Monthly Archives: July 2014

To Adjunct or Not to Adjunct: How Long Must We Suffer the Slings and Arrows?

As summer’s end approaches and my prospects of securing full-time employment as an instructor grow increasingly dim, Hamlet’s soliloquy has been rising unbidden into my thoughts. However, rather than contemplating suicide – things are not quite that grim yet – I have instead been faced with a lesser, albeit very real, dilemma. To adjunct or not to adjunct? That is the question.

In past years, I would not have hesitated to take on as many classes as my school would offer, believing that my efforts would be recognized and that, in due course, I would be given a full-time position. In four years of teaching, I had never expressed a preference in my choice of courses, assuming that my willingness to teach any subject, any time, any where would demonstrate my indispensability to the school. I did my utmost to show that I was both a hard worker and a team player who was devoted to the goals of my institution, my colleagues, and most importantly, my students. As someone who had dropped out of a lackluster high school only to discover the redemptive power of education at the local community college, I felt uniquely qualified to teach others who had been failed by the system.

(At this point, I imagine some readers, adjuncts with many more years of experience than I, are chuckling and shaking their heads at my ignorance of the profession. Fear not; the scales are now gone from my eyes.)

Although I loved teaching, I always knew that what I was doing was hardly a sustainable career. My pay was so paltry that I easily qualified for SNAP benefits (food stamps, for those of you out there who are fortunate enough not to need them). I’ve always been frugal in my spending habits, so the low pay did not bother me much at first, assuming as I did that after a few years of apprenticing, I would be moved up to full-time, as long as my work continued to be acceptable to my superiors. At times, it was difficult to accept that I was teaching a full course load while making poverty-level wages, but again, I assumed that my diligence would be rewarded, not with riches, but simply with a comfortably middle-class job. Like all academics, I have always had big dreams for myself, but I felt that time had made my aspirations more modest and therefore, more attainable. I was proud of the work I did, even if it did require that I work for less than any job I’d had in the past.

Early on, my grasp of the academic job market was embarrassingly scant, and so, after the first few rejections for full-time employment, I assumed that the fault lay entirely with myself. Perhaps my inexperience had led me to make mistakes that demonstrated I was unready for the role of a full-time instructor; perhaps my interviewing skills were not up to par; perhaps my CV could use some polishing. After each defeat, I attempted to rectify what I thought were the reasons for my failure, always with the assumption that turning each fall into an opportunity for improvement would make my next interview a success. Like many of those who hold a degree in the humanities, I have always been a bookish introvert, so the self-promotion that interviewers require in order to gauge one’s abilities does not come easily to me. Still, I have done what I can to re-shape my persona into the confident Don Draper-esque figure that comes off well in the oak-paneled offices of college administrators, even if it may fall flat in the classroom itself, where most students, in my experience, tend to value a soft touch over the hard sell.

Over the years, though, as I began to gain a greater understanding of the politics governing higher education’s hiring practices, I slowly came to the realization that I was operating in a sort of bubble. Yes, my students may have liked me; yes, staff members may have liked me; yes, even other faculty members, including the chairs of the departments for which I taught, may have liked me. Unfortunately, none of those groups had much, if any, impact on hiring me for anything other than what I was already doing: teaching a full course load while being paid less than anyone else at the school.

There is a part of myself that urges me to be silent about my conditions. It is the hopeful part, the part that is in every adjunct’s heart, telling us year after year after year that this year, this will be our shot, this will be when all that time spent in drab Department of Human Resources offices filling out paperwork for SNAP benefits, all that time spent sending out application after application into the thankless void, all that time spent chasing professional development opportunities on our own dime, this will be when we finally make it. I am not so foolish as to believe that I am somehow more special than the countless other worthy adjuncts who are vying for fewer and fewer permanent positions each year, even if I must pretend to be so for the benefit of search committees and the like.

One of the saddest elements of the adjunctification of the academy, the increasing reliance on contingent academic labor in higher education, is that academics, who should be vociferously collaborating with one another for the betterment of society as a whole, have instead found themselves in mute but vicious competition. Without the protections of tenure and the right of academic freedom that goes along with it, adjuncts are placed in a sort of Prisoner’s Dilemma situation with one another, whereby each knows that the other could benefit if he or she merely spoke out, yet neither is willing to risk the consequences of doing so for fear that the other will choose not to act in solidarity.

