• July 24, 2014

A Simple Spreadsheet Strikes a Nerve Among Adjuncts

Accidental Activist

Brian Ray, The Gazette, AP Images

Where adjuncts are being treated well, and where they are not, is coming to light through a database that has collected information from hundreds of instructors.

Enlarge Image
close Accidental Activist

Brian Ray, The Gazette, AP Images

Where adjuncts are being treated well, and where they are not, is coming to light through a database that has collected information from hundreds of instructors.

Energized by his fellow adjunct professors who had gathered for a national meeting last month in Washington, D.C., Joshua A. Boldt flew home to Athens, Ga., opened his laptop, and created a Google document.

On his personal blog, the 32-year-old writing instructor implored colleagues to contribute to the publicly editable spreadsheet, detailing their pay per course and other working conditions, noting their institutions and departments. The goal of the crowdsourcing project, Mr. Boldt said, was to praise universities that treat adjunct professors well and "out" those institutions that do not.

"Let's combine forces," he wrote. "Fill in as much information as you feel comfortable doing, and be sure to tweet this document and share it. ... "

Mr. Boldt says he was expecting several dozen responses. As of the middle of last week, 786 people had posted their data to the document, and it had been viewed more than 18,000 times. Mr. Boldt's basic spreadsheet had become a viral hit, circulating on a number of academic blogs and social-media platforms.

"I was shocked by the reaction," he says. "It just sort of took off."

Mr. Boldt, who now teaches freshman composition at the University of Georgia, fell into the adjunct ranks in 2011. After graduating from the University of Kentucky in 2003, Mr. Boldt worked for five years as a manager of a Whole Foods store. Then, while he was earning his master's degree in English at Eastern Kentucky University, he took a position as a graduate teaching assistant. He quickly discovered he enjoyed teaching, and was able to land an adjunct faculty position at Eastern Kentucky as soon as he completed his master's program.

But the disheartening economic reality soon set it in. Burdened by $30,000 in student-loan debt, Mr. Boldt says he realized that working as an adjunct professor would not be a sustainable career path. He recognized that many of his colleagues were in a similar position—that is, chasing after adjunct positions that paid less than the wages of the stock crew he had supervised at Whole Foods.

Mr. Boldt says his desire to organize on behalf of adjuncts began with a simple bureaucratic inconvenience he encountered during his first year teaching at Eastern Kentucky: The last paycheck of the fall semester was issued on December 15 and the first paycheck of the spring did not arrive until February 15.

"We were barely making any money to begin with, and then we had this two-month gap in pay," he says. "I think the assumption was that we'd just figure out some way to survive. It's really difficult to get a job for those two months, and you can't get unemployment."

Mr. Boldt organized a small group, the Forum for Adjunct Instructor Reform, of fellow adjuncts. They met with the dean of the college but were unsuccessful in getting the payroll office to pay adjuncts earlier in the spring semester.

The group continued to grow, Mr. Boldt says, and the more he became aware of the issues adjuncts faced on his campus and around the country, the more involved he became. He says he was especially compelled to campaign for adjuncts' rights after learning that "so many underdogs were being abused by the system."

When he moved last year to the University of Georgia, where he teaches four sections of freshman composition, Mr. Boldt says he was "blown away" by how much better the environment was for adjuncts. The university, he says, offered double the pay, health, and retirement benefits, and more respect for contingent faculty. For now, Mr. Boldt says he is happy at Georgia and doesn't have any plans to earn a Ph.D. and jump onto the tenure track. But the contrast in working conditions has renewed his interest in the adjunct movement, he says.

Although non-tenure-track positions now constitute almost 70 percent of all faculty appointments, there is little comprehensive national data about their pay and benefits. As Mr. Boldt's project illustrates, adjunct compensation varies widely, but it is often well below the pay of full professors. While full professors tend to have duties, like advising and research, that adjuncts often do not, many adjuncts nevertheless feel they embody a lower class in academe.

"We have accepted that what's best for the ruling class is what's best for us," he says. "We, as adjuncts and anybody involved in higher education, are giving consent to this power structure by passivity, by standing by and allowing it to happen."

Sounding Board

In the first week after Mr. Boldt began what he has come to call the Adjunct Project, he says he spent hours watching the information flood in to his Google document and just trying to keep the data properly formatted. At any given time, there were between 30 and 40 people entering information into the spreadsheet in real time, he says. Mr. Boldt has since formalized the data-input process and moved the project onto its own dedicated site.

What has emerged is not only a large directory of pay information but also a sounding board for adjuncts to discuss the specifics of their working conditions.

"Not encouraged or allowed to participate in faculty governance at any level. Contracts always done last minute," writes one anonymous adjunct professor of education at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, who reports pay of $2,500 for each three-credit class.

An adjunct professor at Ramapo College of New Jersey writes, "Shared office. Two computers for numerous professors. ... Supervision is very hands off but many tenure-tracked professors are very supportive."

Mr. Boldt attributes the popularity of his project to the need for a space for adjuncts to discuss the issues they face. He also says that people are attracted to the interactive, communal nature of crowdsourcing information that they care about.

"We're not being told, 'These are the results of this study,'" he says. "We're creating this study as it goes."

The kind of grass-roots campaign Mr. Boldt has sparked to raise awareness about adjunct issues is the type of organizing that the New Faculty Majority, an advocacy group for adjuncts, sees as important to the success of their reform movement, says Maria C. Maisto, the group's president.

"The project he's done is real inspiring and exactly the type of thing we hope happens," Ms. Maisto says. "We see him as a potential leader, and he already is a leader in many ways."

The title of leader is one that Mr. Boldt cautiously embraces. He is quick, for instance, to point out that his desire to delve into adjunct advocacy was unplanned and merely the product of his personal experiences.

Ms. Maisto, who fell into her role as an adjunct advocate in a similar way, says it is a common path for adjunct professors.

"When you experience what it's like to be an adjunct, you tend to get a fight-or-flight response," Ms. Maisto says. "Those of us who become activists have engaged our fight response."

A 'Systemic Dysfunction'

Though he may be an accidental activist, Mr. Boldt's admittedly simple spreadsheet has clearly struck a nerve.

Michael Bérubé, the new president of the Modern Language Association who has pledged to make adjunct issues a priority, says his organization will be closely watching the project and hopes it can complement a similar adjunct crowdsourcing project the MLA will be starting soon.

Mr. Bérubé also says that the data in Mr. Boldt's project may not ultimately be as important as the participation and engagement of the many rank-and-file adjunct professors that it promotes.

The working conditions for adjuncts is a "systemic dysfunction" that higher education must confront, Mr. Bérubé says. "We may be at one of those publicity tipping points."

Mr. Boldt says he has yet to decide where to take his crowdsourcing project next but acknowledges that the data need to be thoughtfully analyzed. Personally, he would eventually like to pivot into a job where he works on higher-education policy or advocacy. In the meantime, he says he wants to keep the conversation about adjunct working conditions going.

"I'm not an expert on this matter," he says. "I'm just a guy who's passionate about an issue, and I've kind of become a person who people want to talk to. I'm learning as I go."


The Adjunct Project at a Glance

Joshua A. Boldt, a writing instructor at the U. of Georgia, created a Google document on February 2, asking fellow adjuncts to enter information about their pay and working conditions. Here is a snapshot as of the middle of last week:

  • More than 18,000 views
  • 786 entries from adjuncts in 46 states, the District of Columbia, and Canada
  • Pay per three-credit course ranges from $600 (South Suburban College, outside of Chicago) to $9,500 (Carnegie Mellon U.).
subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.