Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Contract Teacher / Adjunct Life

"Who Teaches University Students? Contract teachers" by Craig McFarlane

A couple weeks ago I ran across this article from The Globe and Mail, and while it is written by a Canadian adjunct, it is not unrelated to concerns of American temporary faculty.  I did mean to write about it right away, but then I had three jobs to apply for and kind of got sidetracked.  This, too, is part of the adjunct lifestyle:  even though I have theoretically landed work at two schools for this fall, I never stop looking.  I never am set.  None of the jobs that I have are guaranteed to be there next year, and one of them is so far only for this coming fall.  I still hope and still peruse the sites for permanent jobs in my area of specialty.  Heck, I don't even care if they're tenure-track, but just permanent.  Something that I can plan my life around more than a nine-month academic year at a time!  Three jobs came up in the search and I applied for all three.  Are they in places I would like to live?  I'm not sure.  I experienced the usual rollercoaster of excitement at finding a posting followed by the dread of "What if I have to go there for an interview?" (flights are expensive/maybe they'll let me Skype/I'm a freaking idiot).  Every single time this happens to me.  It isn't that I don't want to leave, but it is the logistics of doing so and, with these three jobs, on very short notice in order to start the fall year at those schools.

Why, you might be wondering, would someone with a PhD be IN such a situation? Wouldn't that be enough education to ensure employment? Maybe in the past, but that is no longer the reality for many terminal degree holders, especially in the US.  The stereotype of the tenured professor with the lovely home, sabbaticals in exotic locales, is not the reality of most instructors today.  Certainly, some of that caste still exist, but as Craig McFarlane writes concerning the adjunct
                     This secondary class of teachers, however, are already teaching most undergraduate classes at     
                     North American universities. The vast majority of “professors” in North America are called  
                     adjuncts, or contract instructors, or sessionals. According to the American Association of 
                     University Professors, only 24 per cent of faculty are tenured or tenure-track, and a recent    
                     Canadian study estimated that less than 25 per cent of doctoral students will end up with 
                     tenure-track jobs.
High salaries and paid leave are as believable as unicorns and the tooth fairy to us.  Most adjuncts genuinely love the work of teaching--they'd have to because no one would do so otherwise.  Though I had the luxury of full-time health benefits at my former full-time temp position, I no longer do.  Due to budget cuts or some other unnamed reason, no full-time people were hired in that school's largest department.  The classes are there and they need to be taught, but we will not be getting them.  I find this wryly amusing.  I could, quite easily, look up the salaries of my dean, any of the various vice presidents, and the president himself.  I'm sure they're astounding.  I did look a couple of years ago, but I honestly can't take that much reality right now.

The truth is that colleges and universities would not exist without the students who come to them to learn.  Yes, I know some come to play on teams and some come to get the college social experience, but all those people must keep a certain GPA or they are gone.  However, it is classroom space and instructors that seem to be getting fewer and fewer of the budget dollars.  In our state, our governor has chopped away at education expenditures while giving more to police, prisons, and businesses.  Less state money means higher tuition for families, but this higher price tag, controversially, could be getting them less education for their money.  With these budget factors, administrators look for any way to save  and the ability to offer on-line courses looks like a golden bullet answer.  It is here that McFarlane provides a startling insight:
                   What is not frequently mentioned in the praise of online courses is the completion rate. CS50x  
                   Introduction to Computer Science I, Harvard’s largest online course, had an enrollment of  
                   150,349 students. Of those 150,349 students, only 1388 of them completed the course. That 
                   is a completion rate of 0.9 per cent. If my courses had a completion rate of 0.9 per cent, I would  
                   have been fired long ago –- and justly so. Fortunately, the completion rates for my courses are 
                   well higher than that, often above 90 per cent. And almost 100 per cent of the students who 
                   took the on-campus version of Harvard’s computer course finished it.
It seems that, though these courses allow for far more enrollment than could fit in a physical classroom space, they do not allow for much classroom community that might aid in student retention.  The large on-line classes make lots of money for the school, but what about the students? If they must take it again, they have to pay again.  Retakes, whether a student fails or withdraws, are the same price as the original.  Like the author of this article, I also pride myself on high retention rates in my classes.  If I start with 28 students, I want to finish with 28 students.  I don't care who they were before, because once they enter my class they are my students.  I care about their learning and what becomes of them.  I worry when students are absent and when they disappear completely.  I have been known to track people down.  Who could possibly keep track or reengage students teaching several sections of this on-line style?  It makes money, yes, but at what cost to both students and faculty?

