Apr 272011

By Christian L. Pyle

Recently I was walking through the Humanities Division office suite at Bluegrass Community and Technical College (BCTC) where I’ve worked as an adjunct English instructor for fourteen years, and I noticed a list of Humanities Division birthdays posted on a filing cabinet.  My birthday wasn’t on it.  That’s not just an oversight; the list also did not include over eighty other adjuncts in the division, some of whom have worked there longer than me.  While this may seem a trivial slight, such subtle reminders that adjuncts are not really members of the departments they serve are regular signposts in the current academic workplace.

What the heck is an “adjunct,” anyway?  I get that question a lot from family and friends outside academia, and my standard response is that it’s a fancy word for “temp.”  Whether in business or academia, temporary workers are intended to fill temporary needs:  to staff short-term projects, to fill in for workers on leave, or to teach extra classes added to account for unexpectedly high enrollment.  For the last few decades, corporate America has been building workforces of temporary workers rather than hiring traditional employees.  With temps, companies don’t have to make long-term commitments, give raises or bonuses, or offer benefits like health care or 401Ks.  Thus, temps stopped being “temporary” and became, instead, “disposable workers.”  Perhaps because governing boards of regents/trustees tend to be made up of successful businesspeople, colleges and universities soon followed suit.  Today the majority of teachers at any given college tend to be adjuncts, not traditional professors.  The practice of depending on disposable workers is sad enough in corporate America, but in non-profit institutions that claim to work for the betterment of their communities, it’s obscene.

The alternate term for adjunct is “part-time instructor,” which references another disturbing trend in today’s workplaces, the abuse of part-time labor to evade laws that protect the rights of full-time employees.  For example, the documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price chronicles how Wal-Mart keeps its workers from getting enough hours to be considered full-time.  Again, the non-profit academic workplace followed the lead of for-profit America, hiring growing numbers of “part-time instructors” whose classloads are scrupulously kept just under the full-time line.

At BCTC, that line is drawn at five classes, the typical load for a full-time faculty member (although many teach fewer by obtaining a “course release” for doing another job at the school).  For a while, I could get five or six classes at BCTC as a “temporary full-time instructor” or, ridiculously, a “part-time instructor with an overload.”  (The latter gig was paid less than the former even though the workload for the two was identical.)  Recently, though, BCTC has more or less banned giving adjuncts more than four classes.  This might be a well-intentioned attempt to lessen the exploitation of adjuncts, but I suspect it indicates a fear that letting adjuncts teach a “full-time” load would give them grounds to claim in court that they deserve full-time pay and benefits.

When I started teaching in 1990, I was paid just over $2000 per class.  Today, twenty-one years later, I still make just over $2000 per class.  In the early 1990s, I somehow managed to survive on two classes (and Tuna Helper).  A lot of inflation and an economic collapse later, I need six classes a semester to get my ends even close to meeting, and the day when I’ll need seven is not far off.  I’ve heard of adjuncts teaching as many as nine classes, spread out over several area colleges.  The implications of this pattern for the physical and mental well-being of teachers as well as the attention given to any student or class seem obvious.

The good news:  the house of cards colleges have constructed by hiring scores of adjuncts rather than full-time faculty will eventually collapse.  When academia envied the for-profit sector’s exploitation of temp and part-time workers, it did not consider that those non-academic jobs don’t require graduate degrees.  I made my decision to attend graduate school in the late 1980s.  If there was writing on the wall back then, I didn’t see it yet, nor did the professors who offered me advice.  We assumed that as the Baby Boomer profs retired, my generation of college teachers would take their slots as full-time, tenure-track professors.  By the time I noticed the trends I’m describing in this essay, I already had an MA and was working on a PhD.  But undergraduates today can have no illusions about what sort of jobs await them if they should seek a career teaching in college.  Therefore, I look for colleges to eventually become more and more desperate to find qualified teachers, and I hope that offers of a living wage and benefits may follow.

