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 (www.arborcp.com). 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…

diplma and capWhen my daughter went into her final year of college, I started feeling a sense of trepidation about what would come next. She was a Sociology major (yay!), was into the arts (yay again), and had lived in New Orleans for four years (cool). Fortunately, she lined up an internship her senior year and now two years later, things have worked out pretty well.

But you never know. In an economy that rewards those in STEM fields and business, the seniors I now teach are predictably in panic mode as they face a very uncertain future. Regardless of all the internships and community service experiences they are accruing, there’s no avoiding the dour statistics for young college graduates. When one student came to me, asking for advice about applying for a consulting job that was way beyond her reach, I found myself counseling her about the virtues of working in a coffee shop. So what if she’s an international relations major!

Hudson River Psychiatric Center
State Psychiatric Center

My first “real” job after graduating from  college was working in a state psychiatric hospital. This seemed like a “natural” place to be, since one whole side of my family was riddled with serious psychiatric disorders. Between an aunt with agoraphobia who never left her house, an aunt and an uncle who had “manic-depression” (now called bipolar disorder, a more “respectable” name), and a mother who struggled with clinical depression and alcoholism, I was quite at home working in an institution for people with severe mental health problems.

job 6When I graduated, the state psych hospital was hiring tons of young college graduates. This was in the early ‘70s, when thousands of patients, people who had spent years, sometimes decades, living in inside the walls of state hospitals, were released into the community in a move to “de-institutionalize” them. The motive was humanitarian, but the reality for many of the patients was downright cruel because many of them were unprepared for life on the outside. Nonetheless, it did mean that a lot of my friends and I had jobs when we graduated.

I was hired as the institution’s dance therapist. I had been a dancer for many of my young years, and my professional goal – if one could call it that – was to somehow combine my interest in helping people with my passion for dance. I lucked out, since the field of dance therapy was just emerging, and one of the first certified dance therapists in the U.S. was willing to train me during my senior year of college.

I worked with people who were still living “inside” the institution, as well as out-patients who were being transitioned into a day treatment program. Because I was a professional dancer in a mental hospital, many of the institution’s rules did not seem to apply to me. Or at least that’s what I thought and how I behaved… More than once, I led a group of patients in a snake line through the hallways, wearing a leotard and tights. We seemed off-limits to criticism, as this “crazy” activity was “therapy”! It felt downright revolutionary!

While working in an institution wasn’t where I “landed” professionally, it was nothing short of a profound experience for a 21-year-old. I fell in love with schizophrenics who were smart and spoke in metaphors that seemed poetic and deep. I’ll never forget one of my out-patients, a diminutive woman named Ruth, who spent her entire adult life in the psych hospital. Ruth held her body like a tight fist, and stood all day, rocking rhythmically back and forth. I feel teary when I think about her. Another person seared in my mind is a tall, broad gentleman in a perpetual cowboy hat. People called this man of few words, “the Captain”. job 7One of my most glorious days was when I took “the Captain” for a drive in the country, with two other patients. Outside it was minus forty degrees – this was Central New York in winter – but inside the car, with sun shining through the windows, it felt warm and protective. He said little throughout the drive, just smiled…

By the time I was hired to work as a dance therapist at the state psych center, sociologist Erving Goffman had already published his seminal book Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. One of Goffman’s greatest contributions was his critique of what he called “total institutions”, which included mental hospitals and prisons, those institutions with a high degree of regimentation, and an elaborate privilege system. He described relations between staff and patients (or inmates) as caste-like, with detailed “rules” of deference and demeanor.

I knew nothing of Goffman while I was working in that first post-college job. But after studying this brilliant sociologist in graduate school and using his analyses in a class I now teach, it all comes back to me. I lived what Goffman described. Drawing upon those earlier experiences, I could now understand his theoretical frameworks. One of my favorite co-workers, a friendly and clever guy named Willie who was the janitor, surely understood Goffman’s analysis when he changed his first name from Willie to “Doctor”. Whenever anyone wanted his services, they would yell “Doctor”. He always came running with a smirk on his face.

Despite the draw of my first job, I realized within a year that I wasn’t going to last. I was too young, too inexperienced, too overwhelmed with it all. While I found the people interesting, I had no real training. And even though I was a good listener, I fought back tears every time a “client” expressed sadness or joy. Ultimately, what drove me to work at the psych hospital – working with really troubled people – became the reason I had to leave. It wasn’t the right fit, even though it seemed so at the beginning. With a far more robust economy than we have today, I saved up enough cash that year to travel Europe for nearly a year, so that’s what I did!

job2As my father used to say, everything we do in life accrues and has meaning. This has to be true, as well, for college students who are saddled with debt and graduating to a lousy economy and a dearth of employment opportunities that “fit” with their majors. A number of my friends are living at “home” (where they grew up) and working in unpaid internships that they hope will lead to a paid job. I know one person who dropped out of college in her freshman year and learned how to do organic farming. Now she’s running a business where she creates peace gardens for interested clients. I know one person who couch-surfed for a few months, and then got a job sailing someone’s boat to the Virgin Islands. At one point, during an intense storm, he wondered if he was even going to make it… I can imagine that he’s not the only one feeling that way, although perhaps for different reasons.

When I think about my own daughter – and all the young people I encounter these days – what I wish for them is the courage to follow their passion, and then feel okay about whatever job or internship (or whatever) they find, knowing that those things may not be the same thing. At least for now…

SONY DSC

 

 

Around 10 years ago, when I was going through menopause, I switched to a new OB/GYN who nearly convinced me to go on Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT). I had told her that my mother struggled with hot flashes and depression during her “change of life”, as they say, and I was worried about what it would be like for me. As a preventive measure, she prescribed HRT. Jump two frames forward and there I was, standing in line at the local pharmacy waiting to pick up my meds, but feeling very ambivalent. I’ve always been drug-adverse, and I thought, ‘why am I considering taking these meds unless it’s absolutely necessary?’ I was trying to stave off a problem that didn’t actually exist!

