Archive: Jun 2015

adjunct 1Adjunct:  “a thing added to something else as a supplementary rather than an essential part”.

I’ve been teaching Sociology as an “adjunct” for nearly 20 years.  I never liked this descriptor, but I learned early on that most students don’t know or seem to care about my title or my status, and for me, that’s the bottom line. I have found that students are oblivious to stratification within academia – the cascade of titles and honors that starts with part-timers at the bottom, and then officially begins with Assistant Professor, the tenuous first step which initiates the gradual and arduous climb up and up, until – if lucky – one reaches Associate, Full and eventually, at the far end of the career spectrum, Emeritus, the end of the line, after decades of classes taught, research conducted, peer-reviewed articles and books published, talks given and dissertations advised.

Chichén Itzá Pyramid
Chichén Itzá Pyramid

When prospective parents and students tromp around campus, asking all the right questions, they are rarely prompted to ask one of the most relevant questions:  “Will my professors be part-time (low-paid) labor?” No, if they ask anything related to the status of teachers, they want to know if the professors have doctorates, and often the answer is “yes”, avoiding the issue of labor stratification altogether.

That said, most students just assume that their teacher is the professor, unless that teacher is still a graduate student. In fact, in every undergraduate class I have taught, students insist on calling me “Professor”, even when I tell them to call me by my first name. I generally stop short of telling them about my status in the academic chain; I also don’t tell them that they may never see me again because I’m not sure if I’ll be re-hired. I have had some teaching jobs where students are shocked when, at the end of the semester, they hear I might not be back the following year.  Sometimes, that opens up the conversation about stratification within the academic labor market. After all, this is Sociology, where issues of class, gender and race are paramount. Why not insert one’s own “social location” into the mix?

The increase in employment of part-time, adjunct faculty in academia has become an “issue” for some university systems, especially when union contracts or state laws limit the number of part-time faculty. Despite bloated administrative budgets and the building of new athletic centers and sports arenas designed (in some places) to make an institution more “competitive”, the teaching staff is where pennies are pinched.

Adjunct teaching an add-on rather than central

Teaching as an adjunct is not my “full-time work”; it truly is an adjunct to my career, in which I co-run a small social science consulting group called Arbor Consulting Partners ( In other words, thankfully, I don’t depend on this income as my “bread and butter”. Teaching is my passion but it’s really hard to make a living teaching as an adjunct.

I have been lucky to not be at the bottom end of the adjunct pay scale – which can be as low as $2,000 per course, but the wages generally hover around $5,000-6,000 at many research universities, unless you’re teaching at one of the “prestige” institutions. Many adjuncts piece together a string of teaching gigs, sometimes as many as 6 classes per semester and sometimes in different institutions, just to pay the bills. They/we receive no benefits, and while they are teaching a full load, they often don’t have an office – or if they do, they share it with all the other part-timers, so it’s hard to use for meetings with students or to get any work done. Adjuncts can work their butts off and still be poor and disenfranchised.

Adjunct 7 teach for foodGenerally, an adjunct functions outside of the system. We’re not paid to go to meetings or advise students. This is fair, given that we’re only paid to teach. But for those who would like to be more involved – and even be considered for a tenure track position – this status can be a liability. New hires in academia are judged for their ability to teach and advise students, and in research universities, they are judged by their academic scholarship.  Adjuncts rarely have time to pursue their own research, and if they do, it’s on their own dime, unless they have sought and received a grant, which is harder to do without an institutional base. Some universities even disallow part-timers from receiving university grants.

Having the capacity to teach many different courses is central to any adjunct’s survival. I have taught a variety of Sociology courses in a range of academic institutions, including courses on aging, sex and gender, feminist theory, work and family policy, gender and leadership, and most recently, a course on Evaluation Research, which is the work I do as a consultant. For some of those jobs, I had a one-year contract, but mostly, I have been teaching by the course and by the semester, with the possibilities of returning, which I have now happily done in three of the institutions where I have taught. Generally, I have either replaced a professor who is on-leave, taught a course that full-time faculty didn’t have time to teach, or more recently, I have taught courses that no one else has the expertise to teach.

