Last Wednesday, The Chronicle of Higher Education published Isaac Sweeney’s article “Why I Should Keep My Mouth Shut.” In it, he admits that he “wrote some honest essays about adjunct work.” He figured that his departments, especially at James Madison, wouldn’t like what he had to say about being an adjunct, but as he says, “I was teaching composition, so I figured that my employers would value that I was honing my craft and presenting valid arguments over the controversial aspects of my writing. I was wrong.” Sweeney still teaches at a community college, but he wasn’t rehired at James Madison University for the spring 2011 semester.
One of the two articles Sweeney references was published as recently as March 10, 2011. In “‘Stuck’ With Adjuncts,” he shares his thoughts on feeling overworked and underpaid, even underappreciated. He says, “For us, the challenge is that we just can’t reach our full potential. It isn’t our fault; the system is set up against us. As part-time, contract employees, we don’t get the full support of our institutions, which hurts our teaching, usually without us even knowing it.” In the end, he says the lack of support from his institutions indirectly hurts his students. He made a similar statement in his 2009 article, “If Colleges Valued Students, They’d Value Adjuncts.” In that piece, he wrote, “If institutions value their students’ educations as much as they claim, they need to better embrace adjuncts. Perhaps it is about offering adjuncts a fair wage and more job security. But maybe just valuing their input or asking for their opinions would be a good start.”
I found his latest article on a friend’s Facebook page and re-posted it on mine, inviting any of my friends who are also adjuncts to comment on Sweeney’s piece(s). Surprisingly, only one of my friends in the adjunct pool commented. I wondered if the rest were, as Sweeney suggests, “keeping their mouths shut” on an issue that directly affects their income. Sweeney himself notes, “I’m actually thankful. I realize I don’t have a Ph.D., nor do I have mounds of teaching experience. It was almost a gift, I sometimes think, that I was hired at all.” Did my colleagues feel the same kind of meek gratitude?
The colleagues that commented were full-time professors at MC who had also been adjuncts and so could appreciation the working conditions our part-time colleagues experience. The conversation ran the gamut of how other institutions showed value and how our own institution could improve its value of adjunct labor. My part-time colleague said adjuncts are frustrated but often only share their frustrations with one another. A full-time colleague said when she was an adjunct at a previous school, working with a full-time mentor helped her hone her interview skills. Another full-timer said she welcomed part-timers seeking her out for advice or fellowship.
What I discovered was a cordial conversation that indicated to me the open and inviting spirit that leads to positive change at Montgomery College. At MC-Rockville, our adjuncts share a single space in the basement of the Humanities building. There are few desks, even fewer computers, some lockers for storage space, but not much more. There is limited room for teacher-student conferences and limited room for breaks between classes. Yes, admittedly, we have work to do, but the fact that we are able to hold a discussion is a step in the right direction.
As a former adjunct, I am aware of MC’s limitations. I can make comparisons between our institution and Marymount University, where I taught part-time for a year. There, the adjunct office was on the same floor as the English department office and down the hall from respected full-time professors who invited conversations and valued input. (At MU, full-time and part-time professors alike were linked with a librarian who collected texts related to our courses — quite a perk for EN 101!) At MC, full-time professors’ offices are spread all over campus, and even if we are in the same building, we are sometimes separated by many floors. As our campus grows and buildings close and re-open, space continues to be an issue. In an ideal world, members of each department would be in the same building. This seems impossible, but at the very least our adjunct offices could be placed near their respective department offices, which would likely give them access to department-wide dialogues.
Adjuncts do a lot of work, yes, and as Sweeney says, they often do it for smaller wages. They do not have the obligation to participate on committees or fulfill service projects, but many of them do for their own professional development and personal growth. Many of them may be silenced either by their workload or by their fear of rocking the boat on which they depend so much for their daily survival. They can, however, be assured that many of their full-time colleagues know and understand the situations they are in and the limitations they face. We see the need for better conditions, too, and many of us invite more conversations and shared insight toward improving those conditions.
Universities and colleges need adjunct labor. Universities and colleges also need to express their value and appreciation of the many adjuncts fulfilling these needs. None of us should ever feel insecure about expressing such feelings. After all, keeping our mouths shut sends a message of complacency to our students, and that is never a good thing.