We interrupt this blog and its years of amazing articles about autism to bring your attention to another A: Adjunct Awareness. Regular readers know that I pretty much never divert from the subject of raising a kid on the spectrum, so this must be important, right?

In fact, this directly relates to just how good a parent I can be. Today, February 25, 2015, is the first-ever National Adjunct Walkout Day (#NAWD). If you’re anything like most of the students I teach, you have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, so let me tell you a bit about it.

Adjunct faculty, or lecturers, or visiting lecturers, or contingent faculty, or whatever euphemism a particular university uses, are the part-time contractors that colleges employ to teach the majority of their classes. They – okay, we – are, by definition, neither tenured nor full-time nor on the so-called “tenure track”; most of us live from contract to contract, these being offered around the last minute. Our amount of hours/classes tend to be calculated not to exceed a threshold which would require the university to provide more salary/benefits. We are paid by the hour only for the hours that we’re physically in class, which seems a little strange considering how much time is required for class prep, paper grading, emails in response to students, and other parts of the job description.

Few adjuncts are earning a living wage; most earn less than $2500 per class. (I’m one of the relatively lucky ones whose income adds up past the poverty line.) Many rely on other income, for example from a spouse (like mine, who is an angel). By contrast, tenure-track and tenured faculty, who teach many of the same classes, earn something like triple an adjunct’s wages. Today, adjuncts are asking for recognition of our disproportionate situation and calling for administrators to consider greater wage parity.

Let me be the first to say that I put myself in this adjunct situation. I decided to do something I love rather than something that could have made me rich. I also made a series of decisions – I’m not going to list them all here – that may not have been perfectly commensurate with a rise to a tenure-track position. And to tell you the truth, I don’t know that Adjunct X deserves the same salary for teaching Anthropology 101 as Tenured Prof Y. In the many websites dedicated to #NAWD, I don’t see much recognition of the non-teaching responsibilities of the permanent faculty, like research, publishing, mentoring, and serving on certain committees inside and outside the university. If Adjunct X is demanding greater parity with Tenured Prof Y, I hope X is doing a lot more than teaching; in the humanities, a few publications would be good. (Did I mention I’m currently contracted with Bloomsbury and Palgrave MacMillan for two upcoming books?) I hope they get terrific evaluations, that they’re really pushing their students to learn (sometimes those two can contradict), and that their classes are fuller than the classes of full-timers. (In my case, check, check, check.)

I would like to mention that my bosses, however ensconced they may be within academia, have made it clear to me that they are not happy with this current two-tier system. Thank God for that, because if I ever get to where they are, I’m sure I’ll feel something similar. I mean, let’s face it, academia is weird; you’re either working for McDonald’s-level wages or you can’t be fired? Odd. #NAWD and the unionization of adjunct labor are both long overdue developments and in some ways products of our digital era of greater transparency. All over the web, egregiously unfair situations get held up to the light of the internet’s Perpetual Outrage Machine, and so it’s not entirely surprising that it’s the adjunct’s “turn.”

In other ways, the timing is kind of terrible, because in this digital era, universities are feeling pinched from all directions, more defensive about their mission than they’ve ever been. Should a university have to put a dollar value on every aspect of its curriculum? If a subject has no vocational value, does that mean it has no value at all? Humanities departments are in a crouch; apparently the opposite is true in China, where the government has decided that to foster the creativity of the next Silicon Valley it has to invest in more than just STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). Nonetheless, American universities keep on raising tuition way beyond the rate of inflation, and that money seems to be going somewhere; have we really done as much as we can to reduce middle management and administrative excess?

I’m going to admit something to you; I was a little wary of unionizing and how that might hurt my future opportunities. Then I saw that the pro-union website at one of the universities where I teach (I won’t say which one) featured the smiling photo of a student who happened to be one of my best students, always making useful contributions to class and often lingering at the end of session to continue the fruitful exchange of ideas. I thought, well heck, if he supports adjuncts, then the least I can do is show some solidarity with him. I’m on the team now, though as I’ve said, I’m not sure that all part-timers deserve comparable pay to all full-timers. Some commenters on sites say: if you don’t like your job, quit and get another one. Sure. But if everyone had thought that way, historically, there never would have been a union, anywhere, and middle-class wages would have remained lower-class wages.

As with having an autistic kid, I’m a little late to this party, and I’m grateful to those who have come before me, the trailblazers who in some cases have worked anonymously for fear of losing their job. I seem to have arrived at the Finland Station on the train car after Lenin’s. I only began working at St. Mary’s College last semester, and all of a sudden, organizers (including fellow adjuncts) were ringing my doorbell, on separate days, begging me to join the union. I don’t even live in the same city as St. Mary’s! The “contingent faculty” at St. Mary’s is organized and motivated, and I see similarly strong movements at the other places I teach. I don’t know anyone who’s actually walking out today at my places of work (though the internet tells me that that’s happening at other colleges), but we’re doing teach-ins and wristband-wearing and other such awareness-raising activities. I’m doing my part, passing out buttons and explaining some of these issues to my students.

I don’t pretend to know where this is going, but sometimes it’s enough to start by saying that the status quo is unacceptable. I did that as a father of a “differently abled” kid, and I do it now. Something needs to change. Today I stand with my fellow adjuncts and say hasta la victoria siempre.