Serendipitously, I started to chat with the woman in line next to me, a friend of a friend, who suggested that if I had questions about HRT, I should take a look at Dr. Christine Northrup’s book, “The Wisdom of Menopause”. Even though I walked out of that store with a filled prescription, I never cracked the bottle. Northrup says, “I’ll take my chances with the hormones that mother nature has taken at least 3 million years to come up with”, arguing that women with healthy ovaries and adrenals may not need (HRT). Even for the one-third of women who have had their ovaries removed and may benefit “from a little estrogen or a little progesterone or possibly a little testosterone”, Northrup says that “in no case should these be the conventional hormones that are synthetic. This is important for people to know: you cannot patent a naturally occurring hormone”. (Northrup’s advice about nutritional supplements below.*)

It turns out that there are some serious reasons to avoid HRT. Medical sociologist, Gayle Sulik, writes:  “Clearly, there is a relationship between the use of synthetic hormone therapies and breast cancer even if the mechanisms are not fully understood. In 2002, when the findings from the Women’s Health Initiative estrogen-plus-progestin study came out, about 38 percent of postmenopausal women in the U.S. were using some type of hormone therapy drug. When the WHI findings hit the news, sales plummeted and breast cancer incidence rates also dropped”.

An article published in the New England Journal of Medicine also linked a sharp decline (6.7 percent) in breast cancer incidence in 2003 with the release of the first Women’s Health Initiative report “and the ensuing drop in the use of hormone-replacement therapy among postmenopausal women in the United States.'”

I later read somewhere that around 40% of women who get their HRT prescriptions filled never take the stuff, and that info validated my choice. The link between HRT and breast and other cancers was too real to me. My mother had had breast cancer, and it seemed like taking these drugs was like playing with fire. Instead I devoured literature on alternative ways to deal with menopause symptoms, drank my soy milk and copped a “bring it on” attitude.

As if there weren’t enough reasons to question the use of Hormone Replacement Therapy, I just discovered another. Call me naïve or sheltered, but it never occurred to me that Premarin – an HRT taken by a number of my friends – was named for what it actually is: Pregnant Mare’s Urine. In other words, the drug of choice for so many menopausal women comes from horses that are “farmed” for this exact purpose. Northrup says, “People will tell you that Premarin is natural–yeah, it’s natural if you are a horse!”

According to an April 5th Boston Globe article by Nestor Ramos,, these horses are kept “inside long barns in the Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan”, lined up in rows of small stalls, “tubes snaking up from under them into vessels nearby”. Geez! Ramos, comments, “It sounds like science fiction — some equine version of “The Matrix,” in which a superior species saps humans for their nutrients — but it’s true: The urine is precious”.

The article is a human interest piece focusing on two women – one, age 70; the other, in her late 20s – who share a love of horses. It turns out that while selling Premarin is a profitable industry, “keeping hundreds of horses pregnant every year” in order to gather their urine has a downside. The mares have babies, and selling the foals for meat is also apparently a profitable business. The elder woman has spent years going back and forth to Manitoba to rescue some of these foals from the “slaughterhouse floor”, but her energy to make this trip has waned, so having a protégé who shares her passion has made it possible for her to carry out this mission, and in a way, build in the potential for someone to carry on when she no longer can make the journey.

I love the story of these two women: one in which the passion and leadership of the “elder” inspires the younger, and the vibrancy of the younger who makes this difficult journey possible. But what if there wasn’t such a lucrative industry around harvesting pregnant mare urine in the first place to supposedly rescue aging women from a natural change in their reproductive cycles? Northrup comments, “The hormones that naturally occur in the human female body have been altered so that the drug companies can justify the R&D programs to patent a hormone and therefore make their money. It’s frightening!”

Check out this Huffington Post piece by investigative reporter Martha Rosenberg, called “When the publication plan is ready, the research will appear”, in which she describes how the marketing arm of a drug company published articles denying the link between HRT and cancer. “Though the marketing firm’s “science” is egregiously flawed — HT has strong links to breast cancer, breast cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s — the papers have not been retracted.”

The cultural narrative for menopause, very much aided and abetted by the pharmaceutical industry – is that it’s a medical crisis to be tackled. Women’s natural reproductive functions have long been viewed as indicative of “otherness”, weakness and incapacity, from menstruation to menopause. While many women surely benefit from a medical approach to easing symptoms of menopause, we must question who and what the medicalization of menopause serves, and recognize that menopause isn’t a wasting away, a time in which we go bonkers and lose our minds and bodies. It is just another passage in a series of chapters in women’s lives.

* Northrup does recommend the use of nutritional supports such as omega 3 fats and B vitamins, “to help clear estrogen dominance from your system”.  Because when you stop ovulating and you don’t have progesterone to balance the estrogen, “that can create a state of anxiety, jitters, and headaches”. Her advice? Eating soy or ground up flax seed “helps a great deal to give you plant hormone support while your body is making the transition”.

For more reading, see:

Peter Conrad: Medicalization and Social Control: http://66.199.228.237/boundary/addiction/medicalization_and_social_control.pdf

Meyer, Medicalization of Menopause: Critique and Consequences: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11809008

Marlene Cimons: Medicalization of Menopause: Framing Media Messages in the 20th Century: http://drum.lib.umd.edu/bitstream/1903/8352/1/umi-umd-5616.pdf