Friday, September 27, 2013

Dominoes Once Pushed Keep on Falling

The tragic death of adjunct Margaret Mary Votjko triggered a minor media furor in my local area for the past two weeks.  Unfortunately, the issue seems more likely to fade from prominence not due to any administration's sad efforts at quelling the storm but rather the five-second attention span of the American media and the fact that, as another friend pointed out, "A new iPhone came out."  Perhaps my readers have been wondering what happened for me at what I've deemed "School  One" after the email thread that began on the faculty listserve there.  I need to write about this and, yet, I don't want to.  I am fully aware that this blog isn't the strongest PR move for someone on the job market, but I cannot either keep silent about this any more.  So while I did my usual driving for the week (plus a little more to see my mom honored at the state level for her volunteer work) I worked out my thoughts which follow a small recap.

After "Death of an Adjunct" was posted to School One's departmental listserve, I was pleasantly surprised and even encouraged to be hopeful by the initial responses.  I should probably also state that not all adjuncts at this school were subjected to cut hours, pay, and benefits, only those in my department.  This was not a unilateral move by administration, which the local union would likely have caught and stepped in to intervene.  At least four full-time tenure track people requested to discuss this adjunct issue at the next department meeting.  This meeting has not happened and when it does, I think I'm at School Two or teaching at School One and will have to rely on the accounts of some others who will go.  The last public comment on the thread was mine and no other went out to everyone.  Most noticeably, the powers that be did not address it that day.

The next day, finally we were "reminded" that instead of hiring ten people full time with benefits, this cut allowed for more people to have jobs.  Something like fourteen people were able to be hired at cut hours and rates! Hallelujah? At least one of these people did not even get the "good news" that I did, so I know that those last few were given even fewer courses to teach.  This was also done quite into the summer, making it difficult to scrounge up some work elsewhere.  As I've stated before, I was incredibly lucky to have a good friend immediately tell me to apply at School Two.  Not everyone has a good friend who can alert them to jobs in a mainly drivable distance.  The situation in my house could be much worse.  However, that is no excuse for me to be quiet because I'm getting by.  This situation nationwide is wrong and inexcusable.

dominoes fallingIt is also creating a template for administrators to refuse to rehire people to replace retiring and exiting tenure track/full time professors.  No one wants to cut their own salary, so faced with tightening budgets for education (building, administration, and athletics seems to be faring pretty well) hiring part time faculty would solve many issues.  This is where EVERY tenure track/full time person in the US and Canada--I hear our friends north of the border are experiencing cuts as well--needs to stand up now, for us because whether they realize it or not, our battle is their battle.  The bad math that is applied today to me and everyone else in Adjunct Nation can easily be applied to those well inside the ivory tower.  I recall my advice earlier in the summer to simply refuse the contract at School One.  That was the answer I was given:  don't take the job.  That answer came from someone with tenure.  Someone who was not adversely affected.  I laughed.  There's an actual "pool of temps" waiting to snap up my position.  I have a friend who landed in that category.  He pretty much said that I should let it go because he would gladly take it.  This, in microcosm, is higher education in America today.  If the full time jobs go, there are hordes of us waiting to pounce on any contract whatsoever.  One class?  Two classes? Three?!?!?!? I just volunteered to work some assessment for $50 (okay, so I do like assessment, but hey, fifty bucks).  Telling adjuncts to protest by not taking the work will not work.  This issue is now bigger than those tactics.  We need everyone.  Every single person who cares about the quality of higher education to either stand up to this assault on workers or to come up with an entirely different structure to do this job for living wages.

No one can afford to turn down any money with no hope of anything else.  That is not an answer.  What likely will happen is that many smart people will leave education, leaving perhaps a lower quality of workers to exist in an exploitative system.  We are either all in this fight together or in the end, the adjuncts will "win" a place at the table because those will be the only places left.  What will happen here?  What will happen nationwide?  I don't know those answers but what I do know is that we need to keep paying attention.  We should be able to think about serious issues for longer than an iPhone's battery life.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

That Genie Isn't Going Back in the Bottle!