The bad news:  by the time the shortage comes, colleges may be relying almost entirely on robo-profs.  Online classes can use cartridges of recorded lectures and automated exams in place of live instruction, and the grading of other work can be outsourced to Asia.  But those disturbing trends are not the subject of this essay.

Flashpoint: tenure at BCTC

My adjunct awakening came in late 2008 when the board of regents for the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS), the parent of BCTC, tried to remove the possibility of tenure for all new full-time faculty.  My initial impulse as a college teacher was to support tenure even though I was not eligible for it.  However, reading the arguments by full-time faculty members shook my sensibilities.  The word “adjunct” appeared often to describe what full-time non-tenured faculty would be.  We were described as “rootless,” despite the fact that many full-time faculty at BCTC came there from other places while many adjuncts are native to the area.

Furthermore, we were depicted as unreliable.  One associate professor claimed, “Every academic coordinator has a story of the adjunct who bails out the day before the semester begins (or during the midterm).”  While that may be true, I suspect there may be even more stories of adjuncts who’ve gone beyond their job descriptions in service to their departments: serving on committees, aiding with ongoing projects, and jumping in to take on those abandoned classes at the last minute.  Prior to this, I had noticed that when there were full-time openings available, hiring committees in my area either hired someone who was new to BCTC or they chose someone who had only been an adjunct for a couple years (as opposed to a couple decades).  The pro-tenure arguments also stressed that removing tenure would keep the college from “recruiting” new faculty.  Recruitment would seem an easy matter as most departments had a large number of adjuncts serving them.

I could see that there was a stigma attached to being an adjunct that only became darker with time.  I suspect that this bias may be a psychological reaction to the inherent unfairness of the full-time/adjunct system.  Full-time profs recognize this inequity and subconsciously resolve their internal conflict by believing that adjuncts are inherently inferior to full-time teachers.

Academic caste systems

In today’s academic workplace, there is a caste system, and the two castes (permanent full-time teachers and adjunct teachers) live very different lives despite the fact that they may be teaching the same courses at the same school.  At large universities, the caste system had a logic to it:  tenure-track faculty had PhDs and were judged on the research they did rather than the classes they taught; adjunct faculty often had master’s degrees and focused entirely on teaching.  Tenured profs taught upper-level and graduate courses; adjuncts taught freshman and sophomore classes.  While that arrangement assumes that the “business” of the university is research, not teaching, it at least had a clear basis.  At a community college, however, there’s little emphasis on research, and there are only two levels of classes.  Although full-time faculty have a few added responsibilities, their primary job is essentially the same as that of adjuncts, but the two sets of teachers are treated very differently.

Just as there are two Americas, in the words of former senator John Edwards, there are two BCTCs.  Consider this fact:  the majority of instructors at BCTC are not members of the Faculty.

Really.  The Faculty, as an organization that has a voice in the college’s policies and elects its representatives, includes only tenured or tenure-track professors.  The majority of teachers at the college have no vote, no voice, no representation.

How much of a majority?  In my division, for example, there are 30 full-time permanent faculty and 84 adjunct instructors.  As the number of adjuncts increases much more rapidly than the number of full-time faculty, the ratio will eventually reach 3:1.  How different are their lives?  Full-timers get a living wage, adjuncts do not.  Full-timers get a benefits package that includes health insurance, adjuncts do not.  Full-timers are eligible for promotions and raises, adjuncts are not.  Full-timers have a representative on the Board of Regents, adjuncts do not.  Full-timers have offices and their own computers, adjuncts do not.

The lack of office space and access to resources for adjuncts raises another interesting issue.  Not only are adjunct instructors treated as second-class citizens, their students are, too.  Why don’t my students deserve to be able to meet with me between classes in a private office?  They’re paying the same amount to take my section of a course as a full-time professor’s students are to take the same course.  If BCTC is going to save cash by paying me starvation wages, why don’t my students get a discount?  Even when I was a teaching assistant in graduate school, I had an office.  Whenever a paper was due, I would hold extended office hours and allow students to sign up for appointment times to have private conferences about the papers they were writing.  That’s not an option now.

