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February 2014

The problem of allies: lead, follow, or get out of the way

Bite Me heartSo yesterday, on Facebook, I posted this synopsis of my proverbial (Thanks, Alex Kudera!) long day without much comment:

Here's my day as a adjunct today; it's not typical but it's not unusual, either:
9-10:30--commute to York College, Queens
10:30-12--office hours (paid), class prep
1:50-3:30--commute to New Jersey
3:30-5--union executive committee meeting (paid; which I'll be a half hour or so late for)
5:00-6:00--commute to Manhattan
6:00-8:00--mandatory (paid) faculty meeting
8:00-9:30--commute home

I do this periodically to make my life as an adjunct instructor visible to people that it's usually invisible to, and who should know about it because my working conditions affect them: students, parents, the general public. Later, two good friends, people I love dearly, both tenured full professors, asked me the equally proverbial "why do I do it?" question. My pissy response after that long day was this:

Why do I do it? Why do you do the work you do? Why do you teach in China for $3,000? Why did you take the job as assessment officer? Why did you keep going back to academe when it was so hard to get a job? Why do anything worth doing? I and other adjuncts get tired of answering that question. We do it because the job is worth doing and because we want to see others paid what we're worth. Nothing changes if the only response is to leave and let it be someone else's problem. That's what full time faculty have done for the last 30 years. That's how we got in this mess. That's not a question an ally asks. The real question is why I should have to do this when you don't.

I'm pretty sure I hurt some feelings with this response, but as an activist-educator, I can't pass up the chance to use this as an object lesson to allies. I've confronted this question before in real life and in a performance piece I wrote. It comes up all the time in the adjunct world and it's one of the weapons used against us by management/administration and the entrenched privileged. "Why do you keep letting yourself be exploited? Why don't you just get another job?" My friends asked me this out of concern for my health both physical and financial, and I love them for that, but as academics I wish they were also more my allies in this struggle. Because their words make it harder, not easier, to keep doing what I'm doing.

One of the first lessons I learned as a baby feminist in the 70s was the slogan "The personal is political." The conditions of my life as an adjunct and as a union activist really can't be separated from my personal life. Those conditions are my personal life. Teaching is as much a part of my identity as being a writer or a feminist is. Like my tenured colleagues, I sank a lot of time, money, and effort (though not as much as they) into becoming an educator. Whenever I could (i.e, whenever I could afford it), I kept coming back to it because it felt like vital work, and because it was soul-filling and not soul-sucking like the far more lucrative job of writing advertising copy was. I want a return on my educational investment that makes me feel like I'm doing something worthwhile, not perpetuating a sick, exploitative system. Because even while I'm signing those sick, exploitative contracts, I'm subverting that system every time I walk into a classroom and open my mouth.

Asking me why I keep doing what I do isn't the same as asking how I keep doing it, or commiserating with my exploitation. Because when that question is personal, it places the responsibility back on me rather than on the system that exploits me, with the subtext that I could walk away if I wanted to. That's why that question pisses adjuncts off: because nobody asks why Tenured and Tenure-Track profs don't walk away when they don't get raises or are denied tenure or when administration exploits them by squeezing more administrative work out of them for the same money. Somehow, tenure has not only given academics security, but a right to love their jobs that adjunct and contingent faculty often don't seem to have (more on this in a later post). (And please don't say this in response. Please. Just don't.)

Phrased another way, "why do you do it?" reads as "why don't you get another job?" But an ally asks, "what can I do to help change this system that exploits you?" Or, if you're a local ally, "how can I support you, personally, if not professionally, in making this better?" And why should I be supported? Yes, this is a choice I made, and continue to make every time I sign an exploitative teaching contract, but it's no different from the choices that people working for justice everywhere make, whether it's working for Greenpeace, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, or some other activist NGO, or on a political campaign. People who work in the non-profit world don't often make a lot of money. Many of them go into dangerous situations to do what they do, and risk death, imprisonment, or torture to help others. Do I really need to remind anyone what civil rights marchers, anti-war protestors, or even the Occupiers of Zucotti Park faced? Social change does not happen without risk and sacrifice. Continuing to work as an adjunct and as an activist at the same time is my risk and my sacrifice.