So what will become of higher education in North America? I don't have that answer but I guess we'll see.  I've given myself one more year on the job market to find a place.  I don't think I can live this life many more months.  I'm looking at a 1 hour 21 minute commute each way (about 60 miles) three days a week.  I will teach six classes total over the course of the semester.  Personally, I hold myself to a high standard and never like to do a job halfway, and I just don't know if that's sustainable in this environment.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Sometimes I Just Have to Write

I've been thinking about starting a blog for some time, even going so far as to seek some opinions on my title.  The few that answered liked it, so I kept it.  Why, you may ask, "The Unarmed Education Mercenary"?  Isn't that contradictory?  Perhaps.  I'm playing with several ideas here and I promise that I'll try to be more focused than I am on some social media.  For instance, I will lay off the hockey talk here.  I'm not going to tell you all about me to start with. Just like in real friendships, you'll learn as we go.

Union thug teacher
Unarmed:  I chose this word in response to the wild aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shooting in December of 2012.  That shooting occurred on my last day of finals for the semester.  In fact, I had no idea it had even happened until the last students were finishing up their writings and I flipped my phone on to see early reports of a school shooting.  Only later, after going home and having time to read more did I understand the horrific-ness of what had happened.  Then began all sorts of crazy talk, the most insane of which was to arm teachers.  Do what now?  Had these people met teachers?  There's more than one I can recall from both high school and college that I wouldn't want within 100 yards of a firearm!  Seriously.  Let's not even get into some of the colleagues I've taught with....not everyone is stable.  As to me, I grew up in a hunting culture and was taught gradually, over many years, proper respect, techniques, and safety.  It wasn't something I learned in a two week crash course!  Good grief we can't even afford books in some schools so how in the heck are we going to afford guns and training?!  Anyway, arming teachers is absurd to me and even though I know how to shoot, I would not carry a weapon to school.  I was trained to take a careful shot, with time and practice.  I was not trained to shoot in high stress and/or hostage situations.  I'm not saying I couldn't do that, but I am saying it isn't the same thing.

Education:  Teaching is what I have been trained to do.  I have a degree in that and it is what I have been doing on and off since 2001.  It is my calling.  I do this work because I love it.  I certainly didn't get into it to get rich, although I did expect to be able to make a living.  I read about it, I talk about it, and I do it.  I have worked in several other fields, but even in those I found myself being asked to teach or train others for the jobs they needed to do.

Mercenary:  This word refers to my status as an adjunct faculty member.  I just read earlier today that we're now in the majority.  I wish that statistic meant that adjunct faculty were treated better nationwide, but it doesn't.  Until recently I though of myself as one of the lucky ones in the temporary faculty field:  I was able to maintain a full-time job with good wages and benefits.  However, this coming year my place of employment cut all temps to just under full-time and I had to find some extra classes to make up for the lost money. Thanks to a good friend, I managed to do this, but now I join the legions of highway heroes traveling between schools in order to make ends meet.  I still apply for full-time, permanent work, but I read the articles and reports:  the outlook people like me isn't the best.  There are a lot of hired gun adjuncts out there holding the United States' higher education system together.  (I also like the play of the word "mercenary" against "unarmed" in the title.)

That's the explanation.  I hope to post here at least once a week.  That may be setting the bar a bit high come fall.  I just received all my schedules for my schools and let's just say things will be a challenge.