Artist, Adjunct, Academic: on teaching art, the labor of teaching, and activism


By Jennie Shanker


Part of our eye is named for the reflection we see gazing into someone else’s. The pupil, from the Old French pupille, meant “orphan child”, and similarly in Latin, pupillus translates toorphan child”, “ward”, “minor”. It was the small version of the self seen reflected in the dark center of another’s eyes. Young students came to take on the title pupil as well, as they were tended to by people who were not their parents while working on their studies. After graduation, they were called alumnae, also a word from Latin meaning ‘a pupil’, or more literally “foster son”. Add the Latin word alma mater, “nourishing mother” and the implications are clear. Through their college studies, students are adopted and nurtured outside of the family by their school.


Sadly, changes in universities and colleges have made the sentiment implied by these words outdated. As in many other institutions committed to the greater good in society, leadership in higher education has been handed over to individuals who see the school first and foremost as a business. What isn’t a business these days? Corporations are considered people and their money is now speech. People are regarded as nothing but consumers, customers and numbers. Alumni who do well become poster children for their school’s advertising and recruitment efforts: they are presented as the products of their institutions. In the business analogy, students are now customers who purchase a school’s services to transform themselves into a product that will be viable in a particular market. Thanks to contemporary business practices, our factories have moved overseas and education has become a new territory for American manufacturing.


This situation represents a radical change in the core ethics of higher education. Students going to college are making an investment in themselves. Schools offer them an opportunity: if they commit to a difficult process of learning, the path will lead to a substantive transformation by the time they graduate. Learning is a developmental process; it can’t be packaged and handed to someone like a soy latte. The parallels between schools and businesses work only on a superficial level. It’s true that someone offers money in exchange for access to services. But these services, offered by teachers, are far different than an ordinary service or product.


Teaching is an exceptionally complicated craft, perhaps in the arts and humanities especially. One size cannot fit all. In fact, if you have just one size, it just won’t fit. This is work that is by necessity personalized and tailored. We cultivate creative thinkers, doers, and makers; we encourage individualism, not conformity. We work with students in the achievement of a voice that is uniquely theirs. A person who has been brought through a transformative process is not a product. Graduates are less standardized, and further realized as individuals than they had been before their enrollment.


Institutions like schools, hospitals, and prisons are special entities because their job is to change people. When a business mentality is imposed upon their management, they become less capable of providing for the people in their care. Organizations based upon moral and ethical imperatives become stressed, and are forced to compromise their values when budget cuts are directed towards the most hands-on workers. Corporate practices impact the quality and integrity of essential processes, and can affect the safety, well-being, and success of everyone being asked to do more with less.


At universities, growing administrative bloat has been accompanied by a degradation of the role of teachers. Presidential salaries now must compete with Wall Street, because academics apparently lack the business expertise to run a school. Some institutions are even fighting to change the status of their departmental chairs, taking the job of overseeing academic practices out of faculty hands and making the position purely administrative. These are structural changes taking place in academia due to business decisions that have not benefitted students, faculty, or the quality of the education that we provide. These changes have led to the abusive over-work of full-timers and complete insecurity for adjuncts, now the majority of teaching faculty


The consequences of corporate practices in academia are clearly evident in university hiring practices over the past forty years. In 1969, only 18.5% of the people teaching in universities were part-time[1]. By 2011 this number had reached 75.5%[2]. This means that students used to attend classes where the vast majority of their teachers, 81.5%, were full-time. Faculty had secure lives, which gave them the time and support to be scholars and nurture the development of their pupils. They were regularly available on campus, and familiar with the school’s staff, policies, and the services students could receive. This is now true of only a fraction of the faculty: 24.5% are tenured or tenure track. It’s not only students who are no longer adopted by their alma maters. Colleges now refuse to commit to their faculty as well.


Artists are particularly harmed by the shift to a majority part-time faculty: a survey of 10,000+ adjuncts showed that out of the many fields of study, Studio Art and Design departments employ the third largest percentage of part-time teachers.[3] This could be because teaching remains an appealing prospect for artists. We have little control over the market for the work generated in our studios, so we seek ways to maintain our practice. We need to be around other artists, have opportunities to network, be part of a critical dialog, and have space and tools to work. There are few jobs outside of college teaching that satisfy all these needs. As institutions and cultural centers, universities could be stable employers with an ability to sustain faculty by committing to and investing in them as educators. They have the ability to offer tenure, true job security. But administrative leaders in many schools have made the prospect of a securing a tenure-track job in academia a thing of the past. Too many changes occur at the highest level of administration without faculty input, and clearly neglect to consider educational quality and student need.


