Most weeks I have a little trouble deciding what the topic for this column will be. This week it was decided for me. The dictates of morality and justice made the decision.
Two intrepid filmmakers in upstate New York just released a documentary entitled Con Job: Stories of Adjunct and Contingent Labor (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SlmWBEz4bfo). After decades working in law enforcement I have a pretty strong stomach. I was nauseated after watching this film. I wasn’t sick because of the filmmaking, the narrative flow or the editing. It’s quite well-done in all those respects. I was sick because it made me confront a truth I have long tried to deny.
That truth resides in the fact that higher education in America depends upon the exploitation and marginalization of tens of thousands of part-time faculty — the so-called contingent or adjunct instructors. On face the conditions don’t sound so bad. After all we’re talking about people who teach college classes. How bad could that be? But even a cursory peek behind the curtain reveals the kind of greed and cynicism out of which violent revolutions foment.
Imagine you spent a decade in college and graduate school. You probably borrowed and/or spent a hundred thousand dollars paying for it. You sacrificed friends, family and forsook other opportunities because you felt called to teach.
You get that vaunted doctorate only to find out that you’ve been sold the proverbial bill of goods. The Ivory Tower of academia is not the meritocracy you were promised. It is petty, political and worst of all, is wholly commoditized. There would be no professorship.
There would be only debt, shame, poverty and the specter of begging for multiple part-time jobs just to make ends meet. As an added bonus, you would have no job security, no health insurance, no retirement, no benefits and no mechanism to bargain for a better lot.
Now imagine that 75 percent of all college courses are taught by someone in that fragile, desperate position. You don’t have to imagine it. That’s the reality, here in the greatest nation on Earth.
The math tells most of the tale. Adjuncts in the U.S. typically make around $800 per credit hour taught. Many schools limit adjuncts to 21 hours per year. That works out to around $16,800 before taxes. Just to be clear, for those three nominal hours of teaching, dozens of hours of preparation, grading and student contacts are also in the mix every week.
By comparison, the current federal minimum wage equates to $15,080 annually. Remember we’re talking about folks who have a doctorate.
Most of these people teach at two or three schools at once. If they want to eat, live in a modest apartment and scrape by, they have to.
It also bears note that the Affordable Care Act caused many of the benevolent overlords who run American universities to throttle back what any given adjunct can teach so that they wouldn’t be eligible for health insurance.
The film, Con Job, is full of people who love teaching. That’s what they want to do. That’s what they feel called to do. They don’t feel called to sell yogurt at the mall, babysit, tend bar, pour coffee and stock groceries — all honorable and necessary trades — just to support their naïve and inconvenient dream of teaching somebody about the subjects they love. But that’s exactly what happens. These people are my friends.
Most of this can be blamed on college administrators who envision education as a product rather than a process. They think students are customers. They think faculty are there to provide customer service. They also think of adjuncts as a budget item on par with copier toner and dry erase markers. If it sounds dehumanizing, that’s because it is.
Nobody is guaranteed anything in this life, but the American dream we’re force fed says that honest hard work equals a decent living. In the life of contingent faculty it usually doesn’t. American culture is pretty good at pretending bad stuff doesn’t happen — especially if it facilitates cheap goods. Interestingly though, while contingent pay has taken a nose dive, tuition has gone through the roof. Maybe those administrators know where the rest of the money went — or is that also too inconvenient?