Victims of Circumstance: Academic Freedom in a Contingent Academy

Article excerpt

Due process approaches to academic freedom may not adequately serve the new academic workforce. To survive, academic freedom needs to be more tight y linked to professional conditions of work.

The producers of Adjunct Survivor plan to hire a dozen (actually, make that five hundred) men and women aged twenty-two to seventy-five, all of whom either hold advanced academic degrees or are currently enrolled in graduate programs. Each will teach four undergraduate classes at no fewer than two different colleges, each no closer than thirty miles from the next. The producers will enroll thirty undergraduates in each class and mandate specific reading materials for the courses. The instructors will have to maintain at least one scheduled office hour each week for each course, and they can assign no fewer than fifty pages of written graded work for each student during the semester. The participants will be placed in a large urban setting with a crippling cost of living and be paid $15,000 a year. Each week, viewers will tune in to follow the routine day of selected adjuncts and learn which participants remain in the classroom, which have been let go midsemester, which have been able to pay rent and put food on the table, and which have not. At the end of the fifteen-week season, the producers will dismiss the entire cast and, if the show is picked up for a second season, recast immediately prior to the start of the new season. Former participants will be eligible to be recast on the same terms as everyone else.

For more than ten years, I participated in Adjunct Survivor, teaching English at the City and State Universities of New York (CUNY and SUNY). And yet, for all the struggles and tribulations (as well as the pleasures and rewards), I know I was one of the lucky ones-typically able to teach all of my courses at a single campus (Queens College, CUNY). I often cobbled together twelve credits in a semester (despite contractual limitations) by picking up some "nonunit" work available to adjuncts on campus, and I always received written notification of reappointment well enough in advance. I taught in an excellent department, which not only treated adjuncts well but supported them professionally and defended and advocated for them. The relations between full- and part-time faculty were, by and large, open and collegial.

I never felt restricted in what or how I could teach (within the limitations of departmental needs), nor in what I could say or do in class or off campus. Indeed, insofar as the conventional understanding of "academic freedom" is concerned, I felt (and still feel) I enjoyed it thoroughly and unconditionally. I actively organized for the union and advocated publicly at rallies and conferences and in published articles for adjunct rights and conditions and never, I believe, suffered retaliation of any kind. For six years, I held offices in the faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC). For ten years, my English composition courses occasionally engaged political topics, taking positions often at odds with the CUNY administration and board of trustees. And yet I never feared for my job-beyond, of course, the typical job insecurities sadly inherent in adjunct work.

As a CUNY adjunct, I had not thought much about academic freedom, or so I believed-although it was discussed within the PSC and around the university. When I did think about it, it was in the conventional sense: connected to what could be said in the classroom and what could be said, written, and done outside of it. It was about administrative intrusion into traditionally faculty-controlled domains. It was about censorship, distance education, sponsored research, and administrative involvement in curricular matters. In other words, it was about liberties, as commonly conceived, which could be accorded or withheld at the discretion of some administration.

But the usual and customary understanding of academic freedom has also long wedded it inseparably to tenure, thereby greatly diminishing its relevance for adjuncts and largely excluding them from the conversation. …