‘The Year of the Adjunct’?

CAS campaign taps into wider discontent over the situation of the ‘new working poor’ in USA

Herbert Pimlott, WLUFA Communications Director & Associate Professor of Communication Studies

The situation of an 83-year-old, adjunct professor, Margaret Mary Vojtko, who died penniless and homeless after 25 years continuous service at Duquesne University in September 2013, ignited a firestorm of public debate about the situation of contract faculty (aka ‘adjuncts’) in the USA. Adjuncts are a major component of the ‘New Faculty Majority’ of some 1,000,000 precariously employed professors or approximately three-quarters of all faculty across US campuses (almost the exact reverse of the situation in 1975). Even CNN covered the story and referred to adjuncts as the ‘new working poor’.

I would like to provide you with an account of our communications campaign in support of Contract Academic Staff (CAS), which made use of a number of different media and ideas.

First of all, we knew we had to raise the profile of CAS faculty because our research shows that their share of classes, labs, tutorials and seminars increased from 38% in 2008 to 52% in 2012, but few are aware of their situation even though they are clearly integral to the quality of the education of Laurier students.

Contract faculty started the academic year by handing out water bottles on September 2nd, the second day for new students moving into residence, and were overwhelmed by the welcome from students and their families.

Leaflets were also handed out to people at the Labour Day picnic in Waterloo park, where no one had any idea that some of the most educated Canadians earn so little right here in the heart of the ‘knowledge economy’.

As classes began and negotiations carried on, the Strategy Committee felt that it was also important to reach out to members of the Board of Governors (BoG) directly, as well as to our local MPPs, the (Liberal) Minister for MCTU as well as their Tory and NDP counterparts, since they are rarely exposed to views outside of those of administrators.

And, no doubt, this is why OCUFA is also promoting lobbying efforts which WLUFA participated in at Queen’s Park in October.

Full-time faculty staffed tables in support of CAS over two days during the ‘Fair Employment Week’ (FEW), the national campaign to raise awareness of the working conditions of contract faculty.

There was also the ‘card campaign’ (see one of the most popular cards on page 5, ‘Should this be Laurier’s priority?’), which encapsulated key points to circulate to students and other members of the Laurier community.

While print communication remains an important means of communication, it is limited in its reach, so we started posting them to our Tumblr blog, ‘weteachlaurier’, to provide more

background and a fuller explanation of the research and thought behind the statements and information presented on each card.

Our title is an attempt to bring to everyone’s attention the crucial role that  CAS faculty play at Laurier since they are responsible for about half of all students’ educational experience.

The title was also inspired by OCUFA’s ‘We Teach Ontario’ campaign, designed to raise public awareness about the connections between university-level teaching and research, and it drew upon the strategy of ‘story-telling’ of the different situations of contract faculty. This strategy had been used very successfully in 2011 by the ‘We are the 99%’ Tumblr blog in bypassing mainstream media and reaching the US public (something about which I research and teach).

We also posted pictures of students and faculty with signs, such as you can see on this page (this one was one of the most popular and widely circulated images).

Many of the posts on our blog were picked up and re-blogged/posted via other contract faculty and student activist sites (one was re-posted 122 times!) and since the situation of US adjuncts was making headline news on mainstream netowrks, US faculty groups took it up and promoted our site throughout the US.

The ‘Margin Notes’ blog, which is part of the national University Affairs website, picked up on the statistics that our research had uncovered and, despite some incorrect or misleading statements put out by others, we were able to get the issue some degree of national coverage.

They say ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’: a ‘weteachcarleton’ site was launched in November and it is an excellent example of the effective use of personal stories which the public can relate (too many aspects of universities are too complicated to explain simply).

Finally, I want to say that this campaign involved a lot of contributions from lots of people, from students to faculty and staff, many of whom had little time to spare, but pitched in when they could. All your efforts were appreciated.

Thank you.

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