Furthermore, part of my life as an adjunct is a constant quest for a quiet place to work on campus; many times I’ve ended up grading papers in my car as no other quiet space was available.  When I enter grades on campus, I have to do it in a public space where anyone walking by could see my students’ grades, a potential violation of the students’ federally-protected right to have their grades remain private.  Rather than having a special higher caste of teachers have offices to themselves 24/7, wouldn’t a more logical plan divide the number of teachers by the number of offices to arrive at the number of people who would share each office? BCTC is moving in two years to a brand-new campus.  The opportunity to design a workspace to meet the realities of 21st century higher education means that BCTC could guarantee that every teacher has an office.  However, the plans that have been posted on the BCTC website offer only a classroom-sized space for adjuncts in one option.  The other option has no adjunct space at all.

Mission fulfillment?

How does it feel to be an adjunct? A dead-end job is bad enough, but a dead-end career is a real soul-killer.  Adjuncts worked just as hard as full-timers to earn one college degree, then another, possibly a third.  My résumé lists pages of awards, publications, conference presentations, and community service—all to earn a job which offers no possibility of a raise or a promotion, regardless of how many years I work at the college.  I started at BCTC with a strong belief in my own ability to earn a full-time opportunity through hard work; despite my years of service, I have never even been offered an interview for a full-time job.  The result for me has been a deepening depression.  Luckily my wife has health insurance, so I’ve been able to receive treatment.  The current advertising program for BCTC shows students moving from dead-end, low-paying jobs to better opportunities provided by education, yet the administration keeps the majority of its teachers in dead-end, low-paying jobs.

When asked, college administrators toss their hands in the air and blame the times in which we live.  Our leaders consistently refuse to lead on this issue.  There is at least one example of a better system that they could imitate.  According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, Vancouver Community College (VCC) has found a way to improve the lives of its adjuncts.  The per-class pay for adjuncts is based on what full-time profs make.  After two years, adjuncts become “regular faculty,” with job security.  Thus, they move out of the shadows and are recognized as a permanent part of the college.

It’s still a caste system, of course, and far from ideal, but the creation of a “middle caste” is more respectful than pretending that the adjuncts who teach at a college year after year are temps hired just for a semester.  The VCC system was the product of collective bargaining by the faculty union.  To receive better treatment in the USA, adjuncts must organize, and full-time faculty must become part of the solution.  A step toward this end, I’ve started a page for KCTCS adjuncts and supporters on Facebook.  Search for “Kentucky Community and Technical College Adjuncts” and “like” the page to join the discussion.

These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages.
  • Digg
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • StumbleUpon
  • Technorati
  • TwitThis

  14 Responses to “Adjuncts: the invisible majority”

  1. As a tenured professor at BCTC I recognize that the system is set up in the classic hierarchical divide and conquer model — diffuse collective power of workers by keeping each of us clawing for a higher position and encourage those above to look down on those below.

    Thank you Christian for providing your perspective on this. You are right, it is exploitive and abusive, and it is increasing in scale. For what it is worth there are professors trying to provide support to their “adjunct” colleagues and are working to bring attention to this issue.

  2. Not to be rude, but you are as much a part of the problem by continuing to accept these terms. If you have a Ph.D., you should have found a full time position by now. Adjuncts like you who survive on these terms and accept them only allow the system to continue. Why should the administration change if people continue to work in these conditions?

  3. I’ve seen comments like the anonymous “Adjunct for extra money” post before. Blaming the victim is always easy. Homeless? Heck, like Reagan said, people choose to be homeless. Raped? Like a cop in Canada just told a group a schoolchildren, women invite rape if they dress like sluts. Poor or unemployed? You’re obviously not trying hard enough.