With the vast majority of the faculty now part-time, ‘at will’ employees who can be fired at any time without cause, administrators are better positioned to make policy without concern for what faculty-members think. Whether teachers are adjunct or full-time, they are vulnerable and unlikely to have much of a say. We are hired to cultivate our students’ voices, but we’d best be cautious in exercising our own. Start to note moments when you are careful about what you say in your department and you’ll see the areas where you should have a voice that is respected, but is not.


As artists who teach as adjuncts, there are particular ways in which we are pressured to fulfill work that isn’t part of our job. Often it’s work that had been done by former full-timers or support staff. These practices have become so normal, so integral to what-is-done-here, that no one sees them as problematic. We just accept it as part of our job, try to look at it from the bright side, or grin and bear it. One common example occurs at the end of every semester: the work we were committed to do in our contracts has been satisfied, but we’re asked to attend department-wide, full-day critiques.


End of semester critiques are considered ‘final exams’ for each student, though grades are usually unaffected by the critiques. It’s not part of any class – it’s a departmental requirement. Generally, departmental critiques will last about six hours, though they can go for eight, and often they’ll span multiple days. Sometimes they’re presented as optional events, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that participating and performing in front of the department can improve one’s chances of continuing employment. Refusing to show up is seen as belligerent, and as a lack of commitment to the community the department claims to foster. Students aren’t aware that the faculty is being told to volunteer their time, and must wonder: what kind of person refuses to put everything aside when their community is coming together?


I recently tallied how much of this mandatory volunteer time I’ve been asked to participate in over my career as a teacher. Just considering these critique days, averaging out my eighteen years, at two schools per year, for one day/six hours, here’s the math:


6 hours per school x 2 schools x 2 semesters x 18 years = 432 hours

A three credit class = 45 hours of instructional time.

432 hours divided by 45 = 9.6 three credit classes

Average national pay for a 3cr course = $2987[4]

Total lost wages (at average adjunct pay) = $28,675.20


This figure doesn’t even scratch the surface of the labor that artist adjuncts perform outside contract hours, including meetings, open houses, installing and de-installing exhibitions, fixing tools or class furniture, ordering and receiving or shopping and delivering materials, doing paperwork to be compensated for personal money laid out for classroom materials, participating in end of the term clean-up, recommendation writing, etc.


It’s not that everything we’re asked to do, need to do, or want to do has to have a dollar sign next to it. Artists are typically very willing to commit time and effort to things they care about, and to use their abilities to further their community. It’s important to recognize, however, that while we’re deeply committed to our students and to doing good work, we’re barely able to get by on the compensation we’re offered. The extra work we’re asked to do is not insignificant. It adds up. When people are pressured to do work they’re not compensated for, it’s a form of wage theft, and it needs to be recognized for what it is. We need to be able to talk about it without fear of retribution.


These issues started running through my head at the same moment last year when I learned that the American Federation of Teachers began organizing adjuncts in the Philadelphia region. The United Academics of Philadelphia (UAP) will represent adjuncts within 30 miles of the city. It will be a community of 15,000 people who will be able to make a big difference. The union has already brought together a substantial, growing number of adjuncts as members, creating a different kind of peer community than we’ve ever had before. We now have a place to go to talk to colleagues, seek resources and support, and share expertise. Adjuncts are speaking and are being heard. Members have presented at a national education conference and have been submitting stories, essays, artwork, and more to the UAP blog, the Higher Ed Hub. Anna Neighbor, a Philadelphia artist, adjunct, and union activist, was sent to the White House’s Summit on Working Families to discuss how current labor practices affect families. The union holds regular meetings, social events, and has twice held day-long public forums with speakers, panels and workshops to discuss issues.


Temple University is buzzing with adjuncts who are working with the UAP in the process of petitioning to have a vote to unionize. Several other colleges and universities hope to initiate similar efforts in the coming year. The union works with faculty organizing in schools to advocate for progressive change. With the UAP, adjuncts will have significant representation and collective bargaining power to improve the conditions we teach under, which in turn raises the excellence of the education we can offer. Our students deserve to be fostered within a caring educational community, and faculty members need this environment as well in order to offer it to students.


When will your school’s leaders ask: what do your students need? What is getting in the way of you doing your job to the best of your potential? We will only be asked when we have leadership that makes teaching the priority. Administrators will ask these questions when they care. The question we need to ask is: do we wait?


Jennie Shanker is a Philadelphia-based artist, educator who has been working with adjuncts through the United Academics of Philadelphia to organize contingent faculty in the region.

[1]  includes a small percentage of grad students and PhD candidates who teach

[2] The Just in Time Professor, House Committee on Education and the Workforce, January 2014, p.3

[3] A Portrait of Part-Time Faculty Members, Coalition on the Academic Workforce, June 2012, p. 21, English was first, History second