“Passing through”: Stories from thirty years of adjunct teaching in art history and social justice

Sharon Irish | April 2012

I will be 60 years old in November of 2012. I identify as white, female, heterosexual and middle-class, and I try to be cognizant of these social locations. I grew up in a mobile, middle-class family, the youngest of three daughters. My father was a sociology professor; my mother, who was the family anchor in many ways, worked very hard for not much pay at the jobs she was able to get each time we moved for my father’s job–in child care or in clerical work.

In 1985, after seven years of coursework and somewhat ambivalently-conducted research, I earned my Ph.D. in art history from Northwestern University. My ambivalence stemmed from my difficulty balancing a passion for art history with an awareness of the urgency and necessity for social justice. I have to admit it took me about twenty years of part-time, adjunct teaching to come to terms with my love of art history and how teaching in that area might support social justice work. A national conference of the Women’s Caucus for Art that I attended in 1990 was my first “aha” experience in understanding that feminism and visual culture offered myriad and powerful ways to intervene in US socio-political structures.

I offer two stories out of my teaching experience, since I think some specific examples might be the most useful to others.

First story: As an adjunct, I taught a wide range of classes in three different departments at three different institutions in Chicago and Champaign: in art history, architectural history and art education. That meant a lot of preparation for courses that I only taught once. These classes were usually at large state universities, and therefore they had enrollments from 100 to 250 students. Most of the time I worked with between two and seven graduate students who would help with grading and discussion sections. Because adjuncting like this is exhausting—either I was cramming for class(es) or figuring out what I might be able to teach the next semester—I was slow to realize just how crazy this system is, and how I was part of a trend toward contingent faculty. When I started adjunct teaching in 1983, I made $3000 a course, which was twice what was paid at the local community college. In the 1990s, I made $4000 a course. One year, in 1995, I taught full time (4 courses) and made $30,000, the one time when I was paid more than the graduate students. Pay also depended on which unit I taught in: better-funded units in the same institution paid more, so twice more recently I made between $10,000 (2003) and $12,000 (2011) per course. On the one hand, I chose to adjunct in order to stay close to my family and to at least keep a “foot” in the academic door. I could do this because my husband had a “real” job that supported us and our two children. On the other hand, I also was unsuccessful in obtaining a tenure-track job despite the many that I applied for. Because I never wanted to be an adjunct and I was kind of in denial as the years went by, I didn’t engage in organizing a union or other support structure for those of us in these positions. I am guessing that this attitude of “passing through” a particular status makes organizing contingent faculty particularly difficult.

Second story: An advantage of “passing through” is that this status invites experimentation. With large classes, I often searched for ways to animate an idea, involve students, and connect with them even though discussion was difficult. I would tape quotations from artists or critics to soft balls and throw them out into the class, asking those who caught the ball to read the quote out loud. I would invite three or so students up to the front of the room to walk the length of a painting or room under discussion, to give a sense of scale of an object. Fundamental to these activities was trying to get students to move in their bodies, to be aware of their breathing and their posture. What we learn is embodied; often we learn better through being aware of our bodies. My most successful teaching experiences (I think) have been walking through a space with students, whether on an architecture tour of a city or standing inside a building listening to sounds, or talking together about what we observe in outdoor sculpture. I have found Charles Garoian’s Performing Pedagogy: Toward an Art of Politics (SUNY Press, 1999) useful and inspiring.