Let the PR spin begin!

Today a response by Ken Gormley, Dean of the Law School at Duquesne, also published in the Post Gazette like "Death of an Adjunct," is garnering some much-deserved critique.  According to this wise man, the following things are true:

1.  Higher education in America has always relied on part-time workers, so evidently the practice should continue unquestioned because TRADITION!!!! (See video link at right from Fiddler on the Roof and get this song stuck in your head, please.  It would be nice if you knew the story also and could also get the context of the song and how that relates to this comment.  I am not making fun of this musical.  I love it.  I played Fruma Sarah once. TRADITION!!!!!)

2.  Part-time teachers provide valued real-world experience.  (I'm not sure how that applies to most of the adjuncts I know who neither have other jobs that would make this true, nor have I ever seen this requirement in a job posting in my field other than the request for teaching experience of varying years. I've heard mythical stories of that business man who teaches one class a year for the pure joy of it, but I've never met him.)

3.  Best of all, are the "individuals who seek to build full-time careers by combining multiple part-time contracts, often at several institutions" (Pardon me?! Absolutely NO ONE I know is attempting to do this on purpose.  No one.  Everyone I know living this way is doing so because they cannot land a full-time job at ONE school.  Who in their right mind with gas the price that it is thinks hopping from one school to another for their daily bread is a viable long-term career plan?)

4.  Adjuncts are compared to full-time professors, who of course do much more than we do:  they plan and teach "multiple classes" and conduct research, to say the least.  (I teach six classes, only two of which are the same exact course at the same school, and I also do research.  Plus I willingly help colleagues who ask for teaching ideas/help.  I work with students on projects.  I also am trying to publish a book.)

Taken together, I can only assume that what we have here is a human so far removed from the daily life and functioning of the educational mission of higher education in America that he actually believes this nonsense.  When Gormley calls for "mutual respect" at the end of his piece, I just shake my head.  He has not shown any to us adjuncts, and if the trial by media burns, so be it.

This article, however, is not the only one.  The second piece published today in response to the same troublesome "Death of an Adjunct" article is even further off base.  Michelle Janosko, Assistant Director of International Studies chimes in that the original article is "Unfair to University."  Really?  Is it?  Perhaps this writer should have read the original post more carefully, for she makes at least one glaring error:  Adjunct Instructor Margaret Mary Vojtko did not sleep in classrooms.  The way this is written implies that the teacher was sleeping during her classes in the room.  This is not what was reported by Dan Kovalik.  He stated that after her heat was shut off for non-payment, she began sleeping in her office.  Not quite the same thing.  This particular article also assumes that the deceased collected Social Security and had Medicare.  Does this writer know Margaret Mary Vojtko personally?  Not everyone of the age to apply for benefits does and the sums and coverage provided do not always cover all expenses. Yet this article has something in common with Dean Gormley's:  none of this is the fault of the university in question, but instead should be pinned on Dan Kovalik for shining a light on one of the dirtiest practices in higher education--the exploitation of temporary labor.

A woman who devoted her life to education is dead.  She cobbled a life together as long as she could and now she is gone.  Administrators can keep playing ostrich and deflecting all they want, but this story is rolling.  Plenty of us in Adjunct Nation will keep passing on the stories and we have friends, family, and students who listen.  Some of us are parents who may soon be looking for colleges for our own kids.  What if parents start asking about this issue when deciding where and how to spend their money?  How much do your administrators get paid and what do they do for my child?  How much will my child's instructors make since they are the ones providing the education, which is the reason for attending in the first place?  Janosko tells us, "To even equate the university president's salary with what an adjunct professor makes per class is ludicrous.  You are talking apples and oranges, and there is no way to justify the comparison." This is one time I can agree with her, for she has unwittingly made my case:  there is no comparison.  Administrative salaries and positions have exploded nationally, while professorial wages have shrunken despite higher tuitions and larger enrollments.  The salaries of the highest levels of education--not to mention corporations--in this country far outpace workers' salaries, and it's about time we start evening the odds.

