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.