One thing that I love about teaching at the university level is the freedom to design a syllabus, regardless of whether a course has been taught by another professor. Not all adjuncts get to do this. Over the years, I have experimented with incorporating the arts into my teaching, and invariably, other professors (those on the ladder) tell me they think it’s really cool. I have been lucky that, for me, teaching as an adjunct is a choice. I have also had some incredible colleagues, supportive and inclusive. But many adjuncts do not feel they are treated as equals relative to full-time faculty.

Unionizing the adjunct labor force

Adjunct Teacher, Otis College of Art and Design, LA
Adjunct Teacher, Otis College of Art and Design, LA

There is a growing movement to unionize this low-paid contingent labor force, and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation (AFT) of Teachers are two of the major unions now leading the charge nationally. A dozen new union locals have been established, including one at Tufts University, where I got a one-year contract right after I completed my doctorate, and another at Lesley University, where one of my friends, a fully tenured faculty member, played a key role. Both were organized by SEIU.

So where do I stand? I strongly believe that it is in the interests of all parties within academia for Part-time Faculty to be paid well and have good working conditions, including consistency in the courses they teach and multi-year contracts, as this contributes to the overall quality of education at the institution. At the same time, Universities should not rely so heavily on part-time labor. The slow creep of an unstable labor force comprised of part-time contracted workers is a disservice to students, their parents and the institution overall.

Tufts University Adjuncts
Tufts University Adjuncts

At Tufts, part-time faculty members successfully negotiated a contract that included 22% pay raises over a 3-year period, longer-term contracts, and the right to be interviewed for full-time positions in one’s department. In addition, their contract stipulates that adjuncts who teach three or more courses over the academic year will have access to health, retirement, tuition reimbursement, and other employee benefits. This is a major victory for part-timers and the University, overall.

Historically, it has always been challenging to organize “professional” workers, given the notion that labor unions are associated with blue-collar workers, not teachers or nurses or social workers, who are falsely considered “above that”. But frankly, this notion is just a way to hold back the collective strength of workers from having more power. The move to organize adjunct labor – just like the move to organize all workers who are underpaid and undervalued – is critical not just to the individuals who directly gain from union representation; it is also critical for the broader society and economy.

Harvard University Widener Library
Harvard University Widener Library

A recent article in the Harvard Crimson describes the working conditions for its “non-ladder” faculty, or put in more plebeian terms, adjunct faculty. Harvard can call these workers what they want, but they are still contingent labor. Adjuncts at Harvard and other Ivy’s get paid sometimes twice or three times what adjuncts at less prestigious institutions get paid.  But unlike tenure track faculty, they are subject to short contracts, far lower wages than their colleagues, and lower status than their colleagues. An exception to this is when the Ivy’s hire former politicians or entrepreneurs who command high wages to teach a course because of the prestige they bring to the institution. For the “average” non-ladder employee at Harvard, the institution affords a status akin to a post-doc, a coveted year following the completion of one’s doctorate which may be devoted to research. This is because teaching at Harvard, even as a “non-ladder” employee, carries the imprimatur of a fancy-labeled institution. Surely, one would think, if that institution is hiring this person to teach their students, they must be smart by association.

Core Faculty, Lesley University
Angelica Pinna Perez, Dalia Llera and Jason Pramas, Core Faculty supporting the union vote, Lesley University

Bigger questions must be raised about whether universities are going to depend more fully on lower-waged contracted workers. The system of tenure, where faculty members are essentially hired for life, has been subject to debate for many years, posting the question: Is the tenure system critical to protecting intellectual inquiry, and/or is it a system that rewards decreasing productivity? But this thinking avoids the real issues. The tenure system is not to blame for the rise in part-time contracted labor in academia. We must, instead, look at bloated administrative budgets and the trend to create amenities to attract students, particularly those paying full-freight.

David Kociemba, President of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) at Emerson College, where he teaches in the Department of Visual and Media Arts, is quoted as saying the adjunct movement is “four decades in the making”, but he was able to finish the union drive at Emerson College in only two months. This just demonstrates how ready some part-time faculty members are to get organized, given the opportunity.

