Rebecca Schuman

Columnist at vitae

How to Fix Academic Labor (Pt. 372): Make Better Use of the Scarlet ‘A’

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Over the past year I have brainstormed numerous creative ways to address the current tragedy that is the academic labor system. I lobbied for college teaching to be viewed as a luxury commodity, since it costs as much. I suggested adjuncts be repurposed as tutors in cash-stuffed athletic programs, to help assuage both their own exploitation and that of NCAA athletes who come to college but aren’t expected to learn. I nudged U.S. News & World Report to make “percentage of full-time faculty” a more important element in their ranking algorithm. And in my most controversial move ever, I dared suggest that tenured and tenure-track professors view the pay and conditions of the human beings who work alongside them as more important than “covering” their department’s classes. For every suggestion, I’ve been either laughed or yelled out of the room.

But if you think I’m going to stop trying to help adjuncts just because a bunch of academics enjoy yelling at me, you’ve vastly underestimated how much I enjoy getting yelled at by jerks. It’s like Tony Robbins (remember him?) said: If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten. It was embroidered on a pillow at my therapist’s, so it must be true.

In a higher-ed status quo that depends upon cheap labor, very few folks in power will even recognize overreliance on adjuncts as a problem. “They knew this was part-time work when they signed up for it,” say people who do not worry that their children’s monthly SNAP allotment will run out before the month does. Indeed, the heroic work done on behalf of adjuncts in recent years has come from adjuncts themselves, whether that be the salary crowdsourcing of the Adjunct Project, the staggering bravery of activists like Mary-Faith Cerasoli, or the valiant organization efforts around the country.

And among these actions, by far the most powerful has simply been opening our fat mouths to identify ourselves—and our working conditions, and thus diminished learning conditions—to our students, and presumably to a few of their parents. It was Campus Equity Week that repurposed Hester Prynne’s scarlet “A,” and many of us now wear it defiantly (on buttons) around campus.

Now, if only we could make that “A” even more unavoidable to students and their parents—if only we could make students aware of these diminished learning conditions before classes even started. But how? I’ve got another idea, but since it involves administrative cooperation, it’s going to take some finessing.

I propose that the “A” (and everyone else’s faculty rank, too) be codified into every course catalog in America. I propose that we do it in a way students and parents can understand, and that we do it with a link to each rank’s salary range. So instead of CHEM 104 STAFF (most of us adjuncts are, after all, Professor Staff), it would read CHEM 104 ADJUNCT, with a link to the pay range. Instead of CHEM 500 DOE, J., it would read CHEM 500 DOE, J. (FULL)—with a link to the pay range, again.

This way, students and parents will realize immediately just how much they are being ripped off: “Wait, if all Marta’s classes are by ADJUNCT, and ADJUNCT makes $11,000 a year … then why is tuition four times that?!?” Maybe they’ll start demanding an “all-adjunct discount.” With enough complaints, universities would be forced to, oh, I dunno, fire some vice-vice-executive-provosts in charge of raising funds for salaries of more vice provosts.

The biggest problem with this otherwise-brilliant idea is, of course, that no university is going to want to admit openly that it is fleecing its “customers.” Accrediting bodies have so far proven themselves utterly indifferent to academic-labor issues, and I see no reason for them to start caring now. So how do we get the Scarlet A into the catalog?

The answer is: Collective action—petitions, teach-ins, signs on office doors—from every faculty member on campus, from the top to the bottom (and as many students, and parents, as possible). Tenured and tenure-track faculty are always telling me how powerless they feel about “the adjunct situation” and wondering what they can do. Well, once again, here’s something you can do. Sign one little petition. Put up one little poster. Wear one little button to demand instructional transparency in the catalog. That can’t harm your upward mobility too much, can it?

So, ball’s in your court, academics. Laugh this one out of the room, too. Just remember that while you’re decrying “adjunctification” in abstract terms, many of your colleagues are willing to stick their necks out, and risk dismissal, scathing vitriol, and worse. (Of course, some of us also have nothing to lose. But that may also be the case for you, soon enough.)

And in the meantime: Here’s one last idea to tide you over, and it’s not mine, so maybe you’ll like it. My Vitae colleague Sarah Kendzior, along with community organizer Shannon Garth-Rhodes, has started the initiative “GEDs and PhDs,” which offers free high-school equivalency tutoring to low-wage workers (and pays the exam fees, too!), by underemployed Ph.D.’s who are paid a competitive hourly wage. If nothing else, donating to this brilliant program is a great way to entertain yourself betwixt hand-wringing sessions.

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