Newsflash to the Older Women of the Local College: “You’re a Very Tangible Part of the Problem.”


by Sandra Keifer

I can say this because I’m one of you. Here is a newsflash to the older women of the local college adjunct faculty—you who are supported by engineer husbands and teeter precariously on the high wire of self-esteem, eternally grateful that any local college would hire you:

Not only do you fail to be part of the solution, but you’re a very tangible part of the problem.

You’ve “got yours” already, and while your spouse may chide you (as a parent would a child) that you’re giving away your labor for pennies, you love that warm feeling teaching gives you. You fool yourself daily, telling yourself that your work is above the market, above the value of money. You may even be smart enough to realize that the administrators at your school are skimming the fruits of your labor as deftly as any Koch brother, but you don’t like to dwell on those thoughts. They make you feel uncomfortable.

Those thoughts may even tear down some of the feelings of smugness and beneficence that fill your giant heart, and here is another thought—a very new one, in your world—that may disturb your false sense of magnanimity:

You are hurting young teachers.

Your willingness to work for minimum wage (or less, pursuant to your own confessions) only helps the administration, populated by men (mostly) who are making six figures and enjoy security on a level that may surpass even that of your employed spouse. The college is betting that people like you will continue to swell its ranks, propping up the decades-old system that devalues education and pads their own futures. Administrators are betting that you will chide rabble-rousing young adjuncts who want better pay and benefits because we can barely pay our rent; they are hoping that you will refuse to participate in any scheme that could lead to something that resembles pay and benefit equity with full-timers.

photoThey are praying you will turn that iron cheek, Maggie, and tell the younger adjuncts to sit down and work harder because, in your heart of hearts, you selfishly believe that if teaching paid better, more qualified people would vie for your job and take it from you—and you may be right. Is this, however, what is best for students? Do you consider this fact when you tell yourself that you always have the students’ best interests in mind, or have you rationalized your ethical egoism, Ayn Rand?

Yes, older women of the local college adjunct faculty, keep telling yourself that your work is sacred, unrelated to money, and focused on the future of our community. Don’t worry about what is really best for students or young teachers. You’ve got yours; we’ll just have to find our own way.

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  1. I really kept wondering when we’d get to the punchline.
    This post is laughable indeed. I am an older teacher, and I do this because I love teaching, but also because I need the income. And to say that I’m part of the problem when I can create a more solid argument than the drivel I read here makes me wonder who truly IS the problem.
    Blaming a segment of society for your perceived lack of success is truly abominable. Work harder, dear, and you will reap the rewards. In the meantime, I’m teaching those classes you want.

  2. At my university we have many older adjunct faculty members – both men and women – as well as young ones just starting out and hoping to gain a fulltime job after they get their doctorate. To make a generalization about the older ones is laughable. No one I know has a wonderful husband supporting her or wife supporting him.Most of us are itinerant adjuncts who teach at several different colleges in order to cobble together enough income to live. As an older woman myself, I know that few places welcome older workers, but we are welcome in academia. We are shamelessly exploited, but some money is better than nothing. So to read that I am stealing chances from the young adjuncts is simply a false accusation made by a desperate person who can’t understand why he doesn’t have more clout. Well sweetheart, adjuncts have no clout, so get over it.

  3. Oh. Shame on you. Agism and sexism are NOT acceptable in the same way that racism is not acceptable. You could have made your point without using these insulting stereotypes. The brick-size chip on your shoulder indicates an attitude of intolerence that may have more to do with your adjunct status than the fact that the system is inherently unfair.

  4. No dear, you are the problem. You are attacking older women and stereotyping them. Shame on you; you call yourself an educator?? I won’t even dignify this more than a minute of my time. I have one word to say: UGH

  5. Yes, I’ve known these women, taught alongside them. Resented them. Saw how carefree they were. That part is true. What is not true is that it is their fault. They are being used as tools of the administrators, of the corporatized management, and if they all quit tomorrow, it wouldn’t mean they’d hire more tenure track faculty instead. They’d simply hire more adjuncts.

    If you want these people to help by leaving, it better had be under the condition of a general STRIKE! Where ALL leave, at once.

    That is the only answer. You have nothing to lose but your food stamps, or your parents’ basement. And a world of educational and scholarly excellence to gain.

