With President Obama’s new community college initiative, which foresees the potential to offer 9 million students free tuition for two years, it surprises me that no one is talking about who is going to teach students and how they are going to be paid.
In 1975, 43% of U.S. college professors were either adjuncts, part-time, or full-time non-tenure track instructors, according to the American Association of University Professors. By 2011, these workers comprised 70% of educators. In April, The Atlantic put that number at 76.4%. Adjunct professors make a fraction of what full-time professors make despite often having the same qualifications; about $3000 per class according to a 2013 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. And no benefits. Most carry tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt. In comparison, the average salary of a full-time professor is $127,000 according to The Washington Post. Of course, the rate varies drastically depending on the subject.
As a doctoral student and a first-generation college graduate, I promised myself that I would never be an adjunct professor. I held an MA and MFA. I was a published writer, an active scholar. I had years of experience teaching a diversity of courses in literature, creative writing, women’s studies. Not to mention I was driven, ambitious, fearless, and charismatic. People like me did not adjunct although I knew many people who did and, collectively, they all shared common attributes: Many had children. Car payments. Medical bills. Mortgages. I thought they were weak because they were beholden; and they were made weaker by their choice to accept a position in life as an adjunct. I would never be like them. But after leaving a tenure-track position for personal reasons in 2012, I became an adjunct myself.
I am ashamed now to say that I have been working as an adjunct for two years. I am also ashamed to say that I am not ashamed that my opinion of adjuncts hasn’t changed. I have no respect for the way adjuncts buckle to the system and continue to propagate it by working. It sounds ridiculous—and harsh—but it’s true. As long as adjuncts take and perform effectively at jobs that pay so little and treat them so unfairly, colleges will continue to uphold the current standards of overworking and underpaying them, overcrowding classes, and underutilizing the unique skills each adjunct professor brings to a college or university. The system doesn’t work well for professors or students. But what are adjuncts doing? What are we doing? Not much. Or at least, not enough. Even fast-food and retail workers have made headway in gaining a more livable wage in some states. It’s more than what adjuncts have done.
"As long as adjuncts take and perform effectively at jobs that pay so little and treat them so unfairly, colleges will continue to uphold the current standards of overworking and underpaying them, overcrowding classes, and underutilizing the unique skills each adjunct professor brings to a college or university."
In New York I earned $7500 and no benefits for two classes at a SUNY school; and $3300 per course at a community college and a private college. After moving to Michigan, however, the rate dropped to $2200 per course at the community college. No benefits. Full time, that’s about $13 an hour. You would think people would not want these jobs, but currently all three colleges in Kalamazoo are so overstaffed with adjuncts that I am not teaching even one class this semester; seniority is the rule and enrollment is down. Instead, I am, ironically, honored to be writing a textbook for the SUNY Open Textbook Press whose mission is to provide free digital textbooks to their students to lower textbook costs. For this I will receive $3000 from a federally acquired grant. To supplement my lack of income I receive food stamps and Medicaid.
Last fall, a friend of mine taught seven courses at three different schools. The Association of Departments of English recommends English professors teaching composition should teach no more than 60 students per semester and that each class contain no more than 15 students. In my Kalamazoo classes, the number topped off closer to 30. With seven classes, that’s 210 students
I think of all the people I know who do this for a living and I wonder why. Perhaps it’s easy to be seduced by adjunct work. Teaching, you feel respected. Sharing knowledge accumulated in graduate school—11 years in my case—feels fulfilling. Encouraging students to not drop out of school, to set goals, to participate in our democracy by voting feels good. Introducing them to history. Connecting them to resources so they can safely, finally, leave an abusive partner seems worthwhile. But it is a mask.
Adjunct professors are not successful careerists. Their jobs are not stable. In reality, some students make more money at their weekend jobs than their professors do teaching them. They receive Pell grants while professors continue to defer student loans—over $100,000 in my case. If we adjuncts were honest with students, told them we qualify for food stamps, have no savings, no office, have no guarantee of work next semester we might lose their respect. Just like I’ve lost respect for myself by having to take an adjunct position in the first place.
In a profession that attracts individuals who value knowledge and education, the strength of human spirit, and who appreciate hard work, challenges, and sacrifice, it is embarrassing that adjuncts cannot unify to make change happen. Because, as a friend of mine pointed out, a professor’s personality tends to be one that prefers independence—thus the choice to pursue a higher degree and work in academia in the first place—it becomes near impossible for adjuncts to remove the mask, admit that they’ve lost, and that need each other to make change happen. But we need to.
Maybe it’s time to apply for food assistance, Medicaid, and unemployment at your state’s welfare office. Time to broaden your horizons, uproot your families, and send out applications nationally. In San Francisco and Seattle, minimum wage is rising to $15 an hour. If you’re lucky, a former student might manage a Chipotle. And if you’re really lucky, they may be hiring.