As colleges and universities deepen their commitments to a corporate model that delivers an educational "product" to student "consumers," adjunct and other contingent faculty play a growing role enabling administrators to balance their budgets while swelling their own ranks (and pockets) and investing in programs that enhance the perceived competitiveness of their institutions in the educational marketplace: luxury dorms, sports complexes, and athletic teams, among others. The College of Staten Island (henceforth CSI), part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system, is no different from most public (and the majority of private) schools in this regard (sans the high-ranking sports teams). I was poorly informed about this trend until hired in August 2010 to chair CSI's Department of Sociology and Anthropology after a dozen years of living and working in Mexico. For the next five years, during the days, I listened to administrators express concerns about the exorbitant adjunct budget; when I returned home in the evening, my partner, who had begun adjuncting at CSI, discussed her experiences with overcrowded classrooms, broken equipment, and the administration's endless reporting demands (attendance verification, mid-term grades, mandatory classroom observations, etc.).
During this period the Professional Staff Congress (PSC) union that represents both CUNY full-time and adjunct faculty entered into negotiations with the CUNY administration in an effort to arrive at a retroactive contract to replace one that had expired in October 2010! My partner was active for several years with a small group of adjuncts that met, shared experiences, drew up lists of demands, and devised strategies for pressuring both the union and the CSI administration. Activist adjuncts debated the question of remaining independent of the PSC or being good union brothers and sisters, but they did not include undergraduate students in their discussions, overlooking potentially valuable allies in the struggle.
I was scheduled to teach two sections of the Research Seminar in Sociology (SOC 400), required of every sociology-anthropology major. The theme is at the discretion of the instructor, and for the spring 2016 semester I decided to focus both sections of the class on the adjunct situation at CSI and undergraduate student understandings of that situation. I hoped that if students in the course gained an appreciation for the problems faced by the faculty that teach over half the courses in the college, they might support adjuncts' present and future struggles for social and economic justice. Departmental colleagues fully supported my choice of topic.
SOC 400: Adjuncts as precarious workers
Enrollment in the required Research Seminar in Sociology and Anthropology was capped at fifteen students per section. (For the fall 2016 semester the Dean of Social Science and Humanities raised the cap to twenty.) Both sections (one daytime section and one nighttime section) met in the same "smart" seminar room with students seated around a long, rectangular table; a podium at the front of the room housed a computer and DVD player, and an overhead projector channeled images to a retractable screen. The ragged carpet and torn cloth on the chairs evidenced the New York State legislature's slack commitment to public education for immigrant and working-class students, which make up a substantial proportion of the student body at CSI and the other eight senior colleges in the CUNY system.
I organized the course into four parts or sections. Part I consisted of a four-week introductory phase of readings, lectures, and discussions about globalization, Fordism and neoliberalism, and flexible and contingent work both outside and within higher education. We read a short article titled "What is Neoliberalism" (Thorsen and Amund n.d.) and several articles about the increasing precarity of work (Kalleberg 2008; Ross 2008; Arnold and Bongiovi 2012). In the third week of the course, the class read and discussed (and I lectured on) basic reference works on the changing structure of higher education and the transformation of work therein (Berry 2005, 1-16; Bousquet 2008, 1-51). Also for that week, students divided up, read, notated and presented in class articles that described and analyzed the conditions and struggles of contingent academic workers, as well as college and university administrations' endeavors, legal and otherwise, to stifle dissent (Gilbert 1998; Tirelli 2014; Johnson and McCarthy 2000; Merklein 2014; Marvit n.d.; Jesson 2010).
During the fourth and final week of introductory work, students read several articles by Ruth Wangerin (2016, 2014a & b), an activist adjunct faculty member at CSI, and brought in posts from the following blogs that they shared with their fellow classmates:
* http://adiunctfacultyassemblv.bloqspot.com/ (the CSI adjunct faculty blog)
* www.newfacultymajoritv.info (New Faculty Majority blog)
* ojs.library.ubc.ca/index.php/workplace (Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor)
This part of the course drew heavily on the despised "banking approach" to knowledge acquisition on the premise that "dialogue and other elements of participative education not grounded in information and rigor would be detrimental to the working class" (Mayo 1999, 48).
Also during the fourth week, I lectured about the working conditions and remuneration of adjunct faculty at CSI and other schools in the CUNY system and gave a detailed explanation of full-time lines, the hiring process, and the tenure system. I noted that...