(For more on administrative bloat, see Douglas Belkin and Scott Thrum's "Dean's List:  Hiring Spree Fattens College Bureaucracy - And Tuition" in The Wall Street Journal - my apologies, for it will not link but can be found on a search.)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

In Memoriam: Margaret Mary Vojtko, Adjunct

Today I worked at School Two, the one I must commute almost two hours with traffic to.  By the time I returned home again, I was tired and ready to spend some time with my family before scrounging up some food.  I had been having trouble with the wifi at work all day, which gave me the sneaking suspicion that I was not getting all my emails.  Home again, with a somewhat more reliable network, my phone blew up like a student's:  so. many. emails.  I decided to rock the small child while reading through what I hoped would be only spam and junk mail that could be deleted without opening.  Instead, in my School One account, one faculty listserve thread already had six responses on it.  These usually are never good news, but sometimes good for a laugh before deleting.  I opened the thread and went to the first post, which included Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Daniel Kovalik's article "Death of an Adjunct."  At first, the literature scholar in me thought perhaps it was some clever play on the title of Arthur Miller's classic play Death of a Salesman, used only to highlight the growing problematic use of adjunct labor at the region's many colleges and universities.  Additionally, to my genuine admiration, the original sharer pointed out that this was an especially important article in light of the fact that "we" [meaning the department that I work in] had now made all the temporaries [their term for us] part-time.

I still had not opened the article because I couldn't believe what I was reading:  an actual tenure track person taking up for us publicly on a department forum.  This issue of our reduction in status at School One might be considered something of a summertime deal, done when few regular folk were present.  Many did not even know that we had been cut back until three weeks into the term--that revelation also coming via email.  Anyway, it was a nice surprise...until I opened the link.  For the death of an adjunct was not merely some metaphor, some witty allusion to a play, but a true life tragedy that played out in the city I had just driven back from while doing the same kind of work.  Margaret Mary Vojtko, 83, adjunct instructor of French for Duquesne University died from complications of a heart attack she suffered two weeks prior (Kovalik).

The link above leads to the full article and the details are sorrowful indeed.  The comments following it, containing tributes by friend and co-workers, among other people's opinions, are heart tearing.  Here was a woman who dedicated her life to teaching those seeking to learn, and she had been utterly failed by her employer.  This inhumanity perhaps compounded by the fact that the school is a Catholic institution which takes pride in values and its mission statement.  Yet, here was a woman who had worked for them, had given of herself to her classes, and died destitute after a battle with cancer.  Like me, she had no health benefits.  At one point, this elderly teacher not only fulfilled her duties at the university, but also worked at a nearby Eat-N-Park to try to survive.  Kovalik mentions her dire embarrassment at offers of public assistance; her drive to keep going.  Is this all a teacher is worth?  Recently Duquesne had let her go with no retirement, no severance, nothing.  Disposable labor when administrators rake in the biggest salaries in the history of high education [That is solely my opinion.  I am not an economist and have not adjusted for inflation or done any large study].

Once I made some attempt to recover from the article, I checked the other posts in the thread.  Two of them were from "temps" who I know, appreciating the sentiments expressed by the original poster.  Then several other full time, tenure track people chimed in asking that this issue be placed on the department's next meeting agenda, for this decision to cut our hours, salaries, and benefits had not been done with full department disclosure.  I almost could not believe my eyes.  The sense of rejection and disposability I feel, that seemed to be so invisible, so ignored, was in fact being addressed publicly at last.  Was it because Margaret Mary Vojtko once lived and worked so very nearby? Was this, instead of just another news item to scan or ignore, a call to action?  Kovalik spoke with Vojtko's nephew and he "implored me to make sure that she didn't die in vain.  He said that while there was nothing that could be done for Margaret Mary, we had to help the other adjuncts at Duquesne and other universities who were being treated just as she was, and who could end up just like she did." Perhaps, just maybe, this woman's life may not pass unnoticed in the world of post-secondary education.

