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CAUT Bulletin Archives

October 2001

Tales of the American Part-timer Reveal Pain, Sadness & Rage

Tess Hooks

Ghosts in the Classroom: Stories of College Adjunct Faculty and the Price We All Pay

Michael Dubson, ed. Boston: Camel's Back Books, 2001; 155 pp; paper $12.95 US, $18.95 CA.
Ghosts in the Classroom is a collection of readings which details the experiences of a group of instructors variously called adjuncts, part-timers or contract academic staff. These are American experiences though many of the feelings and experiences resonate in Canada.

According to editor Michael Dubson, many of these stories "are full of pain and sadness; others full of rage. But even in the midst of pain or rage, there is still a belief in something bigger than a single person's situation. Sometimes, there is even humour." The editor's description is accurate, but the overwhelming feeling that I got from reading this set of stories was bitterness.

Barbara Wilson Hahn's contribution, "Adjunct Apartheid," opens a window on the pain and rage experienced by a marginalised group of professionals. She begins by describing being excluded from a faculty picnic because she was not a full-time faculty member. It was this event which triggered her recognition of the many differences between full-time faculty members and adjuncts.

Although adjuncts at her institution taught 50 to 60 per cent of the classes, they had less access to photocopiers, offices and teaching resources. And adjuncts, of course, had no voice in institutional gover-nance. She concludes by describing how she feels about being "let go" along with other part-time colleagues who became politically active while attempting to ameliorate their conditions of employment.

Other contributors refer to the differential treatment of full-time faculty members and part-time faculty members. While still others testify to the precarious circumstances in which those who protest the system find themselves.

Some of the more humourous readings are recollections of odd occurrences in the classroom. In "A Night in the Adjunct Life," Tim Waggoner recalls an introductory class that involved competing with a bingo announcer because of a screwed-up PA system. And "Strange Fish" by John D. Nesbitt is an account of a strange and uninvited visitor to his classroom. While both of these stories are humourous, they also help to illustrate how little control and power contract academic staff have over their own situations.

Many of the contributors speak of their dedication and commitment to their students. Others profess their love for teaching. Along with this, many make reference to the hard work and commitment that goes into their teaching efforts. But the bitterness comes through when these discussions are combined with references to the abysmally low pay and the lack of job security that goes along with these marginal teaching positions.

"Adjunct Misery," "The Witch and the Wimp," "From the Shade of the Tower" and "Farewell to Matyora" are all about that hope that plays such a prominent part in almost every part-time faculty member's dreams — full-time employment.

In these accounts the hope is dashed — not because the candidates were unqualified, inexperienced or incompetent but because of the capricious nature of hiring decisions and because too much experience as an adjunct is a sign of inferiority, not achievement.

There is sadness and bitterness in the fact that many contributors to this collection can attest to so much waste in an education system. All of the contributors lament the fact they have invested so much time and effort in training and education that is undervalued and underutilized. Many of them resent a system that does not allow their talents to shine. Many of the contributors also hint at feelings of having wasted their careers by doing work that has gone unrecognized and unrewarded.

But what should we do with such a bitter harvest? The power of this collection lies in its cumulative impact. Any one of these accounts could easily be dismissed as the rambling of a disgruntled employee. But the compilation of so many accounts which share such a sense of oppression is a testimonial to the abuse of adjuncts within the educational system.

Thus, this collection might best be used as a tool for consciousness raising. Consciousness raising is necessary for full-time faculty members who may have kept their part-time colleagues on the periphery even though contract academic staff members now do more than 50 per cent of the teaching in the United States (and probably a similar proportion in Canada).

And consciousness raising is necessary for adjunct faculty members because the nature of their employment tends to isolate many of them. The first step in bringing about a revolution for those who are being oppressed is to recognize that their experiences are not unique and individual but rather universal and systemic.

As Kathleen Joy Tigerman asserts in the conclusion of her contribution, the rewards for full-time and part-time faculty members coming together could be great. "... a united faculty could take back the power usurped by the administration's divide and conquer strategy. By doing this work of empowerment, we can inspire ourselves with this example of my former colleagues, and by the UPS workers, where full-timers struck over wages for part-timers.

As a united faculty, we could reestablish teaching to its rightful place of power, and the faculty as the eloquent voice of the people." (p. 73)

Tess Hooks teaches part-time in women's studies and the sociology department at the University of Western Ontario and is a member of CAUT's Contract Academic Staff Committee.