    But go on: blame other adjuncts, and see where that gets you.

    Robin M.

  6. What a sexist, ageist post. I think it should be taken down. Very dangerous and deceitful stereotypes riddle this piece. What makes this writer conclude the the “young teachers” are doing a better job than the “old women” who they, apparently, want to send home to wash dishes. How dare assume that older women in the colleges are supported by engineer husbands? Good grief, it reads like a 1950s rant. You certainly just want to blame someone else for your problem.

  7. While there’s a grain of truth in here, I suspect (and I’m loath to question Sandra’s observation of her own, particular, local scene), I, like many others, am troubled by the potentially divisive nature of the post. We really don’t know why any of us — including ourselves — are willing to teach for completely unreasonable wages, when there are other options available. There’s some danger of creating a circular firing squad of projection: “you’re the one who really should leave! no, you!” That kind of pressure, and projection, is only going to increase as things in the academy get worse, and the economy (we hope) improves.

    I also find myself thinking about the gender dynamics of the situation described. To the extent that adjuncts who teach for ego/self-gratification alone are part of the problem, aren’t there at least as many males — currently-employed full-time outside the academy or retired with nice pensions — who fit that description? If not, is it because men are more inclined to ask for — and more likely to get — a salary that accurately reflects their contributions? Is not wanting to protest because it could jeopardize a relationship with one’s buddy the chair any worse than not wanting to protest because, deep down, one isn’t sure one’s work really is worth more?

    I don’t want to set up another straw person here: the egotistical male retiree who just wants to recreate the experiences of authority and affinity he once had in the office, but I suspect that, at least in some higher-ed settings, it would be about as accurate as the picture above — i.e., it would carry a grain of truth, but no more.

  8. Sandra asks: “Should we win the job at any cost?” Right now, if I lose my job it will be at the cost of my house. Should I be willing to lose the job at that cost? Is anyone else willing to become homeless on my behalf? Should they be? I am not at all sure they should.

  9. I think Keifer’s essay is divisive in itself–if that’s what you mean,Joe, I agree with you, but otherwise, no. Since I posted my first response to this article, I have learned that the places I work to patchwork a living wage are trying to cut hours so that they will not have to comply with the ACA and provide health insurance. I am trying to figure out a lot of things, including whether I can afford to join a strike if we decide to try to defend ourselves. I have never met anyone who is an adjunct who doesn’t need his or her salary, so, like Lori, I don’t think that Sandra’s article is fair or representative. And judging someone who cannot afford to strike is pointless. I will say it again: no worker owes it as a moral obligation to another worker to risk his or her job to support others, unless more is at stake than salary.

  10. @Joe is absolutely right! This is a great essay. @Julia it may be difficult to support solidarity, but until there is solidarity between all faculty colleges will be able to pick us off one-by-one. They will pit the part-time faculty against the full-time faculty and pit the full-time faculty against the full-time temporary faculty. Up to this point I believe what we have been experiencing is a classic “divide and conquer” strategy played out. This essay makes that point perfectly, and that’s what we need to focus on.

  11. Great article! THAT’s how you get a conversation going!
    In response to Julia who said-

    “Support how? With money? Letters? Strikes? By quitting to make room for those who need the job more? Please define your terms.”

    Well, fighting for equity looks different for everyone, but yes, those are some good tactics. What does equity mean for you? There are lots of national organization that help us organize and fight for what is right. That’s all that Sandra is saying. Now that she got your attention, what are you going to do about the problem? Carolyn Elliot has some great ideas in her last post.

  12. Keifer makes an exceedingly valid point, because I experience this very thing as an adjunct professor. Some of the women I know in higher education themselves say outright that they “do this” to give themselves “something to do,” since financial support is a given in the household. Otherwise they “don’t know what” they would do. Some even go so far as to say, “I know we don’t make much money, but I don’t mind. I love teaching.”

    That motivation to teach in higher education is legitimate, but it also is the very attitude that administration wants, so as to keep pay abysmally low for all adjuncts. This attitude also seems to warrant in the mind of administration the minimizing of the thoughts, suggestions and ideas of such people who are in turn, simply patronized; this reinforces a dominator perspective, which then self-perpetuates with willing participants who keep themselves and all others in the same position of subjugation, having no influence ultimately on governance and policy-making that affect them as a result. This practice was once called “taxation without representation.” So every last one of us must speak up where appropriate to educate legislators, the masses and our own people so as to stop this cycle of abuse of the worth of any professor of any sort. All must work together and address the circumstances that perpetuate the problem.

