Becoming Visible: A #Digped chat on Contingency in the Classroom

After a brief hiatus during MOOC MOOC: Critical Pedagogy, our regular monthly #digped chats return for a discussion of National Adjunct Walkout Day and #afterNAWD — the next steps in the conversation about precarious academic labor.

On Wednesday, February 25th, adjuncts and their allies across the country rallied together for National Adjunct Walkout Day (#NAWD). This demonstration was intended to bring attention to the harsh realities of contingent labor in higher education, where as much as 70% of teachers and professors struggle to earn a livable wage. Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites covered the event with discussions and debates, and among those conversations were the many voices of those who weren’t able to actually walk out of their classrooms — for fear of losing their job, or for a variety of practical and technical reasons, such as not wanting to give up a day with the students or, for a growing number of adjuncts teaching in digital environments, they had no physical classroom from which to walk out.

Despite these vastly different situations, many adjuncts and their allies found ways to stand in solidarity, seeking ways to become visible.

For those of us who teach, but who are neither adjuncts nor faculty members, the discussion presents other challenges. Many graduate students teach their own classes, which adds complexity to the labor debate: while TAs are not considered contingent labor in the same way that adjuncts are (nor are they legally given worker rights), their lives are inextricably linked. The two parallel communities compete for the same shrinking resources and often share cramped offices, if they have offices at all. Sarah’s experiences put the recent discussion in context:

As graduate students, my colleagues and I brainstormed the ways that we could talk about contingent labor with our first-year college students in our introductory, required English courses. We agreed that we could not leave our classrooms (dealing with our own fears of knowing that our stipends are contingent upon our willingness to teach). Still, we wanted to find a way to talk with our students about National Adjunct Walkout Day; yet, I was surprised that the majority of my students could not tell me what being an adjunct entailed, much less, relate any of the economic and ethical issues therein. One of my students defined adjuncts as “teachers who teach one or two classes, so they can go teach somewhere else” (my emphasis), to which I clarified that not only can these professors work at multiple campuses — if they want to make ends meet, they must.

Stanley Fish would suggest that I save the world on my own time — that a teacher’s job is not to indoctrinate students with our own agendas — but I felt I would be remiss if I did not at least discuss how adjuncts work to ensure the success of colleges and universities. I try my hardest to not convince my students whether or not they should align themselves with any particular position regarding contingent labor, which I believe they should develop on their own. Instead, I wanted them to be aware of the fact that, to use economic terms, they are the main consumers of adjunct labor. And this too is worth discussing: what happens when students are increasingly thought of as consumers?

First-year students come into the most contact with adjuncts. Accordingly, it is they, along with their adjunct professors, who are the most affected by overworked and under-supported contingent labor. Yet, very few instructors imagine students as interested agents of change in university labor politics. But my impression was not that students did not care. Instead, and much worse, they simply did not know. I do not blame my students for their lack of awareness or critical insight, because unless I, as an educator, share this kind of information with them, I am essentially cultivating that unawareness, or at least being complicit with a system that wishes to keep students out of the discussion in order to maintain the status quo.

On the contrary, if more educators were willing to have this conversation, we could give our students an opportunity to better understand how the business of education (and we use that phrase very intentionally) operates. Certainly, if we want to help our students develop as critical thinkers, we must have open, honest conversations about the material forces that impact their learning.

There is a problem with contingency in Higher Education. One of the greatest detriments to quality pedagogy is the marginalized position teaching has in many learning environments. And if we are to overcome this problem, we must first make it painfully clear how these practices harm the students who are affected by them.

Join us at 12:00 pm EST on Friday, March 6 for this month’s #digped, where we will reflect on National Adjunct Walkout Day, share our personal experiences with the contingent labor movement, and — most importantly — develop strategies for where to go from here.

In anticipation of the upcoming conversation, reflect on the following questions:

  • Where were you for National Adjunct Walkout Day? What was the general feeling towards the movement in your department or at your institution? What conversations did you have, hear, or think about having (but were perhaps afraid to have or prevented from having)?
  • How were your actions received? By students? By graduate students and/or faculty? By administration and staff?
  • How can we engage those who deny that there is the problem of contingent labor in meaningful dialogue?
  • Looking forward, what further actions can we take throughout the year to keep contingency visible? In the classroom? In our departments? In our communities?

If you are interested in these and other related questions, please join us on March 6 at 12:00 pm EST (see this in your local time). For those unable to join the conversation this week, Hybrid Pedagogy’s #digped recurs monthly, on the first Friday of every month. Our next #digped conversation will occur on Friday, April 3, same time, same place. If you have suggestions for future topics, feel free to add them to the comments on this entry or tweet them to @adamheid or @hybridped.

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