Why APSCUF Contract’s Treatment of Adjunct Faculty Matters to Tenure-Line Faculty

Note: I teach in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education [PASSHE] and am a member of our 14-school union, APSCUF. Professors statewide have been working with a contract for a year.  This post is addressed to my fellow tenure-track / tenured colleagues in response to PASSHE’s latest contract proposal, which you can read here.

The June proposal from PASSHE contains several passages that significantly impact adjunct faculty—called “temporary faculty” in our contract, despite that fact that many have worked in the system for 10 or more years. Some of my fellow tenure-line faculty may wonder why we shouldn’t just concede on these demands, use them as negotiating chips to leverage better health care, for example. In this post, I’m going to posit why the State System’s treatment of adjunct faculty matters to all of us, from the adjunct on a semester-long contract to the tenured full professor.

First, let me get the obvious out of the way: at the very heart of the concept of union is the belief that the working conditions of allmembers matter.  We should not sell out a portion of our colleagues to protect our own self-interests. We should think beyond ourselves, our departments, even our individual campuses, and consider the health and welfare of the whole of educators and education in Pennsylvania. We should fight for reasonable course loads, pay, and benefits for adjuncts because they are professionals and human beings. They are our colleagues, and we already benefit in disproportionate ways from their labor. It’s just the right thing to do.

Beyond that, the State System’s proposals concerning adjuncts add up to bad news for teaching and learning conditions on all of our campuses, in ways that will affect all of us down the road.

Three proposed changes, in combination, are particularly alarming, as they will reshape the face of education in PA.  The State System wants to: raise the cap on adjunct faculty from 25% to 30%; increase the course load of adjuncts from four to five; and allow all graduate students to teach.

Think it’s difficult to get a tenure-line to replace your retired colleagues now? Wait until this proposal goes into effect. That 30% cap does not include graduate students, so in reality, the percentage of contingent teachers will be greater—at some campuses, much greater. This is both an attack on adjuncts specifically and an attack on tenure generally.

With more adjuncts and grad students teaching a larger percentage of courses, administration may be less likely to see the need for new tenure-track professors. Smaller departments and programs are especially in danger: how can you convince the Provost to release that line when the bulk of classes needed for Gen Ed can be covered by adjuncts and grad students? There’s a reason that one of the most visible adjunct advocacy groups is called “The New Faculty Majority.” APSCUF has successfully staved off the adjunctificaiton of our universities thus far, but PASSHE’s proposal would very quickly put us on that path. What happens to shared-governance when, as the loudest faculty voices retire, they are replaced with vulnerable adjunct labor?

Some of you may be thinking what Administration is saying: “But it’s like this everywhere now.” Sadly, this is (mostly) true; nationwide, an estimated 70% of all faculty in higher education are on some kind of contingent contract. Even so, this “but everyone is doing it” reasoning confounds me. If abuse of labor is rampant, our reaction should not be to shrug and give in. Indeed, the willingness to fight adjunctification is what has kept public education in PA something I can be proud of.  The only way I can rationalize working in a profession that abuses labor is to consistently fight to change that system.

What’s more, the face of labor is changing nationwide in other ways, too: as labor conditions in higher education have gotten more attention, adjunct and graduate student unions are on the rise. There is significant pushback from the New Faculty Majority. They are winning more and more battles, and we should be fighting alongside them.

Let’s think selfishly for a moment, though.  How might PASSHE’s proposal affect our departments? Until now, PASSHE has been able to attract quality adjuncts. I think of my adjunct colleagues in the English department at KU: scholars, teachers, writers, each invested in our department and our campus, each dedicated to quality education. The more we allow their pay and conditions to deteriorate, the harder it will be to hire teachers of their caliber.  While the State System’s treatment of adjuncts has been far from perfect, we’ve been able to offer conditions that attract excellent academics from across the country. Who will move across the country or across the state for a temporary gig when the working conditions are just as bad (or worse) than the conditions everywhere else?

Let’s consider how those working conditions will affect both the teachers and the quality of education on your campus carefully. The proposal suggests that adjuncts would be evaluated only on teaching; no more scholarship required. This means that a significant percentage of the faculty may not be doing research in their fields, keeping up in their disciplines.

My specialty is composition and rhetoric, and a large portion of my course load is the gen ed freshman writing course. I mention this because composition has historically used a disproportionate amount of adjunct labor, often rationalized with a belief that anyone who can write can teach writing. Having a doctorate in comp, I can assure you that there is much to study concerning how students acquire advanced literacy skills. Before my PhD, though, I was an adjunct with a Masters in Medieval Literature and taught composition. I worked very hard teaching five or six sections a semester. I did my best, but I had very little time and no institutional support to learn what methods might actually be most effective. In short, my lack of scholarship mattered.

Do you doubt that your adjunct colleagues might be too strapped for time to keep up in their fields with the proposed 5/5 load? Let’s be honest—adjuncts are most likely to be given the general education courses, the ones some of my tenure-line colleagues don’t want to teach. In English departments, the example nearest my experience, this means one prof teaching five sections of freshman writing. Commenting on multiple drafts of multiple projects. I barely have time to do my laundry when I’m teaching two sections of comp. Were I to go back to my days of teaching that many sections of writing in a single semester, I’d have to cut corners on my pedagogy just to get through the semester. No more one-on-one conferences to discuss drafts. Read the latest issue of Research In Writing? Forget it.

Or I think of my colleagues teaching gen ed Health or History, each of their five sections populated by 50, 75, even 100 students.  Scantron tests might be the best option for making that workload survivable. In short: the quality of education suffers.

I could go on, ask you to think about the office space available to adjuncts on your campus; issues with students in our Master’s programs teaching undergrads; or what happens to both groups when their health care is insufficient. I’ll stop here, though, hoping you have some food for thought, hoping you’ll join me in fighting for a better contract.

Editor’s Note: Amy’s original version of this article appears on her blog, Composing Myself. Be sure to check out all her great work and tell her that Raging Chicken sent ya! You can follow Amy on Twitter here: @amylynchbiniek