    • Under this logic, no one would take a job for lower pay than the top members of the profession. Why the assumption that “old married women” are bad teachers?

  13. Adjuncts need to support each other. If certain groups of adjuncts refuse to support the equity movement because someone else is supporting them, that is a problem for all of us. I agree with Julia’s statements about adjuncts living in poverty; some of my dearest friends and colleagues live in terrible adjunct-related poverty. Consequently, as stated in my article, it is unacceptable for more fortunate adjuncts to refuse to support their colleagues. Adjuncts who live in poverty are not being indicted in any way. We all need to support adjuncts who are trying to survive; that’s what the equity movement is all about.

    • Support how? With money? Letters? Strikes? By quitting to make room for those who need the job more? Please define your terms.

    • The context for the article, which you’ve mentioned in the comments, helps to clarify where you’re coming from, but from here it reads as though you’re writing to a specific series of incidents – adjunct faculty who happen to be women refusing to support a specific equity movement. Which is fine; but, then, why make this about all “older women of the local college”? Why women? Are there no retired or otherwise financially stable men teaching where you work? Is it only women who exhibit this resistance, and if so, do you think this is indicative of a broader, gender-based tendency? Because that’s what you’re inferring, and scapegoating a vast swath of workers in the service of what seems to me to be a poorly reasoned thesis: older (married – don’t forget married) women are a big part of the problem.

      I’m not one for commenting on things that I find lying around the Internet, but the assumptions that are being made here are really breathtaking in their thoughtlessness. I’m not entirely clear why these women should even consider signing on to an equity movement that seems so prepared to scapegoat them rather than concentrate attention on the real, systemic problems of higher education that are at the root of the equity problem.

      • I agree with you, Lori. This point is not at all valid. Sweeping generalizations never are. If she has a problem with “older married women” then she needs to address them particularly and individually, not assume all “older married women” are the same.

  14. Should it be our ambition to serve only our own ambitions? If we take advantage of the fact that we can afford to work for low wages, and we turn our backs on young adjuncts who live in poverty, have we acted properly? Should we win the job at any cost? Is our struggle about individuals or the future of education? These are the questions I am raising. Guilt is not part of it–at least not for instructors who support the equity movement. The article is addressed to those who do not support equity because they want to enjoy their advantages.

    • What about older adjuncts who live in poverty? The whole tone of your article was offensive, Sandra, and if you can’t own it than you shouldn’t have written it.

      • @Julia, I’d be interested to hear what you have to say about the question Sandra posed above. If someone who can afford to teach for peanuts does so to satisfy their ambition (their ego, perhaps) what’s the impact on those who can’t afford to teach for peanuts? It’s easy to have a strong reaction to this piece, but there is a lot beneath the surface that should be debated.

        • I am not sure what Sandra means by supporting equity. Does she mean going out on strike when others do? That is a lot to ask. I agree entirely that we ought to support strikers; I went out in sympathy when Local 34 struck at Yale in 1984, because I was not willing to cross a picket line my mother was on. Nevertheless, the decision was not one I took lightly–and I was living at home with my parents after a divorce, and could depend on them for support.

          If Sandra does not mean supporting a strike, than I am not sure what she does mean. Writing letters? Attending meetings? Supporting the formation of a union? These are all things that adjuncts should do, if they can, to show solidarity. Nevertheless, no worker owes it as a moral obligation to another worker to risk his or her job to support others, unless more is at stake than salary. It would be morally reprehensible to scab or to keep silent when an employer was human trafficking or hiring minors, but pay disputes and job security issues are different.

          Sandra’s essay, as I read it, suggests that those who can afford to quit should do so to make room for others who need jobs more. I submit that no one gets to decide whether someone needs a job either for the money or for the personal satisfaction, and that essays like hers are divisive and themselves damaging to comity.

          As I said in my first response, I think she makes broad assumptions and claims about the people who work as adjuncts which she fails to support. And I reject utterly the idea that somene who can afford to quit is obliged to quit to make room for someone else.