So far, I have not been at an institution during a union drive for adjunct labor. That is perhaps another casualty of life as a “sometimes adjunct”, or any adjunct for that matter, given that these part-time workers aren’t tethered to the institutions where they teach. But I imagine that if I do continue to teach courses here and there, I will eventually sit in the eye of the storm, and instead of supporting the movement from the sidelines, writing blog posts and signing petitions, I will add my voice to the collective. While I don’t count on my adjunct jobs to pay the bills, I wouldn’t mind…

While I had already planned and drafted another post for this week, that topic, which would have been important and interesting to me on any other day, suddenly seemed trivial. One of my family members is in critical condition and on life support. By the time this post goes live, he will have passed. In the spirit of Feminist Reflections and talking about everyday life, this week I talk about grief and death. During this emotional time for our family, I have attempted to write this post with clarity. But I have a lot on my mind. I write with a heavy heart as my family experiences grief, and I ponder the meaning of death.mourning-360500_640

How do we mourn and comfort others who are grieving? How do we grieve differently when people die at different ages, or unexpectedly? Can we believe in something that will help us through our grief? How are our spiritual beliefs connected to, or guided by, our scientific training?

Sociologists attempt to use our scientific tools to understand the world, to give meaning and order to things. But as much as we can understand death as a physiological or biological event, the emotional and spiritual experience of someone’s death is often hard to make sense of with social scientific theories (at least, in my opinion). Still, I believe, as do many others, that emotional and “rational” thinking helps to make sense of the death of a loved one.

Thinking Back

As an only child, both of my biological grandfathers died before I was born. My maternal grandmother died when I was five. My paternal grandmother remarried the year that my parents got married, and my “step-grandpa” (but in all honesty, my grandfather) died when I was in graduate school. My grandma lived on her own for a few years until her death.

Grandma died seven years ago on Memorial Day weekend. At the time, I was living about five hours from my hometown in Iowa. She had lived independently in her own house for a few years. When it became clear that she could not live on her own, my family decided to move her into an assisted living environment. She lived there only a short time before ending up in the hospital, for reasons I cannot remember, and then into hospice. Ironically, the hospice was located in the same nursing home where she lived before her death.

My grandma was in hospice for longer than the usual time. Dementia had taken over. She stopped eating. She muttered phrases. No one was clear of their meaning. My mom did not want me to see my grandma in this condition. But I was incredibly close to her. My friends loved her. As many of them said, “she had a lot of spunk.” When I moved away for college and graduate school, I called her weekly; that is, until she went to hospice and could no longer carry on a telephone conversation. Still, I needed closure. I needed to say goodbye.

My spouse, our daughter (age two at the time), and I went to visit my grandma that Memorial Day weekend. Grandma, who lay there in a fragile, non-coherent state, reached out and held my daughter’s — her great granddaughter’s — hand with a strong grip. grandmaThe next day, she finally said goodbye.

I can believe my grandma wanted to see her great granddaughter and me before she died. Is this what was going on? There is no empirical way to prove it. Yet science and spirituality guided me in this belief.

Grandma lived longer than usual in hospice. My family has many questions about why she would not ‘let go’. She would say in her non-lucid state she was sorry, and mutter other phrases too. Since she was a former Catholic, we thought she was sorry for leaving the church and had her last rites read. Beyond this, every family member and friend spoke to her on the phone before she died. But she did not let go until the day after we visited her, and she held my daughter’s hand.

I cannot know, really, if my grandma needed to see us before passing on. But I believe that she did. This is one way I have dealt with my grief.

Seven years later, we have lost others. As much as I miss my grandma, I can accept her death as normative. She was in her mid-eighties. But my father-in-law died from cancer when he was only sixty-three, and the time from diagnosis to death was a short four months (after predictions of a year). The third anniversary of his death just passed. Although I can see my father-in-law, with his positive attitude and shining smile standing from his place above and telling us to live life to the fullest, he left us too early. I can talk sociologically about the factors that might have influenced his health, which helps me understand his death at an younger age. But this does not make my grief easier. And now, another family member leaves us too early, and unexpectedly.

While death is part of life, we often imagine it will happen in old age, near the end of the life course for most people. When it does not, when it is unexpected, it is harder to understand and to know how to comfort others or ourselves. Saying it was someone’s ‘time’ seems callous and lacks empathy, especially when the person was not in pain, was young, or the death was unexpected. Friends and colleagues have lost children at younger ages, and I cannot imagine the pain or the grief they experienced.

I do not study aging, death, dying, or grief. But as a sociologist I want to make sense out of the social world. Death and mourning, especially when we do not expect it, are hard to make sense of. There is no correct thing to say to those in mourning. Grief strikes. We can support our loved ones and acknowledge that there are different ways of grieving. We deal with it in our own ways.



