Crafting Widgets: A Common Sense Look at Adjunct Exploitation #NAWD

Let’s try a thought experiment.

Hold in your mind for a moment the image of a factory. This factory specializes in a very complex widget, a device that all of society agrees is important for daily life. People pay top dollar for these widgets.

There are two sets of workforce at the factory. The first is permanent. They sign contracts for years at a time. Some sign contracts saying they can never be let go unless they want to be. They get paid yearly. They are doing pretty well.

The second workforce is called “contingent,” or “adjunct.” Contingent meaning something like, “Contingent on the factory needing you as a worker for a little while.” Adjunct meaning something like, “A part of the factory that has been added on for now but is nonessential.” Imagine that these contingent or adjunct workers do the same amount of work as the permanent employees. Let’s say they all operate two widget stations each—but the contingents/adjuncts get paid half or less than half of what the permanent workers make, and they could be let go at any time. Because they are considered separate and nonessential. For this same reason, many contingent/adjunct workers have to take jobs at other factories or in totally unrelated fields. For this reason, too, they have less time to focus on making widgets, even though they love to make widgets. It is their passion to make widgets. Widgets are the future. They know this.

These widgets are so complicated and important and vital for society, in fact, that all of the workers take their widgets home with them each night. They study up on better widget-making techniques. They plan and study and build. Contingent workers and permanent workers alike, all hoping to create wonderful widgets.

It used to be the case that the contingent/adjunct workers were hired only when there were extra orders of widgets to be filled. But for the past several decades, the factory has had a steady, high number of orders, and rather than hiring more permanent workers, who cost more, simply began hiring more “separate and nonessential” workers until, oddly, the number of “separate and nonessential” workers outnumbered the permanent workforce. That is kind of weird. That does not sound “separate and nonessential” at all. But the people running the factory saw profits go up, and that is good, right, that is what we want? A profitable factory?

Except the “separate and nonessential” workers live in poverty, are overworked, are tired, are frustrated. Some of them become fed up and leave. Some of the ones who leave are great at making widgets. They do not want to deal with such depressing working conditions. Too bad. Even the permanent workers are beginning to take note, to be concerned, to feel like, “Um, hello, aren’t these people doing a whole lot of work, too? Maybe if they received better pay or job security we could all get to know each other a little better, work toward a better system.” But no. The factory administrators are not interested in hearing this. They see no reason for change.

Does any of this sound like the optimal way to create the best possible widgets? Does this factory have an eye on fair labor practices? Are they looking out for you and me, who might want to buy our widgets from them, or who might even want to create widgets some day?

Realize now that we are not talking about hypothetical work stations or factories or widgets, but real life universities and classrooms and students. Everything else is pretty much the same. This is the reality of higher education across the US. “Separate and nonessential” teachers who live in poverty are expected to perform the same tasks and at the same rate as permanent faculty. Is this a system that you feel confident in? Is this system looking out for students whose tuition is increasing every year so that the widget stations might look a little nicer while the workers receive no increase in pay and therefore have no more time or energy to help eager minds learn and grow—minds being the most important widgets we could ever have?

Ah, I’m mixing metaphors here. Excuse me. I’m just a little tired.

What happens now is up to you. The first step is to stand up for contingent workers. Stand up for adjuncts. Speak out. Let the world know it is time to do better.