Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Adjunct Breakdown Blues

There's a spectre haunting academia known as adjunct nation.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education adjuncts account for roughly 70% of teachers in higher education (including me).  Many outside the confines of academia are ignorant of what being an adjunct instructor actually entails. In a word, adjuncts are part-time instructors at a university or community college (also including those cesspools of exploitation known as "for profit colleges"). Usually a Masters degree is a minimum requirement to teach, but many PhD's must resort to part-time work due to the lack of tenure track positions available to them.  

Part-timers receive virtually no benefits. Teaching loads vary by semester and long-term contracts are rare.  Low enrollments for a section can lead to its cancellation which translates to less income than expected. Therefore, one must work at more than one institution and contend with crazy schedules while navigating grueling commutes. No summer vacations either (in fact no vacations period) because you need summer classes to pay the bills. Tenure is beyond the realm of possibility. 

The "publish or perish" rule proves pivotal in hiring full time instructors, but most adjuncts simply don't have the time to pursue research.  As a rule, universities don't fund travel expenses for adjuncts so they can attend conferences.

In recent years, there's been a growing outcry against the absurd burdens placed on adjuncts.  This past fall the death of 83 year old adjunct Margaret Mary Vojtko at Duquesne University became a cause celebre when her story went viralVojtko, a longtime adjunct at Duquesne, lacked health insurance to pay for her cancer treatment while the university cut her course load considering her "ineffective."  While her story is more complex than meets the eye as reported in Slate; it is a more than likely fate for career adjuncts who will never get retirement benefits.  Generally, college administrators and tenured professors respond with no more than a shrug of the shoulders when it comes to the plight of the teaching underclass

Most students are clueless about higher education's growing reliance on adjuncts. They seem to think all college instructors are full professors with all the benefits.  At community colleges, adjuncts are not provided office space to meet with students. With tuition on the rise everywhere, students deserve teachers who can see them outside of class- especially at a community college where they often need extra help.

To add further insult to injury, at the end of every semester, adjuncts are subjected to student evaluations.  Those can determine future pay and employment. I recall one administrator condescendingly going over an evaluation with me and said the students always know best as he treated me more like a product than a human being. I can understand the need to evaluate full time instructors, but many adjuncts live and die by them.  I've known some who must grade inflate to keep their jobs.  Students should have the right to critique their teachers, but it's unfair to force low paid educators to deal with the administration and the students with no support.  Teachers are not a consumer item. Students are not clients.

At 34, I see no future whatsoever in continuing on as cheap labor for the corporate ethos taking over universities.  I do not have a PhD nor do I have a desire to get one, although I once had the ambition.  A PhD will only slightly improve the chances of getting a full time job after at least five years of intense study. Sometimes I feel trapped.  The only option remaining is to get out.

I enjoy working with students who are willing to learn, but the outright scorn many of them have for the humanities and books can be maddening and discouraging (certainly not all students display this attitude, but it's there nonetheless).

Over the past few years I've come across many eloquent obituaries lamenting the end of the humanities.  And there's enough blame to go around.  Most literature professors only teach theory and consider literary criticism a relic of the 20th century. Meanwhile, the left blames the crude anti-intellectualism of the right (I have no argument on that account).

Roger Ebert in one of his final columns pointed to the careerist mindset of 21st century undergrads as a cause for the end of vibrant literary culture on campuses.  He had a point there. Recently a student snidely remarked to me "I thought only bored housewives majored in English these days." Reading Roth or Updike or Borges or Sontag in a coffee shop has lost its sexy aura.  Anyway, an I-phone looks way cooler than a beat up copy of Rabbit, Run.

Ebert recalled the excitement of not just studying, but living and breathing literature as a way of life during his undergraduate days at the University of Illinois in the 1960s.  He remembered carrying a briefcase full of New Yorkers, Playboys (for the articles of course), the short stories of Katherine Ann Porter and John Cheever, and maybe even a few Marvel comics. Writers were not famous for just being famous; they actually had something to say.  They challenged their readers.

In school, I was always told a college education guaranteed a good career.  Unfortunately, in my experience, and for many others, the claim amounts to a big lie.  The 21st century economy hums on like a dangerous machine devouring everything in its way. 

I believe in the idea of America and consider myself patriotic, but am deeply troubled at the unforgiving rancor coming from everywhere of the political spectrum these days.  Our culture places a premium on making money and end results. If you fail to meet those standards society considers you a failure.  Nothing new there of course. Just getting worse.