, “anecdata” suggests that schools with the most vocal commitment to teaching for social justice tend to be lowest on the pay scale. The dissonance that an adjunct feels, in teaching for social justice and human dignity, while being paid below the federal minimum wage for highly-skilled labor, must express itself through teaching.
Social justice is thus economized, and students are taught not to look at structures of injustice, but to accept Corporate Social Responsibility as an acceptable equivalent. Their own value as human beings is questioned, because if the school does not believe enough in its mission to put into practice, it telegraphs that students are simply income generators. The hypocrisy is palpable.
Here, I want to mention one specific instance that shows how deeply this hypocrisy permeates the system. I was a dues paying member of the United University Professions (UUP) in New York, when I realized that I contract I had signed to teach had an end date that matched the last of classes and did not include the final exam period. I raised this point with my union representative, who told me not to worry about it, because I was new that I didn’t understand how adjuncting worked.
When I pointed out that I had been adjuncting for years and always had my contract cover the period I was expected to work, my knowledge was irrelevant. His job was to explain why I should work for free. I got radio silence. I went to the next person on the union list and never heard anything. The union expected me to work for free. More importantly, they expected that I would have access to student information after my employment with the university was terminated, which strikes me as a violation of FERPA and a cavalier attitude to student rights.
The final thought on student rights I have is about travel. As an adjunct, I do not have a university computer. I use my own laptop to go back and forth from campus. I keep student records and emails on there. Depending on the school, and what I can keep online, I may have quite a bit of information on students any given semester.
Since I only have one laptop, it travels with me when I go overseas. Homeland Security can seize laptops crossing the border into the US, even of citizens like myself, without probable cause. This means that a third-party has access to student information that is FERPA protected. There is not an indication, yet, that a university would support an adjunct in legal case of this sort, which means that students’ privacy rights are not supported.
As someone invested in adjunct issues, I know we are developing strong narratives around the explicit and implicit impact of adjuncting on faculty. We are also getting a sense of the explicit impacts on students. While adjuncts tend to get some of the best teaching reviews, they are also less available to students. I argue that there are implicit impacts that we are not considering, which actually undercut the economic arguments presented by universities as to why increasing numbers of adjuncts are necessary. There are also explicit impacts to students that we have not yet understood fully around their rights to privacy.
In addition to hurting faculty and students, universities are also hurting themselves.
Hussein Rashid, Ph.D., is founder of Islamicate, L3C, a consultancy focusing on religious literacy and cultural competency. He works with a variety of NGOs, foundations, non-profits, and governmental agencies for content expertise on religion broadly, with a specialization on Islam. His work includes exploring theology, the interaction between culture and religion, and the role of the arts in conflict mediation. He has served as a member of the Contingent Faculty Task Force of the American Academy of Religion.