It was never my intention to teach when I was in the throes of my career as a health communications and gender specialist. But when I was invited to be a lecturer at Yale University's School of Public Health I discovered I loved teaching, and was pretty good at it. From there I went on to various teaching gigs at institutions as diverse as community colleges, Ivy League schools and Thai universities. Not having a Ph.D., I was relegated to the world of adjuncts, but never having aspired to the academic world of "publish or perish," I was happy.
As time went on, however, I began to experience the drawbacks of being an adjunct. Frustrations began with being paid a pittance for extremely labor-intensive, high responsibility work. While private universities paid about $5,000 (plus expenses), state institutions were offering $2,000 or less a semester. Given today's cost of living, that's gas money, or if you are burdened with oversubscribed online courses, the bottle of hooch you need to get through the week.
Beyond pay scales there were other issues. For example, most adjuncts -- 54 percent of whom are women teaching at two year colleges -- cannot collect unemployment if the semester they were promised falls through. If classes are undersubscribed they may have to accept pro-rated payment (make that half a tank of gas). They have no office space, no benefits or salary increases unless they're unionized, no hope of professional development funds, and no job security.
And yet, adjuncts comprise a large percentage of faculty in institutions of higher education, sometimes approaching 50 percent of teachers at public institutions. We bring special expertise and often years of experience to the classroom. We could bring those skills to committees too if we were incentivized to do so. We are skilled professionals who spend hours planning and delivering courses, evaluating, mentoring and counseling students, and responding to administrative demands.
I thought things might be looking up for adjunct faculty when, a while back, I received a letter from the new president of a college where I was teaching. His letter was a call for better recognition of adjunct faculty. "The need for an accessible, quality education has never been greater," he wrote. "Your willingness to give your time and share your experience makes a tremendous difference in the lives of students we serve." With that in mind, the president, a former adjunct himself, announced a "new model for part-time faculty that better recognizes the role [they play]."
But things don't look so hopeful these days. Another college where I've taught -- part of the same state system in which the new college president works -- has begun a rigorous campaign to remove long-time, unionized adjuncts, replacing them with less qualified "newbies" burdened with ever larger classes.
A recent article posted on AlterNet questioned whether we are about to see an "Adjunct Spring." It pointed out that over the last thirty years colleges have grown more reliant on adjunct faculty as a way to cut costs while simultaneously trying to stop them organizing for better pay and benefits. But work conditions are often abysmal. For example, office space is small and shared and there is no clerical support. As contract workers adjuncts don't speak out about necessary improvements. But this renders them less able to mentor and advocate for students, who are also beginning to bemoan their college experience.
There is some pushback in the face of lowering standards and unfair labor practices. One adjunct lecturer has started an online presence called the Adjunct Project. According to AlterNet, its documentation of adverse conditions has resonated with faculty around the country. After several weeks the database had over 1600 entries about pay, working conditions and personal experiences. It's the Angie's List of Academia.
Education, as we know, is in crisis in this country. When we talk about that crisis, we emphasize K-12. But an invisible crisis exists in colleges and universities and it's getting worse. Just compare where we are with higher education standards and practices in other industrialized nations. In the UK, for example, students not only know how to write fluently in English; they also tend to speak another language. They are taught how to argue logically based on research and empirical evidence. Our students prefer easier methods of learning which overburdened teachers often yield to in the interest of their own sanity.
Respect for, rather than exploitation of, part-time faculty can go far to improve academic standards, provide quality learning environments, and guide students toward successful futures. Our kids deserve that. So do our teachers.
You don't need a Ph.D. to know that much.