While your death was untimely and we will miss you, we will never forget the memories and your positive spirit. You had a huge impact on your family and this world that will not be forgotten. May you rest in peace.

Originally posted at Inequality by (Interior) Design

photo 1(1)I recently moved to upstate New York.  So, there’s a lot more Victorian-style architecture in my neighborhood.  I’ve posted on the interesting ways that Victorian architecture gender segregates activity within the domestic space before (here and here).  One room I’ve been interested in lately is a room with a few different names and a history that’s not entirely known.  It’s sometimes referred to as a “roofwalk.”  But, it’s more commonly called either a “widow’s walk,” “widow’s perch,” or a “widow’s watch.”  When I first learned about it, it was written about as a widow’s watch.  And there’s a bit of cultural mythology that surrounds these rooms in homes.  Here are two houses in my neighborhood with the room (right and left).

photo 2(1)The story that I’ve always heard about this room is that it was designed for the wives of sailors to watch and wait for their husbands to return.  Women whose husbands died at sea–so I was told–would sit in these rooms, pining for their long-lost lovers.  As it happens, there’s not a great deal of evidence that this was, in fact, the original purpose of the room, nor that this is how these rooms were actually used.  They did initially appear during the period when the sailing industry produced international trade on a level previously unimaginable and during which naval warfare dominated (~1500’s through the mid 1800s).  But the rooms could have equally been intended for (and used by) mariners themselves (rather than their wives) to look out for ships due back in port.  Indeed, in some communities, these rooms are referred to as “captain’s walks.”

And it’s also true that a great deal of these rooms were initially built around the chimneys of homes to provide quick and easy access to the chimney both in case it needed repair, and for a quick way to put out chimney fires–a constant dilemma in early American architecture.  This was the reason people had their chimneys “swept” every so often.  The accumulated ash and soot, if not regularly removed, could ignite.  Sweeping chimneys was serious–and extremely dangerous–business.  victorian style chimney sweep, a child chimney sweep,  hulton piChildren were often used because of their size, but it was a job often given to orphaned children.  It’s also a powerful illustration of historical understandings of children and childhood.  Despite being illegal, it would be unthinkable to ask a child to do something this dangerous today.  Chimney fires were serious business.  So, having quick access to pour sand down might have saved your home.

Yet many of these rooms today are not around chimneys, and if they were intended for either men or women, they were a room gendered by design.  And if intended for women, then they continued a tradition within Victorian architecture of designing rooms specifically intended to segregate (and/or isolate) certain emotional displays of women, keeping them out of sight.

Boudoirs and fainting rooms are similar examples.  Boudoirs, I think, are popularly thought of as rather large closets for women, in which wealthy Victorian women would bathe, dress, sit gazing at themselves in mirrors and brushing their hair (at least this is how they’re sometimes depicted on film).  It was also a private space in which women could carry out hobbies (like reading and embroidery) or entertain lovers away from various others in the house.   Interestingly, men’s private chambers were referred to as their “cabinet” (a term also used in American politics referring to the small group of people who advise and assist the president).  Boudoir is not as commonly used today.  It actually translates to something like “sulking room.”  And, boudoirs were also designed as spaces to which women might flee to avoid having socially “inappropriate” emotional displays in front of others.

Fainting rooms served similar purposes.  Typically on the main level of the house, fainting rooms were typically equipped with fainting couches.  How these rooms were actually used is the subject of some debate among historians.  Some have assumed that women were fainting because of the pain and various bodily restrictions caused by regularly wearing corsets.  Others suggest that these rooms and couches were used in some of the treatments prescribed for hysteria.  In either case, fainting rooms were designed to isolate women during periods of intense duress.

Rooms dedicated to socially “inappropriate” emotional displays from men are absent in Victorian architecture, perhaps because “real men” were presumed not to ever have need of them.  It’s an interesting case in which architecture plays a critical role in our interactions, either segregating or suppressing certain displays.

