The covid pandemic quarantine and home instruction for my children (five school-age) began when I was pregnant, eight days overdue with my seventh child. Unlike many professors scrambling to move their classes online, I was already teaching my one course online. Suddenly I found myself with a newborn and six other kids at home full-time, while I was trying to complete my semester’s teaching. As Danner notes in this excellent article, an adjunct does not get maternity leave.
As it turned out though, I was immensely grateful I’d gotten to teach Spring 2020 semester, as I soon received the email saying that my Summer 2020 online course was canceled. And shortly thereafter, I received the email notifying me that my Fall 2020 online course was also canceled. The declining enrollment in classes due to covid thus had an immediate effect on me as an adjunct. This accords with Danner’s description wherein the security of adjunct faculty is the least protected; we were among the first to go. Nor was the covid pandemic the first time I found myself suddenly facing a loss of the meager income I contribute to our family income. On one occasion, a lecturer friend of mine contacted me to ask about the course I usually run online. She had her usual class cancel, but per her contract was required to teach, so she had been assigned my usual course. I suddenly had no income that semester either!
For purposes of disclosure, I should note that my husband is a full professor at the same institution where I serve as an adjunct, and I am obviously (and thankfully) not the primary income-earner. He is one of the lucky ones that managed to get a job that year; he applied for all 50 available and had one offer, which he took and began as I completed the writing of my dissertation. However, a professor salary in the northeast is comparable to that of the blue collar working class (as a comparison with of salaries with our blue collar neighbors indicates), and my extra income as an adjunct has been beneficial in keeping the family out of debt with a high mortgage payment and rapidly increasing food bills. It’s not just a nice bonus. Hence I now find myself brainstorming ways to make up my missing income, with my unemployment claim going on ten weeks of “pending” status. I thus keenly identify with the necessity of Danner’s response tactic of securing just pay, benefits, and security for contingent faculty.
I acknowledge my privilege here in not having the family completely dependent on my adjunct salary. And, while online classes are not as fulfilling from a teaching standpoint, they have worked well with my life as a mother of a large family, as has not needing to attend department meetings or meet any service requirements to a department. The director of my program once offered me a face-to-face course as an adjunct, and when I ran the numbers (child care, a commute, etc.), I easily determined I wouldn’t even break even teaching this class. Thus I have only taken online course opportunities, an option not always available to or desired by adjunct faculty.
What Danner describes in universities has the characteristic of social sin; there are systems in place that prevent the flourishing of contingent faculty. Danner’s numbers on page 36 tell the tale in a complementary way to the many stories I’ve heard from many bright, talented, hard-working, committed theologians who were not selected for the few available positions and are now seemingly assigned forever to the contingent faculty class. Over 80% of adjunct faculty have been at the same institution for at least three years!
Danner does an excellent job showing that there is a bias in place to prevent full-time hiring for each year that one passes as an adjunct. Unlike a corporation where visible hard work and loyalty may pay off, adjunct faculty stand to the side, watching younger outsiders win the jobs they would merit if academia functioned more like other careers. When it comes to publishing, there is also a bias against adjunct faculty that goes beyond lack of time and resources. There is a lack of a committed institution to lend credibility to a scholar’s work. While these patterns of bias are entrenched in the very structures of unjust pay and limited opportunities, I agree with Danner that those who serve as chairs, directors, and other administrators, as well as full-time faculty, have the power to identify such bias and actively work against it in their hiring decisions. Thus Danner’s suggestion regarding the importance of adjunct inclusion and advocacy is crucial for the future.
The director of my program, Catholic Studies, has bent over backward to include her adjunct faculty, publicizing our work, having us do paid lectures on campus, and inviting us to program meetings, events, and parties. She always asks our availability before assigning courses. Even though I see no classes in my near future, she continues to see me as a contributing faculty member. In many ways, she embodies what Danner describes as an important response of full-time faculty members to the state of contingent faculty. She is purposely inclusive and a fantastic advocate. Were all chairs and department directors to appreciate their faculty as she does, adjunct professors would feel much more the important part of the university that they are, and the cumulative effect of this support could bring changes in regard to just pay, benefits, and job security. Moreover, the faculty senate at my institution constantly highlights the injustice done to contingent faculty.
The pandemic is an occasion for pessimism among many in higher education, and it remains to be seen how many Catholic universities will collapse and be pushed into closing permanently. As I stated at the beginning, adjunct faculty such as myself were among the first to lose their work. Even with conscious inclusion and advocacy, those in charge may simply not be able to ensure just pay, benefits, and the security that contingent faculty need when resources are so limited. Thus, to Danner’s fine suggestions, I’d like also to raise the question of the role played by doctoral programs.
Are those programs admitting new students honest with them about their chances of full-time employment in academia? Do they discuss with them the possibility of never being hired? Do they find ways to diversify the program such that students might seek work outside of a university or academic setting? And how do they communicate the worth of the vocation of a theologian regardless of where graduates end up? With a declining birth rate, higher education will continue to see decreased enrollment. Doctoral programs thus must acknowledge the fact of depleted full-time positions available to their incoming students, while also noting how they may suffer from the structures currently in place for professors. Many of us are limited in how we can say “no” to this system.