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COMMENTARY: Why we speak


The poor treatment of part-time lecturers and adjunct faculty must be understood and acknowledged by students and administrators in order to create a better university. – Photo by Rutgers AAUP-AFT / Instagram

We are Rutgers’ — and all of academia’s — underpaid and exploited dirty little secret. Part-time lecturers. Adjuncts. Higher education’s gig workers. And the University could not run without us.

University President Jonathan Holloway has acknowledged this. He told members of the Rutgers adjunct faculty union (PTLFC-AAUP-AFT) that “adjunctification” was a problem. Sadly, he also has very publicly claimed that paying us equitably for the work we do is “complicated.” Translation: He does not intend to do anything about the dirty little secret.

Adjuncts at Rutgers teach 30 percent of courses — the same classes taught by tenured faculty, tenure-track faculty and non-tenure-track full-timers. But per hour worked, we get paid a fraction of what they do, and University administration seems content with this as the status quo.

It is why so many part-time lecturers will be coming out of the shadows to their students next week, explaining who we are, what we do and how we are exploited. During Adjuncts Speak Week, we will tell our stories in our classrooms to students who deserve to know the truth about their learning conditions and the truth about how the people who teach them are mistreated.

Not every part-time lecturer is participating. Some are critical of Adjuncts Speak Week. They say it is unethical to bring our concerns directly to students. We disagree. The plights of their instructors, whether part-time or full-time and protected by tenure, are not unrelated to students’ experience of higher education. Students are paying higher tuition and carrying increasing amounts of debt. And they are doing this within the context of an economy that is moving away from traditionally secured jobs.

The gig economy, a phrase used to describe Uber drivers and service workers, is spreading into a broader swath of the American job market, including academia. Universities, including Rutgers, are outsourcing teaching to adjunct faculty in the name of flexibility. But the increased reliance on contingent labor — adjuncts, underpaid graduate students and instructors without tenure — harms students.

At Rutgers, adjuncts are paid a fraction of what full-time faculty are paid to teach the same classes. We lack office space and are expected to prepare our courses, mentor students and write recommendations on our own time. Many of us teach at multiple schools, which means we cannot be as available to our students as they would like us to be. And if we are not reappointed, we lose our email addresses and effectively ”disappear,” leaving our students with no way to contact us.

Labor unions in higher education — like the PTLFC-AAUP-AFT — are among the few forces pushing back. Taking 5 minutes to have a conversation with our students that makes clear who we are and how we are treated is absolutely related to their education. They should know where their tuition dollars are going and the kind of exploitation that is endemic to their university.

Students both need and want to know who teaches them. We are not all tenured, well paid or health-insured.

They need and want to understand that an academic career, which many of them may be considering, is likely to be highly exploitative.

They need and want to know how teachers’ working conditions affect their learning conditions.

They are concerned about their instructors’ well-being and levels of stress, just as we are concerned about theirs.

Adjuncts Speak Week is as much about them as it is about us, which is what makes in-class discussions of these topics appropriate and ethical. What is unethical is the way we are treated.

Hank Kalet is a part-time lecturer in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies and the vice president of the Rutgers - New Brunswick Adjunct Faculty Union, PTLFC-AAUP-AFT. This piece was written on behalf of the executive board of the PTLFC-AAUP-AFT.

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