I'm not trying to sound all noble here; my risk is relatively low by comparision, and mostly economic. But it's precisely because I don't have dependents and haven't sunk all my apples into a Ph.D. basket that I feel I need to be one of the people in this fight. Many of my adjunct activist colleagues are single parents with kids to support and massive student debt, or people who don't have a partner (like me) to support them, or people whose partners don't make a lot of money either. My personal risk is pretty low, so I need to take a stand in this fight. It doesn't cost me much except personal security and time, and I've always lived on the economic edge, mostly by choice, though also because of the same wage exploitation that we're all suffering from.

Which brings up another point: how interconnected this fight is with economic justice for the dying middle class, of which my colleagues are a part, and the increasing numbers of working poor. Many of my colleagues from grad school teach at institutions that serve the working poor and have watched their school's tuition go up and up and up until it is crippling and as unobtainable as an Ivy League school. Student debt load is killing our economy and crippling a generation of students. Administration ties that debt to poor adjunct salaries, as in, "if we pay you a living wage, we'll have to raise tuition." If we don't expose this lie, we're doing our students and our society a grave disservice. And we're falling down on the job as educators. We are, instead, modelling economic and intellectual poverty and complacency for our students, instead of enaging with the political and economic realities of the world around us.*

This is why I do it: Because I can. Because I must. With or without your support.


*Oh, by the way, Nicholas Kristof: you want engaged academics? Come meet my adjunct activist friends.

Thinking about the UIC Strike

BadGirl Moi @workRight now, professors and adjunct professors at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) are on strike to (among other things) protest the lack of a contract they've been trying to negotiate for more than a year with the administration. There was a time when higher education didn't need unions and when professors largely took care of the internal governance themselves, so the necessity of strikes was small. Now, everything has changed because universities and colleges are increasingly being run on a business model. But that model, clunky as it is elsewhere is a particularly bad fit for education institutions.

Why does our society only have a worker/manager dichotomy to describe how we make a living? It clearly doesn't apply to all the ways we work. Part of the problem with organizing the work of universities is that the law sees professors as managers. Who are we managing? Students? They're not workers; they're "consumers." Each other? Then how can we be managers? Oh, wait; that leaves the *adjuncts.* They don't manage anything and all they do is work. But what do the administration do? Aren't they managers? What are they managing? They're not managing the professors because we manage each other. They're not managing students because students are consumers. Oh wait: that leaves the *adjuncts.* No wonder administration wants more adjuncts. It makes the worker/manager delineation clearer for them.

Fund or RefundAnd this is why a business model for education does not work. Education is a co-op. There is no owner of an educational "company" at a university. We see how poorly for-profit schools where there is an owner do the job. Boards of trustees exist to insure not just the financial health of the institution, but its ability to carry out its mission. Administration is not "in the business" of providing education, because education is not a service or a product. It's a cooperative endeavor between student and teacher with a largely intangible, unmeasurable result: the creation of knowledge. You can't "sell" that. You can only acquire it through personal investment of time and skullsweat, while others help you develop it and nurture it. When you pay teachers, you are supporting them in "work" that's intangible and unmeasurable, but which has a social value beyond any product and which forms the basis of all other tangible products. Starve teachers and you starve the nation and its economy. Fail to support teachers, whether K-12 or higher ed, adequately, and you do the same.

The 1:1 Fallacy of Contact Hours

Bad capitalistThe 1:1 Fallacy—the notion that professors work one hour for every hour of class that they teach—is a useful but pernicious lie promulgated by college administrators as a way of calculating the hours of work performed by adjunct professors to determine their eligibility for healthcare benefits. Most adjuncts are still, nonetheless, paid not by actual hours worked, but only for "credit hours" or time spent in the classroom. But here's what an adjunct professor's weekly work schedule really looks like: six courses at three different schools.

