“‘A’ is for Adjunct:” National Adjunct Walkout Day #NAWD

"Scooped" by Vanessa Vaile onto A is for Adjunct

“Scooped” by Vanessa Vaile onto A is for Adjunct

On Wednesday February 25th, adjunct faculty across the United States walked out of their classrooms, and hosted teach-ins, lectures, film screenings and rallies, to protest the employment conditions faced by adjunct and all contingent faculty members of colleges and universities. I am adjunct faculty; and encouraged by what I learned in my own participation in the protest, I would like to share my experiences with you in this blog.

While many Universities last week held massive protests and walkouts on campus, I realized when planning my own protest that if I walked out, I would probably be standing outside on the lawn with very few other protesters. There are plenty of adjunct faculty on my campus—75% to be exact, the national average for all college and university campuses— but I know very few of my adjunct peers and we have no organized voice at the school. Weighing my options (admittedly last minute), I found a great power point presentation on the National Adjunct Walkout Day Facebook page prepared by a Texas adjunct professor, Dr. Jenny Smith, and made available for use by all through Slideshare. Instead of walking out, I taught-in; and I was surprised by how little my students knew about this issue, though I was incredibly heartened by their responses.

“How many of you have heard of an adjunct or know what an adjunct faculty member is,” I asked my first class, explaining to them that we would not be having a regular class that day and that their participation in what followed was optional. I think one person had heard this title before and knew what I was talking about. While they had heard of tenure and knew professors must have employment ranks, most of my students had never heard of this particular brand of part time faculty.

Protests at Seattle University, click here for image source.

Protests at Seattle University, click here for image source.

Adjunct faculty members are part time professors, typically intended to remain part time.[1] Paid between one quarter and one half of the pay of their full time peers, they are often denied benefits, denied a vote in the faculty senate and yet, make up the majority of faculty on most campuses nationwide. According to Dr. Smith’s research, the average yearly income of an adjunct with a Ph.D. who teaches 15 contact hours a is $22,500 a year,[2] compared to their full time colleagues who earn on average $84,000 ($60,000 at community colleges) a year for an equivalent class load. And adjuncts typically work at more than one institution to achieve this equivalent load. Unable to participate in many committees, meetings or advising, or else invited to participate without compensation, adjuncts tend to be underpaid, overworked and offered little to no job security.

Watching the power point and explaining the particulars of adjunct life up to my students, I did something I do not often do with them: I let them ask me questions about my personal life.

Click here for image source.

Click here for image source.

“I hope this is okay to ask, but do you [Dr. Frykenberg] ever get upset about this?”

Yes, it depresses me sometimes, particularly when I am worried about paying my bills. I get sad and angry.

“What do you do during the summer time?”

I am lucky; I’ve been able to get summer school classes—my department is very supportive of adjunct faculty. When I can’t get a class, I try to find other work. I also have another part time job that helps to supplement my income during the summers; and I have a partner—I’m not sure I could do this job without my partner.

“No offense, but why would you want to be an adjunct? Did you know about adjuncts before you started graduate school?”

No offense taken. I love what I do—I have always wanted to teach. And keep in mind the question on the power point: what if all adjuncts decided it wasn’t worth it anymore? Where would that leave our students? …Actually, no: I didn’t realize this when I started school. Then, we [grad students] started to get this sense that being an adjunct was just “putting in your dues” before you got a full time job. But now the majority of all jobs available are adjunct or contingent positions.

In my pedagogical practice, I deliberately try to prevent my students from feeling that they need to “take care of me.” While appropriate vulnerability and mutuality is important in the educational process, I feel it violates the student’s safety and trust to disclose too much or to (wittingly or not) try to make students responsible for my emotions. Students are simply too vulnerable to teachers already: to our opinions, our power and our passion. However, on this one day, I let me guard down a little bit for the sake of protest, and my students responded better than I had hoped. Many were outraged by adjunct wages and living conditions, and horrified that they had not known about the injustice so many of their professors were facing. I felt cared about, particularly in discovering (yet again) that they cared deeply for what they had not previously known.

And critically, my students connected this systemic injustice to their own lives and families—they made interrelational connections so important to consciousness raising and liberative pedagogy.

  • “Is this like, a few years back, when teachers were given all the pink slips and could expect to be given a pink slip at any time?”
  • “My mother is a teacher [and this is her experience]…”
  • “At my job…”
  • “Most of the professors I worked with at _X_ school were gone by the time I left.”
  • “How can we find out how our tuition money is being spent?”
  • “How can we help?”

Students in both of my classes on Wednesday wanted to know how they could help. I offered some suggestions. They offered suggestions. They thanked me for my willingness to share this protest with them; and I felt strengthened by the support, as well as the support of all the other protesters last Wednesday, the international groups showing solidarity or protesting themselves, and full-time allies who also taught-in at my school.