By late evening, a hashtag emerged on Twitter:  #IAmMargaretMary  used by other adjuncts to show their sadness and solidarity as part of the adjunct army:

               @TendentiousD  "#A labour in makes a more tangible product than  
, & rakes in money for schools, but gets peanuts.

                @MariaMaistoNFM Vojtko remembered for pride, eloquence

Though the tag is not trending at this time, it is my hope that as users return to Twitter tomorrow, this story spreads and the hashtag is taken up by anyone who cares about the state of education and the American teacher.

I am sorry, Margaret Mary, that I never met you in person.  I am truly sorrowful for your death and the lack of compassion shown to you by your employers.  You will not be forgotten.  Perhaps it is this story that will move to action many who have been biding their time, biting their tongues, and delaying their cause.  Let me erase the board for you, my comrade.  Don't worry.  I'll turn off the lights.

Thank you, Margaret Mary Vojtko, and adjuncts everywhere.  There is honor in what we do, even if there is not fortune.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Beware of Geeks Bearing Gifts

Last week, Dan Berrett published an article in The Chronicle of Higher Ed entitled "Adjuncts Are Better Teachers Than Tenured Professors, Study Finds."  All the rest of the week on social media, this article was trotted out as an example of what is wrong with higher education in America today:  1.  There is an ever-larger segment of the workforce that exists in the space without benefits, protection, and stability, and 2. Tenure is an evil system which keeps lazy professors who no longer care about their craft in the top jobs sucking up all the money.  I can see, at first glance, why the title was so very appealing to many in the Education Mercenary Army, but on closer inspection this article contains some worrisome ideas.

Firstly, the study that Berrett reports on was conducted mainly at Northwestern, which has a selective admissions process and its treatment of adjuncts is above the norm for most:

     But an untenured faculty member at Northwestern may not look much like the stereotype of a part-   
     time instructor cobbling together teaching gigs on multiple campuses.  Northwestern's were 
     generally well compensated and enjoyed longstanding relationships with the university, said Mr. 
     Figlio [conductor of the original study].

     He added that 99.4 percent of the untenured faculty members in the study had taught at 
     Northwestern for at least six quarters.

     "This is not someone we're hiring once to fill a gap and then getting rid of," he said.

An arrangement such as this is one that I experienced at the school where I have taught the longest, up until this year.  I did feel a certain amount of loyalty and had plenty of time to truly work at the craft of teaching.  Whether or not I was made to feel welcome at department functions (this varied on what they might be and who might be in charge of those) mattered little.  I was welcomed by many colleagues and groups on campus.  I had a good salary, benefits, and a great office space for students to drop in when needing help.  I knew all the years that I was there this was an anomaly in the adjunct world, but it worked for me and my family. Until now.  Now I'm learning how the other more-than-half lives.

I do still have my office space at that school, but my hours are fewer and my loyalty is gone.  At my second school, I share a communal office space where I can rarely use one of the two computers during my off times.  Any student dropping in for a writing conversation could not be guaranteed confidentiality due to the other adjuncts from various fields sharing the space.  I carry all sorts of supplies in two large bags that makes my commute and elevator use interesting, to say the least.  All that aside, it's a very good school and I'm fortunate to have gotten a position there.  I've been treated enthusiastically by department heads and other workers.  I don't feel the "adjunct stigma" as much there as at the place I'd called home for so long.  I'm welcome at teaching groups, workshops, and events, though my commuting distance makes some of those impossible.  But I digress.

Secondly, what about these super adjunct teachers? 

Figlio's study shows that students who took economics to an untenured faculty were "7.3 percentage points" more likely to take another economics class as opposed to the students who took political science to a tenured or tenure-track faculty member.  I'm sorry if I don't find this earth-shattering--maybe it's my lack of math skills--but the study doesn't seem inclusive of many fields and it is at only one school that has a non-standard practice of treating adjuncts well.  However, I must admit that when I saw the headline pop up that first day, I thought, "Well DUH! Of course we teach better!"  I've seen the hard work adjuncts and teaching associates pour into their classes. Generally, if I want to know the latest tech use in class that works, I'll ask another adjunct.  We're willing to try it and also able to admit when something is junk.  We dig through publications, each other's brains, and draw on our own pasts as students to make the best classes that we can.  At least, most of the people that I know do, and we have some very good reasons to work so hard.