School No. 1: Unionized university with traditional-age students, where I teach Composition I and II (two three-credit and one one-credit lab, for a total of 7 credits at $1200/credit = $8400/semester; max credits: 8). I love teaching college freshman, and this group is really fun. I like this school a lot, for many reasons, not the least of which is the pay. But the commute from where I live in the Bronx is two hours: subway to bus to commuter rail to taxi or another bus. Parking is not free, so driving is not necessarily faster and not cheaper.

School No. 2: Unionized college prep program affiliated with a multi-college city university system. Students are a mix of traditional-age and returning (older adult). The course is college prep remedial writing/reading preparing them for entrance exams. ($64.84/classroom hour; 7.00 hours/week = $8171.10/semester; generally only offers adjuncts courses in the fall semester, due to enrollment). This is my least favorite gig, not because of the students, but because of the schedule. It's two separate courses broken into 9 weeks, instead of the traditional 18 weeks. Fairly quick commute via two subways: only 45 minutes door to door.

School No. 3: Satellite campus of an non-unionized Catholic college located in a low-income neighborhood. The school offers GEDs with a bachelor's degree. Students range from traditional age to older adults (some in their 60s) from low-income backgrounds. Courses I teach range from a writing lab to basic writing and research papers to mid-level literature courses with a strong writing component. ($448.75/credit x 4 credits per mid-level class = $1795/semester plus one nine-week zero credit lab at $1200) This is my favorite group of students. Nobody works harder or has more hurdles to get over than this group. Many of them fail badly the first time out, often because their lives are so complicated and there is little to no academic support for them, but they keep coming back until they get it right. I admire them immensely and they've taught me as much as I've taught them. Commute is 45 door to door by bus.

Fall Semester total: $17,806.90 for six courses at three separate schools. That's a "good" semester monetarily, a "bad" one pedagogically: six classes, six separate preps, a minimum of 40-80 papers of varying length to grade each week.

DAYS 1 & 3

6:30 AM-8:30 AM (off the clock)

Stumble out of bed, wash, dress, make tea in my travel mug, and be out the door by 7:00 to catch the subway to the crosstown bus to the PATH train to a taxi or another bus to campus. Check my smart phone for student emails and texts about emergency issues when I'm above-ground. Text or email back. Sometimes it's "I'm going to be late" notices; sometimes it's "where are we meeting?" or "Do we have class?" if the the weather is bad. Sometimes I don't know before I leave home whether the campus is closed or not; some schools don't bother to notify adjuncts. Not every school has an alert system that will text or email you when school closes, either. Sometimes, even in the worst weather, it's still open, though students inevitably have the common sense not to come to class, even though their professors are required to. Tenured professors have the luxury of cancelling classes; adjunct professors don't.

8:30-9:00 AM (off the clock)

Arrive at School No. 1 and print and copy any last-minute handouts I need. I like to do this at least one class ahead of time usually, because I never know if I'm going to get hung up in traffic. And it's great that School No. 1 has a department that allows me access to a copier and computer. That's not true at all the schools at which I teach. Guess what? The schools that offer me access to a copier and printer are the schools where I print everything I need, including materials for schools that don't offer me that direct access. So the "generous" schools are subsidizing the cheap schools in the form of office supplies.

9:00-10:50 (on the clock)

Teach Composition I/Composition I and Writing Lab. Every class I teach includes 15 minutes of in-class writing on a topic I propose, unless we're having a workshop day where students read and comment on each other's work. On discussion days, they start with writing that has something to do with what they've been reading, and that we'll discuss in class. That's in addition to the 5-7 page papers they write every couple of weeks.

