I'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.