National Adjunct Walkout Day and my participation in it gave me a little more hope, and a lot more to think about when I am despairing.

Did you participate in the National Adjunct Walkout Day?

If so, what did you do?

What do you think students can do to help?

Click here for image source.

Click here for image source.

[1] The school in which I work actually has a great track record of hiring its adjuncts into full time positions as they become available. However, I have found this situation rather unique, not typical of most colleges and universities.

[2] The medium income is slightly higher according to Payscale.com, at $31, 773. However, the website does not list contact hours, so does not specify how many classes a professors must teach a year to earn this income. Dr. Smith notes that legally, schools are not allowed to employ adjuncts for more than a certain number of classes a semester (with changing their rank).


 Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence.  In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.

Categories: Academy, Activism, Community

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15 replies

  1. Most of my father’s career was spent as a full time professor; my oldest daughter spent two years teaching HS in the Bronx as part of the ‘Teach for America’ program; I am therefore all too well aware that our educational system from top to bottom is profoundly dysfunctional, with the compensation of real teachers (rather than athletic coaches and university administrators) at every level being but one of many disturbing symptoms of that. I therefore appreciate where you are coming from but far from having any answers I am left with a sense of foreboding about where our educational system is headed.


    • Hi Stuart, Thank you for your reply. I don’t feel like I have a lot of answers either– which is part of why I ask the question here… I could give my students some ideas, but I felt a little at a loss.

      Some of the unionizing movements I have heard about give me some hope. However, this trend in education similar to the situation in far too many other forms of employment in the US… this devaluation of all kinds of labor is very alarming. I often wonder if or when the tension will reach a boiling point.


      • “this devaluation of all kinds of labor is very alarming….”

        I think this is such a big part of it :( I was listening to NPR talk about Sweet Briar closing and one of the things students have been saying is that they are no longer going to colleges for an education, but for job skills to then enter the labor force. While I get this (I entered the private sector because I was so discouraged with adjuncting)– this is also a complete acceptance of the privatization of and corporate like mentality surrounding higher ed and humans in general. :( I trust teachers with teaching and fleshing out our humanity. My experience working IN an administration office at a major university was that there were no teachers making any decision and no teachers having input on their profession or their students. But damn did we get administration heavy while I was there….

        I don’t have any simple answers either– but I do get so anxious thinking of what this (we) will look like 30-50 years from now…


  2. My husband, now retired, was an adjunct professor for many years at several colleges and, before the program was abolished, he taught through these colleges in prisons (where he found the most interesting and motivated students.) The pay was abysmal and for sure he could not have managed without our partnership. I would be curious to know what suggestions you and your students came up with to address the plight of adjunct professors.


    • Thanks Elizabeth,

      Sadly, not many.

      I encouraged them to use the power they had to influence administration.
      Too few students realize that they have representation.
      My college is rather small, so I encouraged them to reach out to the ASB (who have a seat in many meetings) or to form student forums.
      I also suggested they raise awareness among their peers or in online activism spaces (because as I said, most of them didn’t even know this was a problem). I also recommended they join protests.

      Students, overall, I think could help by finding out more and being more involved in the ways that their education is being administered.

      I also asked them to consider in a class how much they knew about their professors and ask themselves, when judging that class, if the professor has the institutional support necessary to do her or his best job.

      One of my students actually made a great suggestion (this was a student in my second class who was more aware of adjunct employment). She is in a Math department, and she and her peers have to take many year long classes– they had some very disjointed classes because they would never have the same part time professor for the entire class–which she expressed, really disrupted her education. They took this issue to the department directly; and eventually another full time professor was hired.

      I am not sure how this small group went from ‘A’ to ‘B’ here— but student initiation in this case seemed to have an impact.


  3. Thanks for that Sarah. This situation truly is abysmal. Students taking out huge loans and faculty not being paid. This of course is all to save money, or so it is claimed, but where is the money going? No doubt to excessively high salaries in some departments, to lots of perks for the few, and I am sure too, to sports.And then too there is a great disparity in teaching loads, with part-timers usually having to take on an extra class to come up to full-time pay.


    • Thanks for your reply Carol.

      What’s really interesting, if you check out Dr. Smith’s power point, is that a huge increase in adjunct hiring actually happened during the economic boom— not during recession. It is posed as a “money saving strategy,” but the strategy was strongly implemented when the economy was doing well.

      The Huffington Post released an interesting article about instructional spending at Universities that you might find interesting:

      The Institution for Educational science also gives some interesting data: http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=75

      You also make a good point about teaching load here as well. Adjuncts teach the vast majority of all classes; but the law prevents hiring an ‘adjunct’ for more than a specified number of classes at a given school (in a given state) (lest they have to be paid a full-time rate) so adjuncts usually teach at more than one school and more classes to get a livable wage.