10:50- 2:00 (off the clock)

Office hours during which students may or may not drop by, and during which I do class prep: making handouts, reading, answering emails, reading and responding to student blog posts (another class requirement), keeping up with current events for their use in classroom discussion, and oh, yeah, grabbing lunch, somewhere in there. I actually have an office here, and a rather nice one, but not all of my colleagues in other departments do. I share it with three other people whose schedules occasionally overlap, but there are other computers we can use in the department common spaces for when that happens. It sometimes makes scheduling student conferences sticky though. Oh, and none of us have keys for either the office or filing cabinets, so I can't leave my laptop or anything else valuable in there. Like most adjuncts, I carry around pounds of books and computer equipment. And lately, someone has been stealing our sample textbooks to sell to students or back to the publishing company. By the bagful, literally. My totebag full.

2:00-2:50 or 3:50 (on the clock)

Teach  Composition II. Same course pattern, different texts, literature this time, instead of non-fiction.

3:00-4:30 (off the clock)

Commuting to my next job, during which I read, either for fun or profit or check my smart phone for student communications. Thank God for e-readers and smart phones. Of course, I can't get the school email program to forward messages to my smartphone, so that complicates matters too, especially when a college insists I use only their email address and not my personal one. That means I'm on the computer late at night or early in the morning when I'm home.

4:30-6:00 (off the clock)

Arrive at School No. 2, where I have a cubicle with a computer, and access to a very cranky photocopier. Still no place to leave anything valuable, including my coat and purse, though there is an overhead bin to store books and papers in. On my short day, when I leave School No. 1 at 2 instead of 3, I have office hours (compensated) for School No. 2. Those students do drop by and they need a lot of help. They also email or text me a lot more. I try to have all of my copying for this class done ahead of time too, because there are usually two or three people ahead of me at the copier. The office staff are great about getting things copied if I get it in ahead of time though.

6:00-9:20  PM (on the clock)

Teach College Prep English. This is a combined reading and writing course, because, of course, you can't teach one without the other. I used to do both integrated, but now there are two people teaching this course because it recently changed from nine hours/week to ten hours/week and nine is the maximum adjuncts can teach at this school. So now, instead of nine hours, I get a little over six each semester, which means a net loss in pay, though the amount of work isn't much less. It also, I'm pretty sure, discombobulates the students pedagogically to have these two related and intertwined aspects of the course taught separately by a different instructor.

9:30-10:15 PM (off the clock)

Commute home.

10:15 PM-1:00 AM (off the clock)

Eat. Unwind. Crash.

Moi-Nomore adjuct wage theft-lowGross pay for day: $493.62 for what looks like seven hours of work. That's about $70/hour, if you don't include my four hours of office hours and prep. Add that and it takes my base pay down to $44.87/hour for my 11-hour workday. Tack on another almost four hours of uncompensated commuting time that costs me $25/day. We haven't even gotten to the grading papers part yet.

Days 2 & 4

10:00-12:00 (off the clock)

Stagger out of bed grateful for eight hours of sleep. Make tea, sit down to read emails and fend off disasters. Catch up on the news. Save a few articles for future use. Eat a little breakfast at the computer.

12:00-5:00 (off the clock)

Grade papers from classes at all three schools, do a little class prep for tonight's lit course at School No. 3. At midterms, fill out a ridiculous amount of paperwork for student evaluations. By hand. In triplicate. This school has no online grading system, a demanding recording keeping policy, rubrics, and dictatorial syllabi. I don't choose either my books or the way I construct my course here. I confess I cheat a bit. I make the papers longer but fewer. The syllabus also dictates an inordinate amount of written homework which I must read and grade, on top of the 5-7 page papers and the 10-15 page research paper. This class meets once a week for 3.5 hours for 18 weeks. The lab on Day 4 meets once a week for 2.5 hours for nine weeks, but has little prep and just a final portfolio review orgy. Somewhere in here I will grab lunch and/or dinner.

6:00-6:45 (off the clock)

Grab bus to School No. 3

6:45-7:30 (off the clock)

Office hours, which I am contractually bound to have, even though I don't have an office here. There isn't even a teachers' lounge. Usually I just hang out outside "my" classroom and wait for my students to find me. I'm also not compensated for this time. It's included in the fee I'm paid for the course.