    Garry Trudeau had a series of “Doonesbury” strips back in the 1990’s that made the best analogy. He depicted college teachers as migrant workers picked up from the street corner by a farm truck. Yes, like migrant workers, we work for criminally low wages, which, in a cold, free market world, means we’ve priced ourselves too low. But migrant workers and adjuncts need to eat.

    “Why not just get another job?” such posts as this usually continue, “You have multiple college degrees, and, as we all know, a college degree is a virtual guarantee of a high-paying job.” Anybody taken a good look at the unemployment stats lately? At the economy?

  4. Christian, thank you for speaking up for all us adjuncts suffering under the current state of affairs. As one of those adjuncts you mentioned who has taught several classes at several institutions of higher learning simultaneously trying to make ends meet, I appreciate you making people aware of our plight. Kudos!

  5. A colleague of mine at then-Lexington Community College, worked for years as an adjunct. Finally, they had no classes for him. I last saw him standing alone playing trombone at the amphitheater behind Memorial Chapel. His depression bloomed into a full flowered psychosis.
    A coordinator of the Business Writing “department” at UK died alone in his apartment under suspicious circumstances as his meager adjunct position began slipping away.
    Meanwhile, professors in the English dept. at UK spouted Marxist diatribes against exploiting workers while wage slaves toiled right under their noses.

  6. What can we do to change the system? My working class family has always been strong supporters of unions, but collective bargaining continues to be weakened.

  7. thanks for being so open about this. well said.

  8. For anyone interested, here’s some further reading that deals with a lot of the things written about UK in this paper (and this article too):


  9. Thank you so much for this article. Your experience echoes mine in so many ways. I am also an adjunct at a KCTCS college–one with multiple campuses under the umbrella of one college. I am qualified to teach (and have) in several different divisions and disciplines due to the interdisciplinary nature of my graduate work. According to the rules, I am free to teach many classes spread out to other colleges in the KCTCS system, as well as other area institutions, but officially limited to 3 (4 with permission) at my “home” college. I personally know someone who taught up to 12 classes a semester at 3 KCTCS colleges before finally earning a full time position. I am currently teaching multiple classes at separate campuses (separate departments and divisions with separate contracts) and no one is currently looking my way. Yet, I live in constant fear I will lose those extra courses or be forced to choose between departments, programs, and campuses who have treated me with respect, or no longer be available to students who need me. One department head needs me to pick up extra courses next semester due to the departure of a long time adjunct, but cannot give them to me because I don’t even have a full-time “temp” contract. Last semester, I picked up an “overload” (bumping my courses up to 4 through one campus for a total of 7) when a truly inept instructor was terminated from a difficult to staff external program. This brought me to the attention of the Provost, which, rather than giving me hope that I will gain a more secure position, instead makes me anxious that I will soon be subject to the 4-courses-college-wide-rule. At times, I feel ashamed of my position as the academic equivalent of a “scab” but my greatest worry at the moment is not benefits, a personal office, or a voice in the Faculty Senate. Oh, I want those things, but right now I can’t afford to lose the meager amount of money I make while I am functioning under the radar, as well as struggling to find the time to complete my PhD.

  10. The cards are always stacked against the people who put forth the most effort in providing the greater amount of service to the customer (student). Look first at the structure: KCTCS Board of Regents two faculty reps with a 1/2 vote each, two staff reps with 1/2 vote each, two student reps with a 1/2 vote each and each of these that work or are served by the institution are elected by peers. On the contrary, all the other KCTCS BOR are appointed by the govenor and have a full vote each.

