'Nuff Said . . .
Isn't Education Compulsory?

And While We're At It

AdjunctsbigFound this over on the Northland Poster Collective, while I was looking for that Sarah Palin button. It's a little hard to see, but I've put a smaller version in my sidebar and wanted to explain it here. It's a poster of adjunct faculty, like me; the one on the left is holding a sign that says "will teach 4 food" and the guy in the middle is holding one that says "Adjunct Faculty--Please Help." The third one is selling pencils for a nickel.

What's this about? It's about the fact that in the corporate model of education, many introductory level courses are taught by non-tenured faculty with no benefits, who are paid approximately $20-$40 and hour for each hour of class they teach. That works out to around $2,000, per course, if you're lucky. This completely discounts any hours they spend preparing for class, grading papers, or holding whatever minimal office hours they may hold. Most don't hold office hours at all because, well, they don't have an office, not even a shared one. Most don't have health insurance and most only have a job from semester to semester, often at two or three different places. It's a little like being an itinerant farm worker, only the labor is not literally backbreaking and nobody sprays us with pesticides (at least not yet).

The other difference is that most adjuncts have an enormous debt load to pay off from getting the education that qualifies them to be higher education teachers. Higher ed wages for professors are dismal anyway, considering the investment it takes, but adjuncts have very little hope of ever paying back their student loans on these wages, unless they teach 4 or 5 classes a semester. Since most schools will hire adjuncts only for a limited number of classes, usually no more than two, that means teaching in two to three different schools. In some place like New York, where colleges are thick on the ground, this isn't so horrible, though it is inconvenient. In rural or suburban areas, it's often impossible or so costly in terms of time and transportation that it doesn't pay.

So why do they do it? Why do we do it, because I'm one of them? Most of us do it because we love to teach and hope that if we stick it out long enough it will eventually lead to a full-time faculty job. Most of us are waiting for that tenure track pie in the sky. A lot of us, though—people like me with just Master's degrees—do it because we love it. We love our students, we love our subject, we believe in the importance of education, in the right of every person to have it, and we put up with the unlivable wages and crappy hours, the administrative disrespect, the lack of resources or support, because that time in the classroom is golden. We love it because it makes us feel like we're giving something back. And we do it because it's important. Because our students feed us, too.

The trouble is, corporate education is starving not just us, but our students, too. By not providing their adjuncts with a living wage, they force us into taking whatever we can get, into going from school to school like the gypsy scholars we've been called, without an opportunity to give our students continuity or access to us beyond the classroom. Learning doesn't just happen in the classroom. It happens during office hours, during casual conversations in the hall, over coffee in the student lounge. It happens in a community. And adjuncts are, by and large, locked out of that community. We show up, we give our spiel in the classroom, we go home to grade papers and prepare the next lesson. There's often not even a mailbox where our students can leave us late papers or notes, or a phone where they can leave us voice mail, unless it's our home number. We communicate with them, if we do at all, in person in that short time we're on campus, or by email.

This is worse, in many ways, than having TAs (another exploited group) teach class. TAs, at least, are already part of the community as students themselves. They receive guidance in their teaching and they're available to their students. Not adjuncts. We're ephemeral, elusive, and ultimately, disposable.

Now, if you're wondering where all that tuition money is going, I can assure you it's not to faculty salaries, and often not even to hiring replacement, tenured faculty. But as another tenured colleague of mine pointed out, there's always plenty of money for those fancy administration offices.


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