  15. “I can say this because I’m one of you.” It’s good to know that your experiences mirror mine exactly. I, too, entered into adjunct teaching because I had a dilettantish desire to enlighten the masses and bask in the warm and fuzzy afterglow of Dead Poet’s Society-style teaching; certainly not because I had ambition that was fundamentally incompatible with present-day academic hiring practices. I wasn’t, say, disadvantaged in a market that privileges the young, unencumbered, and mobile, in which a slavish 24/7 devotion to one’s job is a prerequisite for any kind of job security, and where we’re all but expected to go through several iterations of one or two-year visiting assistant professorships spread throughout the country before we are considered to have paid our (initial) dues.

    In the same way I wouldn’t scapegoat the young, sexy, and mobile and their desperate willingness to be on call, wherever and whenever needed, to an administrative machine that’s interested in little more than the bottom dollar, I cannot imagine how it can possibly be helpful to scapegoat ambitious women who are making the best of a crap situation that is our only feasible means of participating in scholarly life and still maintain the homes and families we may have brought into academia (or which may have grown up around us during our time as students). This is divisive victim-blaming; you may be in it for the sweet thrill of enlightening the masses, and you may have been patted on the head by your husband and told that you’re selling yourself short, dear, but I resent the hell out of the implication that your experience is mine. Feel guilty if it gives you satisfaction, but don’t read your lack of ambition onto my adjuncting.

  16. This article was inspired by conversations with other adjuncts about participation in our movement for equity. These adjuncts were unwilling to support an effort for equity because they believed one of their job qualifications was their ability to accept minimum wage or less. I was stunned. Imagine how I felt when another adjunct said, “I’m not one of those people. My husband’s job takes care of my insurance.” In the business world, companies try to attract top talent, but in higher ed, the ability to survive with no health insurance and low wages has been elevated to a key position in the competition for adjunct jobs. Nobody stops to think about what this means for young teachers and the future of higher ed.

  17. Read the post more closely; she is not condemning older women who are working as adjuncts. She is only calling attention to those who enjoy financial security and so fail to understand the need
    for solidarity with the underclass of adjuncts.

    • You need to read it more closely, Ms. Lawless. Even the title states that “ole women” are the PROBLEM.

  18. This “article” is divisive and insulting. The writer assumes waaaay too much about us “older” women’s financial and marital statuses. These assumptions are based on sexist stereotypes that I thought were shed decades ago. This writer’s anger is misplaced. Too bad this website has chosen to highlight it over so many other more legitimate arguments for financially recognizing the value and importance of adjuncts.

  19. What about those of us NOT supported by “husbands?” Even when I was married, I earned more money than my spouse, even though he was an attorney …

  20. You are right that the older, especially retired profs, need to quit working for nothing (because they can) but, I don’t think that will solve the problem of under paid adjuncts, not until the public, the students, and the full timers stand with us adjuncts, will a change come. I realize that is the gist of what is being said, but I venture that the majority of adjuncts are working or retired men, and those of us cobbling out a living at multiple schools. Women like Dr. Biden are not our main inpediment to a fair wage, boards and administrators who do not value or contributions, are.

    • @Martha, colleges are increasingly giving “overload” courses to FT faculty and hiring retired FTers to teach PT. The majority of faculty off the tenure-track are women, not men.

  21. I’ll try not to lose my temper, but this post is absolutely outrageous. The author deals in a number of harmful and unsupported stereotypes regarding women (they are supported by men and do not need to work either for money or for self-esteem), age (the trope that the old should get out of the way so that the young can get on, the vicious lie that older people are all financially able to retire, is being thrown about in discussions of so-called entitlements: it’s divisive and untrue), and adjuncts (we do not accept low wages because money means nothing to us–we accept low wages because the alternative is no wages at all).

    If I wanted to deal in the divisive rhetoric of this author, I would point out that younger people have a better chance of finding other work than older people do. Instead I urge her to stop playing into the hands of management by attacking her fellow-workers, and direct her anger at thhe real source of low wages and poor opportunities.

    • Julia – she’s not saying that older female professors are the problem. She’s encouraging ALL women, evn those who don’t NEED a higher rate of pay, to fight for the pay that ALL adjuncts deserve! No one should sit back and accept the piddly pay that colleges and universities get away with paying the low paid majority of instructors who teach the students.

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