Adjuncts Speak Out: Stephanie Young, David Buuck and Christian Nagler in Conversation

From Harriet: Poetry Foundation:

At the end of summer, I went back to school and sat down with three Bay Area Adjunct Writing Instructors (*and poets!) who are leading the charge locally toward better working conditions for adjuncts and better learning conditions for students as part of “Adjunct Action: Bay Area.” This is part of a nationwide movement called Adjunct Action: a project of the SEIU (Service Employees International Union), where over 22,000 unionized adjuncts have already won improvements in pay, job security, evaluation processes, and access to retirement benefits. This conversation took place between myself, Stephanie Young (who teaches at Mills College), Christian Nagler (SFAI, AAU), and David Buuck (Mills, Bard College). Read our conversation to learn more about what adjunct unionization means for poetry instructors, poetry program administrators, and poetry students nationwide.

SARA: There’s been a lot of conversation recently about adjunct unionization at colleges and universities in the United States. I’m wondering if we can begin by talking about a few of the problems: what are a few of the problems that adjunct instructors are facing in the workforce?

CHRISTIAN: At my school, the San Francisco Art Institute, adjuncts are 80% of the faculty but they have no say in the functioning of the institution. There’s not a full buy-in for the people who participate in these institutions and make their living in them. And it’s a problem because there’s a higher education crisis, it’s systemic and difficult, and we need a lot of different intelligences working on it, especially the people who are working on the ground every day and know its problems first-hand. That’s a big thing for me: institutional governance and a voice within the institution. But that’s one small part.

DAVID: The ideological acceptance of a business model for colleges and universities has lead to major cost cutting and the trend—especially within the humanities, where you have a massive increase in PhD students, or in the creative writing world, with so many MFAs—has led to a buyers’ market from the point of view of the institution. With the massive increase in the percentage of adjuncts in universities, the costs are pretty clear: lower pay, lack of input into faculty governance, lack of training and institutional support for scholarship or career advancement, and lack of job security and benefits; but also, at a macro-level, it is part and parcel of the shift to a corporate model, where the student is increasingly seen as a consumer and the professor is increasingly seen as a service provider.

STEPHANIE: I would add other concrete ways precarity gets expressed in the working lives and labor conditions of adjuncts, namely, lower wages and year to year (or semester to semester) contracts. Often faculty will have a verbal agreement or understanding with a Chair or Dean but no official contract in hand. Sometimes contracts arrive a few months, weeks, or even days before classes begin.

One thing I’ve come to understand during the union organizing process is that I’ve worked in a somewhat unusual department [at Mills College], one that’s had a more ethical commitment to adjunct faculty or maybe just an understanding of what it means to run on 60% adjunct labor and also keep programs running smoothly for students. What this has looked like practically: English department leadership advocating for multi-year contracts so that adjunct faculty have a sense of what the next few years will look like; bundling classes so that people teach enough courses to be eligible for health benefits; compensation for adjuncts who do things like academic advising and serving on thesis committees. That sort of work has traditionally been done by tenured faculty, which becomes untenable when the number of students is the same or higher but only 40% of the faculty can do these major things that students sign up for, especially at a private liberal arts college–working with an academic advisor who is available, will be around when you need a letter of recommendation two years from now. Someone you can work with both in and out of the classroom, mentorship. I knew these conditions were unusual in comparison to other colleges, especially around health care–many don’t offer benefits to adjunct faculty at all, or don’t allow them to teach enough courses to become benefits eligible. But it’s been upsetting to discover the uneven conditions for colleagues in other departments at Mills. And that better working conditions are entirely dependent on who is in power, which can change abruptly. The union gives us the opportunity to understand these uneven and inequitable labor practices across departments and campuses, and to raise everyone’s working conditions.

Christian’s point on governance is also important. One contribution to the erosion of faculty governance over the last 30-50 years has been increased reliance on adjuncts who aren’t participatory members of faculty senates, who don’t have a say. Which weakens the faculty as a whole, both tenured and non-tenured, and gives the administration and board of trustees more power.

SARA: What’s it like to be an adjunct? Can we bring a few more percentages into the picture, for students who may not know?

STEPHANIE: There are many different kinds of adjuncts, many different kinds of workers. Many people teach at two or three institutions in order to make ends meet. Christian, when you worked atAcademy of Art, you were teaching something like eight classes a semester. Which is a slightly different situation from Mills in that it’s a for-profit school.

CHRISTIAN: It is a different situation. And yet all the schools, including the public universities, are now following the business models of the for-profit schools. Though the for-profits are definitely leaders in the corporatization of education. They pay the lowest wages with the highest level of contingency. When I worked at one I had to teach at least five classes per semester in order to make anything.

Read the full conversation here.