    The top down structure since the merger of the technical and community college branches has created a mega administration with people that are dead weight and should have been removed or reassigned to a more productive position. Christian is right to imply the part-time disposable nature of non-full time faculty. He make many strong points about having office provisions, time for student hours, and the lack of peer acknowledgement at a basic level in comparision to a full-time instructor. Yes, we that work overload, all work for a per-credit-hour rate that hasn’t changed in years. And he is partially correct in saying there is no one to represent him. I served for 6 years on the KCTCS BOR and 4 years on the Faculty Council and two years as a Senator. I did speak up for the adjuncts on numerous occasions. We in the Technical side of the college had felt like step-children of the CC side of the college when our systems were first merged. It has gotten better, but the divide still exists.

    We can organize (AFT and KEA chapters) but we can’t bargin. The law in this state is prohibitive for teachers to form collective bargaining units. The nominal AFT or KEA or AAUP associations we belong to are not strong and we don’t apply pressure to affect change. We could stage a blueflu day or picket unfair practices. But when the neighboring public universities are in the same boat we loose our voice. I was an active AFT member and served as the Local 6083 Secretary for over ten years. I put my name on petitions to the Attorney General’s Office seeking an opinion for clarity on the issue of whether we (BOR Faculty and Staff) could vote on the KCTCS President’s salary. The opinion came back in our favor but the BOR ignored it. I fought for tenure as a regent and lost in March only to then speak at a legislative labor hearing in Frankfort and by September the BOR had to reverse it decision and reinstate tenure because of an AGO and pressure within the legislature..

    My point is that many people will agree a situation is egregious but few are willing to put their ass on the line to fight for it. And sadly, that is what must happen before things can change. We are the 1% and the rest is controlled by the 99%. We have our say on curriculum but surely we are fooled to say much more than that. Faculty need to hold the ground and require more full-time positions as enrollments increase. Surely, a majority are on one year to three year term contracts so fluctuations in enrollment can be adjusted in the workforce if needed.

    The argument doesn’t hold water for the widespread use of part-time instructors. The VCC had it right and others that have unions with bargaining rights have it right. But KY will be last in bargaining for educational pay, just cause rights and other issues while on the obverse side proclaiming to be the best community college by 2020 in the nation!!!

  11. Beautifully stated, Christian Pyle. VCC, which you reference, is a union shop with collective bargaining rights so both full and part-time faculty have contracts spelling out their obligations and benefits. Because nearly 100% of VCC full time faculty are union members, they were able to use their clout to help the adjuncts organize and now the 2 are mutually supportive. Unfortunately, too many KCTCS full-timers lament the deplorable treatment of their part-time colleagues, but don’t want to pay minimal union dues to improve things. So the bosses mostly have their way with all faculty and staff.

  12. This article was on point! How can we continue to use the term adjunct when part time faculty are not incindental, but necessary as the majority of educators. That part time faculty do not have part time office space for lesson planning, grade recording and student conferences does not facilitate the educational process. That part time faculty often do not have email, or directory listings makes contact by Student Services staff a real challenge.

  13. […] Pyle, “Adjuncts: the invisible majority.” North of Center, 27 Apr. 2011. An adjunct explains … the life of an adjunct. This will be […]

  14. This was scarily exactly the same as the situation in Japanese universities. Calculating the pay into the difference in how it is figured, number of classes often taught at one university, etc. etc. We don’t get health insurance, but we are bound by law to pay for national insurance ourselves if we don’t. So, although we do have coverage, we have to pay anywhere between $600 and $900 per month (depending on our income).

    One difference is that it sounds as if part-time lecturers here tend to fill up their weeks with classes from a variety of schools, going to a different school every day to teach 2 to 4 classes. A lot of other people do other work as well (writing, etc.). This makes an income that can be lived on. The question is if you call it living- an incredible load of classes, and often a lot of commuting time.

    Another difference is the respect angle- part-timers here seem more respected. A lot of the physical differences (no office, no benefits, people don’t know who you are, no rights, no information about department changes, etc.) are the same, but in general I’d say part-timers are treated in a friendly manner and with respect for whatever work they are doing.

    These are just from my own experiences, and others may have different ones. Mainly I wanted to share my surprise at the similarities in pay and (lack of) benefits.

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>