Tuesday, August 17, 2004
Adjuncts at colleges and universities hold graduate degrees – usually master’s, but increasingly doctorates – and get paid peanuts. Someone teaching at my current institution could teach 8 courses a year and total $13,000, without benefits. That’s less than a part-time secretary with a high-school diploma makes. The shocking thing is how many adjuncts are around and available. From an administrative perspective, such cheap labor solves some short-term financial issues quite neatly, even if, I suspect, it slowly erodes the intellectual capital of an institution. (In saying that, I don’t mean to impugn the intelligence of adjuncts, but merely to echo Aristotle’s observation that contemplation requires leisure.)
The financial logic is compelling. Yet only higher ed seems to have latched onto it. Why not other credentialed professions?
Imagine adjunct surgeons. For about $35 an hour, they will perform surgeries on an as-needed basis. Finally, a solution to the rising cost of health insurance! Doctors who couldn’t afford health insurance seems like poetic justice.
Or adjunct cops. Whenever a crime wave breaks out, or a political convention comes to town, local bruisers would join the force at a low hourly rate to wield what Max Weber called a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. What could possibly go wrong?
Adjunct attorneys! The key issue here is pay. Lawyers are often paid by the hour now; why not drastically lower the rate? After all, there’s no shortage of lawyers! Let the market work its magic. $45/hour, tops. If you don’t like it, work at Burger King. As with professors and surgeons, the pay only covers hours actually ‘at work’ (i.e. in the classroom, in the courtroom, in surgery) – preparation is strictly on your own time and your own dime.
Adjunct airline pilots! How many kids grow up wanting to be pilots? $50/hour, covering only time spent in the air. See how long they linger on the tarmac now…
As with our adjuncts, low performers (defined however their managers choose) can be dropped without notice, new people called in at the last minute, etc. Keep a few full-time positions around, just to keep hope alive, so the adjuncts don’t go into a more secure line of work, like show business.
For some reason, academics with doctorates are willing to tolerate conditions that no other trained professionals would even dream of accepting. If academic adjuncts used the same billing logic as, say, business consultants, they would insist on reimbursement for preparation time, travel, meals, and course materials, and would quintuple their rate.
You’d think smart people like professors would have figured this out by now. Colleges pay adjuncts so little because they can. But why can they? Why are Ph.D.’s willing to allow themselves to be so badly exploited, often for years on end?
Yes, I would say that we are a unique group of people. The pay is not all it is about. It is about doing what you enjoy - teaching a subject matter that we are experts in. Adjunct teaching gives us the opportunity to share our knowledge of a subject matter that we have spent so many years studying, researching and practicing. We are giving back to society a valuable part of who we are by sharing our knowledge with others. At the same time, it affords us the time to pursue other avenues that we enjoy, such as research, publishing, public speaking, and as a practitioner.
Most of us work at more than one college. We do not usually put all of our eggs in one basket when it comes to being an adjunct. The advent of online teaching has opened even more opportunities for us. Many of us are teaching both on ground and online accelerated courses. This enables us to get paid faster, than teaching traditional 14 to 16 week courses. (Not to say there is anything wrong with teaching traditional courses, because I teach them too.)
It frustrates me that we are treated like second class citizens. It is, as you said, a form of cheap labor. On top of that, most adjuncts are "at will" employees who can be fired without notice and for any reason. There is no union to back them up.
I think for some, it is a necessary evil. One needs the experience to be considered for a tenure track position. The only way to get that is to become an adjunct. So, let the exploitation continue.
I teach sociology, labor studies, and women's studies, and theoccasional urban studies course. At every institution I've worked at, I've gotten outstanding evaluations from both students and faculty. I love what I teach, and I usually love interacting with students.
And then they discard me, no explanation given.
One college I worked for for 10 years stopped hiring me after I helped organize a union for adjuncts there. I was the only person on the local's executive board, aside from the president at the time, who knew anything about how unions work.
My department chair reassigned the classes I was assigned to another adjunct in the Fall (1997) without notifying me. Because we had a union, I could file a grievance over this. I did, and I won. I was reinstated, and got back pay for one of the courses that was taken from me.
THEN, suddenly I was suspect, because the students in my classes had better grades than in the classes of any other professor - adjunct or fulltime. They concluded that I must be padding my grades. At the same time, I had a student complain about me because she felt she deserved a better grade than she got. (Her grade was a "B.") I was then instructed by that same department chair to give her a higher grade.
That union now has ineffectual leaders in it who have succeeded in making the union a laughing stock to adjuncts everywhere. The college has the lowest adjunct pay in the entire state, and they are proud of it. The current union leaders ALWAYS believe the administration when they say they don't have the money to pay adjuncts more, or provide any kind of benefits. Of course, job security doesn't cost anything, but that is NEVER an option for adjuncts.
After my one semester of reinstatement, was never rehired there again. I also lost my job at another college where I was a key player in organizing the adjunct faculty into a union. I was there for 14 years, and even taught there after giving birth during a semester without taking any time off. Suddenly one day, I wasn't needed anymore.
My current dilemma is with a college where I have taught every semester except one for the past 19 years. This semster is that one, because I was assigned two classes that actually never existed. When I asked about why that happened, I not only was treated as if I had violated some taboo by mentioning it, but the acting dean didn't even have the courtesy to apologize for the screw up. All she could say was she had nothing to do with it, so she doesn't know Why I brought it up with her. (Maybe because adjuncts have no contact person for that college??? Hmmm???)
I also have to say that I rely on this work to survive and support my family. Two of my children have passed college age, and I could not afford to send them to college. My son put himself through, and now is on merit scholarships. One dropped out, because she couldn't afford it.
A third child just started college this semester. She ranked #2 in her high school class, and decided to major in biology, so she got all sorts of merit and science scholarships paying her way through college.
I have two more children, both in high school, and, at almost age 50, I still have no savings. I just keep my fingers crossed that the last two can do well enough in school to also win merit scholarships, because I cannot afford to send one more child to college, much less twins.
I think my situation is a perfect example of what Marx meant when he used the term "alienation." I make so little money, and have zero job security, working for colleges and universities to which I can't afford to send my own children.
Oh, and did I say that even though I am only ABD (but with an earned MA), that I have a lot more direct experience in areas that my fulltime colleagues have only gotten to know about through books and articles. It irks me to see someone half my age and with no teaching experience get hired fulltime because they wrote articles about Cesar Chavez, while I worked with him for 5 years. It irks me that they get hired for writing about environmental issues that I have worked actively on with several community and national movements.
I helped make the history that my fulltime colleague have only studied - and until more people stop seeing adjunct teaching as icing on their cake, when for many of us it's our bread and butter, I don't foresee much changing for us.
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