7:30-10:00/6:00-8:30 (on the clock)

Teach the lit class or lab. I teach these classes without a break so we can all go home a little earlier than the schedule, and because it takes us too long to get started again if I give us a break. Everyone takes a bathroom break but me, which is fine, because the bathrooms in this school are like "The Worst Washroom in Edinburgh" from Trainspotting. Students are supposedly not allowed to eat during class because the custodial staff doesn't like cleaning up after them. I say screw that, especially since many of them are coming from work. Hungry students can't think. And I know the custodial staff isn't spending all their time keeping the bathrooms clean and in repair. They also tend to hustle us out of class if we stay until 10:00 so they can go home early too.

8:30/10:00 (off the clock)

Take the bus home.

9:15/10:45-midnight (off the clock)

Crash and burn.

Days 5, 6 & 7 (off the clock)

Get up late, do some errands, grade some papers. Field emails and resolve disasters. There are always papers to be graded. Always. At least two hours a day are spent grading papers, even on the days I'm not teaching. That's because two days a week are sixteen-hour days where I get no grading done. Papers take anywhere from ten minutes each for short homework to 40 minutes for longer papers to read, mark, and write comments on. 50 papers x 40 minutes = 2000 minutes or about 34 hours a week, just grading. Just grading.

School No. 1 gets 7 hours/week teaching time.

School No. 2 gets 7 hours/week teaching time + ½ hour of office hours.

School No. 3 gets 6 hours/week teaching time.

20 hours of teaching time + 34 hours grading papers + 12 hours prep and admin. = 66 hours/week

That's about $15.00 an hour.

By comparison, when I worked part-time for a large environmental consulting firm, I worked 25 hours a week and made $34.00/hour, or about $48,000/year gross. Teaching, I'm lucky if I gross $32,000/year, with extra freelance work over the summer.

Fifteen dollars an hour for someone with an advanced degree. And it seems pretty clear that I spend more hours working outside the classroom than inside, by an almost 2:1 ratio. But the benefits package must be great, you say. You have unions in two of those schools. But I'm part-time in all of them, which means I have no health care, and a pittance of retirement benefits from one school. And remember, this is a "good" semester financially. Most semesters I teach two or four classes at most. That's probably just as well, because nine months of this schedule at my age would probably kill me.

Another Adjunct Story

Depressed MoiI've been teaching as a regular career again for about five years now, occasionally supplemented by freelance work, and been an activist and vocal shit-stirrer on behalf of adjunct faculty for about two years, beginning when I joined the union at New Jersey City University. In some ways, I'm not the typical adjunct story: I've worked in industry and made a good living, even working part time; I have a Master's degree (an MA, not a terminal MFA) not a Ph.D., which means that I'll probably never get any kind of tenure; I like teaching the general ed courses of composition and intro to lit and could settle down there happily. What gives me common cause with my Ph.D.-bearing sisters and brothers is the shit pay we get for the jobs we do, and the lousy working conditions that affect not just us, but our students. But before this, I've never really felt like I had a personal reason to complain, beyond that. I didn't have a dramatic story of deprivation. 

Until my landlady decided to sell the condo I'm renting from her. Now I have a story.

I moved in here ten years ago when I was working part-time as a marketer for an environmental consulting company doing booming business. I didn't have benefits, but I took home $48,000/year and was vested in the company pension plan. I travelled a bit, bought some nice furniture, made a nice home for myself. That all changed, as it did for many people, around 2008, which is when I got downsized and started teaching again. My savings dwindled because I was making about half of what I had been, and my previously non-existent credit card debt shot up. And I don't mean it shot up because I was buying stuff I didn't need. It shot up because I was buying food and paying for medical care, which starts to happen more frequently when you're staring down or staring at the back side of 50. But even with my credit cards, I'm in less debt than most people. I live pretty frugally. I don't have dependents (aside from my elderly and temperamental cat, but that's another story). I don't even want a lot of things anymore. My major purchases now are books and cheap stuff to make art with, and the occasional train ticket to Maine. My credit card debt is my only debt (no house, no car, no education debts), but I can't get out from under it because of how little I make, and I keep racking it up, also because of how little I make and the precarious nature of the work I do.