Often our jobs are dependent on the numbers generated by student assessments and/or peer evaluations of our courses.  We stand to lose a great deal by being lazy or having uninteresting classes.  Additionally, many of us are still on the job market, hoping to land a position that raises us out of the mire of adjunct-land.  To do so requires proof of teaching ability, whether it be copies of those evals or fat teaching packets of syllabi, assignments, objectives, and lesson plans.  I work diligently on my classes planning, tweaking, researching, amending, and championing whatever I've been assigned to teach.  Above all, I try to remember that even if this is my 124th Composition I class, it is likely the student's first and only one, and I owe it to that person to make it worth their time and useful.  To be honest, I cannot imagine myself ever becoming so complacent that I stop learning and trying new things.  So while I'd like to get all self-congratulatory over this article, it functions more like a Sword of Damocles despite the imbedded positivity conferred by the statistics.

Any administration that wants to continue justifying cuts to adjuncts' salary, hours, and benefits could point to it as evidence contingent labour does not harm students as unions and education organizations claim.  It could be used to abolish tenure as a useless relic, allowing for a large-scale house cleaning of highly paid professors who will be replaced by an all-adjunct team.  Surely, the tenured may say, no educators will stand for this!  In solidarity we'll all stop work.

Don't be too sure about that.  Look at the bad deals many adjuncts have already accepted to keep bellies full and lights on.  When the tenure track forgot to include us in their vision of social justice, when universities turned to the Wal-Mart template for exploiting workers, few took a vocal stand for adjuncts.  Expecting us to stand up now for tenure may be unrealistic.  It's starting to feel like perhaps we adjuncts are the ones inside the horse and it's being slowly rolled up to the ivory tower.  The question is if anyone is willing to take the working conditions and the educational mission of higher education seriously anymore, or if folks are still concerned with only themselves and hanging on to what is already theirs?  

And my once-homey office space?  It now feels rented and I'm just the current tenant.  

Trojan horse

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Journal: What Day IS This?

It's early in the semester but things are settling in:  they are already "my" classes, "my" students.  For better or worse, at this point, I commit myself to getting as many to the end as possible if they will be lead, or cajoled, or badgered into it.  This is week three for my regular classes and the fourth meeting coming up for my Saturday-only seven week class.  However, today I had that moment of "Okay everyone, here's what you need to have for....." I was going to say the day of the week, but I had no idea which day that particular class met next or worse, which day it was right then!  Two of the bi-weekly classes meet Monday/Wednesday and the other three meet Tuesday/Thursday.  I just couldn't sort that all out on command.  This is how adjuncts slowly go insane.  I mean, I know which classes I'm teaching while I'm in them, especially since they meet in radically different locations.  Still, I hate that bewildered, lost feeling.  It makes me think of student teaching when some high school student would ask me a ridiculous grammar question that no one who hadn't been teaching grammar for 400 years would know.  (Admittedly, thanks to the revision, that's how I feel about MLA now.  "Let me get back to you on that....")

UEM's desk

I've almost gotten the names memorized for the students in the smaller classes.  The larger ones are going to take some time, and I met them last so that adds to my confusion.  I've not lost too many either, so no breaks there because most classes are still at cap or one under.  I HATE not being able to call them all by name already, although I must remind myself that even last semester with a regular four-class load I had a little trouble remembering the names of those who either were not speaking up or impressing me with their writing in some way.  I thought about using the big name cards that I've seen a few other professors employ, but that seems like giving up on my memory entirely and I'm not ready to throw in that towel.  I will remember, eventually.

