Yesterday a lovely art teacher and I chatted about our current woes with the workplace. She has that enviable ability to be both a skilled teacher and a fabulous artist. “You’re always going to a teacher,” she said, “you know that.”
No, I’m not, I admitted. I’m a presenter, a trainer, instructional designer, and/or an administrator. I haven’t written a syllabus or graded anybody’s work in almost two years. Maybe I’ll pick up an adjunct gig in the future, but teacher is an identity that I know I’ll never own again.
I wrote in my last post about being interviewed about my life as an adjunct, and I’d like to post the entire interview here for two reasons. 1] I have two presentations where I’m planning to discuss my ideas on how to improve professional development for adjuncts, and 2] I was going to save these ideas for another project, and today I realized that’s all silliness. I have no idea where things will be in six months, and these ideas are very much on my mind.
There are many, many writers who are taking on this topic of teacher labor, and I can’t say that I have anything new to add. I have no substantial ideas for organizing, political action, nor can I offer any solace to adjuncts. As I’ve read the news about “our historic reduction in tuition,” I’ve been troubled by the lack–if not downright omission–about the working conditions for teachers.
So, here’s what it was like for me. I’ve changed a few bits to protect the identity of the interviewer, and I don’t want to steal the thunder away from the article if/when it’s published. I also know that 1,000 of these words below will never make it to ink on the page. Here it is in the bloggity blog blog form.
1) The life of an adjunct (let’s not call ourselves associates; it’s a white-wash. Don’t you think?) is a life driven by past student debt, a poor and inequitable labor market, and minimal economic compensation. It is, in other words, unsustainable. To what degree did these forces effect your decision to leave teaching?
Yes, using other words like “associate” is akin to saying feces when it’s really shit. Sorry, you can’t print that–too crude. I agree, using other names for PT faculty gets away from their actual contingent nature. Adjuncts are, by their very title, not a permanent part of the institution. Using priority hiring by rank doesn’t address their actual need for consistent work. When I entered into the job market in 2003, I knew that things were not good for English composition instructors. I was advised, however, that there would be retirements and positions would open up. That just didn’t happen, and the recession made things worse. Having racked up significant debt made it really hard to constantly manage not getting paid for close to four months out of the year. It just seemed hopeless that I was ever going to get a job that was consistent, and it was for pure financial reasons that I went into administration. I can’t say that this was a path I saw for myself, but getting a consistent paycheck year-round has relaxed my shoulders a bit. I miss teaching and I probably always will.
2) Here is a follow up to question one. As a teacher, the combination of poor pay and lack of job security has always clashed with the message we are sending our students. One the one hand, we are teaching the under-advantaged and our promise is that education will pull them out wage-slavery and give them a better life—i.e., a livable wage. And yet on the other hand, there we are, essentially being exploited by the same neoliberal economic system that has disenfranchised them, and will, in all likelihood, continue to do so after they graduate. What are your thoughts here?
I found myself in a position where I had promising students who reminded me of my younger self and I could not in good faith give them advice on how to follow in my footsteps. Unlike my own professors who gave me tips and strategies on how to succeed in higher education, I found myself telling students to look for other options. One of my decisions to go back to school to change my career had to do with my dissatisfaction with not being able to mentor future teachers. How could I look a first-year first-generation student in the face and say that this was a good career path when I was paying for my own rent and groceries with a credit card? Since I am the first person in my family to graduate from college, much less go to graduate school, I feel a responsibility to help students who share a similar class background with me. Becoming a teacher is not a safe bet for anyone who was not born into the middle class. It bothered me that I couldn’t share the same advice that I received from my professors who believed in me and encouraged me.
For example, I worked for one college who hired me for fall quarter and they told me point blank they had no classes for me winter and spring. I took the job because I thought it was a foot in the door to work for them in the future. My blue collar parents taught me that hard work would eventually pay off, and as adjunct, that’s just not true. Nobody cares.
When students asked me what classes I was going teach next quarter, I had to explain to them that I wouldn’t be back until possibly next year. Maybe. One student stayed after class and apologized for not working harder because she wanted me to work there next quarter. She had tears in her eyes as she apologized for “the slackers in the class who made me not like teaching there.” This was an adult student who had learned how to read in her 30s. She loved John Grisham, and although I loathe that genre of novels, I read The Firm so we could talk about it. She was a gem. I had to explain to her that I wasn’t being hired back; I loved teaching them. It was a painful conversation. How do you explain to students what it means to be an adjunct?