But now that my landlady is selling, I don't have the money for a new lease (first and last month's rent, security deposit, broker's fee) saved up, or money for movers. Fortunately, my landlady is also a good friend and she and her wife are helping me out with fees and such, and other friends are loaning me money for moving expenses, because at 53, I'm too damn old to do UHaul. If it weren't for my friends and landlady, I would probably be SOL and have to sell or store everything I own and move to a tiny, shitty studio.

This is a story that a lot of people can tell you, about the slide down the financial ladder from the middle class. I was never very far up that ladder to begin with, which was fine, but when you're not, the bottom is a lot closer, and lot easier to get to, and my education was supposed to be what kept me off the bottom. But now, in our free-market world that rewards greed as "hard work," my hard work and education, and the hard work and education of millions of others, goes unrewarded, and in the case of students and especially those who go for advanced degrees, it's now punished with enormous amounts of debt.

I was lucky to escape that bit, but I'm being screwed, like so many others, by the new mantra that the business world has made sacred: profit at all costs. And that profit is not to the people who do the actual work. It's profit for people who already had money to invest in other people's work. It's profit made on the backs of all kinds of working people, from Wal-Mart's obscene billions subsidized by government aid to its workers who live on subsistence wages, to trained freelancers bilked of wages or made to wait months for payments and having to fund their own retirement and healthcare, to highly educated college professors whose wages are stolen from us by the lie that we only work in the classroom, and by a low value on that.

There's a rather naive tendency in this country to tell people like me to just shut up and get another job, without realizing that many of us have sunk years of our lives into educations to do this job. It's not like we all graduated at 22 and went out into the work world. Our training goes on far longer than in most professions and our careers don't even get started, if we go straight through with no breaks to raise more money, until we are in our early 30s. Many of us, like my friend Rob who just got tenure for the first time at the age of 50 didn't start our teaching careers fully until we were into our 40s, because of the prevalence of contingent labor like me. That contingent labor exists, not because there's a plethora of cheap labor as the freemarketers would have you believe, but because there is a dearth of funding for the full-time jobs that should sustain the educational enterprise.

Where's that funding going? Part of the problem is lack of funding from the government for education, except when it comes to profitable student loans. But a good deal of tuition, which has been rising faster than inflation, goes to administration salaries (some of them exorbitant), luxury campus buildings, and high-tech teaching tools which are often invested in with the final goal of replacing those pesky human teachers. And it goes into the pockets of trustees who are turning our universities into job training camps for their industries, and saving them the cost of having to train their workforce, and who sell the universities buildings and tech they don't need.

I'm not talking about fairness here. I know life isn't fair; but neither does it need to be nasty, brutish and short anymore. I'm talking about morals and ethics and the kind of civilization we want to be living in and building. Or perhaps I am talking about a particular kind of fairness. Educators and working people are not asking for excessive amounts of money. We're asking to be compensated fairly for the work we do. "Fairly" in this case, means a sustainable, living wage for everyone, so that no one requires a government subsidy unless something catastrophic happens. My fellow educators and I have invested a great deal of money and time in making sure we are equipped to do one of the most vital jobs of civilization, especially a democratic society: not job training, but the education of citizens and the collaborative creation of new knowledge that drives advances in technology, medicine, law, and the other engines of a civilized world. Business and money alone do not create civilization, clearly. But well-educated citizens do.

What this means for me, personally, is to have some job security, a regular paycheck for more than 8 months of the year, to make wages on par with my full-time colleagues, to be able to participate in the educational community of the university I work for, to buy books without counting pennies, to be able to move without borrowing money from friends who work in the business world, to be the best educator and person I can be with the skills that I have. I would like the "luxury" (and it has become a luxury now) of being able to contribute to the future well-being of my society by educating young minds without going into debt I can never repay, relying on a government handout, or living with the threat of homelessness.

If that seems like whining, you're probably one of the barbarians at the gate.