Going to make this a short post tonight:  lunches are packed, lessons are ready, and even though I'm sure there's something I forgot,  I'm tired and the big commute awaits me in a few hours.  I'll use that vehicular waste of my time to ponder an article that keeps popping up regarding adjuncts, tenure track faculty, and teaching ability.  I've read it once but it needs a second look.  That, in addition to news of more retrenchment at some universities not too far away may make for an interesting thought-exercise.  At the very least, thinking about that article may keep my road rage to a manageable level.  This is how adjuncts slowly go insane.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Some thoughts on Adjuncts and Retention of Majors

It's just after midnight and I suppose I should be sleeping, but I've gotten into the nasty habit of staying up late to get things done.  This particular Unarmed Education Mercenary enjoyed having two days in a row off, thanks to Labor Day.  This means I only have to make the horrendous drive twice this week and one of those days is the weekend class, which isn't as difficult due to lower traffic volume.  

All six of my classes are up and running now, and I am enjoying the work.  However, I'm trying to find some sense of balance among the two schools, late hours, family life, and generally getting everything done.  One benefit of the commute is that I have a considerable time to think and an article I read a few weeks ago has been gnawing at me for a couple of reasons.  Scott Jaschik's "Majoring in a Professor," published on on August 12, 2013 just won't get out of my head.  (Read the whole article here 

While this article may not appear to relate to adjunct faculty at first glance, it is indeed closely tied to the work that we do for colleges and universities.  In summary, Jaschik reports on a sociological study which finds that:  "Undergraduates are significantly more likely to major in a field if they have an inspiring and caring faculty member in their introduction to the field. And they are equally likely to write off a field based on a single negative experience with a professor."  More plainly, the first impression a student gets of a field can significantly affect whether they stay in that major or perhaps change to that major from another, less favorable one.  Now, consider the courses most often assigned to adjunct faculty.  From personal experience at the four different higher education venues where I have been employed, adjunct faculty are generally forbidden from teaching any course over the 200, or second-year level.  Occasionally, from dire need or emergency, an adjunct may fill in during an absence or be given a higher-level course, but often as a one-time arrangement.  Therefore, most students encountering subjects for the first time are likely to do so via adjunct teaching. Furthermore, "From 1987 to 1999, the percentage of courses taught by adjuncts at public research universities increased by 50 percent, and adjunct usage increased by 80 percent in public doctoral universities" (National Center for Education Statistics qtd. in Bettinger and Long's "Help or Hinder? Adjunct Professors and Student Outcomes"; See full article here:  The likelihood is great that a college student's first encounter with their chosen major is through an adjunct instructor.  

Although Bettinger and Long criticize the shallow teaching of some adjuncts in their study, many adjuncts are doing the very best that they can and employing learning/student-centered methods in their courses.  However, as their study shows, some people do not teach in this manner or cannot based on their specific situations.  Yet the cry goes out from department chairs and deans:  "Retain! Recruit!"  Obviously, in a time of strict education budgeting, stronger programs will receive more funding.  It is in every department's best interest to not only keep majors that come in declared and excited about their choice, but to snap up as many undecided and wavering students as possible.  An important task, no? Important as upper level courses that are often fought over and even given strict rotations to ensure some sort of fairness among the tenure track faculty?  Glance at many on-line scheduling tools to find Professor Staff or TBA is racking up the introductory credit hours.  The names listed as professor of record for higher courses may have one, if any, sections of these vital first classes.

I agree with Jaschik, and even Bettinger and Long mention in their conclusion, that retaining and gathering more majors is extremely important.  Yet, these introductory courses are the ones that are given to adjuncts.  Adjuncts are often hired last minute, given little to no orientation and/or resources, and sometimes little collegiality.  What incentive, other than the personal satisfaction of a job well done, does the adjunct have to contribute significantly to a department that has made their disposable status very clear?  Why worry about the well-being of a department or school that may or may not ever offer work again?  These are very real questions that savvy department heads need to be asking themselves.  If adjunct faculty is the answer for current teaching needs and budget trends, should they be treated as the gravity of this position deserves, or should they continue to be viewed at many places like the rabble outside the gates of the ivory tower, only fit to teach the "lowliest" classes?