3) What have you learned about the role adjuncts play in the college eco-sphere now that you are sitting at the table with the real power players—the VPs and Deans who are tasked with running the college?
On one hand, I’m really a middle middle manager, and I don’t get to sit at the table at all with the upper-administration. I’m invited to Deans Council once a year, and I report to a dean who is an advocate for online education. The major decisions about eLearning are made way above me. Faculty, departments, and divisions have more power than I do when it comes to the direction of eLearning. I’m really just glorified tech support.
On the other hand, I get to network with the eLearning Council and the state board. That work is important and we have one of the healthiest consortium collaborations that I know of in eLearning. That work has been rewarding, and I get to represent the college by advocating for teaching and learning with like-minded colleagues from around the state. The title of Director has given me many opportunities and I’m really passionate about learning more about policy at the state board level; that’s where broad sweeping change can happen for the better or for the worse. I’d wager that some of the power-players, as you call them, have no idea what I do for the college.
4) What do you think of the emphasis on vocational and professional training? Prof Tech has always been part of the junior college mission. Are things any different now? Or, to phrase the question another way, to what degree does corporate funding for Prof. Tech impact pedagogy and curriculum?
The emphasis on Prof. Tech is industry-driven in this area. If it wasn’t for Boeing, nobody outside of Washington would know of Seattle (prior to Microsoft, of course). The community college mission is to serve the local community, yet there is a fair investment from private industry. That being said, private industry is invested in training not education. There’s a difference. When the emphasis is on job skills, the liberal arts suffer. The open door policy from the Truman Commission assumed state support, and as the public investment in education deteriorates, the college has to look for other investors.
5) Do you have any thoughts on FT hiring practices? Many FT hires have come from outside the college. This is standard practice, of course, at four-years. But in the past, community colleges often hired from within. Is this change an institutional change or just the luck of the applicant draw? Also, you spoke in a previous email about priority hiring. Forgive my ignorance, but what does that term mean, and why did you say that it was, in your view, unsustainable?
I have very little insight to the FT hiring practices, but I think you are hurting your chances as an adjunct by trying to jockey for a future position. I once was given the advice, “Keep your mouth shut until you get tenure.” Unfortunately, I think that’s sound advice. You are burning a bridge at any time with FT colleagues who may or may not like your politics, curriculum, or personality. I’ve even heard FT faculty say that s/he wouldn’t want to hire an innovative PT faculty member because he or she may make them look bad. Getting a FT job is like joining the mafia; you really don’t know how it works until you’ve been made. I was never made.
Priority hiring is the practice of scheduling adjuncts based on rank or date of hire. A more evil practice is based on course load and benefits. Some colleges will hire what is called a 2-1-2. You’re hired for two classes one quarter, one the next, and two the next. That way you’re never eligible for benefits because you have to work two consecutive quarters to qualify. The 2-1-2, albeit never truly written as policy anywhere, is a common practice to make sure adjuncts do not get benefits. The ACA is really challenging this practice, so we’ll see what happens.
6) Finally, any last thoughts? If you could tell the readers anything about the adjunct crisis in America, what would you tell them?
I would tell them that the adjunctification of teaching labor was never meant to be a career track. Yes, some working professionals teach on the side to make extra money. Yes, some retirees take on adjunct work to supplement their income and share their expertise. Yes, some people like the flexibility of being an adjunct. But really, most adjuncts want better working conditions and they care a great deal about students, their disciplines, and their careers.
Every day I was an adjunct was better than when I was a waitress, but sadly I made more hourly by asking what type of tequila people wanted in their margaritas than I ever did as a educator.
I stuck with teaching because I loved it. Most educators do not go into this profession thinking they will get rich. They do, however, think they will be able to earn a modest income to support themselves. The time they devote towards trying to make ends meet directly influences the time they should be putting towards teaching. The administration likes to focus on student success quite a bit these days but you can’t have successful students without adequate support for teachers.
Right now, we have teachers wasting their time and energy jumping hoops to apply for unemployment when they could be researching, writing, and collaborating to improve their courses for the fall.
Tuition, after all, will be lower.