The Starving Educator

With universities following the lead of private businesses in “cutting costs” at the expense of workers, college professors — once among the most respectable and well-paying careers — are quickly becoming among the poorest workers in the country. A growing cohort of instructors — already around half — are adjuncts or “contingent faculty”, lacking job security and decent pay yet otherwise doing all the work of a typical full-time professor. Shockingly, at least a quarter of all higher-ed instructors are on some sort of public aid, such as food stamps. The Atlantic has more on this disquieting development:

Adjunct professors earn a median of $2,700 for a semester-long class, according to a survey of thousands of part-time faculty members. In 2013, NPR reported that the average annual pay for adjuncts is between $20,000 and $25,000, while a March 2015 survey conducted by Pacific Standard among nearly 500 adjuncts found that a majority earn less than $20,000 per year from teaching. Some live on less than that and supplement their income with public assistance: A recent report from UC Berkeley found that nearly a quarter of all adjunct professors receive public assistance, such as Medicaid or food stamps. Indeed, many adjuncts earn less than the federal minimum wage. Unless they work 30 hours or more at one college, they’re not eligible for health insurance from that employer, and like other part-time employees, they do not qualify for other benefits.

A year ago, The Atlantic reported on the poor working conditions faced by adjuncts—who, depending on the needs of the school, are often hired a month before the semester begins—beyond their low salaries. To make ends meet, they may teach courses at multiple colleges; they could teach Milton in the morning on one campus and Shakespeare in the afternoon on another. Moreover, according to the analysis, adjuncts are typically excluded from administrative and departmental meetings, meaning they might not be familiar with school policies or other faculty members. On top of instruction, the article explained, they often have to maintain a research agenda and hunt for jobs at faraway conferences without financial support for the trip from a university.

Over the years, the number of tenured professors has dropped while that of adjunct professors has risen, as colleges attempt to rein in costs. Public colleges in particular rely on adjuncts.

Aside from the obvious injustice that comes with exploiting these workers, such a trend is also having consequences for secondary education, which is already fraught with issues of cost.

[S]ome suggest that many adjuncts are unable to provide students with the same quality instruction as do tenured faculty. Judy Olson, a longtime part-time professor who currently works as an adjunct at California State University, Los Angeles, acknowledged that her financial concerns sometimes detract time from lesson planning. She cited other adjuncts who she said are unable to maintain independent research that could otherwise enrich classroom discussions. When administrators hire adjuncts only days before the class begins, she added, they can’t properly prepare syllabi and order books.

Adjuncts readily admit they cannot support students outside the classroom, such as when students need extra help understanding an assignment, general college advisement, or a letter of recommendation for a graduate program. And even if they had the time to provide these services, many colleges don’t provide their adjuncts with office space, so they meet with their pupils in coffee shops or at library desks. Olson for her part said that in the past she’s had to meet with students by the trunk of her car, where she kept all her books and papers as she commuted between different college campuses. Without formal meeting spaces, students may find it difficult to locate their professors when they need assistance on their classwork.

Meeting space aside, adjuncts often report that they simply cannot answer common questions from the students about the requirements for the major, course sequencing, or related classes at the college; to get this information, students instead have to track down tenured faculty on campus. Same with letters of recommendation for admission to graduate programs or post-college jobs: Some adjunct professors may not be willing to write them because they aren’t paid for the time, or students may find it difficult to locate former teachers who are no longer employed at that college. Even if they are willing, colleges might not provide adjuncts with institutional letterhead for the recommendations.

As the article goes on to note, many students and parents, not to mention the wider public, are unaware of this pressing issue. Indeed, universities make a point not to distinguish between these two very different professorial tiers. Many students are being taught by someone as impoverished as the typical fast-food or retail associate (whose plights are comparatively better known). It is shameful how little universities and governments are doing to correct this problem, instead shifting all the costs to non-faculty staff (e.g. overpaid managers and administrators of dubious necessity).

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