Professors in Homeless Shelters: It is Time to Talk Seriously About Adjuncts

Adjunct abuse is one of higher education's great sins. So why is a leading writing conference not discussing it?
By Becky Tuch
March 17, 2014
Credit: thelinke via iStock // Salon

Hi there, Association of Writers and Writing Programs.

We've known each other for awhile. We first met in 2009 in New York and it was love at first sight. You plied me with talks about writing craft, you offered table after table of literary magazines and small presses. I got the idea to start a lit mag review site and I met some amazing people. You have inspired me, AWP, in so many ways over the years.

But I want to talk to you about something. Because we're friends. Because I trust you and, I hope, you trust me. (You did, after all, help me fix the sign on my table when it kept falling down this year. That was awesome of you.) So I want to tell you: I think you're failing writers in some big and important ways.

Here's the thing, AWP. The percentage of teaching positions occupied by non-tenure-track faculty has more than tripled in the past four decades. According to the Adjunct Project, "Two-thirds of the faculty standing in front of college classrooms each day aren't full-time or permanent professors." The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that "the shadowy world of would-be academia is filled with people cobbling together five or six such teaching gigs at once. That's possible because some 70 percent of college courses offered are now taught by adjuncts - part-timers who are paid a pittance and have no job security."

Yet, at this year's conference in Seattle, the biggest AWP conference yet, you did not have a single panel dedicated to adjunct teaching. Nor were there any panels addressing this shift toward part-time faculty at colleges. Absent also were lectures, discussions or Q&A sessions addressing these changes in the academic climate.

Articles detailing the grueling working conditions of adjuncts abound. I've heard stories about professors with PhD's sleeping in homeless shelters, of adjuncts teaching in rooms filled with cockroaches, of professors without health insurance, unable to afford heat in their homes, living on food stamps.

No doubt, AWP, you have heard these stories too.

Nonetheless, at your conference each year, we see panel after panel dedicated to "best practices" in creative writing pedagogy. How to teach comics in the classroom, how to "redesign your comp class," new ideas for "challenging poetry students to think clearly..." As if it were just up to the individual teacher to make this all go smoothly. As if a well-run workshop has nothing to do with the economic realities faced by the person leading it.

You know what I think is great for creative writing pedagogy, AWP? Job security. Opportunities for promotion. Roach-free classrooms. Office space where teachers can meet with students. When professors do not need to worry about being able to afford lunch, or cobbling together a livable wage by teaching 35 classes, or whether student evaluations will be the difference between having a job next winter or not.

In "Why Buy the Cow: An Open Letter to Full-Time Faculty," Emily Van Duyne writes, "When people ask me what I do, I tell them, accurately, `I am a college professor,' and then hope, depending on the person, that they ask me nothing further. All of the pride that I take in the job that I do... is sucked from me when I have to find a way to describe the situation of the adjunct."

The nature of adjunct teaching, with professors coming and going from university to university, with no offices to call their own, let alone time to gather in faculty lounges or even learn the names of their colleagues, forces these workers into increasing isolation. Writes Van Duyne, "The system, it should be noted, is designed to keep me in isolation, to prevent me from developing the kind of deep and lasting professional relationships that strengthen our teaching, strengthen our department, strengthen our school."

Thus you, AWP, offer an incredible opportunity for professors and would-be profs. As a place where so many in academia are gathered at one time, you could offer panels and talks designed to meet these serious concerns. You could stop treating pedagogy as something motivated solely by the will of the individual - You can do better! You can try harder! Instead, you could offer sessions on what it means to make a living as an adjunct, what adjuncting actually is, how we can try to fix this flawed system within academia. In other words, you could try to address the material realities that affect so many teachers' lives and, undoubtedly, their teaching.

Another thing, AWP? It's not just adjuncts who are having a rough go here. At Jacobin Magazine, Noam Chomsky writes that "In the universities, cheap, vulnerable labor means adjuncts and graduate students. Graduate students are even more vulnerable, for obvious reasons. The idea is to transfer instruction to precarious workers, which improves discipline and control but also enables the transfer of funds to other purposes apart from education."

For students enrolled in this relatively new track, the PhD in Creative Writing, the challenges can be many. Common grievances among PhD students, writes Gabriel Winant in Dissent Magazine, include "poverty wages (at Yale - one of the best-paying universities around - the most a graduate student at the time could hope to make was around $15,000 per year), poor health benefits, a career track unusually hostile to women, a weakening job market and general lack of say over the increasingly corporate structure of universities."

Last spring, graduate students and faculty at the University of Houston staged a sit-in to protest what PhD candidate Ashley Wurzbacher described to me as "teaching stipends that had not been increased in at least 20 years and on which it had become impossible to live."  Wurzbacher told me in an email, "After many months of researching and planning, we drafted a petition, mobilized our colleagues and students, and organized a four-day sit-in and other collective actions on the UH campus." These students were able to negotiate with the university; their stipends were increased.

Unfortunately, the panel she and her colleagues proposed to AWP about this topic was rejected. Wurzbacher said, "We'd like to speak about the ways in which we dealt with the challenges of organizing...about the ways in which undergraduate students are affected by the working conditions of their instructors, and about the ways in which students and faculty can - and should - band together to collaboratively improve each other's lots."

The New York Times also reported this past winter that graduate teaching and research assistants at NYU "voted overwhelmingly to unionize." Writes Steven Greenhouse, "The graduate assistants voted 620 to 10 to affiliate with the United Automobile Workers, a move that will make their group the only graduate assistants' union recognized by a private university in the United States."

This student and faculty organizing is cool, isn't it, AWP? Don't you think it would be great for some of these folks to talk about what they did and how they did it, what worked in their negotiation processes and what didn't? Don't you think that these kinds of things - whether graduate students make livable stipends, why universities are offering more part-time work in lieu of tenure-track positions, what adjuncts can do to improve their lot, how to negotiate for fair working conditions, how to have dignity as a worker and a teacher and a student - don't you think all these things are a bit more urgent than, say, how to maximize your reach on Twitter? (There were numerous panels at this year's conference dedicated to social media, versus zero dedicated to adjunct teaching.)

I really like you, AWP. I love novels and chapbooks and story collections and getting a chance to meet the people who create these things is the coolest thing ever. Plus, small presses are the freaking best. And, in case people don't know, I am kind of obsessed with literary magazines. Your conference is the only place in the world where so many of us can get together and geek out over all this wonderful stuff.

But we working writers/teachers/students need to get our act together. We need to start talking about the treatment of adjuncts and graduate students. We need to stop pretending there is no problem. We need to work together to address these issues. You, AWP, are in a unique position to help us do that.

I know you can get on board with this, AWP. I wouldn't be your friend if I believed otherwise.

[Becky Tuch is the founding editor of The Review Review.]

March 19, 2014