Labor & Work-Life Issues

MLA Sessions Keep the Focus on Adjuncts

January 05, 2013

Overworked and underpaid: That describes the situation of too many non-tenure-track faculty members, who make up more and more of the college-level teaching force. But they haven't been overlooked at the Modern Language Association's annual meeting, which began here on Thursday.

Michael Bérubé, a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University and the association's current president, has been a passionate advocate of improving labor conditions in academe. "Avenues of Access" is this year's conference theme, and Mr. Bérubé made access to better academic working conditions a centerpiece of his presidential address, delivered on Friday night to an enthusiastic crowd at the Boston Sheraton.

"So many of the students we teach today will become, through no fault of their own, the contingent and adjunct labor of tomorrow," he said.

Mr. Bérubé mentioned hearing colleagues say that they love working in literature so much they'd do it free. "Sadly," he said, "some are almost doing just that."

He recalled how the joy he took in reading books like A Wrinkle in Time, Alice in Wonderland, and The Phantom Tollbooth ultimately led him to graduate school and a career as a scholar and writer. But he said that when he makes the case for studying the humanities, he emphasizes the hard and serious work it requires.

"I am not going to lead with pleasure when I talk about justification for the humanities," Mr. Bérubé said. "Of course they give pleasure. So does dessert. But when it's time to cut budgets, dessert has to be the first thing to go," he said.

That's where advocacy comes in, Mr. Bérubé said. The association's recent emphasis on non-tenure-track labor continues "a substantial reinterpretation of our mission" that began with graduate-student activism in the 1990s.

But a professional society can do only so much. Everyone in the profession has a hand in shaping working conditions, he told the packed room. Teachers of language and literature owe it to their institutions, their disciplines, their colleagues, and themselves to make sure "that each and every one of us can conduct our professional work with a measure of professional dignity," Mr. Bérubé said.

What Can Be Done

For this year's Presidential Forum session, "Avenues of Access: Non-Tenure-Track Faculty Members and American Higher Education," Mr. Bérubé invited a panel of the non-tenured to talk about what can be done to improve the situation for adjuncts and contingent faculty.

Joshua A. Boldt, a writing instructor at the University of Georgia, led off with a spirited call to arms that was also a call for solidarity among all those who teach, tenured or not. Mr. Boldt is the founder of the Adjunct Project, a crowdsourced database where adjuncts can share information about pay and working conditions. (The Chronicle has teamed up with Mr. Boldt to expand the project; that new version made its debut here at the conference.)

"It's time to take back our departments and show some respect and dignity to our teaching colleagues," Mr. Boldt told the audience at the presidential forum.

The first step is to offer contracts to non-tenure-track faculty members, he said. "The other part of the equation is simple: Adjuncts should be paid a living wage for their work. If universities are going to employ adjuncts with a full-time course load, those adjuncts should be paid accordingly."

The Modern Language Association has pushed for around $6,800 as the going rate paid to teach a standard, three-credit course. That far exceeds what most non-tenure-track instructors receive, as the Adjunct Project has documented.

"Thousands and thousands of our colleagues are being horribly mistreated," Mr. Boldt said during his talk.

That ought to worry the tenured too, he argued. Relying so much on non-tenured labor, colleges are "designing departments that are built on a foundation of sand and have no bargaining power." English departments are among the "worst offenders," according to Mr. Boldt.

He cautioned that "the rise of MOOCs and other forms of online learning are potentially a serious threat" to language-and-literature departments. "By allowing our departments to be staffed contingently," he said, "we are passively participating in their dismantling."

The panel also featured Elizabeth Landers, who teaches French at the University of Missouri at St. Louis; Robert Samuels, a lecturer in the Writing Programs at the University of California at Los Angeles, who made a bold case for how society could provide free public higher education; and Maria Maisto, president of the New Faculty Majority, a national advocacy group for adjunct and contingent faculty.

In her talk, Ms. Maisto invoked Hester Prynne, the heroine of Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter. Forced to wear the scarlet A of the title after she commits adultery, Hester turns that badge of shame into one of pride.

Adjuncts have seized on the scarlet letter as a symbol of their status within academe, Ms. Maisto said. The work of the New Faculty Majority and the Adjunct Project is part of a broad advocacy movement by and for non-tenure-track faculty—a drive, she said, "to present the stories and to connect the storytellers."