As I increasingly came to identify myself as an adjunct, and thereby to identify with the problems of adjuncts everywhere, I found myself at a crossroads. As irrational as it may sound, I have come to think of the classes that I teach as “my” classes, the students as “my” students, though I know that, in the eyes of the school, I am no more than an interchangeable part. If I do not return this fall, someone else will take my place, and the endeavor will continue unabated. The machine of education will chug along just fine without me, and before long, my presence there will fade from memory. It seems like such a waste, after all these years of honing my craft, to give up on the same school that I once worked so hard to improve, even if my efforts were not given the appreciation, in the form of a living wage, that I felt they deserved.

I cannot help but feel, though, that the only way higher education will improve is by ending its addiction to the exploitation of its workers, and as long as I work as an adjunct, I am complicit not only in my own abuse, but in the abuse of education itself, which I will never cease believing in as an ideal, even if its reality is all too often marred by the demands of a corporatist, bottom-line mentality.

I won’t pretend that my way is the right way, or that it is feasible for everyone. And I won’t rule out that, should my unemployment run out before I can find gainful employment elsewhere, I won’t look into adjuncting again, assuming that I haven’t torpedoed my chances for employment with what I have written regarding the profession. Honestly, I doubt that my audience will be wide enough that I should be concerned; I suspect that much of the silence that adjuncts suffer in is unnecessary. Regardless, I feel that I can do more good – for myself, for education, and for adjuncts as a whole – on the outside than I could ever do as one more overworked, underpaid cog in the machinery.

So to all those adjuncts out there who will be resuming their work this fall, whether it be out of financial necessity, love of the profession, loyalty to one’s institution, or some combination of all three, I wish you the best, and I hope that the day will come sooner rather than later that we are all given the pay, benefits, and respect that we rightfully deserve.

And for those of you who have read this far, I encourage you to sign the following petitions, which I hope will go some way towards improving the conditions under which we all labor:

http://www.change.org/petitions/david-weil-dir-wage-and-hour-div-u-s-dept-of-labor-open-an-investigation-into-the-labor-practices-of-our-colleges-and-universities-in-the-employment-of-contingent-faculty

http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/better-pay-for-adjuncts

None of us know what the future has in store, but I will always be grateful to the advocates for adjuncts who showed me that I am not alone in this struggle. I only hope that my efforts, however slight, can help others in the same way.


Poem: Lines Written at 25 Pounds and/or 2 Years

In the hot night, we sit, and we listen

to the crickets sing, and we forget

for a while that babies left in cars

tear their hair out before expiring.

 

She tells me I must forget;

we must all forget some things

sometimes. It’s simple self-preservation,

and our baby is safe and loved.

 

I think about the father from the story.

I’m supposed to be forgetting him,

but I can’t help but remember.

How does one forget such things?

 

I remind myself to turn the carseat around;

I’ve been reminding myself for a month now.

I keep forgetting, keep remembering her

as too young to be safely seated facing forward.

 

I’ll never forget the time I once got gas

while forgetting to strap her into her seat;

she was unsafely seated facing backward,

and I, facing forward, could not see her.

 

In the baby class, we learned thousands

of ways to kill babies (so as to avoid, of course)

and we had not yet had one, so we listened,

but we later laughed. Killing babies? Ludicrous.

 

I run my fingers through my daughter’s hair,

something that did not exist two years ago.

They tear their hair out… but no, forget.

My baby is safe and loved. Remember.

 

In the story, the father is on trial. For forgetting.

Some claim malice, but most know the truth.

It’s in his eyes: one can all but see the child

trapped there, now nothing but memory.

 

She will read these words, years later,

wondering why her dad was so morbid,

immortalizing a possible infanticide.

If I’ve done my job right, she will.

 

In the hot night, I hold her tight,

her happy squeals echoing against

the cricket song, and I transcribe

something best forgotten in memoriam.

 


Developmental Ed: In My Country, There Is Problem.

As an adjunct instructor, the majority of the classes I’ve taught have been in the field of developmental education, reading and English. Before teaching these classes, I had never been exposed to developmental ed. For a long time, I thought I was in over my head, and I secretly felt bad for my students. I did my best, but I did not feel like my college experience had adequately prepared me to teach developmental students. Wouldn’t they be better served by someone who was specialized in these areas? Later, I would find out the truth: most developmental education classes across the country are taught by people like me, adjuncts with no special training or knowledge in these subjects except that which they discover on their own. After four years of teaching, it should go without saying that I’m a much better teacher now than I was when I began, but the larger issues at stake in developmental education have begun to alarm me more and more as I’ve pieced together the broader picture from a combination of my own experiences, the insights of my colleagues, and what reading I’ve done regarding the matter.

