Four Ugly Words I’ve Learned While Teaching

For several years, I’ve worked as an adjunct college instructor. This job is much like being a real college instructor: I teach students, plan courses, grade student work, attend meetings, and in the colder months, I wear tweed. (I generally love this work and have talked about it elsewhere.) Where my job differs from the traditional college educator is that I am in the “adjunct” tier of faculty. We are also known as “contingent,” or “part-time” depending on the institution. Generally speaking, adjuncts are paid drastically less per course than our full-time colleagues, offered fewer (if any) benefits, and have very little job security. We are currently the majority of educators on American college campuses, in spite of adverse conditions. While working in this capacity at several schools over several years, I’ve learned some disturbing terms related to labor and economics: 1. Adjunct: a thing added to something else as a supplementary rather than an essential part.  It would follow that 75% of undergrad classes are currently taught by faculty that are non-essential add-ons to the educational process. However, these courses are neither elective nor offered at a discount. I touch the lives of my students in a "supplementary but non-essential" way. 2. Gender Pollution: a theory that when women enter a profession, the prestige and pay of that profession goes down relative to more exclusively male professions.  I heard this phrase nonchalantly mentioned at a conference talk. I gasped. The disparity in pay and respect between men and women has been quantified, modeled, and named by economists. It turns out that engineering faculties are paid more than arts and humanities faculties not because of private sector competition for our skills, but rather, because the arts and humanities faculties have more women in them, and are thus less valued. Teaching, as a whole, suffers from this same cultural/economic bias.  3. Casualization: the altering of working practices so that regular workers are re-employed on a casual or short-term basis. This practice has been increasingly popular in the corporate world, and Universities have adopted it by massively increasing adjunct labor. Employees become “part-time associates”, or “independent contractors.” One full-time job with a contract, living salary, and benefits can be split into three or more part-time jobs at much lower hourly pay. This means employers can have fewer and fewer responsibilities to their employees. 4. Precariat: a social class formed by people suffering from existence without predictability or security, affecting material or psychological welfare [and must also] sell their labor to live. Specifically, it is applied to the condition of lack of job security, intermittent employment, or underemployment and the resultant precarious existence. This new class description covers a wide array of groups. But in the case of adjuncts, their advanced educations and specialized skills actually hurt their economic prospects.  Bonus: Once, a department chair praised me for being "fungible."  Fortunately, I'm pretty sure they meant "versatile." I am versatile. Colleges are more dependent on adjunct labor than ever. This dependence has not ameliorated rising tuition costs, growing administrative costs, and record student debt. If our colleges and universities have a real mission to fulfill, then most of our classroom instructors have been deemed "non-essential" to that mission. Do we expect our transient, part-time teachers to put their full dedication into these schools? Into these students? It seems doubtful that this is in the long term interest of students, scholars, or American education in general. This Wednesday, adjunct faculty across the country will be demonstrating for greater awareness of this issue. If you are paying for a college education, planning to, or believe in education as a public good, I urge you to learn what you can about this issue.
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