Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Just Surviving isn't Living

Somehow I have reached the end of my first semester as a two-school adjunct.  Well, almost.  Tomorrow is my last day of finals for both schools.  I have all the grades done for two classes, meaning that there are three more to finish.  Today was what I hope to call my last commute of the term:  to celebrate I had an extra traffic snafu and a sick child at the end of the day.  Yesterday I fell walking to work at the other school thanks to the terrible winter weather.  It seems that even on the way out, Fall 2013 wanted to kick back.

In some ways this semester was great:  new school, new classes, new students, and great student writing.  In others it was absolutely disastrous.  Six classes was far too many.  Even after the accelerated one ended, five classes was still too many.  I'm being honest.  I'm organized and I'm a fast reader, but this workload was insanity.  Perhaps had not all the classes been writing-based, it would not have been so time-consuming.  Perhaps had I not gotten ill just before a major break, I would not have felt so overwhelmed at the end.  Perhaps this is a terrible way to run an education system!  Just a couple evenings ago, another adjunct pointed out in an on-line conversation that she and I, as well as many other contingent faculty, just worked a single tenure track faculty member's full year schedule in one semester.  We did not, however, receive the equivalent pay for that year's-worth of work.  I had not thought of it just like that before, but I think it's a measurement worth keeping in mind.

According to statistics touted in the last few months, adjunct faculty make up at least 75% of American college instructors.  It seems that administrators are getting quite a bargain!  Even if adjuncts' workloads are split between multiple schools, they are likely doing the work of two full-time permanent professors per academic year overall.  Mainly we work without benefits.  No wonder corporate higher education wants to employ more adjuncts! We're quite the bargain!  Get an adjunct:  this economy model can do the work of two full time professors in one year, or two years of full time work in one, depending on how the buyer would like to phrase it.  We have been utterly commodified down to only one of our academic functions:  the ability to teach multiple classes and multitudes of students.  For no extra cost to the buyer some of us serve on committees and act as advisors.

How did this happen?  Josh Boldt offers an insightful explanation in "Off-Track:  Higher Education's Shifting Baseline Syndrome" published this week on Chronicle Vitae.  Shifting baselines works very much like the frog placed in water that is gradually heated:  conditions worsen so gradually that the frog does not notice and therefore is boiled though it could easily have leapt from the pan.  As tenure track faculty retired or left schools, they were not always replaced with new tenure track lines.  While losing one line in a year or two doesn't seem drastic, losing four maybe five in a couple decades certainly is. Only by observing trends over a substantial time can the true impact be realized.  Boldt notes that in the 1980s only about 32% of faculty were adjuncts.  The latest statistics in 2013 have us at approximately 75%.  The tenure-track to adjunct ratio is entirely flipped in less than my lifetime.  Actually, in about the same time that it took me to go from Kindergarten to PhD--admittedly, I did not go straight through!

Gradually, the exploitation of the American adjunct crept thoroughly and pervasively in our post-secondary system.  Now that we are here, what happens next?  Will the increase in the unionization of adjuncts help alleviate some of the worst conditions and bring equality to the collegiate workforce?  Will the spotlight of attention drawn to adjunct issues by the death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, named one of the ten individuals who influenced higher education in 2013 by The Chronicle of Higher Education, continue to shine and force administrators to change their ways?  I cannot say what 2014 will bring for adjuncts, other than more classes with some pay, if we're lucky, but I hope that the upcoming year is a better one for all workers not just in the U.S. but all across the globe.  Just having enough to get by is no way to live.  Working until a person's health--whether mental, physical or both--is harmed is not sustainable.  Something will change.  Will it be higher education hiring practices or will adjuncts finally take to the streets en masse?  At 75% it is a scary truth that American higher education cannot function without us, and that may be the strongest bargaining chip that we have.

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