Sydni Dunn

Staff Reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education

Walking Out, Teaching In, and Puppeteering: A Glimpse at National Adjunct Walkout Day

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Image: "Saint Precaria" appears, in puppet form, at a march held by adjuncts at the University of California at Santa Cruz. (Courtesy of Chris Hables Gray)

When the idea for National Adjunct Walkout Day was first floated last fall on social media, the plan was simple: Designate a single day of action, and stage events nationwide that would call attention to adjuncts’ often-low pay, lack of job security, and challenging working conditions. In contingent circles, the idea spread like wildfire.

But there was an obvious challenge: Not everyone had the option of walking out. Many adjuncts on unionized campuses were prohibited from doing so by their collective bargaining agreements; other part-time professors felt that they simply couldn’t afford to leave their classrooms.

So instead, the event aimed to give adjuncts the freedom and flexibility to tailor events to their particular campuses and circumstances. The result? It’s hard to estimate just how many people actually took part in the national walkout, held Wednesday. But in addition to the part-time faculty members who left their classrooms, others led campus protests, organized teach-in events, and followed along on the Twitter hashtag #NAWD, among other actions.

Here’s a quick glimpse at some of what went on:

The Protests

On some campuses, such as the University of Arizona and the University of California at Santa Cruz, part-time faculty, along with some full-time colleagues and students, took the “walkout” concept literally.

At Arizona, a group of about 300 people gathered in the university’s Alumni Plaza, located near the administration building, to hear 12 speakers discuss academic labor and participate in call-and-response chants.

“The tone wasn’t of victimization, hand-wringing, and woe is us,” said Joel E.R. Smith, a lecturer in the English department who helped organize the event. “The message was positive. We increased our visibility and showed how valuable our contributions are to the university.”

The crowd was diverse, he said, adding that he even saw one of the university’s vice provosts participating. “A very exciting thing happened today,” he said. “It was electric.”

In California, a similar, albeit more colorful, effort transpired on campus. A group of about 150 faculty members and students marched around campus for an hour and a half, hoisting life-sized puppets depicting “Saint Precaria,” a fictional patron saint of adjuncts (some of whom have taken to referring to themselves as “the precariat”). The marchers handed out informational pamphlets and buttons on their route.

Chris Hables Gray, a lecturer in the school’s Crown College, said tenured faculty members and administrators joined in the “pilgrimage,” chanted, and sang songs. “A TV crew followed us the whole way, so the general public will know, students know, they’ll tell other students,” he said. “This is just another step forward. It’s progress.”

The Teach-In

Rather than cancel courses for the day, adjuncts elsewhere used classroom time to teach students and others about their circumstances. At George Mason University, adjunct professors organized a “teach-in” at which speakers addressed different aspects of labor issues in academia.

Basak Durgun, a graduate teaching assistant in the cultural studies program, helped organize the event, which was held at the student center on the Fairfax, Va., campus and drew between 30 and 40 participants. The response, she said, was “incredibly encouraging.”

“It felt like the GMU community has been waiting for something like this to happen,” Durgun said, “so that we can air out our conversations and think collectively about possible solutions.” The Wednesday event may have had a limited audience, but George Mason’s adjuncts used the event to generate some other local publicity: Durgun noted that the student newspaper published a full-page interview about the event, and the university’s provost announced that he would create a task force to address labor concerns.

“We think that this is a very positive development and receive it as our first victory on campus,” Durgun said.

Individual Action

On campuses where there were no formal events planned, some adjuncts took their own steps. At Butte College, in California, Sarah Klotz, an associate instructor of English, showed a documentary, Con Job: Stories of Adjunct and Contingent Labor, to three sections of her critical-thinking course.

Her decision to show the documentary instead of leaving the lecture hall, she said, was “largely financial.”

“I only get paid for credit hours I teach, so if I walk out on my two classes on Wednesday, I miss out on one-third of a week’s pay,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “Associate faculty are unionized at Butte College, but this is not a formal strike, so the employment protections of a sanctioned strike do not apply.”

After the movie she led a discussion about labor conditions at Butte and asked students to think about how they might propose to solve labor problems in academe.

Students in her class were shocked, she said. “They had no idea there were distinctions with professors,” she said. “They asked about a union, they said they wanted to write letters.”

And though Klotz made only a “small contribution” to the national day, she said, she believes it was effective in raising awareness.

“I think students, in general, look at teachers and see professionals that get paid $60,000 to $80,000, have nice cars,” Klotz said. “They are really not informed. Today was a first step.”

Did you participate in National Adjunct Walkout Day? Tell us about it in the comments.

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