Lots of time and care consideration goes into the production of new superheroes and the revision of time-honored heroes. Subtle features of outfits aren’t changed by accident and don’t go unnoticed. Skin color also merits careful consideration to ensure that the racial depiction of characters is consistent with their back stories alongside other considerations. A colleague of mine recently shared an interesting analysis of racial depictions by a comic artist, Ronald Wimberly—“Lighten Up.”*  “Lighten Up” is a cartoon essay that addresses some of the issues Wimberly struggled with in drawing for a major comic book publisher. NPR ran a story on the essay as well. In short, Wimberly was asked by his editor to “lighten” a characters’ skin tone—a character who is supposed to have a Mexican father and an African American mother.  The essay is about Wimberly’s struggle with the request and his attempt to make sense of how the potentially innocuous-seeming request might be connected with racial inequality. Skin ToneIn the panel of the cartoon reproduced here, you can see Wimberly’s original color swatch for the character alongside the swatch he was instructed to use for the character.

Digitally, colors are handled by what computer programmers refer to as hexadecimal IDs. Every color has a hexademical “color code.” It’s an alphanumeric string of 6 letters and/or numbers preceded by the pound symbol (#).  For example, computers are able to understand the color white with the color code #FFFFFF and the color black with #000000. Hexadecimal IDs are based on binary digits—they’re basically a way of turning colors into code so that computers can understand them. Artists might tell you that there are an infinite number of possibilities for different colors. But on a computer, color combinations are not infinite: there are exactly 16,777,216 possible color combinations. Hexadecimal IDs are an interesting bit of data and I’m not familiar with many social scientists making use of them.**

There’s probably more than one way of using color codes as data. But one thought I had was that they could be an interesting way of identifying racialized depictions of comic book characters in a reproducible manner—borrowing from Wimberly’s idea in “Lighten Up.” Some questions might be: Are white characters depicted with the same hexadecimal variation as non-white characters? Or, are women depicted with more or less hexadecimal variation than men? Perhaps white characters are more likely to be depicted in more dramatic and dynamic lighting, causing their skin to be depicted with more variation than non-white characters. If that’s true, it might also make an interesting data-based argument to suggest that white characters are featured in more dynamic ways in comic books than are non-white characters. The same could be true of men compared with women.

Just to give this a try, I downloaded a free eye-dropper plug-in that identifies hexadecimal IDs. I used the top 16 images in a Google Image search for Batman (white man), Amazing-man (black man), and Wonder Woman (white woman). Because many images alter skin tone with shadows and light, I tried to use the eye-dropper to select the pixel that appeared most representative of the skin tone of the face of each character depicted.

Here are the images for Batman with a clean swatch of the hexadecimal IDs for the skin tone associated with each image below:


Batman Hex Codes

Below are the images for Amazing-man with swatches of the skin tone color codes beneath:Amazing-Man

Amazing-Man Hex Codes

Finally, here are the images for Wonder Woman with pure samples of the color codes associated with her skin tone for each image below:

Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman Hex CodesNow, perhaps it was unfair to use Batman as a comparison as his character is more often depicted at night than is Wonder Woman—a fact which might mean he is more often depicted in dynamic lighting than she is. But it’s an interesting thought experiment.  Based on this sample, two things that seem immediately apparent. Amazing-man is depicted much darker when his character is drawn angry. And Wonder Woman exhibits the least color variation of the three.  Whether this is representative is beyond the scope of the post.  But, it’s an interesting question.  While we know that there are dramatically fewer women in comic books than men, inequality is not only a matter of numbers.  Portrayal matters a great deal as well, and color codes might be one way of considering getting at this issue in a new and systematic way.

While the hexadecimal ID of an individual pixel of an image is an objective measure of color, it’s also true that color is in the eye of the beholder and we perceive colors differently when they are situated alongside different colors. So, obviously, color alone tells us little about individual perception, and even less about the social and cultural meaning systems tied to different hexadecimal hues. Yet, as Wimberly writes, “In art, this is very important. Art is where associations are made. Art is where we form the narratives of our identity.”  Beyond this, art is a powerful cultural arena in which we form narratives about the identities of others.

At any rate, it’s an interesting idea. And I hope someone smarter than me does something with it (or tells me that it’s already been done and I simply wasn’t aware).


*Thanks to Andrea Herrera for posting Ronald Wimberly’s cartoon essay, “Lighten Up.”

**In writing this post, I was reminded that Philip Cohen wrote a short post suggesting that we might do more research on gender and color by using color codes to analyze children’s clothing. The post is here if you’re interested. After re-reading his post, I used the same site to collect pure samples of each hex code and I copied his display of the swatches.  Thanks Philip!