Eileen Schell made waves with her excellent Gypsy Academics and Mother Teachers, published in 1997. She analyzed the complex cultural and economic forces that lead to woman making up the majority of composition teachers in higher education. She made clear the sexism implicit in keeping cadres of women in precarious positions teaching “service courses,” especially those, like writing, often deemed less scholarly or important than other disciplinary offerings.
Twenty years after the publication of Schell’s book, even more higher ed faculty are contingent, with estimates ranging from 60 to 75%.
In January 2016, the co-directors of the Center for the Study of Academic Labor released the “Contingent Faculty Report, Based on 2010 Survey Data Collected by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce.” That document made concrete what we’ve long known anecdotally: adjuncts are mostly women (62%). The largest numbers of adjuncts are in English departments. And if you’re in an English department, you know what work these faculty mostly do: the “service courses.”
Freshman composition and literature survey courses: these foundational courses are where we employ the most vulnerable, underpaid, and under-supported portion of our faculty.
At least now we are talking about it. In my own department, my colleagues are very much aware of the distribution of labor, in part because of persistent, noisy tenured labor activists and allies among us. They care. I’m very proud of the progress the department has made in transparent and ethical treatment of all our faculty, whatever their employment status. I can’t emphasize that enough.
At the same time, when we sit down to discuss hiring and conversion (our contract in the PA state system allows for conversion of adjuncts into tenure lines in some circumstances; I wrote a thing about it), composition is perpetually the afterthought, the add-on, the lowest priority, unless it is a fashionable flavor that may appeal to majors. (Is it “digital”?!?) The freshman course? Rarely is it seen as important enough on its own to merit a full-time position or tenure-line. Yet it is one of a handful of courses we offer every single semester, and the only course in our department every student in the university will take.
I get that this issue is complex—we must serve English majors, and offer courses in other specialties, and we don’t want to be perceived as the “service department.” But when the rubber hits the road, that can often translate into full or nearly full schedules of composition once again being taught by contingent faculty.
Most English departments in the U.S. have a tiered system, with composition instructors at the bottom. They are still the gypsy academics and mother teachers whom Schell described, mostly women, doing “service” with little or no stability, less pay, and little or no benefits.
They are, however, organizing. Every day, I see a news story about another adjunct union forming, or a job action, or a mobilization success. National Adjunct Walk-Out Day in 2015 brought much needed perspective. Campuses are being forced to see first-hand, or at least to imagine, what campuses become without adjunct work.
What would happen to first year composition nationwide if even just the women adjuncts walked out? A day without an adjunct writing teacher would have a lot in common with a day without a women.
It’s 2005. I’m an adjunct at a small private college. I’ve been working at several colleges for a couple of years now, and I’m feeling really good about my current gig: instead of cobbling together a schedule of courses at three schools, I’m working at one. No more freeway flying! I have three contracts: teaching writing and a literature survey course (you know, the “service courses”), directing the writing center, and directing the theater production. While these commitments keep me working long hours, I am still categorized as a “part-timer.”
A professor in the History department who often stops in the writing center for coffee and friendly chats asks one day, “Hey, are you going to serve on that new assessment committee?’
“I don’t usually work on committees,” I reply, “I’m an adjunct.”
During a long pause, he blinks at me.
“But you’re here, like, all the time. More than me, really. You’re part-time?”
Hours and effort don’t make one tenure-track (or insured), and I had some version of that conversation several times with various faculty.
In 2005, adjuncts weren’t getting much press; they weren’t making news for mobilizing or unionizing. In my work as a Composition and Rhetoric teacher, I knew that most or all of the staff teaching comp at the campuses employing me were adjuncts. I didn’t yet know that adjuncts were becoming the new faculty majority nationwide. I heard Marc Bousquet speak at an event hosted by my grad program just before he published How the University Works, so my eyes were beginning to open.
Today, on Day Without A Woman, I’m in a very different position. I’m fortunate to be a tenured associate prof, teaching what I love. I have a four-four load at the public university, making some of my tenured colleagues elsewhere aghast. I used to teach five or six or seven, pretty regularly, so my four-four load still feels light (most days). I have health insurance and (for now) a retirement package. And, I have the ability to take this day off. To reschedule my office hours and a meeting with student. I have a personal day.
So, today, I’m home writing and researching and tweeting about women adjuncts in academia. Why? Because “women make up between 51 and 61 percent of adjunct faculty nationwide. Women in contingent academic employment are most likely to be among the most politically vulnerable and economically precarious in the academy” (The Women & Contingency Project). And because I can. Me in 2005 couldn’t take the day off.
I’ll be writing in this space and posting to @amylynchbiniek on Twitter off and on all day. I hope you’ll join me in bringing increasing awareness and taking whatever actions your circumstances allow to make this Day Without a Woman represent the adjuncts on your campus.