In recent years the long hidden problem of the adjunct faculty has become widely recognized, as in a series of articles in Hybrid Pedagogy published in 2013 and a current CFP there, The Problem of Contingency in Higher Education. The writers here at Hybrid Pedagogy have covered most of the points raised in the academic discussions on the topic, emphasizing that contingency is a massive problem in higher education. The inequality within the faculty is so great that it yields poverty for the part-time faculty, with added hidden costs for the liberal arts, students, and the public.
We know that contingent faculty have become the majority of teachers and teach the majority of students on campuses nationally. This creation of part-time professionals is problematic and disruptive in so many ways that the problems can be seen wherever anyone cares to look. We find it even in the simplest transactions between an adjunct and a representative of the “system.” But what, exactly, is the fundamental problem? I find that there is one feature that has been ignored to date, perhaps because it is all too obvious, hiding in plain sight. Adjunct faculty are simply left out because there is no place for them in the academic system. This is worse than being the round peg for the waiting square hole. It is the lack of formal, legal recognition that we exist and our contributions matter. I discuss here the experienced reality of a round peg without a place among the official pigeon holes. In short, I move from the everyday to the context that makes the everyday sensible.
Can Adjunct Faculty Have Office Supplies?
My colleague at our community college requested a bottle of correction fluid from the divisional secretary, the one in charge of office supplies. He was informed that [our community college in the wealthy northern suburbs of Chicago] couldn’t afford to provide such a luxury for adjuncts. This was directly outside the Dean’s office. He came out and commented about the apparent policy, “We have 600 adjuncts. Can you imagine what would happen if they all requested a bottle of Wite-Out?” My colleague was told that he could bring the paper that he wanted to correct to the secretary’s desk and make the correction there, using her bottle of correction fluid. Presumably this would be under supervision, in case he might have “forgotten” and walked away with that precious liquid. Irony aside, the policy is not as odd as it may appear. In fact, it is much more rational than the Dean and his secretary apparently recognized. They were taking another path, well understood by writers on the adjunct condition, that adjunct faculty are slighted, disrespected, and unrecognized. But there is an underlying, structural reason for these unpleasant, demeaning encounters: That is the context.
If adjunct faculty do not have an office, how could they have office supplies? Where would an adjunct faculty member keep a bottle of correction fluid? It was legally restricted to being on the campus as official state property, while the adjunct faculty member had no way or place to keep it there. This is a contradiction between the formal system and the marginality of adjunct faculty that prevents their being incorporated in that system. So where are adjunct faculty supposed to do their work, from preparing classes and grading papers to writing and keeping up in their fields? Presumably they have to set aside space in their own homes for an office that is otherwise supplied (along with office supplies) for any of their institution’s full-time employees, down to receptionists and clerks. This lack of an official home for the adjunct faculty’s professional work is part of the system that creates the adjunct faculty role and invites further analysis.
How can an Adjunct Have Office Hours Without an Office?
There is no greater contradiction than how “officeless” adjunct faculty are required to have “office hours” to meet with their students. In institutions with a “pool” of adjunct faculty, they are often jumbled together in warehouse-type spaces filled with tables and chairs, with or without cubicle separators for a modicum of privacy. But what if the student-faculty interaction there needs to be private? All references to student academic performance are legally confidential and privileged under FERPA, so privacy is required. As in the case of personal communication between a professional and client, there are also structural reasons outside the law that require a minimum set of working conditions, including privacy, in order to do professional work.
On one campus I shared a large room with cubicles separated by a chest high screen from other users in first come, first served seats. Sitting faculty and students can look directly at the faces of their counterparts in adjoining cubicles two feet apart and hear their conversations. While sitting cheek-by-jowl with other adjuncts, I listened as my student began to describe her thoughts of suicide, and I continued the conversation as best I could in a quiet voice. I decided after this experience to ask the policy for such encounters should such a situation arise in the future. The response was that I would be given a key to the office of any full-time professor who was absent the day of my request. I never took up this offer, knowing that it would be trespassing on the private area of the full-time faculty and cause still greater problems. Yet these conversations are confidential, by law. So not providing private office space for everyday faculty-student interaction violates the law, as well as restricting the ability of adjunct faculty to perform their job. Some adjuncts actually meet with their students in their cars, the adjuncts’ “rolling office.” The question of offices for adjunct faculty is more than an inconvenience or slight to these professionals. It denigrates the value of their work with students and limits the student learning that is dependent on face-to-face interaction with faculty. But in the formal system under scrutiny in this paper, I focus on the inability of the formal rules and structures to incorporate the adjunct faculty. There are no holes for us round pegs! The result is that our professional work is impeded at every turn.
Faculty have the problem of what to do with their students’ papers and final examinations. If there is a dispute over grades, those papers are evidence which must be produced. The implication is that the adjunct professor must have storage space, such as a file cabinet, but such space is rarely available on campus. When all other employment tasks are considered, the adjunct faculty require a telephone, computer, internet connection, faculty level library privileges, laboratory space when required for some disciplines, and files, but at their own home and/or at their own expense. There is literally no way a faculty member can work without an office and facilities which meet certain requirements, which vary according to the discipline of the faculty member.
Are Adjunct Faculty Really Faculty?
I focus on the formal structure of the faculty office, because it dramatizes in a mechanical way the impossibility of any adjunct faculty member doing full-time work (square hole) while being a part-time employee (round peg). Yet in front of the students, adjunct faculty are indeed faculty and expected to perform exactly as do the full-time professors. So in dealing with the Dean who denied correction fluid to my colleague, my conversation was about not receiving an announcement of the Division’s faculty meeting. He told me that the announcement was intentionally withheld from the adjunct faculty, since the only reason anyone of us would come would be to collect the 25 dollars stipulated in the union contract as compensation for attending faculty meetings. It was obvious (to him) that the adjunct faculty had nothing to offer at a faculty meeting and didn’t belong there. So outside of the classroom, I was not faculty. Periodically scholars have observed the same thing, the adjunct faculty are tolerated in the classroom, but invisible outside it. Wilke and Griessman wrote their book The Hidden Professoriate: Credentialism, Professionalism, and the Tenure Crisis in 1979, and in 1993 Gappa and Leslie’s book was The Invisible Faculty: Improving the Status of Part-Timers in Higher Education. By 2012 the report was “Who Is Professor Staff and How Can This Person Teach So Many Classes?” from The Center for the Future of Higher Education. The “Professor Staff” report was alluding to the anonymity of adjunct professors whose names do not appear on course schedules, in campus telephone directories, or on official websites.
Teaching as the only role for part-time faculty opens the door for a pool of substitute teachers that can be drawn upon as a second-tier labor market with pay and benefits forced as low as the “market” will bear. The adjunct faculty being constructed in this market system are forced into the role of a hybrid: substitute teachers at the level of higher education. The employers who are trying to create such a hybrid can only do what they do by systematically ignoring the contradictions they create in the world of the academic disciplines and professions that staff them.
If we want to change the adjunctification of higher education, we must first understand it as a flawed system of square holes for us round pegs. The system does not have a defined place for the adjunct faculty, so we are left out, unresourced, ignored, demeaned, exploited, and considered the throw-away faculty. Once the system is understood, we can focus on who is responsible to change it — and they appear to be the academic professions and the full-time faculty who are in control of the professional societies and accrediting bodies. So far they have been passive, in the tacit understanding that their full-time privileges and salaries are protected as long as the poorly paid second-class faculty are there to prop up the system as budgets for faculty salaries decline. It’s time for a change.