Lori Harrison-Kahan

Associate Professor of the Practice of English at Boston College

Blaming the Victim: Ladder Faculty and the Lack of Adjunct Activism

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In April 2013, I attended Adjunct Action’s first symposium in Boston, where the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) was kicking off its efforts to organize adjuncts at area universities. In a little over a year since that meeting, I’ve watched from the sidelines as fellow attendees—part-time faculty at Tufts, Lesley, and, most recently, Northeastern University—have voted yes to unionization. And I’ve seen the SEIU’s metro-organizing strategy spread to cities across the country.

As a full-time adjunct professor, I am not currently eligible to vote in a union election. The adjunct labor movement has necessarily prioritized the working conditions of part-time faculty, many of whom are living below the poverty line. But adjuncts need not be card-carrying union members to benefit from these victories, which have transformed academia’s once-invisible underclass into its most vocal majority. The inequalities in academic employment may still be firmly in place, but thanks to these unionization efforts, contingent faculty are now active participants in the national conversation about the future of higher education.

As adjuncts have found a collective voice, however, they have also brought into sharp relief the silence of another group of faculty: tenured and tenure-track professors. This silence is particularly notable given that humanists and social scientists have a long history of speaking up for those who have been denied a voice—advocacy made possible by the protections of tenure. My own field of American studies has been transformed by the work of intellectuals who view scholarship and sociopolitical activism as deeply intertwined endeavors. When the American Studies Association passed its controversial resolution to support the boycott of Israeli universities last December, for instance, its stated purpose was to take a stand against violations of academic freedom in “the pursuit of social justice.”

Yet despite this professed commitment to activism, few tenured scholars have taken adequate action against the inequalities that form the bedrock of higher education in America. Why do established scholars, who speak openly about other social and economic injustices, refrain from allying themselves with those of us who are denied academic freedom by virtue of our identities as adjuncts? How are we to explain this silence?

One answer may be willful ignorance. Most tenured faculty, especially those not directly involved in the hiring of part-time workers, display a surprising lack of knowledge about the professional and economic realities of contingent colleagues in their departments and in the profession more broadly. Senior scholars have assured me, for instance, that all faculty experience their share of inequitable treatment, that disparities and resentments exist at every level of the institutional hierarchy.

There is some truth to this claim, which has the potential to give common cause to tenure-line and non-tenure-track faculty. Instead, most ladder faculty—whether wittingly or not—transfer some share of their burdens to adjunct labor. The rationale that all faculty face disparities ends up being used as an excuse for maintaining the institutional status quo. It uses one form of exploitation to justify another. And it overlooks the fact that, in purely economic terms, the exploitative employment practices affecting ladder and non-ladder faculty are hardly comparable. With job mobility practically nonexistent for adjuncts, it can no longer be argued that we are simply “paying our dues” like everyone else once did until better opportunities arise.

When I have expressed concern about the tenuousness of my own academic future, I’ve been cautioned that my expectations for better job mobility and security may be interpreted as too ambitious, even “uppity,” coming from a career contingent (and, though it’s left unsaid, a woman). Tenured colleagues tend to view my predicament as singularly inexplicable. As an adjunct with research credentials to match those of many tenured scholars, I am often described as an “anomaly.” That’s probably intended as praise for my productivity, but it effectively undermines my solidarity with other adjuncts. I wonder, too, how many other non-tenure-track scholars with extensive publication records and active research agendas are being told that they are “anomalous,” and whether such exceptionalism has in fact become the rule.

Tenured colleagues who confess surprise at my contingent status suggest that I don’t belong among the lower ranks because adjuncts are “lazy.” Those adjuncts who complain about their circumstances and lack of security are dismissed as “whiny” and “entitled.” To many research faculty, adjuncts are “failed” scholars who were unwilling to put in the time and hard work necessary to land a tenure-track job.

If this perception were true, it should raise the question of why universities would hire a bunch of unmotivated and unproductive slackers to teach their students. But the generalization that adjuncts as a group lack the diligence, drive, and dedication to make it in the academic major leagues is an obvious falsehood. The vast majority of adjuncts work just as hard if not harder than their tenure-line counterparts for less pay and under considerable constraints imposed by their working conditions.

Despite the fact that adjuncts hold the same advanced degrees, were trained at the same institutions, and teach the same classes as the rest of the professoriate, many ladder faculty persist in viewing adjuncts as unskilled labor. This was brought home to me when colleagues expressed concern that I was overqualified for my job and that I risked becoming “deskilled” if I continued to adjunct for too long.

It’s troubling enough that some professors think teaching alone does not require proficiency and training. But in fact, contingency has significantly expanded my skill set. As I have moved from one job to another, learning to navigate a range of institutions, I have also gained a broader view of the profession than I would have if my career had been limited to a single department. The challenges and demands of my teaching load and duties have made me a much more versatile teacher and researcher, as well as a more efficient grader and writer.

That said, it has taken me far too long to find the words, and the courage, to speak about the unfounded biases that I have observed and encountered during my years on the margins of the professoriate. When I have tried to voice my objections to unfair labor practices and murky policies in the past, I have been met with the response that I have little grounds for complaint since I “signed up for exploitation.” In order to justify discriminatory attitudes and treatment, too many ladder faculty chose to blame the victim rather than the system, convincing themselves that adjuncts deserve, or have willingly submitted to, their own exploitation.

This past winter, I attended an audience-driven roundtable on the topic of “Advancing Academic Careers,” which was sponsored by the women’s caucus at an academic convention. Responding to the caucus’s call for questions, another longtime, full-time contingent scholar and I wrote the following:

The description of the roundtable presumes that the majority of the audience would be in tenure-track, research-focused positions and places the emphasis on what the individual can do to advance her career. Yet ever-increasing numbers of scholars are off the tenure track. These scholars lack the research support that would enable them to move into higher prestige positions… .

We would like to hear the panelists address these basic inequalities in the academic structure that limit the advancement of contingent faculty. How does the multiple marginalization of women contingent scholars lead to a lack of opportunity for advancement, and what can be done about it? What institutional reforms and policies would the panelists recommend to allow contingent faculty greater mobility? What can individuals do to bring about institutional change other than, or in addition to, working to advance their own careers?

The moderator posed our question, and a palpable pause followed. Then one of the senior panelists, a department chair, reluctantly picked up the microphone. “I really don’t have an answer for that,” she said. The panelists and audience members quickly moved on to other topics.

I write now because I believe that we can no longer sidestep these questions. Through the labor movement taking place in Boston and across the country, contingent professors are using their newfound voices to begin formulating answers. But it is also the responsibility of ladder faculty to take action, to openly acknowledge how exploitative labor and hiring practices have affected the lives and work of those unprotected by tenure.

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