For those of you who do not know, this is the situation with developmental education, in a nutshell (and it is both complex and controversial, so if others have a different take, I completely understand and would be glad to hear your thoughts on it): community colleges require students to have “college ready” math, reading, and English skills in order to take classes that fall under the core requirements for all majors. This “college readiness” is typically assessed by a standardized test taken upon entrance to the college. Those who fail this test in any of the areas are required to take a developmental course; often, students fail in math, reading, and English and must take developmental courses in all three. There are a number of reasons why students are placed into these courses: some are high school dropouts, some are returning after years away from school, some have learning disabilities, some are merely poor test-takers. Regardless, if these students place into these courses, they must make at least a C, or else they cannot continue their college careers.

The first day I was in one of these classes – not as an instructor, but as an assistant – one student turned to another and asked, “So you’re in retard English, huh? You in retard math, too?”

And this is how many people in higher education view developmental education. Just as there is a stigma against community colleges in higher ed, there is a stigma against developmental ed: both are seen as inferior products, education for the terminally stupid.

After teaching these courses for several years, I have come to the conclusion that this line of reasoning is nothing but a self-fulfilling prophecy. The students are seen as stupid, so they are treated as if they are stupid. It is understood that they need to “catch up” to their peers in terms of English, reading, and/or math skills, but there is very little research on what effective developmental education entails. Instead, it is assumed that most will fail, so why bother giving them any additional resources, particularly when colleges are struggling simply to keep up with the demands of the “successful” students? Rather than give these students the attention that they deserve, many schools would rather give them poorly-paid adjuncts who either employ the PowerPoint, quiz, repeat method of pedagogy or simply oversee prepackaged computerized curricula that has been outsourced to a private corporation.

Maybe I am too idealistic. Maybe some students simply can’t be reached, and throwing money at the problem would be a waste of resources. However, after years of teaching developmental classes, I can’t help but feel that there can be no shortcuts when it comes to quality education. There will always be students who fail, but without dedicated teachers who have strong institutional support, their numbers will only increase, unless of course, the numbers are “juked,” which can be all too easily accomplished by unscrupulous faculty and administrators who are more concerned with looking good for their superiors than with doing what is best for students.

Is education quantifiable? Can all of education be boiled down to a set of right answers, to be memorized and regurgitated at will? I think I am in agreement with most teachers when I say that I have my doubts, but it is this belief that fuels the decisions of policymakers at every level. If something can be quantified, then it can be assessed objectively, and if it can be assessed objectively, then decisions that are made based on these objective assessments appear rational, which appeals to self-styled hard-headed fiscal conservatives who do not want to “waste” a penny on social programs that cannot clearly demonstrate their worth.

Really, the developmental education “crisis” is merely one facet of the larger education crisis that exists today. Public funding for higher education is becoming harder and harder to come by, even as the idea of an undergraduate degree being the new high school diploma has become conventional wisdom. I guess everyone who enters a field is bound to become disillusioned at some point, and the field of education is no different. Still, when one is among the ranks of adjuncts who are being paid next to nothing to teach people that much of higher education, and society as a whole, has given up on, it can be difficult to not simply give up oneself. I understand the temptation to give up; last semester, after being denied the opportunity to teach full-time, it was a struggle simply to go to class each day, much less to do more than just go through the motions with my students, to try to instill in them the same passion for learning that I have always had, whether in school or on my own.

I know I must sound ridiculous at times, and the false earnestness that comes so easily out of the mouths of people who have learned to use it to their advantage has made us all distrustful of the motives of anyone who professes to have any ideals beyond pure self-interest. I can’t help it, though; maybe it’s the small town in me, but I’ve always been idealistic to a fault. I’ve always had a “change-the-world” mentality, and even though my horizons have grown a bit more realistic as I’ve gotten older, I’ve never truly lost it. I think we all need to see the bigger picture, even if our contributions can’t help but be minor in scope.

So I plan on continuing to think big while acting small: a few students inspired here, a few articles published there… it isn’t much, but it doesn’t have to be. Every good that we put into the world helps to negate the bad that others do, and that we do ourselves. Developmental education, and higher education in general, looks for all the world like it is on the path to destruction, but all it will take is a few people here and there who are willing to push for improvements as hard as they can, and who knows? The day may come within my lifetime when I suddenly realize that the apocalypse that everyone dreaded never arrived, but instead we muddled through it to some semblance of a victory, one that may not have been as pretty and decisive as we may have liked, but one that came nonetheless.

There’s a part in Catcher in the Rye where this quote by Wilhelm Stekel is related to Holden Caulfield: “The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.” Like a lot of things that one reads when one is younger, I understood the words but did not fully grasp the sentiment. A decade down the road, I think it may be starting to sink in.


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