The number of contract faculty members in Canadian universities is growing, outpacing more secure forms of employment, while tenure-track hiring is lagging. Members of this constituency — sometimes called the “precariat” or “academic industrial reserve army” – have, in some cases, taught for more than 10 years, PhD in hand. They work part-time in name only, as many of their other efforts at the university are unseen and uncompensated.
Members of this constituency, as well as some of our tenured peers, feel frustration by how too many universities fail to collect or publish data about contract faculty and how so many of us are paid a fraction of full-time wages for almost the same work, while universities market their graduate programs to prospective students as the path to high earnings. Of those who acknowledge the specific plight of adjuncts, many are unwilling or incapable of doing anything about it.
Faced with what can seem to be widespread labour exploitation, many of us may be tempted to seize the superstructure by force to achieve labour equality through revolution. But the issue is more complex than simply being underpaid and invisible, and the solutions require more finesse than storming the palace. If there is to be a revolution among the growing class of angry, frustrated, and demoralized contract faculty, it will involve more mundane measures: patience, strategic planning, and collaboration with faculty of all ranks. In fact, we must all be part of the solution, not simply add to the problem.
The job precariousness of learned individuals in a tough market is hardly new. In 18th- century Germany, only full professors received a steady salary; associate professors were sometimes not paid at all, and lecturers, similar to adjuncts, were paid directly by students. Immanuel Kant worked part-time as an assistant librarian while he was a lecturer for 15 years before landing his dream job of full professor in 1770 at the age of 46. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was 36 before he had a steady salary and 46 before he became professor at the University of Heidelberg, after having published his body weight in philosophy. These asides are not meant to justify current working conditions but rather to show that the problem of underpaid, insecure, transient employment has been with us for some time.
Who we are
I plan to use this series of columns to tackle issues of importance to contract faculty, and also to advance constructive tactics for using existing channels for setting an agenda for change. If contract faculty want to mobilize and agitate, there are much more effective ways than raging against our tenured colleagues, and ways that do not involve being divisive and disrespectful. Even if we all walked off the job tomorrow in an effort to bring university administrations to their knees, that will not happen, for there is a large surplus of graduate students that can be piped into our classrooms.
I am an adjunct, six years in, and five years out from completing my doctorate. I serve proudly in many capacities in our faculty association, commit research time to the plight of contract faculty, and actively participate in the academic life of my unit where permitted. My story may not be too dissimilar to your own: I have taught a large number of courses that receive fairly high evaluations – a common feature among adjuncts – and have made efforts to improve my own professionalization through publications and conferences. I don’t have a tried-and-true method for stepping into a tenure-track position.
Adjuncts are a varied constituency. Some are professionals in established fields like medicine or law for whom teaching is a kind of honorable supplement. For others, contract teaching is the primary source of income, and these adjuncts want to be a more permanent fixture in the faculty. Another group is comprised of graduate students. Within each of these groups, there are finer gradations.
In the U.S., 70 percent or more of teaching faculty are adjuncts. In Canada, the picture is hazier due to a paucity of collected data, but it is believed that the adjunct complement in Canadian universities stands at around 50 percent. The last time any significant data collection on adjuncts was performed was in Hidden Academics: Contract faculty in Canadian Universities, by Indu Rajagopal in 2001.
If you are an adjunct, most likely you are paid a stipend of $4,000 to $7,000 per half-course and you probably aren’t compensated for course preparation and grading. You may be considered to be working only while in the lecture theatre or during office hours. You may not have a lot of lead time before a course assignment, or even sufficient access to university resources to develop your course. At most Canadian universities (with a few notable exceptions), you don’t have benefits such as life or dental insurance. A large number of you are still paying off student debt, and may be putting off owning a home or starting a family. Some of you still have to apply every year to teach the same course you have taught for the last 10 years.
Many of you want to distinguish yourselves in research, but can’t due to lack of access to grants and a heavy teaching load. Some of you need to teach at more than one institution. You might not have access to an office. For some who have been adjuncts for more than 25 years, you have no extra compensation for length of service, and no appreciable gains in security.
Unlike adjuncts down south who have mobilized their constituency by creating sites such as The Adjunct Project or organizations such as The New Faculty Majority which hosts annual summits to discuss issues unique to adjuncts, Canadians have yet to organize a nationwide response to the plight of adjuncts.
We do have allies who pay attention to this issue, such as the Canadian Association of University Teachers and their Fair Employment Week initiative. There are also pockets of resistance that better inform ourselves and the public, such as http://weteachlaurier.tumblr.com/.
In the months ahead, I plan to consider a range of adjunct issues: how to build alliances, how to raise awareness about your plight without hostility, the benefits of participating in a faculty association, how to accommodate research, how to avoid predatory publishing and conference opportunities, and how to manage the challenges associated with adjunct life, among others.