  4. Go, Sarah! I worked as an adjunct professor in a for-profit “university” for a few years. Yes, it was in many ways awful. (My immediate supervisor was a misogynist among other things.) But it was wonderful, too, because I had a number of really dedicated students who wanted more than anything else to earn a B.A. or a B.S. To this day, I know students who are forced to take out huge loans (at high interest rates) just to study at state universities. In one institution, the budget for football was ten times the budget for the library.

    Walk out. Teach in. Engage in real-world education!


    • Thanks Barbara! I am actually pretty lucky where I work– my boss is extremely supportive and cares a great deal about her adjuncts and tries to create as many opportunities as she can for them. So, I have an extremely supportive department and, as you say, students who care a great deal about their learning.

      However, this doesn’t change the injustice built into this kind of employment— and it is an injustice that impacts students and full time professors.

      When 75% of faculty are contingent and can’t vote, then the rest of the faculty is also losing 75% of its voice and representation within a school.


  5. I was shocked to hear that 75% of all teaching staff at US universities are adjunct professors. So I looked up the University of Wisconsin-Madison (where I was an adjunct) and discovered that 80% of all instructors are full-time and only 27% are adjuncts. Now that doesn’t include graduate assistants, all of whom are part-time. When you figure in these graduate students who are teaching undergraduates, then the percentage changes dramatically, so that 52% of all teaching staff are non-tenure. This is not the percentage of classes instructed by adjunct/graduate assistants, which would be lower, but nevertheless…

    On a personal note, I was an adjunct for many years (and a graduate assistant before that), and received low pay, loved teaching, but couldn’t have done it without my spouse, who made a real wage. But after a decade, I’d had enough and went on to do my own workshops, keynotes and concerts.


    • Thanks for this info Nancy. I feel that some schools do a much better job than others as far as employment justice— though I agree, 52% is still a very high number.

      I saw a report when researching data for this article that basically showed the career path of many adjunct professors— I do not remember where I found the report– but is showed that most adjuncts end up leaving academia. It is simply not sustainable for must people, financially or emotionally.


  6. Wow… This made me cry Sarah …it was very very honest. I’ve held walkouts for my students over their raises for tuition… But I actually was not able to do the walk out last Wednesday… Because of the day that it was scheduled on. I have been an adjunct for over 20 years (i did a huge research project for my dissertation and worked at 2 jobs throughout my doctorate) and was just passed over for a permanent position at one of thise schools…and now I’m afraid that may be due to my age as well as being adjunct faculty there…it was supposed to look better for those of us with PhD’s…!! The situation has definitely changed. I’ll talk more with you about this when I see you in person…but I love the idea of a teach-in about what being an adjunct means. I will follow your example in the spring.


    • Thank you for your response Marie.
      I think it is terrible that you were passed over for the position– and so wrong. When I allow depression about being an adjunct to sink in, it is usually because I feel powerless to do anything about the way an institution is taking advantage of me— adjuncts, treated well or not, are being taken advantage of, like so many other employees who are rendered dependent upon institutions at the threat of their lively hoods.
      It is one thing to ‘put in your dues,’ with the idea that you will see a return of good faith for your commitment; and quite another when an institutions refuses to nurture and invest in its human community and resources– when it refuses to return that faith…

      I will look forward to speaking with you more about this soon. My best to you Marie.


  7. Sara,

    Been wanting to respond to this great post since I first read it. I want to thank you for your strength in “walking out” and more importantly being a voice for this community.

    I have so many feelings about this current situation but my realistic version is that while your university may be very supportive, what should adjuncts who are not at supportive places and are just “another cog in the academic wheel” do? I feel like so many people who could or want to do more are unable to because they fear getting fired or not getting another class.

    What is your advice to them besides “do what is right for you?”


    • Hi John,
      You ask a really important question here, and I am not sure I have a good answer– though I will attempt to weigh in.
      I do want to clarify that my department is very supportive– but I know that not every adjunct at our school feels as I do or receives the same support. Regardless, I did feel comfortable telling my boss what I was up to and asking colleagues for support– which is a lot and gives me a lot more power to speak.

      I think for those who are afraid for their jobs, one option is to seek the support of allied full time professors who can speak without risking their jobs, and who can also vote in the faculty senate. Many protests across the country actually featured full time professors speaking to the injustice faced by their part time peers.

      Another option is of course, to act without informing administration, peers, etc…. this is risky and not a good option for many people– though I have colleagues who took this route.

      I find the most hope in some of the unionizing efforts taking place nationwide, though I only know a little about these efforts and intend to do more research.

      Other less direct protest can come from signing petitions, joining meetings/ rallying within academic groups that are not affiliated with the University at which you teach, writing letters to our representatives concerning bills being proposed that are meant to help this situation (for example– I recently saw a headline about a bill being proposed to give student debt forgiveness to adjuncts; this kind of action would be tremendously helpful to many adjuncts I know)….

      These are ideas I have, but this is a small list. Thank you for this great question John– I will continue to think of these strategies.


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